Tag Archives: In Person

Meeting Spalding Gray, Pt 2, or My Adventures in Blurbing

Last post I recounted the good fortune I had to meet Spalding Gray in 1989. Our paths crossed again in the summer of 1994. By then I was fresh out of film school and hustling around NYC as a location scout, editor, AP, you name it. A new hobby of mine was giving away VHS copies of In Person, my short documentary about fans of Frank Sinatra; I’d mail it to anyone who’d ever accomplished anything and who might then say something nice (and quotable) about my film. I began with some filmmakers I’d had direct contact with via film school, such as documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, and soon learned that I was ensconced in the World of Blurbing. I was unaware of all the permutations of the word “blurb” beyond a noun, but my shucking-and-jiving was apparently a common practice.

I’m loathe to do the whole “Y’know, kids, before there was the internet…” rap, but there was something incredibly homespun about self-promotion in the last century that’s different nowadays. I think this story has an old-timey blend of happenstance, legwork and luck.

Understandably, Spalding was high on my list of craftsmen/celebrities that I hoped would blurb my film. (In Person is composed entirely of people telling stories.) After some research, I sent him a tape, through his agent, a package which also included my standard cover letter (equal parts fawning and begging, as humbly as possible). Months passed, until one night, in the midst of a terrible date, I checked my answering machine…

I’d call that a keeper.

A couple of months of phone tag ensued. I’d call him, apologize, reintroduce myself, remind him of my film—and all the while, on the other end, he’d be apologizing back, explaining his delays in writing the blurb, and encouraging me to keep calling him. When Kathie Russo, his wife, would answer the phone, she’d promise to hound him on my behalf. Eventually, during one of these calls, she invited me to a benefit performance of Gray’s Anatomy, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Wooster Group.

The event was in late November, at Washington Irving High School in the city, in their auditorium. I was always thrilled to get free tickets and/or food (I still get that way). Just before Spalding took the stage, looked across the aisle to see John Waters sitting a few feet from me! (On the way out, I timed it so we’d be side-by-side. I introduced myself and handed him the VHS of my film [naturally I had a copy with me]. He gushed over the cover photo and said he couldn’t wait to see the film—but then quickly added, “But I won’t blurb it!” Damn!)

At the reception afterwards, I gingerly approached Spalding, who was standing with three other people. He remembered me and introduced me to Kathie. (Even though she wasn’t new in his life, she was unknown to the general public. She told me that she’d be arriving “in a few monologues.”) She teased him about dragging his heels on writing something for me (it had been almost five months since his phone call). The other couple standing there asked, “What film?” Before I could speak up, Spalding and Kathie spoke at length about my short documentary. I didn’t have to do anything. They did all the hyping for me! I felt like the belle of the ball. A dream. I love this town! During my giddiness, I looked over my shoulder and there was Steve Buscemi, standing solo, nursing a cocktail! Holy smokes! (And I had just given out my last VHS! Double damn!)

The night ended with Spalding reiterating that I should keep nagging him. A week or so later, I called. Once more, Spalding offered sincere apologies. “Call me back in 10 minutes, with a pen and paper ready.”

I did and he told me to write down everything he said. He spoke slowly and specifically about my film: “A delightful implosion. What a nice surprise to see not-so-ordinary people become the stars simply by talking about THE STAR.” He clarified every period and hyphen and stressed that the last two words “should be all capital letters.”

And that’s the story. Hardly Swimming to Cambodia, but memorable nevertheless (especially for a 25-year-old kid). Based on Spalding’s generosity every time I had contact with him, I’m inclined to believe others had similar experiences: friendly, a tad neurotic, and definitely “New York.” If you have any of your own, I encourage you to visit SpaldingGray.com and share them on the Brushes with Spalding page. There’s a lot of great stories already there.

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Filed under City Living

New York Stories: Meeting Spalding Gray

Being a teenager in South Jersey in the 80s, obsessed with the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Andy Warhol, etc., I understandably had dreams of moving to NYC. Hell, repeated late night, VHS viewings of Midnight Cowboy and After Hours only inked the deal. I imagined trolling those mean streets, humming “Everybody’s talkin’ at me…,” bumping into Marty, Woody, Patti, and Iggy on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. This daydream was reinforced by something that happened while I was a sophomore in college, living near—but not in—NYC.

The fall of 1989. Sunday, September 17 to be exact. My college roommate, Dav-o, and I had just seen left-of-center trumpeter Jon Hassell perform at the World Financial Center. Hassell alone would be enough to draw me, but the real thrill was that the sound was mixed by Brian Eno. In fact, I sat as close as possible to the mixing board and watched the Master at work (the closest I may ever get to seeing Eno perform “live”). On the Metro North train back to our college in Westchester, still on an ambient high, I saw someone standing in profile who looked an awful lot like Spalding Gray. Just standing. Not reading. Not writing. Not monolog-ing. Momentarily, I questioned my sanity; I had just spent an hour sitting a few feet from Brian Eno and wondered if my Dream New York was taking shape. I whispered to Dav-o, “Dude, I think that’s Spalding Gray! But I’m not sure.”

“Spalding!” my fearless roommate immediately yelled, and we both shrunk down in our seats to see if he responded. He did, laconically, as you might expect. He had a pencil over his ear, which I thought was a nice touch.

With prodding from Dav-o, I approached Spalding, apologized for drawing attention to him, and we engaged in a brief conversation. I told him I was a fan and went so far as to say that I too enjoyed telling stories. I asked for an autograph. All I had was a paperback of short stories called The Vintage Bradbury. Spalding balked for a moment, feeling disrespectful to the author, but ultimately took his pencil and opened the book. Just as he was poised to write, he paused, looked at his pencil, and tentatively said (at this moment, please adopt your best Spalding Gray voice, timing and delivery): “Um, sorry…It’s a #3 lead.”

 

We both stayed static for a moment, as if this might be a dealbreaker, but he then shrugged and continued.

When I read it, I instantly thought, “Man, you just gave me a great story!”

I’d say watching Brian Eno at work and meeting Spalding Gray within hours qualifies as one of the Best Days of My Life, certainly to the young, impressionable “New York” junkie that still lurks inside me. My run-in with David Byrne ranks pretty high, too. And, naturally, meeting Andy Warhol while I was still in high school has some currency. But they all pale next to my brief one-on-one with Mr. Iggy Pop. (Man, one of these days I’m going to have to write that post.)

My most interesting Adventure with Spalding was yet to happen, and here’s that post about it.

Until then, dig this. In 1992, Gray did an exclusive trailer for the documentary Brother’s Keeper, and until the film came out on DVD, this trailer was considered “rare and precious Spalding”…

And Everything is Going Fine opens today. It’s Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Mr. Gray. I can’t wait to see it. Here’s the trailer…

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David Byrne Explores Your Mind


David Byrne’s been a hero of mine for going on twenty-five years now. His music, art and approach to life have had an incalculable impact on me. I’ve seen him around town a couple of times (he’s a street-friendly New Yorker), but only met him once, oh so long ago.

Friday, January 26, 1996. I was getting ready for yet another night shift as an assistant sound editor. The graveyard shift. I packed some CDs in my backpack, tossing in my latest acquisition: 1974’s Al Green Explores Your Mind. A great, great soul record, which inexplicably came with two copies of the CD cover.

Before I left for work, I saw in the Village Voice that there was a 6:30 screening of Youth of the Beast, a 1963 film by Seijun Suzuki, at the Japanese Society, on the East Side of Manhattan. I decided to see that and go into work later, which would make it an especially late night, but at least I’d see a cool film.

As I was sitting in the half-filled theater, waiting for the film to begin, I noticed David Byrne sitting a few rows ahead of me. No way! I thought. Awesome. I love this town!

But then he began turning around and staring at me. A lot. I was kinda unnerved because, well, he can look a little creepy. Finally I realized he was just checking out the Japanese lady sitting behind me. (Whew.)

After the film, I paced myself to leave when he did and got his attention on the stairwell leaving the building. He was cordial, and I spent most of my time thanking him and apologizing for taking up his time. I reached into my bag and gave him a VHS copy of my short film In Person (which I carried around NYC waiting for a moment exactly like this one) and asked for an autograph. He said, “Sure,” and while he looked for a pen in his bag, I looked for something for him to write on.

As luck would have it, I remembered my spare CD cover on the Al Green CD. Y’see, it wasn’t just any Al Green CD; no, it was the one with “Take Me to the River” on it, a tune Talking Heads covered in 1978! He smiled when I asked him to sign it and he too saw the irony. A beat later, he pulled a Sharpie out of his bag and said in that David Byrne kind of way—somewhere between naïve and scared, with a smile—“Look! It’s green!”

Check it out…

All in all, a great meeting. Was it my best one with a rock and roll star? Well, there was the time Iggy Pop told me I was “so cool!” but that will have to wait for another post.
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Naturally, this would be incomplete if I didn’t include both versions of “Take Me to the River.”

Take Me to the River – Al Green (3:42, right-click to download)


Take Me to the River – Talking Heads (5:03, right-click to download)

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