“Never meet your heroes” is a useful mantra. It keeps illusions intact and prevents precious chunks of your record collection from being rendered unplayable. Should circumstances beyond our control send towering rock gods teetering across your path, the situation must be micro-managed with immense care and with one eye on the exit. I am not a particularly sensitive soul but several encounters with Welsh rock & roll legend Dave Edmunds, Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas, Patti Smith and a bevy of lesser talents have left me scarred, wary and unable to listen to their music.
Rock’s rigid hierarchy is etched into the DNA of its leading protagonists. They can tell how many records I sell just by sniffing the air around me. Rather than catalogue a bunch of embarrassing personal disasters where giddy over-eagerness is rewarded with crushing disdain I will dwell upon the positive exceptions.
In 1990 I was producing Gaye Bykers on Acid at Richard Branson’s Townhouse Studio in west London. A ripple of excitement spreads through the building: Sir Cliff Richard is coming to record a duet with Van Morrison in the room next door! This is low-level rock history in the making and my mum would be genuinely impressed if I were to casually bump into Cliff in the cafeteria. For some reason I totally miss the great man’s entry and exit, though at one point me and some Bykers do linger outside the control room, pricking up our ears to catch the distant strains of some very light white gospel music wafting down the corridor. Hours later I’m standing in the men’s toilet when a small, round figure joins me at the next urinal. Etiquette generally forbids eye contact or stabs at conversation in these circumstances but for some reason I look slightly down and to my left — and it’s Van! “Alright?” says Van. “Alright, Van,” says me and that was that. I think to myself “That went rather well.” It was a very satisfactory experience of which I could feel justly proud. My tradition of listening to Astral Weeks in bed on a Sunday morning would continue unsoured.
The Mekons cut a version of the Stones’ “Heart of Stone” on an album in 1988 and somebody stuck it on a low-budget Jagger-Richards tribute CD. It was very flattering to be on a record with the likes of Rod Stewart etc., but imagine my surprise when I’m walking down the deserted streets of Lausanne, Switzerland, at some unearthly hour on a bright Sunday morning — and the only other person up and about is Rod. Actually, there are three of them: a very large blonde woman in a very short skirt, then a sturdy, shorter, bald security guy in a satin Rod Stewart tour jacket and then an even shorter guy with crazy hair who is Rod. It just happens I have the CD in my bag back in the hotel room and I’m about to shout “Hey, Rod! Look we’re on this CD together, I’m just going to go back to my hotel to get it! Wait here!” when some sharper instinct kicks in. They are looking into the window of an expensive Swiss antique shop but pause to stare at me as I approach. “Alright, Rod?” I say. “Alright!” says Rod with a nod and a smile. Perfect! I continue past them, victorious! The only problem is my hotel is back in the other direction and there is no way to return there without risking another encounter. I purposefully cross the street and gaze into the window of an expensive Swiss antique shop and wait until Rod and his crew pass me on the other side before crossing the street and scurrying away. “Stay with Me” was one of the first records I bought, I still play the b-side “Debris” all the time. I love the way Rod soars in on backing vocals in the chorus. Thank god I didn’t blow it.
Partially emboldened by such successes I still try to keep my distance when celebrities stray into my vortex. I met Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson and John Cale all in one day at a benefit for Alejandro Escovedo in Austin. I managed to say nothing to any of them (although Kris gave me a spontaneous hug!) and it all went swimmingly until Cale’s manager asked me to say hello to John ‘cos we’re both from Wales. I had heard terrible tales of legendary difficultness and loved his music so deeply that I almost refused. Then I remembered our neighbor in Newport asking me recently if I was still in America playing music and did I know her cousin in New York? Mrs. King had lived across the street from my mum since the early ’70s and I’d never seen the family likeness. She was John Cale’s cousin. She even had a mid-’60s Velvet Underground haircut. So John and I had a lovely chat about Wales and family and stuff Welsh people talk about and Vintage Violence is safe forever.
Clinging to the lowest rung of celebrity, I was backstage at Severance Hall in Cleveland in 2003 at a Leadbelly symposium organized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was sharing a band with Robert Plant, believe it or not, and Robert was extremely friendly and supportive. I think this made my head go soft and at some point in the evening I got so overwhelmed to see Harry Belafonte walking through the green room I leapt up and started babbling at him about his Colin Powell comments, etc. Harry is a class act. He put his arm round me and we chatted for about 15 minutes. After I performed I came off stage and sat next to Robert and we had a beer. Just then, Harry Belafonte walked back into the dressing room and greeted Robert warmly. I stood up and Robert said, “Harry, do you know Jon?” to which Harry replied “Oh yes, I know Jon!” suggesting some mysterious mutually respectful relationship stretching back over the decades. He did not say “Yeah, he just accosted me about half an hour ago by the Coke machine!”
I have learned from that. As long as people say who the fuck they are (as my brain is a dustbin not recently emptied) I try to be as nice as the situation allows.