In 1996, before writing the Oscar-winning screenplay, Crowe wrote a magazine article about himself, his mother and rock ‘n’ roll — and as the “Almost Famous” musical is about to open, here is that story for the first time
Cameron Crowe wrote this story in 1996 for a short-lived magazine named Live! It never ran because of length constraints, but at the time Cameron said he didn’t mind because writing about his relationship with music and with his mother had given him an idea for a screenplay.
The ensuing script turned out to be “Almost Famous,” for which he won the original-screenplay Oscar. And with the musical-theater version of “Almost Famous” opening at the Old Globe theater in San Diego on Friday, Sept. 27, Crowe gave TheWrap permission to run the original story he’d written 23 years ago. (For more on the origin story, click here.)
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“There will be absolutely no rock music in our house.”
With those epic words, my mother and father ushered in 1968. My mom was an English teacher, and early on she spotted the threat that rock posed to all those finely-bound books lining our cabinets. My sister and I lobbied hard, assuring them that drugs and promiscuous sex were not what our music was about. Rock was our poetry. Yes, came her reply, but “it’s the poetry of drugs and promiscuous sex!” Of course she was right, but few were as good at feigning outrage as my sister and me.
One summer night I grandly talked my parents into giving rock one last chance, convincing them to watch Simon and Garfunkel on “The Smothers Brothers Show.” I was sure that the literary quality of Paul Simon’s songs would dupe … I mean, win them over. Soon they would be giving us money to buy the real s—: Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and the gloriously high Beatles of the “White Album” era. We sat as a family, bathed in the blue glow of the television as Simon and Garfunkel hit the Smothers Brothers stage. Looking clean-cut and super earnest, they began “Mrs. Robinson.”
Of course I had picked the night Paul Simon, suspiciously glassy, had apparently decided to chuck the whole clean-cut and earnest thing right out the window. Bobbing and smirking at the camera, he spat out the words, “Here’s to you, Joe Dimaggio / Jesus loves you more than you will know.” Looking out from television, he seemed to find my mother’s face, knowing somehow that she had spent all that famously hard-earned money to send my sister and me to Catholic school. With each mention of the word “Jesus,” his mocking tone grew more lacerating.
We shrunk into the sofa. Finally, my mother switched off the tube, threatening to write CBS and all the show’s sponsors. (She did.) Later that evening, I sat in my sister’s room with her smuggled-in copy of Janis Joplin’s “Cheap Thrills.” “Great idea,” said my sister dryly. She soon made plans to leave Indio, California, where we lived, to visit friends in San Francisco and look for a college far from our town. (She did.)
My parents had great dreams of me becoming a lawyer, but music was whispering in my ear about other things. For the next year or so, I slipped rock into the house by way of a small transistor radio that I kept under the pillow. Late at night, I listened. Somehow the flatness of the desert landscape drew radio signals from all over the country, and one night I even heard the mind-blowing event of a d.j. playing a song by the group Chicago in Chicago.
A local station had begun to draw big name concert acts to town, and I listened sadly as Buffalo Springfield and The Doors came to nearby Palm Springs, playing great shows while I sat home in a cultural prison listening to my parents discuss Carl Jung. Now there was a new goal. I had to get to a concert. If only there was a way to break down the wall between me, my family and rock.
We soon moved south to a bigger city, San Diego. By 1970, I finally had a breakthrough. In the quiet of my room, I began to play radio station contests, you know the kind – “be the first caller and win!” My scheme was simple. If I won the tickets, I wasn’t directly putting money into the hands of Satan, and perhaps I could wrangle my way into a concert.
I worked harder on this plan than on any school assignment. Soon I had figured out a winning method. Using two phones with long extension cords, I kept one line ringing constantly, tying up the radio station’s request line. When a contest for tickets was announced, I would already be on the line. The disc jockey would then pick up the ringing phone and hang up again, clearing the lines for the official first caller. But I already had the number dialed on the other line. Dialing one last digit, I slipped in as first caller. The method worked, and I won tickets to a movie. But my eye was already on a much bigger prize.
Right about this time, local disc jockeys began to hint that a very, very big star was coming to San Diego. Soon it was announced. Sadly, it was not Creedence Clearwater Revival, as I’d hoped, but someone not of my generation at all. In fact, I couldn’t imagine what the big fuss was about when ads featuring the music from “2001: A Space Odyssey” announced with great importance that the concert event of the year was none other than Elvis Presley.
To me, Elvis was a jokey figure, an oddly bronzed gentleman who showed up in afternoon movies like “Paradise, Hawaiian Style,” goofily singing to dogs and strange women with pointy bikini breasts. Years later, I would come to worship the technicolor kitsch of those movies, but at the time Presley was at best a guy John Lennon praised in interviews as being a genius before he entered the army.
Regardless, drunk with contest-winning prowess, I easily won four tickets to see Elvis at the San Diego Sports Arena. At school, I traded two of the Elvis tickets for a pair of seats to a concert I was much more interested in — Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes at the San Diego State University gymnasium. My pleasure was soon mixed with horror. Good news: My parents approved me going to both concerts. Bad news: My date at both concerts would be my mom.
There was a strange mystique about the Elvis show. No concert ads ever appeared in the newspaper. The only ads had been on the local radio station, and the show had sold out within hours. Now the radio ads had disappeared. The only indication of the coming event were the words on the Sports Arena marquee. “Elvis — November 15 — Sold Out.”
When the day arrived, I sheepishly dressed for a date with mom. I chose a pair of bell-bottoms, clothes I hoped would scream, “I’m so much cooler than to be going to a concert with my mom.”
On the way to the show, my date discussed the scholastic view of The King. Elvis the Pelvis, she said, had brought smut to national television and the Ed Sullivan Show was forced to show him only from the waist up. I couldn’t quite figure out how he could be so subversive.
“What was he doing that was so awful?” I asked.
She answered the question clinically. “He had an erection.”
“Wow,” I said.
Now I really didn’t know what to expect. I had seen only part of last year’s “Comeback” special, on a television in a Radio Shack, and all I remembered was his noble pose as he sang “If I Can Dream” against a bank of red lights blinking E-L-V-I-S. No doubt about it. This guy was one serious mixed message. One day communing with God, the next appearing on Ed Sullivan with a boner. Whoa.
I dreaded how unhip we were. Me in my desperate bell-bottoms, her in a smart academic-looking pantsuit with scarf. But as we turned the corner to the Sports Arena parking lot, I saw something that immediately lightened my load. Stretched out before us was an endless sea of jolly blue-haired ladies, most of them old enough to be my grandmother. Where did these people come from? I had seen none of them on our city streets. Perhaps they flew in for the show. I did know this: My mom and I were clearly the coolest customers in sight.
We settled into our free bleacher seats, halfway back and on the right. I watched as the spectacle began. First on stage was an emcee who began hawking scarves and programs with frightening fluency. This was hard sell like I had never imagined at a concert, and the emcee’s routine was clear: Mention Elvis’ name every ten seconds. Each mention drew a war cry from the audience.
Then came the Sweet Inspirations, Elvis’ singing group. They performed in the still-lit arena. They too mentioned Elvis’ name in between each of their few songs. Then the emcee returned, telling us that Elvis’ plane was on the way to San Diego right now. Then came the comedian who preceded Elvis, Pat Buttram. The response was riotous. This was Mr. Hainey from “Green Acres.”
I remember none of his jokes, save for a comment that the success of his television show was nothing compared to the greatest gift of all, knowing Elvis. Pause for thunderous cheers. In between jokes, he tracked Elvis’ travel, as if describing a missile heading for its target. It worked, majorly.
After a few minutes, he received a note from a stagehand. Elvis’ plane had landed in San Diego. Pause for mayhem. In fact, said Buttram, “Elvis loves San Diego. He told me last night!” The arena shook. And this being a full two years before Watergate, we believed him.
Now Buttram wrapped up his routine, and I’ll admit this to you right now: Even I was psyched for Elvis. The emcee returned to announce that Colonel Parker had just now released some new scarves, right now, just for San Diego. He would allow a few more minutes for everybody to pick up a few, before the appearance of Elvis.
A few minutes passed, and then the lights finally dimmed, all the way. Mind-warping, blood-curdling screams shot up up all around us. Not the endearing Beatlemania screams of adolescents, no. These were the unsettling screams of mothers. The kind of scream you associate with, oh say, a murderer entering your house.
Suddenly, the theme from “2001” pumped over the loudspeakers. Elvis’ band took the stage. They were some of the greatest session players ever, and as James Burton strapped on a shiny Telecaster, they blasted into the beginning vamp of “That’s All Right.” They were a loud, large, lumbering Elvis machine. And from our seats, I could see into the backstage area of the Sports Arena. The metal gate opened, and in swished a line of limousines. This was truly wild, I thought. Even in a city he loves, San Diego, Elvis doesn’t arrive until his set had already begun.
Finally Elvis Presley appeared from stage right in a glittering white jumpsuit. For a couple minutes he strode back and forth, striking karate poses, kicking and laughing with band members, all while the intro to “That’s All Right” continued on an endless loop. The band seemed crouched and ready to respond, watching his every move, should he approach the microphone to sing.
But Elvis didn’t want to sing. Not yet, maybe not at all. Less than a year after the “Comeback” special, gone was the man supposedly repentant for the many years spent playing hooky in Hollywood. In his place was a goofy white speck moving back and forth. And it wasn’t as if he was troubled by the artistic compromise, in fact he seemed very very very very relaxed with the whole idea. I was not yet an Elvisophile, schooled in the subtleties of the King, but I remember thinking: He really really likes San Diego.
The place was filled with hysterical appreciation as Elvis finally took the microphone. “Well that’s all right, mama,” he sang, and then he abandoned the mike again for more photo opportunities. He laughed at the rapturous women in the front row, as the Sweet Inspirations fiercely continued singing their parts, whether Elvis sang or not. Every once in a while, he returned the mike to add the words, “that’s all right.” And then more posing. Finally, signaled by a specific karate move, the song stopped. Over screams, the King solemnly thanked the crowd for coming and then offered, if I remember correctly, an imitation of John Wayne.
Soon the band snapped into “Polk Salad Annie.” Halfway through, Elvis crouched down low on the stage … then lower … then lower, until he was on his back. He continued kicking, into the air, flat on his back, chatting to the audience and singing. He even tried out a few more impressions including, if I’m not mistaken, then-President Richard Nixon. Rising to his feet, Elvis wandered the stage and struck more poses. The band swerved and vamped with his every move, while the Sweet Inspirations fervently sang their parts. From time to time, Elvis, who was clearly having a very good time, would toss in the words “got your granny.”
My mom and I looked at each other. Elsewhere in this arena, everyone seemed to get the joke. We shrugged and continued watching the increasingly riveting spectacle. Calming down a bit, the King then announced “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” For a handful of minutes, everything shifted. Suddenly he was committed to the words he was singing, shutting his eyes and rising with the emotions of the song. For this one number, the heartbreak of a squandered career was evident. For this one number, and this one number only, he performed some lingering artistic duty to himself.
And when it was over, he left the stage for a long break. He returned and began “Love Me Tender.” The King sang the first line of the song, as onstage sidekick Charlie Hodge rather timidly appeared at his side with a cache of scarves. As the Sweet Inspirations continued, Elvis abandoned the song entirely, and Hodge began the curious gesture of simply passing the scarf behind Elvis’ neck, as Presley then bequeathed the scarves to the cardiac-arrested women in the front row. Some he kissed, some he didn’t. The song lumbered on for many minutes. I looked at my date.
“What’s going on?” I wondered.
My mother had the look of a social scientist, studying a cultural moon rock. “I’m … not … sure,” she managed. Around us, women wept.
Another handful of songs followed, and all were sung in his special blend of photo-op haiku. After “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Elvis Presley bowed reverentially and said goodnight. The lights rose instantly. The famous words were spoken. “Elvis has left the building.” An important pause, and then, the emcee continued, “And if you didn’t get a scarf, there are a few still available at the concession stands if you act quickly … “
He had been on stage 47 minutes. We drove home in stunned silence, still not quite sure what we’d seen.
Twenty-seven years later, with proper sociological perspective, it’s easier to judge. He had already jammed with the Beatles, sung with Sinatra, married Priscilla, made 33 movies and rocked the world. Perhaps he had been on his best behavior in the bigger markets on this mini-tour, but in San Diego he let down completely and simply mocked the whole spectacle. This was the very beginning of Elvis’ third act. Comeback Elvis was already dead and in his place was the sad, hysterical, karate King, kicking and laughing and finally embracing the bars of his pop culture prison.
Let’s face it. A Sid Vicious solo show would have been very similar — wacky, druggy, riveting, dark, funny and short, with at least a couple of the same songs.
A week later, my mom accompanied me to the Derek and the Dominoes performance. Now this was a real rock concert, still one of the best I’ve seen. A riotous crowd, unable to get in, broke the huge glass pane at the front of the hall while Eric Clapton, barely moving, burned through some of the great guitar rock of the coming decade. He’d brought the legendary Duane Allman with him to play slide guitar. In another year, Allman would be dead from a senseless motorcycle accident, but on that night he and Clapton sparked each other to play with rare intensity.
As Elvis Presley had proven a week earlier, a musician can only play at that depth for a finite number of years before the laws of self-preservation kick in. Some die, some survive, some homogenize. I can still feel that night, the private thrill of a committed audience linking up with a committed performer. It’s increasingly rare in these current times of automated rock. Clapton was on fire, and everyone knew it.
That night, even my English teacher mother succumbed to the power of rock and roll. And even when a tie-dyed Romeo in front of us openly did up a couple spoons of cocaine, she chose to ignore it. It was an unforgettable night, still a great shared memory for both of us.
“I understand your music,” she said that night. “It’s better than ours.”
I reviewed both shows for my high school newspaper. In some form or another, I’ve written about rock ever since. My mom has been a great fan of rock for many years too, and she now chooses to completely forget her early days of prohibition. I never made it to law school either.
But today, even though, yes, I trashed the King in my first-ever piece of rock journalism, I have done penance by watching and memorizing nearly every Elvis movie. I can tell you almost anything about Elvis.
And casually at parties, if anyone asks, I will tell them. Elvis and I once spent 47 minutes together. I once heard him do a damn good Richard Nixon impression while sprawled on his back at the San Diego Sports Arena. Not an easy feat to pull off. But then, that’s why he’s the King.