Sometimes we don’t want to meet our heroes for fear that we will be disappointed, or maybe because we think we’ll make fools of ourselves in front of them. I have met a few people I loved for a long time, most notably Eric Idle from Monty Python who could not have been more gracious and friendly as I grabbed his hand and told him how much I loved him. I often wonder if I would even be able to speak to Dave Grohl if I had the chance, but he’s so cool and down to earth that I’m sure he’d put me at ease quickly. But I would probably still cry from excitement.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to meet a man who wrote the first book about rock and roll I ever read. When I was 8 years old, The Book of Rock Lists was published, and it immediately became my Bible since I had no other resources to teach me about rock stars. I checked that book out of the library as often as I could, learning about the 10 most disappointing debut albums, the guests at Mick and Bianca Jagger’s wedding, and Jim Morrison’s arrest record. Dave Marsh and Kevin Stein co-wrote it, but I have always thought of it as Dave Marsh’s book (sorry, Kevin!). When I found out he was going to be giving the keynote speech for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Music Masters tribute to Smokey Robinson, I was determined to meet the man who had given me so much, almost as much as the musicians I love have given me.
I read up on him a bit before the conference, and was hopeful that he would be willing to sign my book and maybe chat with me a bit. I brought my used copy of The Book of Rock Lists and rested it on my lap as I sat in the lecture hall listening to him give a passionate talk about Smokey Robinson, his idol. He talked about a lot of stuff that night, and he was visibly emotional more than once. That impressed me. I love when people get teary-eyed talking about something they love, whether they are happy or sad tears. You feel connected to them, even if you haven’t have the particular experience they are describing. We’ve all had an emotional reaction to music. He and I are music fans, and that’s why we write about music.
Many of the topics he discussed are interesting to me as a historian, so I knew I would have many thoughts worthy of a conversation with him. Instead of ambushing him right after he stepped away from the microphone, I gave others some time to chat with him while I enjoyed the free food at the reception in the hallway in front of the room. About 15 minutes later, I walked back in and saw that he was slowly walking toward the door and finishing a conversation. A guy about his age walked over as I stood in front of him, the book cover facing him enticingly. The other guy said a few words about how much he loved Creem magazine, and when he walked away Dave looked at my book and said, “I haven’t seen that book in a long time!” I laughed and introduced myself. We shook hands and I told him that I didn’t want to make him feel old, and then I proceeded to tell him how much that book meant to me as a kid.
Talking to him was exciting but also very natural, because we are both music fans. I explained that Chuck Berry was to me what Smokey is to him, and then we proceeded to discuss the lyrical prowess of each man and the best words Chuck composed. This was my dream conversation! I told him about my history thesis and all the cool people I interviewed about rock and roll and race in Cleveland in the 50s and 60s, and how what he was saying about growing up in Detroit at that time was interesting to me because it was a very common experience. At that point he told me he would give me his business card, and I told him I had one of mine to give him as well (I had just gotten mine in the mail days earlier, hoping for such an opportunity). I asked him to sign my book, which he very kindly agreed to do, and then I told him that he has the career I want.
Our interaction that lasted less than 10 minutes, and it left me shaking and on such a high from getting to speak to somebody who has had such an impact on my life. A few days later I attended the Smokey conference at the Rock Hall, and Mary Wilson and Martha Reeves were interviewed. They are hilarious and engaging, and I got quite emotional listening to them speak. Again, here are two women whose music I have loved since I was a kid, and they were sitting on a stage just a few yards away from me. It was clear that they are very proud of what they accomplished in their careers, and that they really love each other—and Smokey!
When we returned from lunch we had to wait outside the conference room for a bit before they let us in for the second half of the event. I thought it was weird, because at past conferences the doors were always open and we could just walk back in. So everyone was just hanging out and chatting or playing with their phones, when suddenly there was applause and screams. I looked up and saw a few people walking through the crowd toward the door, and one of them was Smokey! He was smiling and waving to everyone, only three feet away from me. Holy shit! I had seen him in concert the previous spring, but that was in an arena, and though he was still able to make the ladies swoon, it’s not the same as seeing him up close.
As we returned to our seats we saw that there was a band comprised of children from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Cleveland on the stage waiting to perform for us. Smokey sat down at one end so they could talk directly to him, and some of the band members even sat next to him and asked questions. Smokey loved it, and I wondered how many of these kids really understood how blessed they were to be in his presence. They had been learning Motown songs for the occasion, and as the adults from the organization spoke to and about Smokey it was obvious that they did their best to teach the children how important he is to music and to them personally.
After the concert, Dave Marsh interviewed Smokey. He had interviewed him several times before, but I could tell he was still a bit nervous because this was his hero sitting in front of him, in front of all these other fans, and the moment was probably overwhelming. I felt that emanating from him, and it made me respect him even more. In those moments, I gained another level of understanding of the power of music, of what it means to be a fan. I’ve known of Smokey Robinson and Dave Marsh and Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson for about the same amount of time, but seeing all of them in one day and experiencing it with so many other fans—that was powerful for me. More than a few times I became teary-eyed listening to one of them speak. Their passion for what they do, their love of music and each other, and the feeling I get when I hear their music really got next to me. That’s what brings people together, those shared experiences. And as I walked through the museum after the conference, even when I saw artifacts I had seen a hundred times, I again felt that bond with other fans. The Graham Nash exhibit is particularly moving because he has so much memorabilia from other artists—Buddy Holly and The Beatles, in particular—and it really impressed upon me that every musician starts out as a fan. The best musicians stay fans and look at themselves simply as fans who got lucky.
We should all stay fans.