Inhuman Swill : Celebrities

Let me tell you about the night I hung out with Mötley Crüe.

Okay, to be honest, it was only half of Mötley Crüe, and it's not like we were out clubbing it up with groupies and blow. But we were at a club. I was reminded of this story the other day when I happened to hear "Shout at the Devil" on the stereo for the first time in quite a while.

This was June 1997. I was working in New York City as technical producer for a website called Rocktropolis.com (sadly now long deceased). Our company, N2K Entertainment, ran a variety of genre-specific music sites, all meant to drive traffic to our online CD store, Music Boulevard. At Rocktropolis we ran rock music news, contests, curated streaming radio, artist chats, and—coolest of all—live concert webcasts.

Some of our live shows were simply streamed versions of special syndicated radio broadcasts, but more and more we began to arrange our own on-location webcasts. We would get a temporary DSL line installed in the venue (if they didn't already have one—and they usually didn't), hump our equipment over there, tap directly into the soundboard, and stream the feed out to users via RealAudio. Believe it or not, this was trailblazing stuff at the time.)

So it was that my friend and colleague Andrew and I lugged our gear uptown to Roseland Ballroom one afternoon to set up for a special Mötley Crüe record release show. This was their big comeback attempt—well, their first one, anyway. Vocalist Vince Neil had just rejoined the band after an angry stint away, and the new album, Generation Swine, featured a touch of oh-so-no-longer-hip industrial flavoring.

Generation Swine For the weeks leading up to the show, we'd been running giveaways on the site and debuting a new track from the album every day. The office favorite—okay, the favorite of me and Michael, tech producer on Classical Insights—was track 12, a re-recording of the Crüe's 1983 hit called, imaginatively enough, "Shout at the Devil '97." Michael and I would arrive at the office early just to blast this tune at full volume in our little wing of the cubicle farm. (I wasn't super-familiar with the original version, having deliberately avoided all things hair-metal in high school, so the faster, harder 1997 version is still the one that sounds "right" to me.)

Anyway, along with our decks for compressing and transmitting digital audio, Andrew and I brought a couple of huge laptops. These were not just for running the webcast but also for the live chat session we were doing before the show with Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee—the so-called "Terror Twins." We set up shop in a balcony overlooking the club floor. At about two hours to showtime, our chatroom was teeming with fans who'd logged in for the unmoderated free-for-all. That's when Nikki and Tommy walked up to the long table where Andrew and I had the laptops set up.

Now, I met some of my favorite musicians while working that job, folks like Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, and John Wesley Harding. Chuck D. was in our office once. I even spent a couple of hours on the phone with Krist Novoselic from Nirvana, moderating a chat session. Hell, my boss was Nick Turner, who'd been the drummer for Lords of the New Church and The Barracudas. But of all those people, Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee were the two who looked more like rock stars than anyone else. Tall, muscular, slim, heavily tattooed, wearing their expensive white T-shirts, black jeans, cowboy hats, and boots with casual ease, oozing charisma. They shook our hands and put us instantly at ease. They came across as the nicest, most charming guys in the world.

We all sat down at the table. I ended up between Nikki and Tommy, with Andrew on Nikki's far side. The two of us had the jobs, for the next 45 minutes or so, of monitoring Nikki's and Tommy's activity in the chatroom, standing by to offer any needed assistance, and being ready to fix any technical issues.

"So, do we just jump in and start?" Nikki asked, watching the chatter scroll by on the laptop in front of him.

"You're both logged in," Andrew said. "Any time you're ready."

Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee
Nikki started typing. I was watching Tommy's screen, and I saw Nikki's first comment appear:

Nikki_Sixx> Hey fuckers!

I must have chuckled, because Nikki turned to me and said, with a grin but in all earnestness, "Insults and profanity are the entire basis of our relationship with our fans. Which is mostly thirteen-year-old boys."

I thought this was a remarkably cogent analysis of market expectations from someone I hadn't expected to be quite so self-aware. I was thinking about this when Tommy, who had been pecking two-fingered at his keyboard, leaned past me.

"Hey, Nikki!" he said, sounding as proud and excited as a three-year-old. "I just typed 'Fuck'!"

I have to say, hanging out with them during the chat was a lot of fun, even if it was a little surreal to have someone who'd been clinically dead for two minutes after a heroin overdose sitting to my right, and the star of the most infamous celebrity sex tape to date sitting to my left, and who between them had been married to three Playboy Playmates. (Of course, we were seeing only their most charming selves. I'm not sure I would have wanted to meet them under other circumstances.)

After about 45 minutes, Nikki logged out. "Time to get in wardrobe," he said, standing up. "Come on, Tommy."

"I'll be there in a few minutes," Tommy said. He was having a hell of a good time chatting.

Maybe fifteen minutes after Nikki's exit, Tommy turned to me in consternation. A troll in the chatroom had been saying for some time that Tommy and Nikki were not who they claimed to be, and now he was urging everyone else to stop chatting with Tommy.

"What am I supposed to do?" Tommy asked me. "This guy's telling everyone I'm not Tommy Lee. How do I prove I'm Tommy Lee?"

"Um," I said, racking my brain, "I don't know. I guess all you can do is say something only Tommy Lee would say."

Tommy frowned, then bent back to the keyboard and typed:

Tommy_Lee> fuck you i am tommy lee!!!

Eventually someone from the band's management came upstairs to the balcony and insisted that Tommy get down to his dressing room. He hugged us both and went on his merry way. I'm a little bummed that I didn't carry a cellphone at the time. A picture of us all would have been cool.

I worked other live location webcasts, including a Halloween show with The Cure at Irving Plaza, and two nights with the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theatre, but our Mötley Crüe night was by far the most memorable. Now I feel like shouting at the devil, '97-style:

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate last Saturday afternoon. I certainly didn't expect to feel as if I were literally walking into the mind of Gene Wolfe, but that's what it was like.

Engines The occasion was an evening to honor Gene Wolfe as the first recipient of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame's Fuller Award for lifetime contribution to letters. Since the Hall of Fame itself is reserved for dead Chicago writers—Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, Ida B. Wells, Theodore Dreiser, and the like—the Fuller Award was created to recognize the achievements of great living Chicago writers. It was miraculous enough that the first Fuller was being bestowed upon a writer of science fiction and fantasy. The amazing setting for the festivities was like a bushel of cherries poured on top of a spun-sugar sundae.

As we guests arrived at the gated estate in Barrington Hills, we left our cars with the valets at the carousel house and either walked or rode in a shuttle over rolling lawns, past a rail line (no train in evidence, sadly), and around an expansive pond to a huge brick Victorian mansion. Even inside the soaring foyer, where I ran into Gary K. Wolfe, met Peter Straub, and chatted with Patrick O'Leary, I had no idea the wonders I was about to see. The mansion, you see, is more of less a museum of mechanical marvels collected by Chicago engineer and roasted-nut magnate Jasper Sanfilippo. As I wandered through three levels of the house, I saw orchestrions, pianolas, vionolas, music boxes, moviolas, record players, gaming machines, fortune-telling machines, and all manner of fin de siècle era devices in overwhelming profusion. The bright lights, brass, and air of seaside merriment continually reminded me of such Wolfe stories as "Seven American Nights" and "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton."

Gene Wolfe receives the Fuller Award from Neil Gaiman At five-thirty, we all gathered in the theater, an immense balconied chamber draped in velvet and built to house the world's largest theater organ. Critic and scholar Gary K. Wolfe (no relation, of course, to Gene) opened the award ceremony with a quick history of the realist and fantastic traditions in Chicago literature and the building where they may once have shared offices. Neil Gaiman read the short story "A Solar Labyrinth," then presented the Fuller Award to Gene Wolfe, whose acceptance speech was itself an intricate flight of fancy.

Next we were favored with a staged reading of the story "The Toy Theater," adapted by Lawrence Santoro and performed with organ accompaniment by Terra Mysterium, all clad in their steampunkiest finery. Organist R. Jelani Eddington then performed half a dozen pieces on the 8,000-pipe organ, after which we were invited to walk back to the carousel house for the banquet.

Entering the Eden Palais Carousel pavilion If we had seen wonders already, no one was prepared for the bright-lit scene we encountered upon entering the carousel house. The Eden Palais Carousel toured France from 1890 until 1959, and resided in Colorado and Montana until Jasper Sanfilippo purchased it in 1987. It's the most complete example of a European salon carousel in existence. Our banquet tables were set up in the pavilion outside the carousel chamber itself, each table named after a Gene Wolfe novel. I found my place at Free Live Free, and was delighted to sit next to Patrick O'Leary and his wife Sandy Rice, and across from Sandman artist Jill Thompson. At each of our place settings was a signed copy of Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman's A Walking Tour of the Shambles.

The toastmaster for the banquet was Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, who quickly established his geek bona fides by recounting his first reading of The Shadow of the Torturer at the age of fifteen, and how it taught him that science fiction could have more to say about the real world than realistic fiction. He then introduced a cavalcade of Wolfe appreciators who spoke for a minute or two apiece, including (and I know I will leave some out) author Michael Swanwick, author Patrick O'Leary, Gene Wolfe on the phantasmagorical Eden Palais Carousel author Luis Alberto Urrea, scholar Elizabeth Anne Hull (wife of Frederik Pohl), photographer Kyle Cassidy, author Lawrence Santoro, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, author Jody Lynn Nye, author Neil Gaiman, and Gene's long-time editor David G. Hartwell. (Hartwell related amusing stories of Gene calling him an inattentive reader.)

But that wasn't the end of the evening! Not by any stretch! As the dessert buffet and coffee station opened, anyone who wished was invited to enter the inner chamber and queue up for rides on the impossibly ornate carousel. I was one of the first in line, and during my turn on the carousel I got to watch Gary Wolfe, in one of the backward-facing carriages, shooting a photo of Michael Dirda on horseback. When our ride was done, I joined the crowd watching the second running of the painted horses, which included Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick ... well, why don't you just watch the video I took and see how many familiar faces you can spot whirling by?

I'm sure you'll understand when I say it was difficult not to grin like an idiot through the whole evening. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked Gary Wolfe, who was out in front of the carousel house smoking his pipe, if he'd had any idea what the Sanfilippo Estate was going to be like. David G. Hartwell finds focus on the Eden Palais Carousel "None," he said, adding that of all the long-time Chicago residents present he'd talked to, only one of them had ever heard of the place before the invitation to the award ceremony arrived.

You know, as the setting for a celebration of any other writer, the Sanfilippo Estate would have struck me as hopelessly over-the-top. For Gene Wolfe, however, it was perfectly apt. In fact, I can't imagine a better externalization of what I assume it's like inside his head. If only I had known what the occasion would be like, I would have begged Laura to change her plans and come along with me. I would have begged all of you to change your plans and come along.

But of course you can. Just pick up any novel or story collection by Gene Wolfe. I might start with The Fifth Head of Cerberus, if you're unfamiliar, or the collection Storeys from the Old Hotel. When you've warmed up a little, move on to the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun, and continue your exploration from there. Welcome to the labyrinth.

[More of my photos from the evening are here.]

Our celebrity sightings have definitely tailed off since we moved to Chicago, but Laura and one of her colleagues had a good one the other day. At the same hot dog joint where they were grabbing lunch, they spotted Dennis DeYoung of Styx.

(I'd suggest that he had too much time on his hands, but Tommy Shaw took the lead vocal on that track.)

In today's mail, I received an invitation to have my biography included in the next Marquis Who's Who in America. I knew already that it was a scam, but if I hadn't I would have guessed as much from the fact that the invitation came to my work address. There's no reason whatsoever for my day job to get me into Who's Who.

A minute or two of searching online led me to an amusing article from Forbes by Tucker Carlson, "The Hall of Lame." To Carlson's catalog of Who's Who shames, I would add this question: Why does Ronnie Spector think it's important for me to know she's a member of the Literary Guild?

Anna Nicole Smith, née Vickie Lynn Hogan, a/k/a Vickie Smith, a/k/a Miss May 1992, a/k/a 1993 Playmate of the Year ... we barely knew ye.

Unless, you know, we were Playboy subscribers back in the early '90s.

Rest in the peace you never found in this straitlaced, size-two world.


Update:  Laura points out that, only two hours after the death, Anna Nicole's Wikipedia entry is already updated. Man, those motherfuckers are inhuman.

To my great astonishment and delight, model-turned-actress Pollyanna McIntosh and her husband, Melrose Place's own Grant Show, would appear to have posted a reply to a blog entry of mine from last month.

In writing about the experience of attending a screening of indie horror flick Headspace, I appended a couple of paragraphs waxing rhapsodic about the underutilized talents of Ms. McIntosh, Scotland's National Face of '95 winning model—and also implicitly challenging her spousal unit to a showdown.

Well, this morning the happy couple responded. It took me a minute to decipher the fact that Pollyanna had written the first paragraph and Grant the second. At least, I'm assuming the post is genuine. It certainly doesn't read like a hoax. And I will be very sad if it is.

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