when the south invades the north

1

The pop star of earlier entries is now out of rehab; my actress friend (who’s been involved with him) called me last night, and I could tell she’d been in communication with him even before she mentioned his name. She was speaking with just the slightest trace of the British accent* she can’t seem to help picking up from him (she’s a talented mimic, and after she’s clear of him for several hours that touch of Britishism disappears). She’s shooting an episode of Studio 60 today; I was supposed to go down and visit her on set, but I am sick. Which sucks.**

2

Over the weekend I went to this event held in the Bay Area (I have both a husband and good friend who’ve been involved with the X Prize since the early stages). The invitation said “dress up your mind, but come as you are” which the LA woman in me found cute, yet profoundly unhelpful. Since this was Silicon Valley, I expected something casual, understated, relaxed, one of those events where wealth announces itself very quietly, through silent auctions and scattered conversation and your ability to read between the lines. ‘Come as you are’ turned out to be everything from full-length ball gowns to cocktail dresses to blue jeans, and the crowd wasn’t nerdy so much as well-groomed and sleek. “I’m disturbed,” a longtime dot.commer muttered in my ear, “because this seems very Hollywood.”

“Nah,” I said. “If this was Hollywood, you’d be looking at a lot more breast implants.” But her “this seems Hollywood” was an observation that echoed throughout the evening and then through media accounts of it afterwards. Which is a bit ironic, since northern California prides itself on its disdain for the fripperies of southern California (while southern California is barely aware that its northern counterpart even exists), and serves up the deliberate anti-glam and moral superiority to LA’s cheerful, reckless embrace of style and ambiguity.

And the wealth in the room wasn’t so quiet after all; a live auction had some highly unique items selling for as much as three hundred thirty thousand. Yet general opinion muttered around my table was that many of those items were going for ‘low’; some of them barely cracked the reserve price, and none went for much higher. I suspect this was partly a reflection on the Silicon Valley crowd — hardworking, industrious, reasonably thrifty, keeping the alcohol well under control — and the less-than-stellar performance of the auctioneer, uninformed and out of his element with many of the prizes (which had a space- or technology-slant). “You’ll have to excuse me, I was an English major in college,” he told the crowd. I got a bit indignant. I was an English major also, which means I have a strong ability to read up on my product knowledge beforehand so I have some idea of how to sell these things to such a large and obscenely wealthy crowd.*** This guy’s main tactic was to hunt down a person in the crowd somehow associated with the prize in question and hand over the microphone; the person in question, caught off-guard and stammering, would still be more substantive than the auctioneer. Overall the whole thing was a plodding disappointment.

Rufus Wainwright went onstage at 10:15. He wore an ascot and a kind of frock coat — which he described as “urban romantic” — and sat down at the piano and was awesome. Just awesome. Not that much of the crowd even noticed; Robin Williams and the two Google founders (Larry and Sergei) were sitting at the table next to ours — and Tipper Gore and her daughters were at the table adjacent — and people used this opportunity to network, a steady flow of bodies blocking views of the stage and utterly ignoring Rufus in their quest to shake a hand and exchange a few words. You would have thought Wainwright was just another dinner entertainer (“fresh from his three-night stint at the Ramada!”) — that is if you were deaf and couldn’t recognize the quality of his music. (“Silicon Valley people have no fuckin’ class!” our friend Jason roared afterwards, highly indignant on Wainwright’s behalf. “That’s class with a K,” I added, and Jason agreed, “Yeah, that’s class with a fuckin’ K!”).

After Wainwright went off, people talked and milled for a bit….and just as they were starting to exit, as one of the event people took the mike and rattled off the names of the sponsers, Robin Williams hopped onstage. He was not part of the program. He engaged in a bit of back-and-forth with the highly bemused event guy….and then launched into a fullblown comedic routine, just riffing off the events of the evening, winging it. He went on for about ten, fifteen minutes; people looked up from their knots of conversation, drifted back from the exits. Soon he was playing to a packed room, and by far the most attentive crowd of the evening.

It was fascinating to watch his routine, and, I thought, something of a lesson on how to fling yourself into the creative process without fear or hesitation. Williams, especially in the beginning, is hit-and-miss. You chuckle even at the stuff that isn’t funny, because he’s such a master of expression and persona; the content might not be all that amusing, but the delivery is. But even as he rattles away — and the dude never stops talking — you can see him angling for the truly funny, throwing out this comment, that observation, doing it all at a million miles a minute, censoring apparently nothing, no matter how stupid or tactless or politically incorrect: he is a breathing talking brainstorm. Then something hits, and sticks, and he gets the first big belly laugh. He swings in that direction, riffs off it, builds on it, remembers it and finds a way to loop back to it later. He gets the next belly laugh. And then the next. Then he’s in the groove and he’s going, going, gone. At one point I was doubled over in my chair, forehead touching knee. He was raunchy, iconoclastic, highly inappropriate. I had a similar response to him that night that I’ve had when reading Stephen King: both men have become such pop-culture establishments that you kind of dismiss them in pursuit of newer and ‘edgier’ forms. Except I had the recent experience of reading King and feeling chilled and haunted in a way I hadn’t quite felt since — well, since reading the man in my teens. You realize again that he’s the master, and why he got to be the master in the first place.

With Williams, though, I not only developed a newfound respect for how funny the man can still be, and also for the delightfully gleeful way he takes down sacred cows (there was one big donor who came under fire for no other reason than having the name Fisker, which Williams quickly changed to Fister and…well, we felt kinda sorry for Fisker afterwards, although not too sorry, since those had been some of the belly laughs mentioned earlier…you can’t choose who you love, and you can’t choose the stuff you find funny, even if you don’t always respect yourself in the morning). It was also just the process of watching him try stuff out; you realize that Williams is not only innately talented or quick-thinking or whatever, the man is damn hardworking. For every joke that stuck, a high number of other jokes slid down the wall. Like a salesman cold-calling one hundred numbers for every one that said ‘yes’; if you want more ‘yeses’, you need to put in the grudge work and eat the rejection in order to get that number game on your side.

Which reminds me of how annoyed I got when I used to watch Fear Factor (I had a brief****, inexplicable fascination with this show) and contestants would trot out (on a very regular basis, as if they’d all learned these lines beforehand) crap like “I never fail at anything” in order to convey what natural-born winners they are. But all that means is that you’ve never striven for your level of incompetence, to then develop the skills and knowledge to make that your level of competence, which enables you to rise higher. It’s not that ‘winners’ (and I use that word with a bit of distaste, but you know what I mean) don’t fail. They fail. Sometimes they fail in big and embarrassing ways (and people who don’t have half their courage feel sorry for them). But they don’t care (or manage not to care overmuch for too long). They understand failure as part of the learning process. So they get over themselves and move on, angling for the stuff that does work, riffing on it, building on it, until they’re going, going, gone.

* I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but even when you stop hearing someone’s accent face-to-face, which happens with familiarity, you’re still very aware of it over the phone

** but is very conducive to a long-winded blog entry

*** a journalist covering the event later estimated the crowd’s worth to be around 40 billion

**** uh, okay, maybe not so brief

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