Almost Famous – New Yorker

A Film Director’s Back Pages

Cameron Crowe’s new film, “Almost Famous,” a fairy tale about a teen-age Rolling Stone reporter assigned to tag along with a big-time rock band in the early nineteen-seventies, recapitulates Crowe’s own fairy-tale career as a teen-age Rolling Stone reporter who tagged along with a big-time rock band in the early nineteen-seventies. Already a veteran of the underground rock press – he had written articles for magazines like Zoo World, Circus, and Creem – Crowe joined Rolling Stone in 1973, at fifteen, and became a mainstay at the magazine, profiling the era’s top acts, from Fleetwood Mac and Eric Clapton to the Allman Brothers Band.

“Almost Famous” indulges in its share of rock-star logrolling, Peter Frampton, who hired Crowe to write the liner notes for “Frampton Comes Alive!,” his breakthrough 1976 album, serves as a “technical consultant” and also has a small role as a road manager. Crowe’s greatest coup was to secure the good will of Led Zeppelin, whom he interviewed in 1975 (and who provided much of the inspiration for the film’s fictional rock band, Stillwater). After Crowe screened the film for the singer Robert Plant and the guitarist Jimmy Page, the pair released five classic Led Zeppelin songs for use in the film. But what about the seventies rock stars who aren’t on Crowe’s payroll or in his pocket? Do they remember him? And, if so, what do they remember?

“It was a very hazy time,” the guitarist Steve Howe says. That would be 1973, when Crowe published a profile of the progressive-rock ensemble Yes, of which Howe was a leading member. “I’d love to remember it more clearly. But I do remember Cameron. Certain people always look like they’re going to be somebody even if they’re not yet somebody. Cameron had that kind of confidence. We ran into him a few times, on a few tours. He was a good sponge, but not in a derogatory sense – he wasn’t borrowing money or anything.”

“Well, his reputation certainly didn’t precede him,” Gene Simmons says. Simmons has spent almost three decades as the leader of Kiss, the heavily made-up, aggressively mysterious metal quartet that Crowe interviewed for Circus in 1974. “When we met Cameron, the immediate reaction was ‘Where’s your dad or your mom?’ He seemed to be concerned more about the nature of rock stars and less about the songs. Songs are kind of moot. You either like them or you don’t. Cameron asked questions like ‘When you wear the makeup, how does it make you feel?'”

Crowe has more specific memories of both interviews. “Yes was the second article I did for Rolling Stone, after Poco,” he says. “My total fandom and knowledge of their music impressed the band. I would get insanely specific about their songs, and they were happy to talk to me. With Kiss, I remember that Gene was one of the savvier media subjects, one of the few guys who seemed to know that if you asked the reporter about his own life, the reporter would, almost out of shock, a) talk and b) possibly like you more. Gene was openly solicitous of my opinion. At one point, he asked me ” – here, Crowe drops his voice in imitation of Simmons – “‘What’s your favorite film ever?’ I said, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and he said, ‘Ah, you’re interested in racism.’ I had liked the movie because of the kids in Halloween outfits and Atticus with the dog. But I remember thinking, this guy is working me.”

In 1974, Crowe profiled the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. Generally guarded with reporters, Browne was garrulous with the young Crowe, speaking at length about his sexual exploits and his rushes with juvenile delinquency. When Crowe’s article was published, Browne felt betrayed, having viewed Crowe more as a kid brother than as a working journalist.

“That Jackson Browne piece is, in some way, at the heart of this new movie,” Crowe says. “Those first three Jackson Browne albums were as close to me as any music I could imagine. I fought to write about Jackson and when I interviewed him I ran hours upon hours of tape. We talked about everything. I was hurt that he felt victimized, and yet I felt like I really had captured an artist that I cared about capturing.”

Will the artists care to see what the old club reporter is up to these days? “Strangely, I’m not very filmic,” Howe says. “I’m so fixated by sound. I need time for my music, and the music of others. I like to jump around different fields of music so much that to get me to sit down and watch something is difficult. I would like to pick up with Cameron’s film work, though. Maybe this few film is my door in.”

Courtesy of the New Yorker – Ben Greenman – September 21, 2000