The company I keep l Chuck's World
Last updated 3/14/2018 at Noon
A few years ago, I was sitting in my daughter’s living room in Austin, drinking coffee with my son-in-law, when a package arrived at the door.
I know. I’ve now got you sitting on the edge of your seat. It’s sort of a gift.
It was actually an interesting package, and not unexpected, although I was surprised. It was my son-in-law’s Grammy, not his first or even most recent, although it was pretty special, anyway.
You’ve seen them, probably. Grammys feature a golden gramophone, the original phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. I can attest that they’re heavy. You could bop a burglar on the head with one of these and do some damage, although you’d need two hands and it might be messy. A pretty substantial piece of hardware, the Grammy.
Grammys were first handed out in 1959, which feels a little late to me, considering the 80-plus years since the introduction of recorded sound. The Emmy, awarded for excellence in television, was first given in 1949, when less than 10 percent of Americans owned a TV. The Academy Awards began in 1929, and the Tony Award, for Broadway plays, was introduced in 1947.
I looked all of that up. Awards and their presentations aren’t a passion of mine, although it’s not personal. I just got out of the habit of paying attention to celebrity news, and now I’m confused. Names leap to the top of my consciousness, suddenly everywhere, and then new ones start leaping and my eyes glaze over. Fame has become ubiquitous, or that’s the way it feels, and it’s not like we weren’t warned.
In 1966, photographer Nat Finkelstein, who had his own adventures with fame, was shooting photos of Andy Warhol for a book, drawing a crowd of onlookers who wanted to squeeze into the picture. Warhol commented that everybody wanted to be famous, and Finkelstein reportedly replied, “Yeah, for about 15 minutes.”
I looked that up, too. It’s not like I carry this stuff around in my head.
Warhol, a couple of years later, incorporated the comment into program notes for an exhibition in Sweden. “In the future,” he wrote, “everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes,” and now it feels like he was onto something.
This isn’t breaking news. Elementary-school kids have YouTube channels with millions of views. An Arizona stay-at-home mom plunked out a fantasy chapter of a book she had no intention of writing and “Twilight” took over the world for a while. Rappers, wide receivers, podcasters fame is as tenuous and difficult to define as ever, but it’s an equal-opportunity status now. You never know who’s going to stumble into it.
So I suppose awards weed out the trivial, the flash-in-the-pan famous who shine brightly for their Warhol minutes, to celebrate the significant and enduring.
(In the days of flintlocks, which had a priming pan, sometimes things would go amiss and there’d be only smoke and sound. Thus, it was called a flash in the pan. People think I don’t research this column.)
My son-in-law won his gold statue for being a founding member of Roomful of Teeth, an avant-garde octet of classical singers who make amazing music, winning the Grammy for their debut album a few years ago. The Teeth were in Seattle last Friday night, performing at a Town Hall concert, so proximity to fame was on my mind.
The Grammy is a quarter of an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), the rarefied air of celebrity. Only a dozen people have done this, split between performers and composers, among them the expected (Mel Brooks) and the surprises (Whoopi Goldberg).
The atmosphere gets a little thinner when we toss in the Pulitzer Prize; only composers Richard Rodgers and Marvin Hamlisch have a PEGOT, although Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda are one away (missing an Emmy and an Oscar, respectively).
I know or have worked with a fair amount of people who have a Grammy, actually. I’ve performed with Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winners, brief relationships that still exceeded 15 minutes.
And Caroline Shaw, another founding member of Roomful of Teeth, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for “Partita for 8 Voices,” a signature piece for the group and a key component of their success.
Caroline’s now a superstar in the classical-music universe, recently appearing on Netflix’s “Mozart in the Jungle” as herself, a glowing performance and another feather in her cap (look that up yourself). We’ve spoken several times, and she’s good friends with my daughter. We’re Facebook friends, Caroline and I. She wouldn’t recognize me on the street, but then neither would you. She knows who I am.
So it occurred to me on Friday night, working my way south through rush-hour traffic, that I’d entered some thin air myself. I am a PEGOT by proxy, a pretty common state for someone in the arts world but a little rare, maybe, in Snohomish County. I may be the only one. I’m not getting paid enough.
This isn’t really about proximity. I’m not looking for stray glitter to splash onto my sleeve, rubbing elbows with fame. It was just something to think about on I-5, my brushes with greatness. I’ve been a bystander in many ways in this life; famous friends are just one aspect. And most of them weren’t really friends.
I’m not ruling out a mystical connection, though. And if Lin-Manuel Miranda is interested, we could hang out. I know some stuff.