"Does anybody remember laughter?" The girls of summer when autumn comes.
Note: I decided that despite the lack of Almost Famous fiction on this site (and in general, I believe), my favorite movie needed a tribute. It's been fun fleshing out these characters, and hopefully doing justice to the one who has become iconic. The song is, of course, by Led Zeppelin (because who else is worth listening to?) and every line and chord of it has the mood and the melancholy that I was trying to communicate here. If anyone reads this, I hope you enjoy.
Disclaimer: How I wish that Almost Famous belonged to me! But it's all Cameron Crowe's.
"Act One, in which she pretends she doesn't care about him."
His fingers are tangled up in her hair, and she isn't like the other girls. For her, it isn't about the music or the sex or the fame or even the excitement. It's just about him.
She never meant for any of this to happen. She never even listened to rock 'n' roll; she grew up on her mom's Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra records, and music was never more than background noise to her. For the first few months, she would stare at the other girls up there on the edges of the stage during the concerts or in the "jam sessions" in the dingy motel rooms, amazed at the way they closed their eyes ands swayed to the music, drinking it in. But even she has to admit that, after a while, it began to get under her skin, too.
She wasn't even supposed to be there that night. But her San Francisco suburb was quiet on Saturday nights, and her best friend Lucy had a huge crush on the guitarist from some midlevel band that was opening for the Guess Who that night. They didn't even attend the concert, just went around to the back of the stadium and Lucy apparently knew the bouncer at the door. Janie (that was her name, back before she was Polexia; she wasn't lucky enough to be born with a name that belongs in this life like Sapphire was) was vaguely disgusted by the whole thing: she had no way of knowing that this scene would play out again and again and come to define her life.
There were too many people crammed into the dressing room and there was too much laughter and too much of some sickly sweet smell she wasn't used to and the girls were too made up and the men were too proud of themselves. And she sat scrunched up in a corner on the edge of a counter and watched Lucy laugh far too loudly. And she was just about to grab her purse and leave when she saw him.
He was laughing, too, and there was a girl hanging off each of his arms, but his eyes looked…scared. His eyes looked like she felt. Like he wasn't really sure he belonged here, like he wasn't really sure where he belonged, like he wasn't really sure who he was, even though his laugh was a cocky as anyone's.
She didn't go home that night.
He barely noticed her at first, just like most of the guys never really noticed any of the girls, and she had never been one to draw attention to herself, and after all, she didn't have anything to offer him. She was only sixteen.
But she was always, always there, and one day he turned around and he actually saw her, and she knew she would never go home again.
She told herself again and again that he didn't love her, that he just loved that she loved him, because he was needy, so terribly needy, as needy as she was. But he would hold her in his lap afterwards, his fingers tangled in her hair, her cheek against his chest as he leaned back against the headboard, and he would talk. She's not even sure if he really knew that he was talking, if he ever really heard himself. But she would lay there and listen and listen as he told her every petty jealousy, every insecurity, even as he practiced his bravado, and she would sometimes think, Surely he can't tell this to someone he doesn't love.
But she knew that it might slip away in a moment, and she knew that he didn't really love her, but she also knew that she couldn't leave as long as he would let her stay, and so she pretended, because there was nothing else to do. She swayed to the music and screamed for other bands and talked about the "power" of rock 'n' roll and occasionally went home with other guys, though that hurt so bad that sometimes she couldn't breathe. And she thought that she had everyone fooled.
Until the day that Sapphire pokes her in the ribs with a long fingernail and demands that she stop looking at Jeff.
I'm not looking at him, she says.
Sapphire snorts and twirls a lock of straight hair around her finger. You're always looking at him. Even when you aren't looking at him, you're looking at him.
And she knows that she's never fooled anyone, especially not herself.
And after that, when the offer comes, the choice is obvious. And she tells him that she's leaving and he just looks at her with those sad eyes that break her heart, and he doesn't try to stop her.
As she sits on the plane beside Ritchie Blackmore, all she can think about is that she might have taken this pretending too far.
"She changed everything. She was the one that said, 'No more sex. No more exploiting our bodies and hearts'."
She tries to be a Band Aide, but she knows she's really just a groupie. Ever since she met Penny at the Continental Hyatt house, she's wanted to be a Band Aide. She would sit on the floor by the ottoman and sneak glances out the window at the men with their guitars and their unkempt hair and that something—that celebrity—hanging all over them, and she would soak in every word Penny said.
Room 301 was the school for Band Aides where Penny would talk about the music and what it meant and what it meant to inspire it and how it could only be the music or else they were all just cheap girls who wanted someone else's fame to rub off on them. We are rock and roll, Penny would say. There wouldn't be any songs, there wouldn't be any bands, there wouldn't be anything without us. And it all seemed so much bigger and more important than anything she had. And she really did believe every word Penny said.
It helped she liked the music, liked to listen to it, loved to dance to it, but it wasn't enough, because she didn't love it like the other girls. Not the way Sapphire does—she's all surface unless she's listening to some song and then she's so deep that it scares her—or Beth does—like its her salvation—or Penny does—like, more than, anything, she wants to be a part of the music itself.
What she loved was the rush. Was the rush and the parties and the laughter and the drinks and the hotels and the drugs and the changes of scenery and the people—especially the people. She's a follower, always has been, and she worships people. Especially famous people.
It isn't necessarily that everyone knows them—that they are famous. It's just that, like Penny always said, famous people are just more interesting. These people aren't like the ones she grew up around, people who were quiet and content and sometimes desperate, people who worked hard and got married and had kids and lived quiet, unassuming lines. The thing that amazed her most was the people who really, truly seemed satisfied by that kind of life. She would look at them and know that that could never be enough for her because being still was the scariest thing of all. She hated it and so she ran after the people who never sat still for a moment, who ran after something everyone knew they would never find, who were movement and sound and color.
She knows that this makes her one of those cheap groupies that Penny speaks of so derisively. But knowing that doesn't change anything, doesn't change the fact that, deep down, she's just in it for the excitement. And as time goes by, the excitement has less and less to do with the music until there isn't any music anymore—only movement and sound and color and then darkness.
"I've seen the future, and this all works out reasonably well."
She hates winter more than she loves anything. Her counselor at school, her priest at church, her parents at home used to lecture her. You've got it all wrong, Beth. You make choices not because you love something, but because you hate something else. Not because you want something, but because you're scared of its opposite. Not because of dreams, but because of nightmares. It's dangerous, Beth; it isn't healthy. You're all backwards.
She's always seen the world in terms of negative space.
And the thing she hates most in the world is winter. The auras die down in the winter, becoming a thin sheen of color that clings sticky and damp to people's skin. There isn't laughter or music or sunshine in the winter, and all she can think of is how the coldsilencedarkness scares her.
Their songs carry summer along with them. Their songs are summer, and they weave it out of the strings of their guitars or beat it out of a drum. At home in Denver when she was young, and the world was gripped by winter, before she could chase after that summer, she would carry the record player into the bathroom and fill the tub up to the brim with steaming water and not come out until her skin was shriveled and blue and goosebumped. She had the biggest record collection in her grade at school, and everyone thought she was cool, but she never did it because of that.
At the concerts, the auras flared up and vibrated and shimmered and danced and hummed, and she didn't really need drugs to see them. The music was more than enough. Bumpy oranges and silky yellows and rough purples and slick blues and feathery greens and velvety reds and cold silvers and warm golds—there were auras everywhere, and that was good enough for her.
She meets a couple of girls in the bar at Swingo's one night in Cleveland and they start talking—about what they believe about music, about their favorite songs, their favorite bands. And before she knew it, she's one of the Band Aides, and she's legendary, and not just for making it about the music, but because sometimes she can just look at people and know who they are. It's the colors, you see.
She isn't really picky about which songs she follows—after all, all rock is summer—but she likes Stillwater best. Russell is a burnt orange and Jeff is a faded red and Larry is a beat-up green and Ed is a demure blue. And the other girls are just as colorful—Sapphire's as vivid as her name, and Polexia is constant green, and Estrella is subdued pink, and Penny's such a bright yellow she can hardly bear to look at her.
And when the music plays, it's summer, and she can hide in the colors, and she knows she'll keep running away from the winter for the rest of her life.
"They don't even know what it is to be a fan. Y'know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts."
The first time it happened was in a stadium in the hometown she never really belonged in. 1970, the Allman Brothers Band tour right after the release of Idlewild South, and she'd come alone because she didn't want to share it with anyone else. She still remembers the smell of pot in the air and the cold metal bar biting into her bare midriff as she tried to get even closer to the stage and the magic that was coming from Duane's fingers. Every strain of "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" sounded like it was infusing the universe with meaning, and it may have just been the drugs, but she finally felt here was something worth loving.
A little more than a year later, he was dead, and she was floating again.
She'd wandered into the party that night after work—waitressing in a diner by the underpass was depressing enough that she had to party hard just to forget, and going home to Mama at the end of the day and seeing her big sad eyes didn't help anything—just wanting some beer and some weed and maybe a quick lay.
But returning to the noise and the laughter and the music downstairs after puking her guts out in the bathroom, she passed a record player in an empty bedroom, and she locked the door behind her. There was a brand new record lying on the top of the pile on the desk and she barely glanced at the cover before letting the needle drop. The first song was a nice ordinary little love song, but she sank to the floor when "Love Comes and Goes" started playing.
Sitting in the dim light stained orange by a colored lampshade, she felt like she had that night at the concert, like someone had tied a rope around her stomach and her heart and was jerking them from her body. The smell of pot clung to her hair and her eyes were bloodshot from too much beer. And she closed them and leaned her head back against the scratchy comforter on the bed behind her, and she gave herself up to the music.
When Stillwater came to town the next summer, she walked straight to the back entrance of the club. Flirted a little with the dopey bouncer. Scared the timid little girl who was acting as stage manager out of her wits. Walked right up to the edge of the stage and listened and listened and listened, and when the music died away, there she was, waiting for them.
She was the first one to stick around for more than a night, the first one to get invited onto the bus, the first one to hook the boys up with the pot and the harder drugs that she only took after her mama called. And when the other girls showed up, trickling in one by one—some permanents, some mere stopovers—she was never jealous. After all, despite all their talent on stage, there was nothing particularly special about the Stillwater boys offstage.
After all, she had the music.
She slept with the boys and they enjoyed it and so did she. She was always one of the favorites, and they shouted her name when she strutted into a room, and they bought her drinks and laughed at her jokes and she was practically one of them. And if none of them treated her like she was fragile—as Jeff treated Polexia—and if none of them told her secrets—as Larry sometimes told Estrella or Beth—and if none of them acted like the world would come crashing down if she wasn't around—as Russell acted around Penny—well, then, that was all right with her.
After all, she had the music.
And when a sweet, innocent little boy who she herself taught about the world showed up and wrote the truth and showed them all who they were and the whole damn thing seemed to fall apart, she left, just like everybody else. Because suddenly things were complicated where they never had been before, at least for everyone else. But it's still so easy, so simple, so clear for her.
After all, she has the music.
So here she is, walking into the impromptu cafeteria and going through the serving line and getting the last, overdone, too-tough steak and sitting down next to Russell at the table and glowering at the new girls and knowing that she always knew she would end up back here.
Sapphire always comes back.
"I always tell the girls, never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. You never get hurt, you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends."
She planned Morocco right after Russell walked away. William "introduced" them, and he looked at her, and he was exactly the same. And she couldn't help the smile that spread across her face, because he was looking at her exactly as he always had, and he was Russell.
But then he walked away, to prep for the show, and she was left sitting beside a sweet little boy who already looked at her with worshipful eyes and who somehow didn't judge her. And, as always when Russell was away, her head cleared and she saw herself. And the fact that her hand was still tingling where he'd held it in his own—tingling like she was some kind of schoolgirl in puppy love!—told her that she needed to get out.
In an empty parking lot, she told William. Wear different clothes, find a different crowd, be completely different people–new names, he even suggested later, and she didn't say anything, because she knew that she'd go back to her old one, the one she hadn't used since that night Keith Richards handed her that Coke with ice and a lemon.
Back before she was Penny, back when she was still Lady, her mother, who had married for love and always regretted it, would strut around the house in high heels and fake fur and fake pearls and talk in her fake British accent about all the exotic places she had visited with her exciting gentlemen friends before she settled down with Harry Goodman, a quite ordinary middleclass real estate agent from San Diego. And although Lady never agreed with her mother on much, even she couldn't deny that some of the places Evangeline Goodman (that wasn't her real name, either; apparently one of the few things Lady had inherited from her mother was the desire to change names) had visited were magical.
She would sit on the faded chaise lounge beside her mother and look at old black and white photographs of Paris and Florence and Rio de Janeiro and Cairo and Marrakech. It's her one overwhelming memory of childhood, the one good memory of her mother. And when she got older and finally got enough backbone to talk back to her mother and all the fighting started in earnest, she would always threaten to run away to Morocco.
What she doesn't tell William, weeks later when she tells him her name and all the things she's done—when she tells him she's told him all her secrets—is the way her mother used to take her chin between her ringed fingers and make her stare her in the eyes. Don't care too much, Lady, she would say. Caring gets you nowhere. She doesn't tell him how she failed to live up to those words.
That night in San Diego, she made the decision about Morocco, but she pushed it aside for a little while as she followed Russell and the band up onto the stage. The music had always pushed everything else away. She remembered again, in the empty parking lot, because she could always remember when Russell wasn't around.
She knew she needed Morocco, even then, and when she told William she needed a new crowd, what she meant was, It isn't just about the music anymore; I'm taking it seriously.
And every time she was alone in a hotel room or dancing on the confetti-strewn stages by herself or during those few days back in San Diego, she would know that she had to leave. She was violating her own creed, and she had to go. But it was so hard to remember that when Russell was around, and every time he entered a room or let loose a cord or held her or even looked at her, she knew that she could never go.
Eventually, though, the choice was made for her, and she found herself back in San Diego with a mother who gave her disapproving looks and a dresser drawer full of partial tickets and a faded photograph of Marrakech taped to her mirror and William's voice in her ears: There is no Morocco!
Well, there is, and it's so frighteningly different and so dreadfully the same. And she finds a new crowd, mostly European expatriates and hippies dreaming of a new world. And they're so different from the crowds at the Riot House or Swingo's, and yet they're exactly the same. And the fancy cocktail parties punctuated by hookah and strange foreign drugs are so different, and yet they're exactly the same. And her life is completely different, and yet it's exactly the same, except that he isn't there.
And, after all, she's still herself, and so she finds a record store, run by a Brit who looks shockingly like Mick Jagger and who ships in everything from Simon and Garfunkle to Joni Mitchell to Deep Purple to David Bowie. It takes her weeks to get up the courage to ask him if he's got any Stillwater, and he rummages around in the back for a while before pulling out Love Thing. And she sits on a stool with the headphones on her ears, and she doesn't cry. But she comes back, again and again and again, to visit her friends.
And she's Penny and yet she's Lady. And she's happy and yet she's sad. And she's at home and yet she's lonely.
And everything is completely different, and yet it's exactly the same.
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