Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Dispatch From Escalatorville: the Lazily Snubbed Dignitary

I was listening to a local radio station this morning play a promotional spot for their weekly Doo-Wop program. The pre-recorded message concluded with a voice imploring listeners to "Keep The Music Alive!" - it was followed by, I kid you not, 6 to 7 seconds of utter silence...

This Was NOT a Test, and there was no Kool Aid, either.
Chance encounters with celebrities have dotted my life from time to time. It's a thrill to share an encounter with someone notable - a handshake, an autograph, or a brief conversation usually make for an interesting story. This particular tale is about a couple celebrities I did meet, but also about one I didn't - even tho' he was only steps away.

In Spring of 1991, I found myself backstage at the University of North Florida amphitheater - with Richard S., one of my best friends in the universe - halfway through the set of a Mamas and Papas concert. We had gone to the Jacksonville event for the day with a couple other friends from St. Augustine, and had been pulled aside by an acquaintance of ours who was photographing the festivities. Our camera laden friend had been given a backstage pass, and invited us to head with her to that area so that she could get some shots from the wings of the stage.

Having enjoyed the show quite a bit up to that moment, we were enthralled at having a different viewpoint of an actual 'Rock Star' concert. This was even more impressive than my having met the opening act, Don McLean, in the crowd just moments before; He'd seemed a bit grim, but was nice enough to sign an autograph for this goofy red haired kid who'd nearly knocked him over while heading across the amphitheater field in search of a soda. I think he seemed perturbed mainly due to the fact that his set, as great as it was, had not been that warmly received by the dwindling college-aged crowd, most of whom split after he sang 'American Pie.' Nonetheless, I was happy to meet him - but back to the crux of this story...

We stood there in awe (my inner pomposity finds this currently humorous, as the band Richard and I now play in, The Wobbly Toms - have recently performed at, yes, the UNF Amphitheater). We watched the concert, singing along to the songs that we knew - and trying to fit in with the elders and crew that were hanging out backstage.

It was then that we saw a figure saunter through the backstage area - with his gray mop and wise yet wizened eyes - and we both questioned his actual presence.

"Is that...Timothy Leary?" we simultaneously asked each other.

There he stood, gazing at the scene, shaking a few hands as he too stood grooving to the music of the folks who made up the band at that point in time.

For a few moments, we tried to convince ourselves that it was him. I knew the legend from stories I'd read in Rolling Stone magazine - but didn't know too much about him personally, hadn't seen any film or newsreel footage, hadn't read any of his literature. To me, he was the Acid Guru, a strange uncle of the psychedelic music era - the man who held the key to enlightenment via a postage stamp sized chemical conveyance - and a personal friend to every classic rock star whose tunes I held dear. I was still an innocent kid back then. Drugs of all sorts had been on my "Not To Do" list. Because of his reputation, however, he was a bigger celebrity than the beloved musicians on stage performing their hearts out.

I wondered if we should head over and introduce ourselves. From what I "knew" of the man, he'd been virtually sweating LSD since the 1950's - a handshake alone might just take me on my own little trip.

Still confused, we slowly convinced ourselves that it was not he - just a an older gent whom had come for the show, his white pants and shirt being only an approximation of a familiar outfit in pictures I'd seen of the good doctor partying with Ken Kesey and the boys on the bus back in their late 1960's heyday.

Resolved that we had exaggerated his presence, we got back to watching the show. At it's conclusion, the band came backstage - Grammy Winning Platinum Recording Artists - headed right toward us!

We were quickly introduced - the photographer acquaintance telling us "Move in closer, get in with 'em!" - we shook the hands of Papa John and Papa Denny -and hung out for a few moments. Mackenzie Phillips - valiantly substituting for her actual Mama - sat on a golf cart right beside us. Any lingering of the pre-teen crush I'd had on the one time sitcom star faded quickly, her makeup dripped down her face as it mingled with her perspiration - "I need a smoke!" she proclaimed to no one in particular.

Richard pulled a cigarette from his pocket and graciously offered it and his lighter. She said thanks and began her post show chill down. She was older than I recalled from the TV, and tired to boot, but still pretty cool.

After a minute or two, she was joined on the golf cart by Papa John himself, who'd said a few hellos and shook many other hands while we were enthralled with Mackenzies nicotine frenzy. After another moment or two, a driver bounded up to the cart and drove them both off the grounds to who-knows-where. We started getting set to leave as well, we'd have to find our friends who probably wouldn't even believe what had just happened.

We headed out of the backstage area, saying goodbye to our photographing friend, thanking her for the opportunity - thoroughly convinced that we'd not embarrassed ourselves in the presence of bona fide celebrities - and hadn't made a faulty introduction to a famous physician's look-alike.

As we left the stage area, however, a member of the backing band leaped past us across the area, and I can hear his greeting clearly to this very moment:

"Oh, hello Doctor Leary, I'm so glad you could make it after all!"

It WAS him, and we'd missed out. I turned my head, but the remainder of the entourage, Leary in tow, had been whisked inside - and we walked back toeard the open field.

I do wish that we'd kept in touch with that photographer, however.

Somewhere on this planet - there's a picture of me shaking the hand of one of the pop era's most brilliant songwriters ('California Dreaming,' 'Monday Monday', ' Creeque Alley...') - and I'm willing to bet that in the background of that shot stands the fellow whom Richard Nixon once called "the most dangerous man in America" - the godfather of psychedelia himself.

I never have taken LSD, and probably never will. But, if I do get the chance to greet any other man whose research and enthusiasm has altered the perception of as many people as Mr. Leary - I'm extending my hand graciously, whether he's tripping or not.

The Dispatch From Escalatorville
Z.F. Lively, Proprietor/Flashback Simulator
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