Saturday, 22 October 2011

Me and Philip Glass

More than twenty years ago, I found myself at Philip Glass’s house. Philip Glass, the composer, that is — though he wasn’t there. I was in New York for a piece about David Bowie.

He’d just started his Tin Machine venture and had given me pretty much the worst interview I’d ever had from a major pop star. He’d decided that Tin Machine was a band and that he was only a member of the band. Therefore, he wouldn’t do any more talking than the rest of the band. They, of course, had nothing of interest to say — and probably even realised they didn’t. He, while being one of the best interviewees in pop, came on like one of them — teenage, inarticulate, musicianly.

It’s a long time since I looked at the piece I eventually wrote but it’s possible that I used no more than half a dozen sentences from the interview.* The piece needed to be several thousand words long. It needed an appearance of depth, at least. So I had to think of a way to fill it out — hopefully with fat and flesh rather than padding.

The Tin Machine show was at a theatre on the Lower East Side. At that time, the area was at the most extreme of its paradoxes. Crack heads all over. Literally, you crunched as you walked the streets sprinkled with used crack vials. But also still the remains of the district’s previous incarnation as a first stop for eastern European immigrants. So there were still the hot bath places (shvitzes?) and kosher delis, both milk ones and those with jugs of schmaltz (chicken fat) on the table. And there were also what we would now call hipsters living there — some of whom had been there since the 1970s when it was just rough rather than dangerous and some who’d just moved in to take advantage of the cheap rents and thrills. Nor was it that long since the Tompkins Square riot — a tiny, weenie local rumble which acquired quite lunatically elevated mythic status.

So I figured I could write a piece about slumming and downtown and how David Bowie fitted into that and how Tin Machine was his own version of slumming — an artistic pretence. But then, of course, I’ve always liked artistic pretence, thought it’s often more honest — or rather, truthful — than a posture of honesty, which is so often just pretence. Anyway, I’m sure you get the idea.

Which is how I found myself in Philip Glass’s house. He lived in the very heart of the Lower East Side crackfields. A friend was a friend of his I called and, although, he wasn’t there, his wife graciously agreed to talk to me and invited me over for tea at her house. She told me about the area and what it was like and how she saw it. It was smart, of course, and far usable than anything David Bowie said. So I put it in the piece.

I knew I’d need to thank her, though — effectively. I’m sure I took a gift of some kind — a physical one, that is. But I can’t remember what it was. I do remember the other gift I took, though. It was a joke. About her husband. This is the joke:


Who’s there?


Who’s there?

Knock-knock, knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Knock-knock, knock-knock, knock-knock?

Knock-knock, knock-knock, knock-knock, who’s there?

Philip Glass.

A somewhat show-offy gag in some circles, true. But already an established winner in my tiny repertoire of jokes — I guess I only told them to people who knew who Philip Glass was and what his music was like. So I was worried his wife would have heard it before. But she hadn’t. And she loved it.

Now, the other day, I was listening to a Marc Maron podcast. One of his guests was Ira Glass, the NPR broadcaster, the one who does This American Life. I knew he was Philip Glass’s cousin but I’d forgotten that. He told a story about his wife drunk-dialling PG at 3am then forgetting about it entirely. Then he told the PG knock-knock joke. My PG knock-knock joke. And Marc Maron had never heard it. And he loved it. And the crowd loved it. And I decided — with no evidence apart from the fact that if a toppish-line comic like Marc Maron hadn’t heard it before, then not many other people in the US can have done — that Ira must, therefore, have got it from his cousin’s wife. Who got it from me.

I can’t even admit how pleased I felt.

* The PR was pissed off at me about this and, later, told me so. Much later, he phoned me to say he’d re-read the piece and re-thought it and realised that, under the circumstances, my piece was more than fair and, well, he was apologising. A gracious act. Not unusual among PRs in my experience, in fact. By and large, PRs were better behaved and more moral and more fun people than journalists — notably so, in the case of the upmarket dailies. That PR deserves a credit, by the way. His name is Alan Edwards.

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