I Meet Keith

(from my memoir, Hardly Working.)

The advertising industry is fueled by seminars, conventions and cocktail parties. At an after-work Holiday cocktail bash sponsored by a now-defunct cable channel, I ran into a friend who worked for MTV. Between sips of punch, we commented on the general lameness of everything in sight, how shallow and full of shit so much of the industry was, especially most of the anointed rising stars. This is what you do when you are not a rising star yourself and are generally ticked at the power dynamics that have somehow passed you by, even though you wanted it to pass you by. That was the goal.

This exercise in mockery eventually meandered into a discussion of things that we considered to be worthy of our praise. That’s when we discovered our mutual love of the Rolling Stones. We settled into animated chat of our favorite Stones tracks. Sway. Spider and the Fly. You Got the Silver, Moonlight Mile. I relayed my story of speaking to Bill Wyman on the phone while I was in high school. My cohort had a story about a Mick encounter. Then she dropped the bombshell: How would I like two passes to the live taping of a Keith Richards and The Expensive Winos concert that VH-1 was producing locally at WTTW’s soundstage? And maybe an after-show introduction to Keith! This is why we work. It’s not just for the money, it’s for the opportunity to meet Rock Gods. If offered the chance to meet any musician from any era, if Robert Johnson was busy being chased by a hellhound, I would have chosen Keith.

On the day of the taping, Linda contracted stomach flu but was going to give it a try anyway. After all, it was Keith! Sadly, on the way to the show we had to turn the car around and return Linda home to deal with her gastric misery. This lost opportunity amplified her illness. She was now both sick and devastated. After dropping her off, I didn’t have time to think about anything other than threading through expressway traffic and getting to WTTW on time.

The studio held about 200 standing fans. A low-key, pre-concert buzz filled the room, emitted by rock fans in the know, sharing stories of other times they had seen Keith or the Stones or other famous rockers. We were the chosen ones and we knew it. This wasn’t some stadium show with 30,000 anybodys in attendance. This was a hyper exclusive event to witness a legend. I wormed my way to the very front, pressed against the stage. A small camera tethered to a cable zipped behind me. The director was practicing a shot that would swoop over the crowd, right up to the Winos. Just before the band appeared, I heard my name over the studio public address system. “Bain! Move to the back. Your bald head is in my shot.” I knew the woman who was directing, and she had recognized me. I moved about twenty feet back. Still a great spot to see the band smash through Take It So Hard and about ten other tunes including Time Is on My Side, sung by Sara Dash.

The set ended with no encore because it was a television taping. I headed for the stage door where my MTV friend had told me to meet her. As I made my way to the backstage door, I said hello to Winos drummer, Steve Jordan and sax legend, Bobby Keys. “Great set, guys!” What else could I say? The rock royalty was looking for the room where the buffet was. Because of the small, private nature of the show there wasn’t much security. I walked in. Backstage was a non-descript, dark-ish room with drapes on the walls and a few overhead lights. The gathering was just me, the MTV gal, the President of VH-1 and a guitar maker with a custom guitar for Keith to autograph. As we waited for Keith, we were all equals.

I was making small talk with the VH-1 President when a hush seemed to settle over us, a barely discernable change in atmosphere like the pressure drop that precedes a tornado. From the shadows, Keith materialized and noiselessly glided our way. He simply appeared, as if waved in by an unseen wand. I swear I detected an aura surrounding him. He seemed in good spirits but how would I know? Had he just smoked hash? Had he just looked at his bank account? Had he just had a plate of bangers and mash? In any case, there was no pretense. I could tell that he had done this meet and greet hundreds of times. It was the retail part of his rock star god job. He was polite, gracious, at once both all-knowing and oblivious.

What do you say to an icon? I hadn’t rehearsed any questions. I thought that a prepared question would seem hokey. Do stars ever get tired of being told how much we love them? Of how many times we have played their first album? I settled on blurting out, “My wife got sick this morning and she’s going to die because she didn’t get to see the show and meet you.” Without missing a beat, Keith says, “What you want from me mate? To pay for her funeral?” He was busting my balls. “That won’t be necessary,” I replied, “but could you tell her to get well soon?” An assistant who had slipped into the room handed Keith an event invitation postcard and a sharpie and Keith scribbled, “To Linda. Get well soon,” and signed his name. I posed for a quick photo with Keith and the others. For reasons known only to God and Elvis, I never got a copy. It slipped through the cracks of my life.

What I most remember was the handshake. Keith’s hands were incredibly soft.

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