Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Brushes With Celebs

The Internet Age has not only made the world a smaller place, but it has also brought people closer with the advent of social media.

These days, you can keep in touch with far-away friends through e-mail, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter, to name a few methods (or, at least, the methods that I use). But you can also reach out to people who, before social media, where only accessible through the big screen, television, and radio: public figures and celebrities. And, in those forms, contact was only one way.

Because of Twitter, you can follow your favourite celebs and read what they are doing at that particular moment, but you can also reach out to them, responding to their tweets or just contacting them directly. If you're lucky, they will respond to you.

Recently, I remembered that, for a short period, I was able to interact with famous folks without the Internet, without social media.

When I was a journalism student at Algonquin College, I spent six weeks in an internship at The Ottawa Citizen. And, as luck would have it, I was assigned to the Entertainment department, where I would follow stories about local celebrities, artists, and musicians, and would occasionally get to see famous people that were known across the country, even world-wide.

For my 500th post on The Brown Knowser (already!), I thought I would share some of my brushes with celebrities and what made these encounters so memorable.

Former members of The Guess Who: on my first day at The Citizen, I was sent downtown to cover a press conference, where some musicians where announcing that there was going to be an increase in the royalty amounts that they would earn for their songs. For decades, Canadian artists were earning far less than their American and European counterparts, which made many of them head south of the border. The increase was an effort to keep our Canadian singers and songwriters in Canada.

Among those speaking at the press conference were none other than Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman. For me, it was great to be sitting in the press gallery, able to ask questions. I still remember the question that I asked, addressed to Cummings: had he considered leaving Canada before this increase? His answer was an emphatic "no," that he loved his country and had helped lead the charge to this increase.

When the conference broke up, I made sure to move up and shake Cummings' and Bachman's  hands, letting them know that I appreciated their part in Canada's music scene.


Will Millar, of The Irish Rovers: long after The Unicorn and Wasn't That a Party were big hits, the Rovers had a huge following. So when they were coming to Ottawa to perform at the NAC, I was asked to interview one of the members, Will Millar.

The interview was conducted over the phone, as it was held the day before The Irish Rovers were to play in town. They were currently in Toronto and we wanted the story to run for the next morning.

One of the problems was that when I called Millar's hotel room at the appointed time, his manager answered the phone and said that Millar was taking a bath, and I should call back in a half hour. Thirty minutes later, when I called, Millar was still in the bath: maybe I should try again in another half hour, his agent suggested.

I waited for 40 minutes, just to make sure. When his manager answered, I was informed that Millar had just exited his bathroom, in a robe, and could I call back in 10 minutes. I said, "if he's decent, put him on now. I can't see him, and he's probably comfortable in that robe."

Millar took the call.

My first question to him: "How was your bath?"

Wonderful, was his answer (or something like that). He laughed, and I knew this was going to be a good interview. It was. It was also the first full story of mine to appear with a byline.


Alanis Morissette: because she lived in Ottawa, my interview with Morissette took place at her home (actually, it was her parents' home: she was only 13). We sat in her kitchen while her mother prepared dinner. This interview took place long before her angry Jagged Little Pill, before she was known outside a tiny circle of fans. Back then, Morissette wanted to be a pop star; as she told me, she wanted to be the next Olivia Newton-John.

After the interview, I was given a single of hers to take with me. I promised that I would listen to it while I wrote up my piece for the paper. When I got home, I put the 45-rpm vinyl on and played the song once. I wrote a simple, fluffy piece about a young kid wanting to make it big in the music industry. When I gave the written piece to my editor, I told him about the music and the song I heard. My exact words to him: "She'll never amount to anything."

The story was never published.

Lee Aaron: people may not remember her, but in the 80s she was a queen of heavy metal. She was also a hottie. Like The Irish Rovers, Aaron was interviewed over the phone in advance of a performance in Ottawa.


I knew very little about her music other than a bio I was sent before our conversation. I knew that she had done a ballad with Canadian icon Dan (Sometimes When We Touch) Hill. Known for his sentimental, saccharine-drenched love songs, I asked Aaron, "Is he a wuss in real life?" She laughed and said, "Not at all!"

During the chat, Aaron let me know that her first band was called Lee Aaron. When I guessed that it was named after her, she said no, that no one in the band was named either Lee or Aaron. Naturally, my next question was, "So, what is your real name?"

She hesitated, saying she wasn't sure that she wanted to say her real name. She asked me if I'd use it. I said that I might, unless she told me not to before giving me her name. She then said that she didn't know if she'd get in trouble with her agent if she disclosed her name, and I then said that she didn't have to give it.

"It's Karen Greening," she said. "Are you going to use it?"

"I might," I repeated. I did.

When we ended the interview, I told her to drop by the newspaper when she came to Ottawa and that I'd buy her lunch. She never came.

Later the next day, when Aaron/Greening was in town (after my story ran), she conducted an in-studio interview with rock-radio station, CHEZ 106. A friend of mine, who was driving home from work, told me about the interview.

When the interviewer brought up her real name, Aaron growled, "some <expletive> reporter, whose name I won't mention, leaked that."

I was famous for an instant, though only those who read The Citizen story would know who she was talking about.


Adrian Smith, guitarist for Iron Maiden: the day before my phone interview (again, they were coming to town), I received a press release that included their latest album. That evening, I listened to the first side of the album while I prepared my questions for a person from a band I didn't know. At the end of side one, I took the record off my turntable and returned it to the sleeve. I never listened to it again.

My first question to Smith: "Do you actually like the music you perform?" I wasn't laughing.

Bob Rock, of the Payola$ and Rock & Hyde: Rock came into The Citizen to meet with me face to face. It was the scariest interview with a musician, because he could see my face. He wasn't performing in Ottawa, even though his latest album, Under the Volcano, had just been released. He was in Ottawa to receive an award and to attend a show-business gala, hosted by CHEZ 106.


The interview went very well: Rock was lively, animated, and understanding at the fact that I was a rookie intern. I only knew his famous song Eyes of a Stranger and had heard only a bit of one song from his new album (Dirty Water).

As we wrapped up the interview, Rock said, "Now that we're done, can I ask you a question?"

"Yes," I said.

"Have you heard my latest album?" I told him I hadn't, that I received no bio kit before our interview (as was usually the case). "If you walk me to my car, I'll give you a copy."

During our walk, he also asked me if I was going to the gala. I told him that I wanted to, but the tickets were pricey and by now, was sold out.

He reached into his pocket and gave me two. "Take mine," he said, kindly.

"But aren't you going?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, "but I'm Bob Rock. I don't need tickets to get in."

I took one of my best friends, who also was in the journalism program and was interning at the Citizen's city desk. Shortly after we arrived, I saw Bob Rock with an entourage of followers, a pretty woman on each arm. From a distance, I waved, and when he recognized me, he called my friend and me over.

He introduced me to his entourage and then got all of their attention: "This is Ross Brown, from The Citizen. We had a lovely chat this afternoon." He bought us drinks, spent a few minutes chatting with us. I don't remember any of the conversation at that point because I was in awe that such a well-known celebrity would take the time with a relatively unknown person and make me and my friend feel so special.

He was a true gentleman.

Of all the famous people that I met during that internship and since, my experience with Bob Rock will live with me the longest.

Unless, of course, any of my top five want to meet me.

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