We were both fifteen, William Miller and I. In his world, it was late spring of 1973 and he was tottering all around the country on the heels of some semi-famous rock band, trying to file his first Rolling Stone cover story. Where I was, it was early October in the year 2000 and I was tucked into the cool darkness of a suburban movie theater, watching as his big dreams unfolded: the long bus rides, the thwarted interviews, the beery concert halls, the broken hearts. I was a little smitten with William (or at least with Patrick Fugit, the rumple-haired, gray-eyed actor who played him) but mostly I identified with the main conflict of his life at the time: how love music, and how to write about it, too.
There was never one single moment, before or after I saw Almost Famous for the first time, that I decided to become a music writer. Even now, I’m not sure if that’s what I am, or if that’s what I really want to be. Even if it was responsible, I’m not even sure I would let the movie take that honor. Too many cutesy in-car sing-alongs to “Tiny Dancer” and too many effusive utterances of “It’s all happening!” a la Penny Lane have worn on my nerves in the decade since. But to be sure, during that first screening and so many others, as William Miller slowly scribbled his ode to Stillwater, like a good little would-be journalist, I watched and I took notes.
What I learned from William himself was this: Bands will not trust you. You will have to fight for your interviews, and then they will obfuscate and contest the truth you write about them, but you will ultimately win. Also, taking notes during concerts makes you look even less cool than you do already. I learned, too, what William learned from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tight-shirted Lester Bangs: To not make friends with the rock stars. To beware the industry of cool. To be honest and unmerciful.
Like William, I ignored Bangs’ suggestions to mix speed and Nyquil. I also ignored (or, rather, was somehow completely oblivious to) a weirder, less intentional lesson of the film: that girls love music, too—maybe more than anyone, and in unfathomable ways—but that they don’t write about it.
In Almost Famous‘ version of the grand old rock ‘n’ roll dream, the role of the female fan is a very strange one. They’re romanticized more than any other, the Band Aids presented as gaggle of beautiful, free-spirited foils to William’s stammering, suburban homeliness. Their responsibility, unlike his, is to very much make friends with the bands—to roll up backstage in paisley-draped droves to deliver sweet plaudits and smiles and blow jobs. It’s Penny Lane who laughs and throws away William’s note-taking pencil at his first Stillwater concert, after all. But it’s also Penny who, despite her protestations that she’s more than a groupie, gets traded away by Stillwater to another band, not just her affection but also her physical self reduced to drunken poker-game stakes. William, meanwhile, gets his cover story—his love validated by his own words.
To be sure, there are pitfalls to music writing, and on the bad days—when it all sounds like muck, when I can’t be bothered to care about all the things I feel I need to care about—it seems like hanging around some backstage door might be more fun. But, still: Thank God I followed the boy. I have ten years on William Miller now (I’m closer to Lester Bangs’ age in 1973, though I’m not nearly as fucked up or as wise), there are times I can’t shut my eyes, can’t catch my breath, can’t believe my luck. I’ll be at a party or a concert or a festival and someone will burst out of a crowd—arms out, smile wide—and declare, “It’s all happening!” And I can’t disagree.