I can’t be positive, but I’m pretty sure Bruce Springsteen had me thrown out of the private pool room at Tosca.
It was Sept. 2004, and I was in San Francisco’s famed Bohemian café with Bruuuuuuuce, a gi-normous bodyguard hired by who-knows-who, and Sean Penn, whom I’d been assigned to interview that evening. I was all a-twitter that I was standing next to The Boss – someone I’d worshiped since “Born to Run” turned my ears inside out nearly 30 years before. I was supposed to be focusing on Penn, but how could I be so close to someone I’d drooled and wept over, admiring his shirt-busting biceps and coveting his mastery of language, and not just ask him one… little… question?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I have been a journalist for 25 years – 20 of those writing. By my estimate, I wrote more than 3,500 stories for Hearst newspapers in San Francisco – first the Examiner and then the Chronicle. Most of those stories were crap; but some of them were more than worthy of re-reading years later.
But sometimes, what went on behind the scenes made a far better story.
I wasn’t writing exclusively in the first person when I was assigned to tail Penn for the evening, as I was by the time I left the Chronicle in ’06 – which meant I had to do your standard moderately-objective, use-as-few-adjectives-as-possible routine. The story turned out fine – no Pulitzer-winner – but serviceable. (You can read it here: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/09/13/DDGS68N7CT1.....)
But the backstory was much more colorful. As dubious as I am about blogs, one thing they’re good for is getting behind the scenes, and telling the whole truth and nothing but. Newspapers fear unleashing their reporters’ innermost thoughts for good reason: it blurs the line between covering the news and becoming it. Anyway, they figure no one wants to read about a 50-year-old woman’s heart palpitations when she realizes her longtime idol is going to be in close proximity to her. And that’s just what happened as I sat in the audience of the Palace of Fine Arts theatre, where Penn was being given the John Steinbeck award. Speeches were beginning to drone and I amused myself by jotting down questions I would ask when it was over and I got my 30 minutes with Penn.
Then, the emcee boomed, there was a surprise guest! And The Boss strode out, leather coat flashing in the stage lights, to grab Penn for a hug. Dear God. I’ve interviewed thousands of people in my life – including some major stars, from Hugh Grant to Matthew McConaughey to Guy Ritchie. (How come when I tick them off, only the hotties come to mind?) But I was dumstruck by the man and felt in imminent danger of passing out or weeping, which would certainly have broken the brass-ball code that journalists adhere to.
During his brief speech, Springsteen noted that Penn had once dated his sister (who knew?), which caused the man of the hour to cringe with embarrassment. There were some more laughs, hearty applause, and then it was over. I raced back to the stage door before anyone else could get there, showed my press pass and was allowed entrance. I’d met Penn a few times before, so he acknowledged me with a nod as I approached him quickly, reminding him he was to speak with me for a brief spell for the story. Before he could answer, Springsteen bounded over and hugged him. And all I could do was stand there like a potted plant, useless and breathless.
Penn then greeted other well-wishers, including my friend Phil Bronstein. “Let’s go to Tosca,” Penn told everyone with a smile. Bruce told him he had to catch a red-eye back to Jersey. Penn countered that he still had time for one drink and one game of pool. Convinced I’d been utterly forgotten about, I stepped up to say something, but Penn beat me to it. “Can we do this at Tosca?” he asked? “I swear I’ll answer questions there.”
And then he was gone. Thinking too much is a journalist’s worst crime; I was out the door like a rocket, and drove in record time to North Beach, parking illegally so I could get to Penn before his hangers-on arrived. And maybe, just maybe, I’d introduce myself to The Boss.
It turned out I didn’t have to. “Bruce, this is Jane from the Chronicle,” said Penn, sipping on a stiff drink and exhaling a plume of smoke, as if to explain why this female had barged into the inner sanctum of the pool room, which is reserved for celebrities. He tipped his head in my direction and I smiled with a feigned confidence. Springsteen smiled back but was silent as he continued playing pool. I sat with Penn and asked him as many questions as I could in rapid order, tape recorder whirring along under my fingers. Unlike his reputation, Penn was a charmer – sweet and forthcoming.
His cell phone rang and he took the call. I stood there awkwardly, about four feet from Springsteen, watching him move around the end of the table to get his shot. He’s damn handsome, though shorter than he looks on stage. He looked up for one moment and our eyes met. And I took my own shot: “So… did he really date your sister?” I smiled. He hesitated, and then answered gamely.
“Yes, he really did. But all other questions must be addressed to the man of the hour." He pointed his pool cue in Penn's direction. There wasn’t even a whiff of flirtation in his tone. Damn it.
In other words: back off, woman. I’m playing pool and don’t want to usurp the attention Sean should be getting.
Fair enough, I thought. I guess his taste for redheads is confined to his own spectacular wife.
Then we were invaded. As expected, the pool room was suddenly flooded with a group of 20 or more well-wishers, many of whom I knew. Peter and Stefani Coyote, Phil and Chris Bronstein, and so on. The interview was clearly over, so I thanked Penn for his time, ordered a drink (it was Miller time!) and began chatting with my pals.
After fifteen minutes or so, Penn approached me. “I hate to sound like a dick,” he said quietly, “but someone here is uncomfortable with your being in the room.”
I flushed and felt mortified. “But who…?” I said. “I know everyone here…!” These were all people I’d partied with before – who knew they could trust me to not spill any beans when we’re all off the clock. Then it struck me: it had to be the fiercely private Springsteen. He didn’t know me like the others, and had no reason to trust me. I collected my things and said a quiet goodbye to Phil, who was pissed when I told him I was being bounced.
“Hey,” I reminded him, “you know what it’s like. Journalists are either exalted or chopped liver, and I seem to be the latter tonight.”
I wrote my story the next day without telling the true punch line: that I’d waited my entire life to meet Bruce Springsteen, and when I did, I was only able to ask him one crummy question before he tossed me out of the place. Yes, it sucked, but it made for a good story. Which is why I’m telling it here.
There are several morals to the story:
1. Don’t have high expectations when you meet your idols. You’ll just find them shorter and more paranoid than you’d hoped.
2. If you’re jonesing to become a journalist, consider that along with great highs like popping a great story and meeting world leaders and Hollywood stars, you can also expect to be treated like a leper, avoided at all costs, and sometimes forcibly removed from a situation.
3. Don’t ever lose faith in the value of asking questions – even if it gets you in trouble sometimes.