I heard the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death at the San Francisco airport, after my Stillwater like binge through Sonoma wineries. I was immediately reminded of Hoffman’s infamous character, Lester Bangs from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. I had watched Almost Famous on the big screen when I was a freshman in college at Northwestern. I was 18 and equal parts completely unsure of myself and ridiculously hopeful. I remember walking out of the movie with my dorm mates in Evanston, singing “Tiny Dancer” in unison and believing that my own personal coming of age story was around the corner. Not that it’s particularly difficult to inspire college students, a group that has yet to see their greatest rejections and failures unfold in front of them.
I had machinations of being a writer at that age that faded out for about 10 years while I took the serious career track of life. I wasn’t nearly as brave as Cameron Crowe who left home at 15 to write for Rolling Stone. He went on tour with the Allman Brothers at 16 to cover their concerts, serving as inspiration for the movie. Almost Famous resonates with the shy 15 year old in all of us, the kid who loved music in its purest state. Fans of the movie know what it’s like to dive heard first into musical obsession and the awe of seeing your favorite band in concert for the first time. And it is to Crowe’s credit that his movie resonated with real life rock stars. Dave Grohl once said that he’d never heard “Tiny Dancer” until the movie and claimed that the scene opened up a part of him that he never knew existed. I like to imagine him, somewhere in the Valley, climbing on top of a neighbor’s roof and shouting “I am a golden God.”
But amidst the Band-Aids and jet crashes, was the astute voice of Lester Bangs telling our hero and rock critic William that he would never be cool but that fame, drugs and alcohol would lure him into thinking it so. Bangs in Almost Famous is the best mentor that I’ve never met, a man who fundamentally understands a young writer’s solitude and desire to fit in. He encourages William to run away from home and follow a rock band around the country, knowing the temptations he will face on the road. He’s also a man who will answer your strung out phone calls at odd hours in the night when you start to panic that you’ve completed ruined an article. Of course he’s at home doing nothing; he’s a writer just like you.
I will never be privy to the inner life of Philip Seymour Hoffman and what fueled his addiction. But his talents were inimitable and he was a gift on screen. I imagine his voice as Bangs planted the seeds for many future writers, some who will be successful and some who will be disappointed. But luckily all of us everywhere will never forget we are the very best kind of uncool.
The very best wisdom of Hoffman’s Lester Bangs
“You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.”
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”
On famous musicians:
“See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.”
On popular high school kids:
“You’ll meet them all again on their long journey to the middle.”
“Don’t let those swill merchants rewrite you.”
And lastly, on art:
“Great art is about guilt and longing and, you know, love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love.”
Jenni Wright lives in Los Angeles and this article explains why she’s leaving home to become a stewardess.