by Jerry Waxler
I think I saw Brooke Shields, once. I was having dinner with friends in Princeton, when Brooke was attending school there. I didn’t want to stare, but my friends swore it was her. Here’s an even lighter brush with fame. A guy I knew in college almost danced with Gracie Slick, the lead singer for the Jefferson Airplane. I was amazed that he was bragging about almost dancing with her, and now I’m even more amazed that I remember it 40 years later. I’m not the only one. When I tell people my stories, they share their own sightings. One saw a Broadway show. Natalie Portman was only 40 yards away. Another went into the same shoe store in Marin County frequented by Darryl Hannah. Yet, despite all this passion for stars I have absolutely no idea what their lives are like.
If you ever want to publish your memoir, you might have more interest in fame than you realize. Publishing breaks the barriers between a private life and a public one, and while few writers are hounded by paparazzi, we wonder what it’s like to be known by strangers. To help aspiring writers cope with their feelings about “Going Public,” I devoted a quarter of my self-help book, Four Elements for Writers, to the subject.
So what is it like to be “known” by strangers? That’s where memoirs come in. Memoirs are supposed to show me what it’s like being in someone else’s shoes. But which memoirs? Many celebrity books are ghost written, not even a direct expression of the celebrity’s own words. And most such memoirs play the celebrity card rather than shedding light on it. When I found the book “Vinyl Highway, Singing as Dick and Dee Dee” by Dee Dee Phelps I had reason to believe it would go deeper. I discovered through interviews and personal correspondence that Dee Dee had written it herself. That increases its value for other writers. And because she was famous decades ago and is famous no longer, it places her closer to regular life. Down from Mt. Olympus she walks with us mortals, and I hoped she could speak our language.
Dee Dee was an ordinary teenager, working in a candy store in Los Angeles early in the 60’s. She met Dick St. John, and based on their mutual interest in singing, they formed a duo Dick and Dee Dee. They cut their first record before they even performed together in front of a live audience. Californians loved the “B” side, Mountain’s High, and it shot to the top on the west coast. It was as if fate threw a switch. Soon Dick and Dee Dee were driving around middle-America, looking for crowds and DJ’s to help them spread the word and drive up sales.
The music business back then was simpler. Performers and producers were making deals in tiny studios. On her first couple of tours, she crammed into the back seat of a car. Traveling with black performers like Gary U.S. Bonds, she encountered explosive responses in the segregated south. When Dick and Dee Dee sang in high school auditoriums in the Los Angeles area, the other act was an up and coming boy band. These were early days for the Beach Boys, and so they were happy to play back up music for Dick and Dee Dee.
As Dick and Dee Dee gained recognition, the hotels and buses improved, but the grind continued: hoping for hit records, getting onto bigger stages, putting on a smile, and then getting back in the bus and doing it again. When they became regulars on the national television show Shindig, it looked like they made it, but the duo’s fame was only as good as their latest hit. Their style fell behind the rapidly changing music of the sixties, and gradually they sank back down into seedy night clubs, not much better than the ones they started in. At the end of the sixties the pair split up.
On the surface, the book is about the rise and fall of a singing duo. But if the only story arc was the “Dick and Dee Dee” act, and if the book ended with its death, it would have left me feeling empty. The death of the main character is better suited to a Shakespearean tragedy than contemporary popular fiction. So I looked deeper. What dramatic tension kept me engaged from the beginning, and then provided release and satisfaction at the end?
To find the answer I look more closely at Dee Dee’s own hopes and dreams. Her external world with its endless parade of night clubs, stage acts and television shows, seemed to be sucking the life out of her. Internally, I realized this book is a coming of age story about a young girl becoming a woman. At the beginning of the story, Dee Dee wanted to grow up, and by the end of the story she did by getting married and having a baby. Fame was a detour, a distraction from real life. When her act died, it felt like she had escaped the superficial and needy life style of a famous singer. She finished the detour and it was time to return home.
It reminds me of Homer’s Odyssey in which Ulysses was stuck on the island with the beautiful Calypso for years. It was only when he escaped this island and returned home to Ithaca that his journey was complete. Greek dramatists had a wonderful word for this circle. “Nostoi” means the coming home at the end of the story. When Dee Dee returned, she was not the same young girl who had left home ten years earlier. Her experience in the world of celebrity showed her sides of life that most of us never see. And so, like a good Hero, she returned from her Journey with wisdom, which forty years later she can now share with her community, telling us what it’s like to have been famous and to have returned. Welcome back, Dee Dee. And thanks for the stories.