Steve Martin: My First, My Last, My Everything
The first performer who I ever saw in concert was Steve Martin, and whether this man wants the credit or not, he changed my life forever. I was just a little kid, taken along with my brother and sister by our parents to Carnegie Hall to see The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a brilliant country rock band that has already performed an extraordinary public service by bringing the spotlight back to the timeless beauty of bluegrass music with their classic album Will The Circle Be Unbroken. How my middle-aged Jewish dad in New Jersey became a bluegrass fan in the Seventies and fell in love with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy album, I don't exactly know, but I certainly thank God that he did. Now that Dad is gone, I listen to that album all the time, and I still smile and think of him. In that way, the circle really is unbroken.
For anyone not lucky enough to know them, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were -- and actually are -- an amazing and enduring musical force. But my memories of that particular night in Carnegie Hall all these decades later start even before the concert even began. My mother kept asking my father "Stanley, what is that strange perfume smell?" I remember my father laughing because that strange perfume smell was a little something called Eau De Seventies Rock Concert -- namely, the tell-tale scent of public pot smoking. Next I remember the lights of Carnegie Hall dimming, and the opening act took the stage -- a comedian who at least in my memory had a banjo in hand and an arrow through his head named Steve Martin. As best as I can remember, Steve Martin's first joke that night was something like "I just inherited a million dollars, so I don't give a shit if you laugh." At this precise moment, my father turned to me, and perhaps trying to provide some parental restraint, said, "This young man will never make it in show business." I, of course, started laughing, and in a sense, have never stopped. I told this story to Steve Martin decades later when I was interviewing him for Rolling Stone, and thankfully he laughed too.
The combination of brilliant wit and beautiful bluegrass and country rock that I witnessed that night forever changed my sensibilities. It's probably the reason I've made my living writing about music and writing comedy for much more talented people. It's also the reason the great director Walter C. Miller with whom I worked on the Grammy Awards, asked me to come to Nashville more than a decade ago to write the Country Music Association Awards. It's even the reason I was in Carnegie Hall a week or so ago writing jokes for a very important event, and found myself walking to the exact seats where I sat next to my father that night and heard his exceedingly incorrect prediction about Steve Martin's long-term career prospects.
In fact, it seemed like only hours after that Carnegie Hall show, Steve Martin became a singular pop culture sensation as comedy's first arena act with a lot of help from another force that changed so many of our lives -- Saturday Night Live. After that, I bought every album, read every book, and saw every movie. I remember back in sophomore year of college during Christmas break forcing my entire family to go see Pennies From Heaven in some forgotten Florida strip mall. At the end of the movie, I declared, "Well, that was brilliant" and then all just glared at me like I was much more crazy than Wild. They hated the movie. I saw it five more times.
Tonight, I happen to be in Nashville working, and I just found out that I am going to get to see Steve Martin perform with Edie Brickell and his fantastic group the Steep Canyon Rangers at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center. It's part of Martin's remarkable connection to music. In 2009, Martin released his first all-music album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Bango that quite rightly won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2010. The album was beautifully produced by John McEuen, one of the founders of the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, and the brother of Martin's early manager William McEuen. The Crow was a stunning piece of art, and so is Love Has Come For You, Martin's altogether gorgeous new collaboration with the gifted singer-songwriter Edie Brickell that is already one of my favorite albums of this year. Love Has Come For You -- produced by Peter Asher -- is a remarkable song cycle that's full of the kind of timeless homespun beauty that can keep you coming back for more year after year, just like Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy did for my father and I.
So the way I see it, as of sometime later this evening, my first and last concert ever will be by Steve Martin. I cannot wait to see this show. If for some reason, I don't make it to tomorrow, I won't be too happy about that -- and I like to presume that my wife and two sons feel the same way. But whatever the case, I want to take this precise moment to thank Steve Martin for all of the music and all the laughter that he's brought thus far to my life -- and to all of ours.