Famous people. And not the Big Brother sort.

I have tickets to go see Philip Glass in concert, playing “Music in 12 parts” with his own ensemble, in two weeks, here in the UK at the Brighton Festival. Anyone who has been following this blog for any period of time will know that I’m a musician by hobby, nearly by trade (I started out as a double major at University, music + engineering, and have a few professional music recordings under my belt) and so I’m pretty excited about this in my usual geeky manner. I was chatting about the concert tonight with one of my fellow-concert-goers, and an interesting question came up. Relative to others we’ve seen, where does Glass rate in terms of the most influential, eminent, important, dare I say famous, person that either of us have seen in real life?

For a musician, Glass is definitely one of those for me. I see him as a 20th century Mozart or the like, and I’m pretty excited to see him in his 70s but still performing his own compositions. But an interesting discussion arose: my fellow conversant and I were trying to weigh seeing Glass in concert against things like meeting a Nobel-prize winning scientist. Or even just seeing them speak. I feel like there should be a points system somehow, including how important the person is in their field and how close you got… seeing Glass in concert will not be a personal experience but I suspect it will be a transformative one. An opportunity to see someone who is really a genius doing what they do live in person with a few thousand others (when the global population is billions). In a culture soaked with celebrity of the infamous sort, I’m only interested in people who have made a demonstrable contribution to history and society–no Jade Goody sightings would make my list here.

Since being in the UK, the ante has been raised for me. I personally know Sirs and Dames on a first name basis. Several of each. Which is odd. I’ve also bumped into British royals twice on the street near my office, but I don’t count that as transformative. Heck, I’ve also bumped into Stephen Hawking on the street, in his wheelchair. Which is just strange. And surreal. I have not been to see him speak, but that’s been a conscious choice. I could have.

So, readers, I ask you now: who is the most “important” person that you have seen live and in person? Concert, random meeting, whatever. Hopefully you’ll get from this post that I’m hoping they will have had some lasting influence on society, and not just be an internet celebrity of the moment. I’m interested in people who made a big contribution in whatever field they were in: music, theater, dance, science, art, whatever. I’ve been to quite a few jazz concerts, but I think Glass is still going to top that list. And I’m not sure that any of the rock-star scientist types that I’ve seen or met would quite meet that bar in terms of lasting legacy. What about you?

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8 responses to “Famous people. And not the Big Brother sort.

  1. I haven’t been to many concerts–INXS front row, Miles Davis, Robbie Williams, Kylie. Eclectic, I know. However, I have met a few well known people on a more personal level than in concert:

    I’ve shaken hands with Margaret Thatcher (after she was PM) and Tony Blair (before he was PM),

    I’ve been smiling distance from Diana, the Queen Mum, The Queen and Philip (at a wedding),

    I’ve had a cup of tea with Will Carling (rugby), and I was asked out by Brian Moore (also rugby),

    I’ve dated a Lord (the youngest son of the Duke of Northumberland),

    I’ve had coffee with John Irving (when he came to sign books at the bookshop I was working in)

    I’ve had a long chat with Nicholas Evans about horse whispering (at a book launch)

    I’ve had a beer next to Terry Pratchett (at one of his book launch parties at the Groucho)

    I had dinner next to Dawn French (at the Groucho),

    I’ve had lunch next table to Tracey Emin (at Spitalfields Market),

    I was given a cup of tea by Kevin Costner (on the set of Robin Hood, sadly)

    One of my closest friends is Barrington Pheloung (composer, i.e. Inspector Morse theme).

    Take your pick. Several in there who may have some lasting influence!

  2. I was going to say I haven’t really met anyone famous, but then realized I met King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan on several occasions. I was dorm parent to one of their daughters when she was at boarding school. The King was charming, and the Queen very down-to-earth. My favorite memory was of their daughter (in her early teens) yelling at her father on the phone, “But daddy, have you seen what they’re saying about you in the newspapers”, and then proceeding to give him political advice!

    I met a couple of movie/TV stars there too, and George Foreman. I wasn’t as impressed with him!

  3. I seriously think you are my long lost sister from another dimension. I love Philip Glass! The two most exciting celebrities that I’ve met were Thomas Keller (the chef) as I’m a food nerd, and (the best ever) Kurt Vonnegut. I had gone to see him speak at Ohio Wesleyan University, and after was standing outside one of the lecture hall back doors waiting for a friend when Kurt Vonnegut himself walked out into the ally and asked me if I had a light for his cigar. He chatted with me for a bit and cracked a few jokes — he was a delightful combination of wit, and self-effacing charm.

  4. I think seeing Philip Glass in concert would be a real treat. I love his work and I can completely understand your excitement.

    From my list, several were ‘transformative’ in different ways. I was completely surprised by how tiny Margaret Thatcher was–shorter than me (Im 5’3″) and far more petite and she had amazingly large varicose veins. The Lord I dated was very shy. John Irving asked me to recommend a good book for his young son–I showed him a pop up book on castles and he loved it. Dawn French was cross about something, although not with the person she dinned with. Tracy Emin had a coughing fit during her lunch. And I have got to know many things about Barrington Pheloung (Barry) and his family that most people who admire his work would never guess.

    So how were all those meetings transformative? They taught me that famous or celeb or whatever, they were all real people. They are set apart by birth or merit and often a bit of luck (like you I am not counting so called Big Bro celebs) and I am intrigued as to how their paths have set them apart, and in some cases I am fascinated how fame has affected them (or how they cope with it), but I am not star struck.

    I have a friend who goes mad for celebs. Her son is an actor and she has met a handful of actors and directors and she literally squeals with excitement. Her infatuation is of the superficial–it is their fame she loves, not their accomplishments, it repulses me. If her infatuation was of accomplishments then she would squeal over scientists and other leaders of different fields. But who am I to judge what she values? Perhaps having a chat with Ralph Feinnes was indeed transformative for her.

    I think meeting King Hussein and Queen Noor would be incredible–and humbling in many ways. They have been true leaders. And meeting and chatting with Vonnegut would be quite a thing to say–another leader.

    To use a point system seems crazy–its like comparing apples and oranges, too many variables and what would be the baseline? 🙂

    I suspect your writing about being ‘in the presence of greatness.’ But haven’t you ever felt that when you have been with great people who were not famous? Fame does not equal great but I do accept that one often follows the other.

    Enjoy the concert!

    • I agree that fame and greatness are not perfectly correlated. Nor are school performance (GPA or exam results or whatever) and intelligence. But I do think they are somewhat correlated, and that that’s interesting and important. There will always be famous people who are famous without greatness (inherited wealth and television celebrity come to mind) and great people who are, for whatever reason, never able to achieve the fame that they perhaps deserve. But I do suspect that in a large society, on average, there is a positive trend and correlation between the two.

      Regardless, I’m really interested in seeing great people, famous or not!

  5. Whilst studying in London, I shook hands with Michael Palin as he was leaving my homestay after a dinner party with my hosts. At the moment of our meeting, I didn’t know whose hand I held. It was only later, in the kitchen, that my “dad” (a BBC writer) dropped the penny and I fumbled to get my jaw off the floor.

    I also shook the hand of Ernest Rossi (big name in the psychology world) after sneaking into his workshop at the conference my sister was attending. That was a conscious choice of deciding – despite the fact that I shouldn’t be there – to walk up, shake his hand, and thank him for an interesting workshop.

    There have been other “bumped intos” and a couple of concerts, but those two are, I think, the big ones. 🙂

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