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Don't Kill Your Heroes, Don't Even Meet Them

When you meet your heroes, you miss out on the true value of having a hero: the opportunity to learn about yourself.

Josiah Hesse

Josiah Hesse

If you're the kind of guy who idolizes Pete Doherty, you should definitely never meet him IRL. Photo via Flickr user didy_b

Growing up in the tiny hamlet of Clear Lake, Iowa (population 7500), there weren't many opportunities for me to encounter my heroes of music, film, and literature. Tom Robbins, P.T. Anderson, Stuart Murdoch (of Belle & Sebastian): They all existed inside the Mount Olympus of British rock magazines and imported DVDs with special feature interviews. I absorbed their work with a feverish intensity, but for years I'd never even visited the cities in which they lived, let alone shaken their hands.

So you'd think I'd be as thrilled as a puppy in a box of packing peanuts when I moved to Denver, Colorado, and began work as an A&E journalist, a job that regularly put me in contact with my favorite musicians, writers, and stand-up comedians. But I soon found out that interviewing a person was a million miles from meeting them; and that when it comes to heroes, actually meeting them has the potential to destroy every reason you loved them in the first place.

For many people, the pinnacle of their fandom is to stand face-to-face with the person they idolize and ask them a few questions. But this is actually antithetical to the whole fan/celebrity dynamic. You can admire people you meet, but you cannot mythologize them. It just doesn't work.

"I did meet her and it was hugely disappointing," Morrissey once said of meeting his teenage hero, Patti Smith, in 1978. (Later, he said that his actual quote was nastier, but that the journalist changed it.) "She walked up to a [17-year-old boy] and loudly asked him an extremely vulgar question about how sexually endowed he was... The lesson is it's sometimes better to cherish your illusions."

Smith and Morrissey would go on to become friends years later, after Morrissey became a religious icon to a generation of romance addicts and possibly lost his taste for mythical distance. I could never imagine being friends with Morrissey, or Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Pete Doherty, or any other celebrity who I attempted to emulate in my 20s. For the most part, these men have been widely regarded as assholes, and it would be silly for me to think I'd be treated any differently. I adore them as mythical heroes, but would probably hate them as human beings.

I didn't always feel this way. Like many naïve young fantasists, I once assumed that because I cherished someone's work, it meant we had the same personality, and would automatically gravitate toward each other as allies of good taste. When I began interviewing my heroes, I thought it would be one bonding experience after the next.

This woman met Mike Birbiglia. He was probably really nice. Photo via Flickr user mirka23

Sometimes this did happen. Mike Birbiglia and E.J. Dionne were two of the most warm and thoughtful people I've ever spoken with, and I could easily see being friends with either them. But Birbiglia and Dionne are mortals, not heroes. That's part of their shtick. They're real people, not mythical beings. They should be admired, not worshipped.

Tracey Morgan, Adam Carolla, and Roseanne Barr are not real people, or at least they weren't to me leading up to our interviews.

"[Some] people don't know how to separate Tracy Morgan from Tracy Jordan," Morgan shouted at me, hostile and cordial at the same time. "That's 'cause they don't know Tracy Morgan. All they know is based on the character I play on TV. But I'm not that character. I have a real life."

Like any myth, it served the myopic function of telling a story, regardless of the facts.

Unfortunately, Roseanne Barr was also nothing like the sassy, quick-witted TV mother of my childhood. There was plenty of bitterness—she felt that Ellen Degeneres and Will & Grace had unfairly overshadowed her as the pioneer of gay issues on TV, and that anti-socialist misogyny had conspired against her run for president—but she exuded none of the humor or playfulness that she was known for. She was just a grumpy old crank who sounded annoyed that I had called her.

I don't know if I'd call Adam Carolla a "hero" of mine, but when I interviewed him three years ago I was, at the time, arbitrarily rebelling against the liberal culture of my friends and trying to reconnect with my libertarian roots. Attempting to chum it up with Adam Carolla (who had just taken over for Dennis Miller on The O'Reilly Factor) became symbolic of my conservative insurrection.

It turned out that Carolla came into that interview ready to spar with a fire-breathing liberal, and quickly goaded me into a debate over the role McDonald's plays in the obesity epidemic. Despite my intentions of trying to buddy up with a libertarian, I couldn't contain my leftist hatred for McDonald's and ended up taking the bait.

Unlike our author, this guy had a great time meeting Adam Carolla. Photo via Flickr user jayemphoto

Later that night, during his Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew Reunion Tour, Carolla went on a ten-minute rant about this "asshole journalist from some crunchy newspaper" he just spoke with, who accused him of fat-shaming victims of fast-food chicanery. I slumped in my seat as 1600 Fox News aficionados laughed at his story about the ignorant liberal. He'd completely fabricated the story, attributing things to me I never said, and portraying me as something completely different from how I saw myself.

In short, he mythologized me. Like any myth, it served the myopic function of telling a story, regardless of the facts. Which doesn't make it a lie, just a fictional truth.

"I prefer the truth of myth, which I think is our greatest truth," Tom Robbins said in a recent Kindle Singles interview. "A lot of people today use myth as a synonym for a lie or a falsehood, but of course that is not what it means at all. A myth is simply a way of explaining things that are difficult to explain but in a way that speaks directly to the psyche."

He went on to say that he avoids public appearances and meeting his fans because there is another Tom Robbins, one that exists in the imaginations of his readers, that is far more interesting than he could ever live up to, and he'd rather preserve that image in the public consciousness instead of gumming up the works with a sober reality.

This was certainly the case when I waited in line for four hours to meet him in 2009. It was a rare, in-store book signing promotion for his children's book, B Is For Beer. We'd all bought copies of the book, which guaranteed us a place in line for an autograph—but I didn't want an autograph, I wanted a conversation. Knowing nothing about publicists or schedules, my intention was to ask Robbins for an interview right there and then (in my defense, it worked with Chuck Klosterman), despite there being a long line of people waiting behind me.

"Sorry, no," he barely croaked out, looking all of his 77 years. The man could hardly stand, was losing his sight and hearing, had somehow just endured a night of reading aloud, answering questions from the audience, and now hours of signing books and posing for pictures. Yet somehow I found it in me to be indignant about his refusing to let me interview him. My Tom Robbins, the one who lives on my bookshelf and is always ready to take me on a peyote adventure with cowgirls, wouldn't have turned down my offer for an interview.

I picked up my copy of B Is For Beer, and threw it in the trash right in front of my hero. Six years later, I'll gladly admit that I was being a brat.

Sometimes, you begin with a real person and end up with a myth.

Though perhaps this is just my unique brand of fandom. Two years ago, I interviewed comedian, podcaster (and my hero of self-loathing) Marc Maron, a man whose career has been built on meeting celebrities and asking them questions. When I asked if he could relate to my experience of finding the human version of my mythical heroes unsettling, he said: "I don't know if it's unsettling so much as settling. If an interview gets to a point where they reveal themselves, you start to see that they are just people. Whatever we build in our head about them, based on the information we have, that's on us. I'm always relieved when I find out that they're real people, because it makes what they do all the more impressive."

Sometimes, you begin with a real person and end up with a myth. I was once casual friends with Denver musician Esme Patterson, until she released an album of songs that so fundamentally consumed my thoughts and emotions (note: this was during a pretty epic breakup) that I began to find it difficult to hang out with her. She went from a drinking buddy to an iconic name on the side of an LP, treasured alongside the likes of Jenny Lewis, Marianne Faithfull, Joni Mitchell, and dozens of other female songwriters I like to daydream about.

The author foolishly meeting one of his heroes, John Dickerson

But I found it difficult to daydream about Esme while she was living just down the street from me. I could easily bump into her on my way to get cigarettes.

"I don't dare to touch your hand, I don't dare to think of you in a physical way," Stuart Murdoch sings in the Belle & Sebastian song, "Funny Little Frog," as the narrator details his love affair with the picture of a celebrity. "And I don't know how you smell. You are the cover of my magazine."

The song is almost creepy, until you remember that this guy has no interest in the physical object of his desire. The relationship exists solely in his mind. He's not a stalker, because stalkers are essentialists, they're obsessed with the physical manifestations of a person's magnetism (clothes, personal items, strands of hair). When it comes to mythical dreaminess, those things only get in the way.

It isn't lost on me that this kind of mythologizing can be a little unpleasant for those on the pedestal, especially if they didn't voluntarily climb up there.

This is why I didn't want Tom Robbins' autograph, or save the shot glass I toasted P.T. Anderson with. I didn't want proof that I met these people—I didn't even want to remember that they are actual people.

When Belle & Sebastian slowly infected the culture of dial-up internet blogs and Brit-pop tabloids throughout the last half of the 90s, their lack of press photos and disinterest in interviews made for the ideal environment for some myth-making, allowing their growing fanbase to rest whatever attributes they needed on Stuart Murdoch's pale shoulders.

"A band never perceives itself, you do the perceiving," Murdoch said to me, a little accusatorially, in an interview for Noisey last September. "All we do is get on with it. Back in the 90s, it was the correct and proper thing for us to remain insular, because we were passionate about our music, and if we had entered the media world it would've torn our band apart."

It isn't lost on me that this kind of mythologizing can be a little unpleasant for those on the pedestal, especially if they didn't voluntarily climb up there. And it can be just as miserable for those craning their necks to look up at them, particularly if adoration becomes obsession.

Don't go trying to meet your heroes. Crossing the streams of the physical and imaginative realms is dumb and greedy. And you miss out on the true value of having a hero: the opportunity to learn about yourself.