Backstage at the Grammys 

Stories & photos by Wank & O"Brien

I will never forget Feb. 23, 2003. That"s the day I stopped being a DJ and became part of the Media Horde. For the uninitiated, everybody calls me "Wank." I"m part of a morning program called The Wank & O"Brien Show on RadioNow 93.1 in Indy. We usually do our goofy, irreverent show from the Emmis building on Monument Circle. The last full weekend in February was a different story. RadioNow 93.1 and WISH-TV 8 sent Dave O"Brien and me to New York for the 45th Grammy Awards.
Avril Lavigne"s band mistook "CBS" to mean "Canadian Broadcasting System."
Our job on that Sunday was pretty simple: tape as many interviews as we possibly could for RadioNow 93.1, and do a single live shot for WISH-TV 8 from the red carpet outside Madison Square Garden. We"d arrived in New York on the Wednesday prior to the awards, transmitting our morning show back to Indy from places like the CBS Broadcast Center and the headquarters of Island/Def Jam Recordings on Thursday and Friday. We"d interviewed dozens of A-, B- and C-list celebrities in the days that led up to the Grammy Awards: Melissa Etheridge, rapper Fat Joe, David Alan Grier. Most of the celebs we"d spoken with were pleasant people, regular folks whose jobs included having their voices or images distributed to millions of other human beings. For example: JOHN MAYER (answering a question from O"Brien regarding autographs): "All I have to do is move my hand around with a marker and that will make someone"s night Ö if that"s all the energy I have to spend - then why wouldn"t I sign something?" MO ROCCA (Daily Show correspondent, simply reacting to the fact his interviewers were from Indy): "One of my big hobbies is visiting the homes and gravesites of past presidents, especially the ones you"re not really sure were president, like Benjamin Harrison, who had a beautiful home on Delaware Street - they"ve got a Hoosier kitchen cabinet and a Reginaphone, which sounds like something an obstetrician might use, but was actually the predecessor to the phonograph." WANK (speaking to Godfather of Funk George Clinton): "Where are you more comfortable, onstage or in the studio?" GEORGE CLINTON: "In bed." Singer Tyrese told us that women sent him pictures of themselves masturbating. Comedian Lewis Black rapped about his low opinion of the FOX News Channel. David Alan Grier nearly walked out of our interview because he thought RadioNow 93.1 was a country station. (We played the Dixie Chicks" "Landslide" right before we spoke to him.) We spent Thursday and Friday doing what we always do on our show when we"re face to face with a famous person: a little shtick, a little info, a few low-key, softball questions for our subject. None of the interviews, none of the negotiations with various publicists, none of the few celebrity hissy-fits we dealt with could have possibly prepared us for the madness that would unfold on Sunday afternoon. The Apple was a little jumpy The Department of Scaring People had just raised the "Terror Alert" to orange. The Grammy Awards had come back to New York after spending a few years in L.A., and the city that had suffered the heaviest casualties on Sept. 11, 2001, wanted to use the awards as a three-and-a-half-hour TV ad to bring some desperately-needed tourist dollars back into town. Our equipment cases were screened every time we dragged our gear into the Garden. On the night of the awards, cops with dogs roamed the plaza around the venue, and traffic was cleared for blocks along Seventh Avenue to make room for the line of limos that would drop folks like No Doubt and P. Diddy at MSG. O"Brien and I hit the red carpet outside the Garden at about 2:30 on Sunday afternoon. We"d been told to be in place for the parade of nominees by 3 p.m., and we didn"t want to miss a single interview opportunity. We were both dressed in tuxedos as we passed the checkpoint into the long white tents that sheltered the carpet from the howling wet wind that blew through the city. Hundreds of television lamps heated the runway. Dozens of people decked in formal attire wandered through the white tents - the place looked like some kind of unholy cross between Carb Day and opening night at the opera. I even had the hilarious experience of using a portable toilet while dressed in a formal suit. Our crew was situated on a low platform in the middle of the line of cameramen and reporters that faced the red carpet. Joining us on a raised plywood stage 6 feet wide and 8 feet deep were correspondents from CBS affiliates in Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Albuquerque. Two television cameras, stands and a milk crate full of cable chewed up most of the available square inches, so the on-camera personnel milled around on the carpet. At around 3:30, somebody from the security detail ran a line of masking tape down the red rug no more than a foot away from the edge of the camera stages. "Stay behind the tape, people, stay behind the tape," he announced. Wank & O"Brien, CNN and Access Hollywood were all in the same boat: We had 12 inches of space in which to conduct our interviews with the nominees and presenters that came by. O"Brien and I positioned ourselves at the edge of the tape and waited, two mics in hand: one went to a mini-disc recorder in O"Brien"s pocket, the other fed sound to one of the TV cameras on our stage. A piece of tape at the edge of our stage read "CBS-NEWSPATH." Fortunately for us, most publicists only saw the letters "CBS" behind us and assumed they were talking to two guys with network credentials, not a couple of Hoosiers doing local TV and radio in rented suits. CBS Newspath was simply helping to provide gear and coordinate live shots for their affiliates. In fact, the letters "CBS" scrawled in marker on a single piece of tape fronted by two men wearing tuxedoes proved to be an irresistible sight for damn near everybody"s scouting party. The publicists swarmed around us like moths to a flame. It was still early, so the big nominees hadn"t begun arriving. Most of the interview requests we got in the first 30 minutes began with pitches like: "Would you like to speak with the nominee for Best Spoken Word Australian Christian Children"s Album Recorded During A Month With "R" In It?" This ended when Gwen rolled in. Gwen Stefani is the frontwoman for the pop/ska outfit No Doubt. The lesser lights on the carpet cleared a path for Miss Radiance, and the media crush began. Reporters jockeyed for position, snapping at each other to move it, back it up, I"m-going-LIVE-in-Chicago-in-30-seconds-I-must-have-GWEN-to-myself. Gwen turned this way and that, answering questions from the press as easily as if she were talking about the rotten weather at a cocktail party. Of course, the questions themselves weren"t terribly probing. A correspondent from Atlanta asked Gwen, "What did you put in your hair?" (Gwen"s reply: "I dunno - a stylist did that.") Stefani slid down the carpet elegantly, her drummer Adrian in tow - an affable dude who wore a kilt and chugged a Heineken. The gaggle of reporters that surrounded us craned their necks to see who was coming next while the camera operators found something to lean on. It was becoming pretty apparent to O"Brien and me that we were a sort of walking reference book for our TV pals who were sending their stuff back to the home office - most of "em had no idea who was strolling down the carpet. A tall dude in star-shaped shades and a zebra-print top hat and suit rolled up. "Who"s THAT?" Miami asked. "Bootsy Collins," O"Brien said. "Old school funk guy." "Booty? Booty something?" Chicago asked. The rapper Nelly strolled by. O"Brien pounced. We got an interview on tape, complete with an interruption from the surviving members of TLC. They leaned in to croon a harmonized good luck greeting at Nelly. We asked Nelly where he"d put the Grammy if he won it. "Hell, I"ll build a special place for it - so if you got anything to do with me gettin" one, lemme know what I should build and I"ll make it!" he squawked. The famous were coming fast and furious now. Little Steven Van Zandt from the E Street Band told us that a Sopranos movie coming to the big screen was still just a rumor. (He plays "Silvio" on HBO when he"s not playing guitar.) Yo-Yo Ma arrived carrying his priceless cello in a case on his back. (I told him it was refreshing to see an artist who was his own roadie.) Avril Lavigne"s band mistook "CBS" to mean "Canadian Broadcasting System." "Are you guys Canadian TV?" one of Avril"s guitarists asked. "I told my mom to watch for me back home!" Art Garfunkel arrived with his son. Little Garfunkel inherited his old man"s everything: hair, face and forehead. The print guys scribbling behind a velvet rope to our left started calling the poor kid "Mini-Me" once the child was out of earshot. Kim Cattrall"s dress nearly fell off, only to be rescued from collapse by her husband. Ja Rule smiled at everybody, but everybody was too busy staring at Ashanti. Sheryl Crow was the object of more than one longing glance herself. The push toward the carpet became more intense and heated. The shot was everything - I was clipped in the temple by a swinging TV lens no less than seven times. The tech folks shook their heads in sad bemusement as the on-camera talent sniped at one another, nudging their peers for a better position, hoping to have their question answered as if the interviewer from Florida or Georgia had held their subject in rapt attention. I also noticed that our less worldly colleagues were pretty easily swayed. All I had to do was call out a famous name, and a swell of made-up talking heads and mic-wielding arms would push frantically forward. "Foo Fighters!" I said, and the surge began. I could have yelled, "His Holiness, John Paul II!" and the crowd would have snapped to attention, whispering desperately to one another: "Presenter or nominee?" We met Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters, one of the nicest people on the planet. O"Brien told Grohl that both of them had grown up in the same town: Springfield, Va. Grohl seemed surprised that the folks back in his old hometown even knew who he was. O"Brien asked Grohl if he felt weird about being up against himself for a Grammy - the Foo Fighters had been nominated as well as Grohl"s other band, Queens of the Stone Age. "Nah," Grohl said, "it"s happened before. Nirvana Unplugged was up against the first Foos album, so I had a pretty good shot of walking away with a trophy." I asked Grohl about the final number slated for the awards, a Joe Strummer/Clash tribute. Had he known he"d be playing with Springsteen, Little Steven and Elvis Costello when he got the call? Grohl: "Yeah, I did. When I first heard about it, I thought I"d be playing drums, and I was like, "Hey, that"s cool." When they asked me to play guitar and sing, that"s when it got really scary." B.B. King strolled past regally, Debbie Harry sashayed and Bonnie Raitt winked at all the young fellers. Noticing that CNN en Espanol was interviewing a Latin band, Robin Williams did three minutes of Spanish-language material for our little group. The woman with him just looked bored. At around 6 p.m., I noticed that O"Brien and I had become just like everybody else on the edge of the red rug. Elbows were being thrown, words were being exchanged - dammit, we wanted to talk to everybody, and we wanted everybody to talk to us. O"Brien used his height - 6-foot-4 - to lean over smaller folk and get his mic into a celebrity"s mug. I knifed through the on-camera folks to bellow ridiculous things like: "CBS needs another interview now, please!" Atlanta be damned! To hell with CNN en Espanol! Wank & O"Brien are about to go LIVE in Indy - send us Busta and Justin and Vanessa and Pink! Springsteen himself! Slim Shady! P. Diddy! Dig up Elvis and wheel him in! GIMME! I was info-boy! I was stoked! I would orchestrate the perfect 90-second "How"s it FEEL to be nominated?" clip and show these television buffoons how an interview was done! Get thee behind me, Extra! The hell with ET! WE are with CBS Newspath! We worked the crowd. We made nice with the union shooters and sound guys. We cracked jokes with the talent. We weren"t a couple of poser radio dorks from the Midwest. We were part of The Media. At 6:48, we got "the get." Moments before we were to go live on WISH-TV 8 with Patty Spitler, Kelly Rowland had won a trophy (presented prior to the awards show on CBS) for her duet with Nelly entitled "Dilemma." She returned to the red carpet and O"Brien and I guided her to a spot between us. Kelly was trembling, nearly gasping for air. She fanned herself as she drained a bottle of water. The notion that she"d just won a Grammy without the rest of Destiny"s Child was clearly just sinking in. We hit her with every clichÈ in the book: "Congratulations are in order! My goodness! You"re still shaking from the excitement! Can"t wait to see you perform live!" Kelly was happy with her Grammy. We were happy with Kelly. WISH-TV 8 was happy with the whole damn thing. We had waited for over four hours to send 90 seconds of Live Pleasantries with a Famous Person to the folks back home. Take that, Miami! And that, Chicago! The boys from Indy just did their thing with a winner - not a nominee, a winner! All of our jostling and pushiness, our willingness to represent ourselves LOUDLY - falsely, maybe, but LOUDLY - as CBS! had paid off. We had an hour of sound in the can for RadioNow 93.1 and WISH-TV 8 had a live shot with a multi-platinum Grammy winner. Just another yutz For about half an hour, I understood completely what "media frenzy" really meant. The event had ceased to be a showcase for musical talent or even just an ersatz fashion show. I don"t know if O"Brien shared this experience, but for a time, being on the red carpet meant that Ed Wank would now speak to a series of Famous People, and Ed Wank would look urbane, witty and downright special. Look at that, everybody. Those guys in the Foo Fighters think Ed Wank is cool. O"Brien snapped me out of it. He pointed to Paul Shaffer, Letterman"s bandleader, and yelled, "Hey Paul! How about a photo with your stunt double?" I stepped next to Paul and positioned my completely bald head next to his. He chuckled. O"Brien took the picture. I thanked Shaffer. "No problem, man," he replied, and disappeared. He didn"t look back, didn"t offer a single comment about me or my shaven dome. I was an utterly anonymous, unimportant guy who"d happened to cross paths with somebody famous. I was back to myself again - just another yutz in town to see the stars, and maybe one lucky enough to get a picture. It was time to clear the carpet. It was time to go inside and watch the Grammy Awards. It was time for me to watch Eminem and Springsteen and Coldplay and Nelly from my seat near the rafters of Madison Square Garden. I was back to myself: just another fan of the music.

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