Scenes from a Backstage Run-In with Radiohead
Radiohead’s 1995 sophomore opus, The Bends, is one of my favorite ’90s albums, and like so many of my favorite things, it was a distinct and acquired taste.
The British band’s US label, Capitol Records, sent me an advance cassette (remember those?) a few weeks before its March release, and I received it on the day I was leaving for a week-long vacation in Paris with my boyfriend, who had studied there for a year during college. At the time, I knew Radiohead only through their first (and to date, lone) US hit single, “Creep,” a song I never particularly liked.
The advance arrived at my People magazine office in New York City hours before I was set to take off for my first-ever trip to the French capital. I’m not sure why I chucked it into my carry-on instead of leaving it behind. I had no idea it would end up being the soundtrack to my favorite and most frustrating morning over the next week.
That morning arrived about halfway through the holiday. After getting dressed for an early run, I popped the cassette into my Walkman (remember those?), left my map behind, and set off. Everyone I knew had already fallen for Radiohead via “Creep,” and I figured bringing it along on a long run would force me to give the band a fair second shot. I have a hard time running to silence, and it was the only music I’d brought with me.
Predictably, The Bends and I got off to a rocky start. As I dashed past the Louvre for the first time, I decided I sort of hated it. But I kept going, past the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, along the Seine, and through several arrondissements and numerous quartiers. When side two was finished, I flipped it and started over.
I ran past the Louvre and the Notre-Dame several times during that morning run. By the time I got back on a familiar track after spending what seemed like hours lost in Paris, I was nearing the end of The Bends for the third time and finally starting to get it. I wasn’t yet on a first-name basis with the songs, but music and lyrics were beginning to make sense: “Blame it on the black star/Blame it on the fallen sky/Blame it on the satellite that beams me home …”
I wrote a glowing review of The Bends for People after I returned to New York City and anointed it an early surefire contender for my favorite album of 1995. I must have listened to it hundreds of times in the months that followed.
That spring and summer, whenever I met someone new, the album was bound to come up. Sometimes when I was out with friends, for no reason at all, I’d start singing “Black Star” at the top of my lungs while showing off my moves like Jagger.
For once, other critics and I agreed: The Bends was a game-changer. Over the next year or so, I’d see Radiohead perform songs from the album several times live, including the night they opened for Alanis Morrissette at New York’s Jones Beach Amphitheater.
The most memorable show, though, was the one on June 1, 1995, in Manhattan at a place called Tramps in the early 20s. The opening act that night was David Gray, the British singer-songwriter who was still a few years away from making his own US breakthrough with White Ladder and the hit single “Babylon.” I loved Gray’s pre-“Babylon” stuff and went on the invitation of his EMI Records publicist Maureen, who was also a good friend, but I was really going to see Radiohead.
Twenty-five years later, I don’t remember many of the particulars of the concert, the audio of which, thankfully, has been captured for posterity on YouTube. I can perfectly recall, however, what I was wearing — a pair of stretchy-cords I’d bought during a shopping spree at Jigsaw in London, a tight white V-neck t-shirt, and black motorcycle boots — and what happened after the show when Maureen took me backstage to meet David Gray.
He was charming and lovely, but I kept looking over his head to catch a glimpse of Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead. I’d once sat several tables away from the band while having drinks with friends at the Royalton, a posh, trendy midtown hotel. I was too nervous to approach them then, but this time, as soon as I spotted Yorke, I beelined straight over to him.
“Hi, Thom. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your show. The Bends is an amazing album, one of the best I’ve ever heard.”
I resisted the urge to launch into “Black Star” while moving like Jagger and looked at him, waiting for something, anything, even the stock “Thank you very much,” followed by a smile, a lukewarm handshake, and a quick exit. Being a music reporter for People, he wasn’t my first rock star. I knew very well how this story usually went.
Mr. Yorke, however, offered no smile, no lukewarm handshake, not a single word. He barely even looked at me or acknowledged I’d said anything. He seemed like he was in a trance and possibly on the verge of passing out. Maybe he hadn’t heard what I’d said.
“You guys are so talented. Thanks for giving us such great music.”
I spoke a little louder, thinking that maybe the backstage din had been too loud for him to hear me the first time. I was pouring it on thick, but I meant every word.
Still, nothing. But this time, he was looking right at me. Well, it was more like he was looking right through me because he didn’t acknowledge there was even a person in front of him.
That’s when several of his bandmates, who were standing nearby, all rushed over to rescue me. They gently nudged me away, as my heart continued to sink into its final resting place in the pit of my stomach. I was so crushed at first that I didn’t even recognize them, but once I did, they lifted my heart and my spirits. I couldn’t believe how cool and attentive they were being, almost as if they were trying to make up for how rude Yorke had been.
“He always gets like this after a show,” the guitarist Ed O’Brien explained. “Don’t take it personally.”
The band’s other guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, agreed, and they spent the next few minutes humoring me, offering me a beer, asking me questions about myself, and graciously accepting all the compliments Yorke had ignored moments earlier. I was hoping they’d bring me back over to him for a do-over. Maybe with a little encouragement from his friends, he’d give me at least a smile and a lukewarm handshake. But he was still standing off to the side, looking even deeper in his trance, like a boxer after a knockout match that had left him victorious but dazed.
I don’t think I ever listened to The Bends the same way after that night or sang “Black Star” again in front of strangers. It’s remained one of my favorite albums, though I rarely listen to it now, as it’s inextricably linked to how dismissive Yorke was of me that night. I can’t hear “Planet Telex” or “Bones” or “Black Star” without seeing his dead eyes looking right through me.
I never again loved a Radiohead album like I loved The Bends. When OK Computer was released in 1997, two years after The Bends, and received even more glowing reviews than its predecessor had, I was as lukewarm as the handshake I’d been expecting from Yorke that night. The first two tracks (“Airbag” and “Paranoid Android”), I admitted, were amazing, but I never really gave the rest of the album as much of a chance to grow on me as I had given The Bends that morning in Paris.
Last summer, I appeared on a Sirius XM radio show in which a group of journalists were discussing the best albums of the ’90s. It came down to The Bends and another album from the same year, Post by Björk. The latter won, 3 to 1.
I was Radiohead’s lone vote, but I loved Post in 1995 almost as much as I had loved The Bends (it was the soundtrack to getting over my breakup with the boyfriend I’d gone with to Paris), despite having had a similar encounter with Björk after paying her a similar compliment in 1992 at a record release party in downtown Manhattan for The Sugarcubes’s third and final album, Stick Around for Joy.
I think Björk was carrying around a teddy bear and wearing a Princess Leia hairdo that night. Her reaction to me wasn’t unlike Yorke’s a few years later, except instead of looking through me, she looked me right in the eye and didn’t say a word.
For some reason, though, her snubbing didn’t affect me in the same way Yorke’s would. Maybe it was the teddy bear and her pixie-like appearance. I convinced myself she was just shy, and didn’t know how to respond to the tall, Black stranger towering over her.
In the following years, during separate hotel-suite interviews I did with k.d. lang and Joan Armatrading, they’d each talk about how much they loved Björk, both using the word “adorable” to describe her. I agreed with them and didn’t even think about our frosty encounter years earlier. But I never forgot it: When Björk and Yorke, the rock geniuses with rhyming names, released their Oscar-nominated duet “I’ve Seen It All,” from Björk’s film Dancer in the Dark in 2000, I wasn’t surprised it was such a perfect collaboration that sounded like a meeting of kindred spirits. Although they both were likely influenced by him, David Bowie (the nicest rock idol I ever met), they were not.
The Day After I Stood Up David Bowie
I had to almost lose the interview of a lifetime to get it.
Although a residue of resentment remains over the way Yorke treated me that night in the mid-’90s, I can laugh about it now, mostly due to a cover story in the October 1995 issue of the now-defunct rock & roll bible Alternative Press that I stumbled upon online years later. In the piece, I made an unexpected appearance in the section about the New York City show at Tramps.
Thom is hiding. The best evidence of his still cranky mood comes when a writer for People magazine sashays out of the dressing room, peeved. “All I said was what a great concert it was,” he sniffs. “Some people can’t take a compliment.”
I remembered making the comment as the boys in the band were maneuvering me away from cranky Thom. But did I sniff? Did I really sashay? Maybe he was in a bad mood because his dressing room wasn’t a room at all, just a tiny space off to the side.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall that night with a video recorder. I don’t really have any interest in watching that tense encounter unfold, but I have to admit, I’d give anything to see me sashaying away from it.