James Taylor Hits the Ballpark

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Aidin Vaziri | Nearly 50 years since breaking out with “Fire and Rain,” James Taylor remains as popular as ever. The five-time Grammy winner was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor last year; scored his first ever No. 1 album with his most recent release, 2015’s “Before This World”; and is spending the summer performing with Bonnie Raitt at baseball stadiums, including a date at AT&T Park in San Francisco on July 29. Taylor, 69, spoke to us from his family home in Massachusetts.

Q: Your music is so quiet and intimate. How does it work in a baseball stadium?

A: It’s surprising. You can do a concert in a ball field as long as you’re ready for it. It’s great to be able to take the big band out on the road and offer the range of musical experience that affords you. It’s a musical evening. We stage it and plan it very carefully. We work on it. We pay a lot of attention to the sound and how it’s lit and how it’s staged. It’s sort of a big deal to have that large a group of people to give you four hours of their time. It doesn’t happen without the audience.

Q: You stopped recording for 13 years before you released “Before This World.” Did it feel good to come back and score a No. 1 album?

A: I think that album coming out and No. 1 in its first week, that was the record company doing their job for once. There are enough of my audiences there that it could have happened with any of the prior releases had the record company been paying any attention at all. I also think the album is good work. I never trusted the explosive, hold-on-to-your-hat rush of success. I think I felt around 1975 or so that I reached a plateau where I felt as though I was comfortable working and I could finally let the dust settle and do my job. Part of it is just keeping at it and really knowing what’s what. I often write songs about the tug-of-war about home life and family and being on the road.

Q: It’s something you always struggled with. Did you feel like it was the right call to hit pause on your career and spend time with your family this time around?

A: Not to be divorced from my children’s mother is a new and wonderful experience. Divorce is so common that we lost sight of the fact that it really is a tragedy for kids. It’s commonplace and very frequent, but a really bad experience for kids to have to go through. I have my regrets like anyone. Essentially, we only go forward. The clock only moves in one direction. You just have to do your best at the current moment.

Q: You have teen twins living at home. What kind of music do you hear around the house?

A: It’s usually coming over the tiniest speaker, so it’s hard to say what they’re listening to. It’s all over the map. They’re listening to soundtracks, symphonic pieces, funk, rhythm and blues, the Beatles and Stan Getz. That’s the way it was with me.

Q: Has the current state of politics hit you on a spiritual level?

A: It really has. It’s hard for me. To see that good work that (President Barack) Obama had to struggle to get anything done with the unprecedented amount of opposition in a rude and combative climate — to see everybody there just working to dismantle it all, it feels like nothing is being planned for. It doesn’t have any consideration of the future. It’s an awful message to send.

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The Revolution Tours in Tribute to Prince

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Aidin Vaziri | Prince played with many backing bands during his lifetime, but were any as beloved as the Revolution? The five-piece group that accompanied the singer during his imperial phase, from the recording of 1984’s “Purple Rain” soundtrack through the 1986 tour in support of “Parade,” re-formed after Prince’s death in April 2016 for three sold-out shows at the famed Minneapolis venue, First Avenue. The band’s classic lineup — guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardist Lisa Coleman, bassist Brown Mark, drummer Bobby Z and keyboardist Matt Fink — is now touring in support of the Deluxe Edition reissues of “Purple Rain.” We spoke with Melvoin from her Los Angeles studio.

Q: You guys look like you’re having fun with these reunion shows. Was the original run as much fun, even though you had a very strict boss?

A: It’s no different between the band members. We were always very connected. We continually look at each other on stage going, “My God, did 30 years just go by? It doesn’t feel like it.” I think that’s one of the gifts from all this awful time that has slammed everybody over the head. The band is more connected to each other than ever. Yeah, he was a… We were… I liken Prince and the way our band worked in that situation sort of like working for the greatest black hat chef in the world. You know, like a Michelen Star 1000. That guy has to put together the best team. He has to get the best pastry chef. He has to get the best sous chef. He’s got to get the best line cook. You know, there’s a lot of people that go into that kind of system. The Revolution just happened to be, in my humble opinion, a perfectly oiled machine and we were picked. The combination was a perfect combination. It gave Prince the freedom to really… In a lot of ways, I say his career was really gentrified at that point. Gentrification was in full swing when that band was playing live. He got to keep his soul and R&B audience and he got to turn white, middle America on to what he did. It didn’t hurt that the band was as varied and singular as it was.

Q: For a lot of fans like myself, those were the glory years that we kept hoping Prince would go back to, and there was a lot of frustration as it got further away from that. Did you feel that?

A: We tried to get this going a few different times. The bittersweet part of this is when he went to compiling this whole release record, there was talk of us going out. So this was planned sort of loosely. We were finally open to the idea of really revamping and going out as a band again. Unfortunately, cut to… Anyway, is there a frustration? There’s a frustration that it didn’t happen. I let go a very long time ago of my frustrations about some of the choices he was making. Because I couldn’t begrudge. I couldn’t even presume to say, “You were your best then.” That’s just not fair. He never felt that way. He never felt that way. Every move he made was just his own exploration into what else he could be, or what else he could do. So he never thought in terms of, “Oh, I’m going to back and do a Purple Rain tour.” I don’t think it was in him to open himself to any kind of vulnerability or critique that maybe what his output may have been since then, not as good. I think distancing himself from it as well quieted it down and he was allowed to just explore what he wanted to explored. And you know what? I’m not frustrated with that. That’s just true expression. That’s what he wanted. He’s a comet. Prince is a f—ing comet. Everyone of us – his fans, everyone who worked with him — were just hanging onto the tail of it. Right? There’s no way that guy was going to land. There’s no way. But, if there’s anything to sort of reconcile about his death is that his fans are now forced to land. That’s what happens with death. We’re the survivors and death is about the survivors, not the dead. Now we’re doing this crazy exploration into sort of trying to gently label a spirit we all had during that time and seeing if we could offer that to the audience and in so, ask them to take the songs back. Because if we don’t — the five members of that particular period of time, don’t — I don’t know how reconciled the true, deep Prince fans will… I mean, everybody is going to find their way to deal with grief and eventually everyone will reconcile this at some point in time of their lives. Sooner or later, it doesn’t matter. It’s everybody’s process. But I think because the five of us are still alive and we gravitated to each other to do this. We were the first person we called when he died. We were quiet this entire year and didn’t want to get ourselves involved in anything until finally we went, “Why don’t we just slowly put our feet in the water and see if we can do a handful of clubs and see what happens?” It’s pretty inspiring to be at these shows where people are weeping but at the same time there’s this weird sense of relief. It’s not like a roomful of people who are cutters. You’re not cutting yourself to feel because everything is so awful the only way I’m going to feel something is… That’s what they say cutting is like. It’s not that. It’s not that experience at all. It’s like – and I don’t like to use the word “church,” I don’t like that label – it’s just a community of like-minded people that are trying to measure their own potential and greatness by their love of his music and that time. And trying to own it and take it back so they can, I don’t know, find reason. More will be revealed. This ends in July and we really can’t afford to do this tour. It’s not cost effective for any of us. But this is more just a gift for everybody. We’ll see. We’ll see. We’re certainly not making any money. That’s for sure. It’s just about going out there and playing.

Q: The first set of dates you played in Minneapolis when this was all fresh, you didn’t enjoy it. What made you decide to carry on?

A: Well, by day three, at First Avenue when we did those shows last September a year ago you could feel a sense of relief. On that last show. There was a different feeling about that one, compared to day one and day two. Those were almost impossible to do. Truly. I mean, they were an out of body experience. It was absolutely cognitive dissonance, really. But day three had some really nice borders. We all walked offstage and looked at each other and said, “Well, that’s something that can happen again. If we can get that feeling that we just got here on this last day, then maybe we can take that to places where people didn’t come.” We took it to ground zero. We took it to First Avenue. So the people who were there day one through three were truly the deepest of the hardcore fans. That was sort of temple in itself. We wanted to see if there were people out there that wanted a taste of that so that they could have a little bit. So we did 20 cities in the states. Tiny little clubs. I mean, bizarrely promoted. Like, some of these places we played we would pull up and we’re like, “Is our name even on a marquee?” It’s that low rent. But they end up being – because of the beauty of social media, there’s a zillion walk-ups. People end up piling into these places. And there’s deep Prince fans there. But there’s people who just loved that era of music and knew about Prince. And then there’s the older people who are bringing their kids. I mean, it’s a fucking incredible range of people in these rooms. For me, it was a testament to the type of music we were making together that reached that kind. It wasn’t rarefied. I mean, in the later years Prince was very rarefied. His stuff was very jazz. It was very smooth. It was really like super crafted and clean sounding. I mean, he had some good pop songs. But for the most part watching him play was like Cirque du Soleil, for Christ’s sake. It was impeccably performed. It was impeccably impeccable, right? But that period we were in was scrappy. That appealed more to a general audience I think, who just are now coming to the show and going, “Oh my God, that’s the greatest show I’ve seen in years!” We’re not doing much. It’s the energy. If you come in San Francisco it’s the energy of the band. It’s not really what we’re doing at all. We’re certainly not wearing old “Purple Rain” outfits, you know what I mean? We’re 30 years older. But the energy is there. I’ll tell you what. If that energy wasn’t there, we would not be out. If one of us was dead, we would not be out. It’s just right now. It’s what we got right now. We’re just going to see if people want to come and feel that moment and leave a little imprint and be on our way, like a little quiet storm.

Q: How does it work without the guy at the center of it all?

A: It doesn’t work without the guy at the center. That’s the whole point. It doesn’t. He’s not there. He’ll never be there. No one will ever replace him. And we’re not going to try. So it doesn’t work, right? The only thing we can offer them is the authenticity we bring there. We make them sing: “You sing! It’s your songs!”

Q: How many albums did you make with Prince that are still in the vaults?

A: Well, we did other… As Prince and the Revolution, there’s probably four albums in the vault from that era. But we worked on other peoples’ stuff, especially Lisa and I worked on a lot of the other offshoots of the band and other people he was working with. I think there’s probably four in there. I hope that it’s done well and they get to be heard.

Q: Have you and Lisa managed to work together so well after all this time? Having that creative and personal relationship almost never works. What’s the secret?

A: You know, Lisa and I and our families have known each other since I was an infant. We grew up and went to the same schools. Our siblings were close. As it was the scandal, when I was a teenager, Lisa and I fell in love with each other. When I was 16. We got together when I was 17. And I joined the band at18. We were living the life as a couple and doing this amazing thing together with this amazing band, with this amazing artist. We knew each other before and we knew after the band was disbanded we were going to continue what we were going to do. We always wanted to be composers. We knew that we weren’t going to try and compete in the pop world. It’s just, whatever. We’re musicians. We wanted to be composers. We were lucky enough that literally we’ve been doing it now for 26 years now. The amount of work we’ve done just by composing alone is shattering the amount of actual musical material that we’ve composed together. And then we’ve done our own albums and we’ve worked with a bazillion other people. And we’re not lovers any more. We stopped being a couple 16 years ago. And literally we knew we wanted to hang onto the best parts of what we were to each other and get rid of the part that didn’t work — and that was being a couple. It was super high minded. Super fucking high minded. We had moments where we thought, “Oh my God, how are we doing this?” And we did it! And cut to… she’s married, she has a kid. I have a kid. We just do it. It just works. Ultimately what it is, I still like what she does. I still like the music she does. And I think she says the same about me. And that’s why it’s lasted so long.

Burger Boogaloo Serves Up Iggy Pop

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Aidin Vaziri | “We’re not ugly,” John Waters, the cult film director and author, told a crowd of 7,500 or so people from a small stage in the middle of Oakland’s Mosswood Park on Saturday afternoon. “We got character — bad character!”

That was one way to sum up the audience at Burger Boogaloo, the annual Fourth of July weekend music festival that vigorously celebrates do-it-yourself music and values. Now on its eighth edition — and third with Waters serving as the oh-so-quotable master of ceremonies — the two-day event has quickly carved out its own quirky place on the congested Bay Area concert calendar.

The faithful came wearing Bettie Page bangs and beehive hairdos, retro sleeve tattoos, Doc Martin boots, and plenty of leather despite the intense midday heat.

This year saw Burger Boogaloo boasting its most popular headliners to date. The writhing, shirtless punk hero Iggy Pop topped the bill on Saturday, capping off a day that featured 10 other impressively high-volume sets: from the brutal noise of Japanese garage-rock power trio Guitar Wolf down to the surreal rockabilly of Canada’s Bloodshot Bill. (Indie icons the Buzzcocks and X were scheduled to close out the festival on Sunday.)

Introducing Pop, Waters urged the audience, “Get on your knees to worship our leader!”

The Godfather of Punk did not disappoint. Taking the stage at sunset, the 70-year-old singer threw himself wholeheartedly into the classics, thumping on his bare chest for the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and running his fingers through his blond locks during an unexpectedly sensual reading of “The Passenger.”

There was an endearing, loosely organized spirit to the whole thing that made Burger Boogaloo — the showcase event for Burger Records, a record store and indie rock label in Orange County that stubbornly specializes in cassette releases — feel like a throwback to the days before corporate sponsors and smartphones infiltrated sacred spaces.

The concert’s two stages, dubbed Butt City and Gone Shrimpn (their misspelling, not ours), were decorated with gold balloons and an assortment of inflatable space aliens and high-heeled limbs poking out into the sky. Every available surface of the park was covered with empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans. The merchant booths, meanwhile, sold vintage clothes and vinyl records.

For most of the day, as people lounged around the vast lawn on blankets, munching on burgers and sipping on beer, it felt like a picnic that happened to be populated by some very well-dressed people. The audience spanned generations, from toddlers wearing earmuffs to dudes with gray ponytails. At one point, everyone started throwing slices of pizza at each other.

It was truly a unique scene.

Where else could you catch a second stage headlining set by Nobunny, a man who performed something resembling rock ’n’ roll while wearing tight black briefs, a tattered bunny mask and, at least briefly, a biker jacket — backed by three other goons with furry faces?

Anyone peering down at the proceedings from the hospital across the street — those poor patients! — surely must have thought the drugs were having unintended side effects.

As night fell and the area around the stage surged with bodies, Pop delivered an anthem for the insurrectionists, “No Fun.”

With its rumbling drums and primitive guitar riffs, the mosh pit jostled harder as people started toppling over the barricades, to the sounds of Iggy thrusting his hips and singing, “Feelin’ that same old way/ No fun to hang around/ Freaked out/ For another day.”

 

Aldous Harding Sings Dark Songs of Sweetness and Light

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Aidin Vaziri | A lot of people are starting to talk about Aldous Harding. This makes the shy 26-year-old New Zealand singer-songwriter terribly uncomfortable. But with a ringing endorsement from Lorde (the fellow Kiwi called her “the most interesting musician around”) and critical praise pouring in for her second album and 4AD record label debut, “Party” (produced by frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish), Harding might need to get used to the attention. She talked to us from a stop in Brooklyn, N.Y., on her current tour.

Q: You’re coming up on 27 — do you expect a major life change ahead with the whole Saturn return thing?

A: I hadn’t even considered the whole thing. I have moments where I’m like, 27 is the time! Now that you mention it, it is happening that way. Sometimes I feel like I’m dying. I don’t know. We’ll see. It’s not until September.

Q: You might come out the other side sounding like Gwen Stefani.

A: I’ve already gone through my Gwen Stefani moment.

Q: Now you get to relive the most difficult moments of your life every night by performing “Party” on tour.

A: That’s not what it is about. With the first album, I didn’t have anything positive to say. With this one, I wanted to share the nice feelings I was having. Even the horrible songs, like “I’m So Sorry,” I wanted to remind myself that I had that conversation with myself about my buddy, the booze. I thought it was a nice way to admit that it’s something that will always be around. It comes from a much calmer place, even though I don’t know if people feel that. The content is quite sweet if you listen closely.

Q: You started playing a lot of these songs before “Party” was ever made. Do you still feel connected to them?

A: It’s not me being bored that I’m worried about. I want to make sure that I play good shows, and I give a song what it deserves. I want to play it like the first time even though it’s the 70th time. Knowing I can’t upsets me, and you have to accept that you have been playing them a long time, but I have to remember not everybody has heard them as much as I have.

Q: You have such a distinctive sound. Is it a case of trying to sound like Rihanna and failing in the most epic way possible?

A: I don’t know that I’m trying to sound like anything in particular. Whether it’s done on purpose or when you’re trying for something or you’re not a particularly good guitar player there’s a nice balance there. Not knowing what you are doing can look quite powerful from the outside. You probably think you’re doing something completely different to how people feel.

Q: You’re doing some interesting things with your voice on the record. Is it challenging to re-create it live?

A: It’s not a challenge. I can go, “I need to make my voice sound like this!” And it will do it. I don’t have to practice them in front of the mirror or anything. The challenge is finding out how I want to perform these songs at a later time. I know I’ll always use my voice as an instrument when I feel it’s needed. I think it’s interesting. It could completely change. I’m drip-feeding the new sound and seeing if people are receptive to that. If they’re not, I’ll do it any way.

French Duo Air Surfaces on Tour

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Aidin Vaziri | The French duo Air is celebrating 20 years of turning out exquisite, sensual electronic music. Following appearances last year at major festivals such as Outside Lands, FYF in Los Angeles and Primavera in Barcelona, the group returns to America on its first headlining tour since 2010. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, who have been making music together since 1985, are performing cult hits such as “Sexy Boy,” “Playground Love” and “Kelly Watch the Stars,” all of which are featured on the tour’s companion album, “Twentyears.” We spoke to Godin during sound check in Boston.

Q: Did you mean to take a seven-year break from touring?

A: We needed to make a break because we did tour a lot on the last album (2009’s “Love 2”). At some point, it becomes a habit. After a while we missed the stage and wanted to go back out.

Q: Were you worried that your fans had moved on?

A: I was kind of scared and thought people would forget. But when we came back, I noticed there were more people at the shows. It was very rewarding for us. When we started doing this, we wanted to play timeless music. After 20 years, many of the songs we recorded when we started still feel fresh.

Q: You said some of the most popular songs you recorded only took five minutes, while the ones you worked on for weeks were ignored.

A: It’s true. We say in France, “The best is the enemy of the better.” You shouldn’t think too hard.

Q: Your music offers a sense of escapism. I imagine that’s especially important now.

A: When we first did music, it was to escape from reality. Like when you go in a house and it’s beautiful, but when you open the drawer there are real things in it like an ironing machine and things like that. We did this music to create a perfect world. It’s a selfish process. When you’re touring, you realize how much you make people happy. For an hour or so they forgot their problems and they forget where they are.

Q: When you first came back, you played a lot of big outdoor festivals. Were you concerned about how your intimate music would feel in those spaces?

A: I grew up in Versailles. I used to hang out in the gardens of the palace, in this dreamlike world. It’s an amazing landscape with lots of trees and horizontal lines. The music I imagine in my head fits well in open spaces. If you walk into Versailles with headphones on and play an Air record, it will be like a soundtrack to that walk. There’s a logic there.

Q: You still travel with 14 keyboards. Why haven’t you switched over to laptops?

A: Because that’s depressing for us. We want to change the songs if we want. We want to slow the songs down, we want to make songs longer if we want. If everything is on a computer, then you can’t make anything different. We are old people. It’s too late for us.

Q: Is this an exclamation point on Air’s career or merely the start of a new chapter?

A: I think it’s a new chapter. I think the world now is changing, and I think we may think of exploring the live performance world, and all the possibilities of doing all the songs we have. If we found a good reason to do a record, we’ll do it. Right now, making a record is not that exciting because records don’t exist anymore. Being on stage is real.

Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard on Solo Tour

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Aidin Vaziri | Death Cab for Cutie is on a break, which means Ben Gibbard should be on a beach somewhere sipping on cocktails that taste like suntan lotion. Instead, the group’s frontman is back on the road, playing a handful of benefit concerts and career-spanning solo shows that cover everything from his band’s most popular tunes (“Soul Meets Body,” “Line of Best Fit”) to his own recordings and songs by his side project the Postal Service. Gibbard, who performs at Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, June 8, spoke to us from his home in Seattle.

Q: What made you want to do these solo shows when you should rightfully be taking some time off?

A: It’s really a small footprint to do these solo shows. I just need a guitar and piano. I really enjoy them, as well. I just pepper them in throughout the year in places I like and that I’m either going to be traveling through or just want an excuse to go.

Q: Do you use them as a way to workshop new songs or reconnect with old ones — or are you totally working without a plan?

A: Because I can pull from everything I’ve ever done, I certainly have to go in with a plan so I can make sure I remember the songs. Every one of these shows I try to create a corner in the set list that’s unique for that show. I might slip in a new song here or there, if I’m feeling it and the night is asking for it. But for the most part I like to avoid songs we’re currently working on because in today’s age, I would prefer the first version they hear of a new song to be the album version. Otherwise when it comes out, people will be like, “I liked the version he played acoustic in June 2017.” It’s fun to go through and play songs I haven’t played in a super long time, or surely the audience hasn’t heard me play. It’s kind of a fun exercise.

Q: You’re politically minded. How are you dealing with the current state of the world?

A: I found after November that I ended up writing a number of songs that will probably not see the light of day because I don’t think they are particularly good, or that they are in a voice that isn’t particularly appropriate for me. I’ve always come back around to this notion of authority when it comes to being a songwriter or an artist. One has to ask the question as they branch into a new voice, “Do I have the authority to use this voice?” I can write songs about what’s going on in the world, but I don’t have a lot of practice doing so. While somebody like Springsteen definitely has that authority and that voice to carry a song like that, I don’t have confidence writing in that voice. … The first thing I do in the morning when I’m having my breakfast and coffee is to read a piece of fiction or something that feeds my brain intellectually, that is not some crazy s— that Donald Trump said the night before. You are going to find that out eventually — might as well put it off for an hour or so.

New York Doll David Johansen Revives His Lounge Act

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Aidin Vaziri | David Johansen is a proper rock ’n’ roll hero. Rising out of the East Village in the early 1970s, he ignited the punk scene as the growling, cross-dressing frontman for the New York Dolls. Going solo, he transformed into the tuxedo-clad lounge singer Buster Poindexter, scoring a fluke hit with his cover of “Hot Hot Hot,” earning a role as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Bill Murray’s “Scrooged” and hosting a weekly radio show on SiriusXM. Now a regular at New York’s Café Carlyle, the 67-year-old is bringing his revived Poindexter alter ego out for a few select shows, performing a freewheeling cabaret show guided entirely by his whimsy.

Q: How did Buster Poindexter become your main gig again?

A: Well, you know, I was on the road with the reconstituted Dolls for I don’t know how long. We went out to do one show and came home eight years later. I wanted a break from that so I decided to do some Buster shows and it became really popular around New York. But mainly I’m interested in doing Buster because it gives me the opportunity to sing what I want to sing. If I go out as David, there’s certain songs I have to perform all the time.

Q: Buster Poindexter started out as a character, but at this point does it feel like a better reflection of who you are than the guy everyone remembers in lipstick and heels from the New York Dolls?

A: That’s true. I have a friend who says Buster is more like David Johansen than David Johansen. With this, I can do whatever I want.

Q: Despite all the books written about you, you have taken a very casual approach with your career. Are you happy with where you’ve arrived?

A: Well, a lot of times I’ll see contemporaries of mine that are probably doing the same show they were doing 20 years ago, and I always think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Financially, it’s probably rewarding for them. For me, doing a show and putting shows together and being with people that you want to be with is such a big time slot in your life that you might as well make it as enjoyable as possible. There’s so many bands that have been together for eons and they rarely speak. It’s just too tedious. I just do stuff and it’s fun — and if it becomes not fun, it’s time to think about retooling.

Q: Do you ever think about your legacy?

A: It’s really kind of a waste of time to think about that. I go into bookstores and see an “Encyclopedia of Rock” or something and pick it up to see what they say. I always think, “Oh my God, is that who I am?” But, you know, that’s your legacy. I’m not a rock ’n’ roll superhero, but I play one on TV.