Camera Obscura -- Cameron Crowe Tells The True Stories Of The Mtv Generation

CAMERON CROWE DREAMED THIS dream, this "Hawaii Five-0" dream.

In the dream, Tom Cruise played a youthful McGarrett, the hard-as-puka-shells TV cop with the squid-ink hair. It unspooled just like a movie, this dream. Three killer acts. Lots of action. A summer blockbuster, for sure.

It was a Siskel and Ebert two-thumbs-up kind of dream. Maybe it was Crowe's subconscious mind's way of saying: (BEGIN ITAL) You want to make a flick that'll gross $120 million? Check this out, and don't get up in the middle for a glass of water. (END)

Cameron Crowe, for once in his life, didn't take notes.

"I woke up realizing I had dreamed a big hit, but I couldn't remember what happened in it," Crowe says.

He's sitting at a metal table with one short leg outside a restaurant near the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the traffic laying down a rhythm track. He looks a little wobbly from the combination of caffeine and fatigue that's been pummeling him. He's spent the past few days editing a music video to drag the MTV generation into theaters to see his latest movie, "Singles," which is scheduled to open Friday.

He starts to laugh.

"I actually dreamed the whole `Hawaii Five-0.' It was really very exciting at the time."

At age 35, Crowe has logged his share of thrills while wide awake. Pounding out Rolling Stone magazine cover stories at 16; posing as a high-school student for two semesters at 22 to write his book, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," then adapting it for the screen; falling in love with musician Nancy Wilson of Heart and moving from L.A. to Seattle to make a home with her; directing his first movie, 1989's "Say Anything;" and now, after three years in the making, finally seeing the release of his sophomore directorial effort, "Singles."

For a guy who likes to slice off little pieces of life and put them under a magnifying glass, much about Crowe remains foggy, like the details in a dream the moment after you wake up from it. He has spent so much of his life jotting down the wisdom of rock stars and high-school kids and love's walking wounded, so much of his life telling other people's stories, that when it comes to telling his own he tenses up.

"I don't want to come across like some blowhard," he fretted before saying no ... maybe ... well, OK to a profile. In several hours of conversation Crowe reveals less about himself than most people spill during a handshake. He approaches an interview as something other than a performance of quotable quotes.

"I'm not David Bowie," says Crowe, recalling one of his more voluble Rolling Stone subjects, who at age 29 boasted that his autobiography might be "a series of books ... a bleedin' encyclopedia." Crowe continues, "I don't go and take an enormous amount of drugs and talk about Hitler. I don't do that normally or for an interview." As a rock journalist that was his pact with his subjects: "I was going to provide them with a stage and they were going to perform."

"Singles" may be his most drawn-out battle yet to create something of value. Set in Seattle, with a rock-and-roll soundtrack featuring several of the city's most buzzed-about alternative bands - including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains - it plays like the movie equivalent of a concept album. The concept: the ways unmarried people in their 20s meet, fall in love, drift apart and sometimes drift back together.

Crowe cast himself in a cameo role as a rock journalist, sticking a tape recorder in a musician's face and asking about "the Seattle Sound." The line is something of an inside joke, knowing that "Singles" materialized when Nirvana was nothing more than a Buddhist state of bliss; the rest of the country has caught up with Crowe's soundtrack, and now he takes pains to point out that, no, the movie is not a Roger Corman-like quickie attempt to capitalize on "the Seattle Sound." Crowe toyed with the idea of making a movie about the local music scene, or about playing in a struggling band, but decided to keep those elements in the background for "Singles."

In the foreground stands a slightly shabby Capitol Hill courtyard apartment building. It's home for four of the movie's main characters: Janet (Bridget Fonda), who wants to go to grad school to study architecture and worries about the size of her breasts; Janet's on-and-off boyfriend Cliff (Matt Dillon), who sings in a band named Citizen Dick that's laboring on the town limits of obscurity and in between gigs pulls espresso alongside Janet at the Java Stop (in reality, the O.K. Hotel); Debbie (Sheila Kelley), a TV advertising saleswoman so hungry for a boyfriend that she turns to a video dating service; and Steve (Campbell Scott), a transportation planner who falls in like with Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) across a crowded nightclub.

Eventually, Linda agrees to eat lunch with Steve. When he offers her a lift back to work and she reaches across the interior of his Saab to unlock his door, the gesture hits him like a kiss. The movie is filled with moments like those, little emotional tuning forks.

"That's like my favorite thing to write about, falling in love and stuff," Crowe says. "I love the melancholy that most people live with and how they crash out of that. It's just so great."

He launches into a story about one of his "Singles" crew who fell in love on location, then went back to New York for a weekend to break the news to the woman he lived with. "It was this incredible roller-coaster ride. They fought, they loved, they watched his brother's silly home movie. He's telling me all this stuff and I'm going, `Man, you gotta write this.' He looks at me like: `That's my life, man; back off.' "

"I kinda need the details from real life to write," Crowe says. "Things should have the ring of truth. I used to sit around and study the people who work behind counters for the details of their lives. All I ever do is transcribe little folded pieces of paper from my pocket into a notebook."

CROWE WAS BORN AND raised in the arid reaches of Southern California: Palm Springs and Indio and Riverside and San Diego. His father sold residential real estate; his mother taught sociology and English literature at the local college. They didn't allow rock-and-roll music in the house - Crowe had to win tickets for his first concert, Iron Butterfly, from a local radio station. His own musical aspirations started and ended in a band called The Masked Hamster. "It was really no good," he says. "We played `I Feel Free,' and that's probably about it."

His mother pushed him to finish school early. Eventually he would skip three grades and graduate at 15.

Shaving was out of the question. Nor could Crowe tan - a definite drawback in a beach-oriented culture. He could write, though, and the school newspaper gave him a place to excel. More pragmatic, it also helped him build his music collection - which had started with the Cream single "Sunshine of Your Love" - for free.

"I sent tearsheets to Capitol Records, everyone, asking for free copies. I remember getting Steve Miller's `Rock Love' in the mail. It was like, yeah, I want to do this forever."

Before long, he was writing for an underground paper in San Diego called The Door, where mad-dog music critic Lester Bangs had sharpened his canines. Crowe sent some clippings of concert reviews to Bangs, who was by then editing Creem magazine; Bangs assigned him to cover a Humble Pie show. Not long after, Crowe met Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres while hanging out at a public-relations firm in L.A. that represented several rock-and-roll bands.

"He shyly offered to let me see a couple of his reviews and a story or two," Fong-Torres remembers. "They were good enough that I felt like there was something here. He had the facts down, not too gushy and teen-magaziney. San Diego was an area where we didn't have too much coverage. He was obviously a quick learner, a fast thinker and a diplomat. Just a social animal."

Crowe's first article in Rolling Stone, about the mellow rockers Poco, was teased on the front cover of the magazine's April 26, 1973, issue.

At that time the magazine cost only 60 cents; John Lennon was alive and facing deportation; drummer Keith Moon was still kicking, too, and, it was reported in Random Notes, considering employing a new type of explosive "magic wand" in The Who's stage show.

His next story, about the English pomp-rock band Yes, filled a two-page spread. It included the contributor's note that the freelance journalist who wrote it "is going on 16."

"We began to be amazed that a kid was getting in there and grinding out stuff we could actually use," remembers Fong-Torres. "Considering how many bureau people and stringers worked a year or two before they broke in with a big story, that was amazing."

Meanwhile, Crowe, whom many of the Rolling Stone staffers called "The Kid," was trying to balance his blossoming career with classes at San Diego City College. He decided to drop out when his journalism teacher buddied up and asked if Crowe could help him land a freelance assignment with Rolling Stone.

With school no longer a distraction, Crowe began to rack up an impressive list of credits. He sold a piece about The Who's Quadrophenia tour to Playboy when he was still too young to walk into a 7-Eleven and legally buy a copy of the magazine. For Rolling Stone he interviewed Neil Young while tooling down Sunset Boulevard in a rented red Mercedes, watched Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple fling a steak across a restaurant, hung with the Eagles while they strummed chords from their album-in-progress, and flew to New York to interview the magazine's newest cover boy, Peter Frampton.

"That was perfect for Cameron," says Fong-Torres, noting that Crowe genuinely enjoyed the most popular rock music of the '70s that many of the older writers disdained. "There were always writers who had to take the trash out." Crowe enjoyed the chore.

A LINE FROM "Singles" speaks to Crowe's affection for the hits of that era: "Man, where are the anthems of our youth?" Cliff asks. "Where is the `Misty Mountain Hop,' the `Smoke on the Water,' the `Iron Man' of today?"

One of Crowe's greatest coups came in 1975. Led Zeppelin was about to embark on the biggest-grossing stadium tour of all time and invited two journalists along for the ride. The band had never granted an interview to Rolling Stone, as payback for the magazine's brutally negative reviews of each Zeppelin album.

Crowe, though, had interviewed Zeppelin before for a Los Angeles Times article that must have rubbed the band the right way. Crowe found himself on Led Zeppelin's private jet, winging from one arena to another, trying to talk Jimmy Page and Robert Plant into appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone.

"He does not give up," says publisher Jann Wenner, who made a point of Crowe's precocity by having him call him "Uncle Jann." "Can you imagine that smile and those twinkling eyes and that charm on a kid? How disarming that is? Underneath all that charm is a very, very persistent and aggressive guy."

Crowe's perseverance paid off. The Q and A cover story turned out to be one of the magazine's biggest sellers. Wenner invited Crowe up to San Francisco for their first face-to-face meeting.

Crowe expected a pat on the back. Instead, Wenner threw down a challenge.

"He says, `You were on the road with them for a while for this, right?' " Crowe recalls. " `What is your overview in this? Where is your perspective? You should know there's a difference between being a fan and being a writer. You should think about that.' "

Crowe's work for Rolling Stone never approached the heights of gonzo-ness of the magazine's leading practitioners of the highly personal, screw-the-notion-of-objectivity style that Tom Wolfe labeled "New Journalism." Wenner's advice, though, spurred Crowe to test his own limits. His voice as a writer grew stronger and more confident. Only a few months after his trip to San Francisco, Crowe bared more than he had ever exposed, for an article called "How I Learned About Sex."

"It wasn't about a rock band," Crowe says. "I got confused. I was stuck. I tried to write it and I couldn't write it, I couldn't structure it properly. In the end I just did it like a letter to a friend. They called me back and said, `This is writing.' "

Alongside the story ran an illustration of Crowe in the buff, with a strategically placed shadow and his arms in a Tarzan--takes-a-stroll-to-the-mango-tree pose. "Embarrassing. They made me like pudgy, nude babyman. My mom didn't know I had lost my virginity or any of that stuff. One of her students showed it to her."

For all its epistolary candor, though, the article never really answered the question of how Crowe was deflowered. The piece ended with Crowe learning from his buddy Neal Preston that "the attractive divorced mother of a girl we both knew" had passed along her phone number.

"Yes," Crowe confirms now, "I made that call."

Music, though, was still Crowe's most serious passion. He went back to it, writing about almost no other subject for Rolling Stone, which by now had added Crowe's name to the masthead and was paying him $400 a month for first dibs on anything he chose to submit. His subjects could fill the label of one of those Greatest Hits of the '70s album collections you see advertised on cable TV: Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, Little River Band, Boston, Stephen Bishop, Joni Mitchell.

Then, at 22, Crowe went back to high school.

A book editor approached Crowe with the idea that became "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." It came at a propitious time. Rolling Stone had moved its headquarters from San Francisco to New York, with an accompanying shift away from the type of stories Crowe did best. Crowe welcomed the chance to test whether he could break out of his superfan routine and really write, "something longer than 8,000 words."

He showed up with his backpack for the first day of classes at the public school in Redondo Beach as Dave Cameron, transfer student. It was Crowe's idea to go undercover, and only a few teachers and administrators knew about the ruse. He kept a hidden tape recorder whirring during countless classes and Friday night cruises in the back seat of a car. Or he'd hear something quotable over a burger and fries and excuse himself to use the bathroom, where he'd furtively scribble notes.

He was sure his classmates wondered if he had a bladder problem.

His cover remained intact, though, right through Senior Night at Disneyland. After graduation he went back to the teenagers who would become the models for the book's composite characters and revealed what he was working on. He interviewed them to learn even more about certain incidents and what went through their heads. He also visited other high schools for more material, even sleuthing through trash bins for discarded notebooks and diaries.

"Fast Times" cut such an accurate slice of life that some adults refused to believe it. The teenagers in it had sex, got pregnant, worried about advancing in their fast-food jobs, scalped concert tickets.

"It's kind of quaint if you look back on some of it. I left out a lot of really nasty stuff. In the end I wanted it to have an emotional reality, kind of like the Beach Boys' `Pet Sounds' or an album like that, where it all came from kind of an accepting place. I felt there should be a generosity towards these characters, because so often young characters were not treated that way. They were either party animals, like in `Animal House,' or they were disaffected youth stories - `Johnny Can't Read.' I wanted to do Johnny from Joe's point of view, with me being Joe."

THIS IS NO HIGH-SCHOOL dance. Fetish night at The Vogue, a downtown club, doesn't start for several hours. Already, though, the parking lot is clotted with hipsters wearing items that could stock a catalog of kink: wicked heels, leather pants, black latex, handcuffs, nipple rings. In the middle of this sideshow Crowe looks startlingly normal in his typically casual uniform of Levis, black Nikes, a faded blue chambray shirt, untucked, and a gimmee cap embroidered with "Cadillac Bar Memphis."

It's a sunny, 90-degree July day. Inside, Crowe is helping set up the next shot for the video he's co-directing. He's been at it all afternoon, and by now the extras in the parking lot could sing along with the song written and performed for "Singles" by Paul Westerberg, called "Dyslexic Heart." Crowe, with the help of the video's co-director, Josh Taft, is trying to set the words to pictures.

In the middle of a cloud of fake smoke, Crowe is coaching two actors whose dialogue-less scene will occupy all of a few seconds in the video. She has blond dreadlocks and knee boots; he has a black T-shirt with the slogan I AM A HARD VOLUME EXPERIENCE. The couple sits on the floor, wearing an expression of bored ecstasy.

"OK," Crowe continues. "Look at her, then look down at her knee for a second. Excellent. She loves the side of your head. He loves your knee." Westerberg's song thumps out of a boom box while the camera rolls, and the woman strums the guy's long hair like a stoned angel might play a harp. "So awesome," Crowe raves. "You guys are so into each other."

Off-camera, actor Jeremy Piven waits for the next shot, where he'll pound on the DJ booth to catch the attention of a guy in mirrored sunglasses and a Jeffrey Dahmer T-shirt.

Piven appeared in "Say Anything," playing one of John Cusack's buddies. In "Singles," he plays a drugstore cashier. His performance is so manic he shoplifts his one scene.

Crowe "writes about what he knows and what he loves," says Piven, who, at 27, has worked with such world-class directors as Robert Altman (in "The Player") and Stephen Frears ("The Grifters"). "Some people spend their whole lives trying to figure that out. You have to know your subject for it to have a point of view and be art."

A pendant made from a 1936 Indian-head nickel dangles from Piven's neck as he recalls what it's like to be directed by Crowe. "He wasn't studying to be a film director his whole life, so there's an openness. He's like a sponge. Seems like he learns more every scene."

Crowe's introduction to writing for the screen came when producer Art Linson suggested he concoct the script for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Crowe didn't know where to begin; Linson handed him two screenplays - "Chinatown" and "Raging Bull."

"It was a little intimidating," Crowe recalls. "I'm not a film-school guy. I loved movies, but I didn't know the language. I'd read these articles and the guys would be speaking Zulu. Art walked me through the first step."

During pre-production was also when Crowe met his wife-to-be. Neal Preston, who had shared a house with Crowe for six years and had worked with Heart as the band's tour photographer, arranged a group dinner in L.A. at Le Dome where his two friends would sit next to each other. "He completely wussed," Preston says, recalling the empty seat reserved for Crowe. Not too much later, though, Crowe met with the Wilson sisters to discuss music for "Fast Times," and Preston's prediction that his two friends would click came true.

Meanwhile, Crowe involved himself with "Fast Times" from start to finish, from finding a director (David Lynch passed) to calming the studio president who received an anonymous letter protesting the script's abortion scene, to casting a then little-known actor named Sean Penn as stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli. On the way to a casting call Penn almost drove his Firebird over Crowe in the parking lot, joking that he thought the babyfaced writer was an actor trying out for the same part. Then Penn talked his way into the role without reading a single line.

Penn, it turned out, was brilliant as the squinting, Val-speaking wasteoid. Director Amy Heckerling moved much of the story to a mall, but otherwise faithfully stuck to scenes and dialogue lifted by Crowe verbatim from his book. "Fast Times" captured something essential about the late '70s-early '80s high-school experience without turning it into a cheesy jiggle-fest. The film earned a box-office take, according to Variety magazine, of about $30 million.

Then the boy wonder fell to earth. Crowe's second screenplay, "The Wild Life," was first conceived as an exploration of a kid who glorified the '60s and befriended a wigged-out Vietnam vet. Somewhere along the way it became a mess. The low point may have been a strip-club scene that seemed to serve mostly as an excuse for naked breasts.

"A disaster," Crowe says. "Not that I started out to write a script about women who take their tops off, but it sure ended up that way. It wound up being what `Fast Times' was a reaction against - an exploitative view of youth. That effectively took me back further than I was when I started."

Luckily, producer James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News") believed in Crowe enough to let him write and direct his next movie, "Say Anything." It starred John Cusack as a charmingly vulnerable kick boxer who just graduated from high school and decides to devote his life to the smartest girl in his class (Ione Skye). The movie earned less than "Fast Times" but helped resuscitate Crowe's artistic reputation.

As with every Crowe movie, including "Singles," it drew heavily on his obsessive eavesdropping on real life. Also, it ended happily.

"It's probably because at the very base of it I think life can be very brutal and wonderful, and I like telling stories about how people get through the brutality," Crowe says of his romantic impulse. "Just because there's a happy ending doesn't mean it's a happy story. I've played around with endings that aren't always happy. It's probably coming up." Until then, though, "there's worse things to be accused of, I guess, than being an optimist."

"SINGLES" PRODUCER ART Linson: It depresses me to hear your voice. I know when I hear your voice that they're going to (screw) up your movie or maybe not release it, and it depresses me to hear you on the other end of the phone. Don't call me.

Crowe: What about if I have good news?

Linson: Fax me.

- Crowe's recollection of a phone conversation during the production of "Singles."

IT TAKES optimism to want to make another movie, ever.

"Directing," says Crowe's longtime pal and soundtrack producer Danny Bramson, "is like having a stopwatch ticking in one ear and a .38 stuck in the other, with a guy behind you shouting `Make me laugh!' "

Crowe kept a journal during the making of "Singles." Rolling Stone printed an edited version. It's a document of frustration, a long primal scream about trying to wrestle with the movie's odd, "album-like" structure; about test audiences and reshoots and new edits and more test audiences; about bumped release dates and suggestions from Warner Bros. for a new title. At one point Crowe grew so obsessed with lead actor Campbell Scott's too-short coif that he started muttering in his sleep: "sick hair, sick hair."

Crowe's thoroughness threatened to bog down the $18-million project. He filmed 300 scenes (the final movie consists of about 200), researched and wrote even more. His notes jam half a closet in his part-time Santa Monica house.

"I'll write dialogue forever," says Crowe, figuring it comes easy for him in part because of all those hours spent transcribing surreptitious "Fast Times" tape recordings. "It'll just spread out sideways forever."

A few of the lines and scenes borrowed from real life:

Steve, upon first glancing Linda, walks up to her in a nightclub and, shouting to be heard, pours out a heartfelt rap about the games strangers play when they're trying to connect, say, across a crowded nightclub.

Linda ices Steve with a shot of emotional carbon dioxide: "Not having an act is your act."

Peggy Platt, who produced "Say Anything," once said that about Crowe.

Crowe got the idea for the bogus Spaniard who burns Linda from his wife's hairdresser, who fell for a sweet-talking Italian schnook.

He also wrote a whole scene to be able to use something said by his mom, talking about loss: "I feel a new emotion every 5 seconds."

"The one thing I cared the most about" as a rock journalist, Crowe says, "I worked with the fact-checkers really carefully. Someone said you've got to make a moral judgment about the person you're writing about, but it has to be true. You gotta write about what you saw. I always tried to do that. And still do."

No matter how much money the movie makes, no matter how the critics receive it, this story, too, gets a Crowe-esque happy ending. "The movie is finished and I'm proud of it," he wrote in his diary. It stays true to his goal to make "a personal movie about relationships, a collage of lives and emotions."

With the time it takes Crowe to make a film, it's lucky he started young. "I'm 35 and figure I've got the movie about being in your 20s out of my way," Crowe says. "So now I'm going right to the 40s. If I start right now I might not be 50 by the time it comes out. It's like missile command, it really is. You have to shoot into nothingness and hope you connect with the right time frame."

In the near future, Crowe hopes to develop feature-length scripts from two Ethan Canin short stories he bought the rights to, including "Emperor of the Air." He also sounds enthusiastic about a possible project for HBO, something about a fictional "lost" Elvis Presley movie he wants to reconstruct called "Blue Seattle." He already has a soundtrack of Presley-like tunes written and recorded with Nancy and Ann Wilson during his 1986 honeymoon on the Oregon coast.

Bramson imagines his friend in 10 years still making movies, "always keeping an ear to the train tracks."

Someone else will have to revive "Hawaii Five-0;" Crowe will keep eavesdropping on real life, not fever dreams.

"The most important part," Crowe says of his work, "is ... do you feel you're in a world you can believe. I can't survive on gunplay. I don't have any of that. I survive on someone saying `That happened to me.' "

Kit Boss is a reporter for The Seattle Times Arts and Entertainment section. Lance Mercer is a freelance photographer. Harley Soltes is the Pacific photographer.