A giant box at his feet is piled with the mix tapes Crowe has made every month since 1978 – an effective snapshot of his day-to-day life. “It’s fun to see what you were listening to in August ’95,” he says. “There were songs that kept coming up that reminded me to do this movie.”
Crowe darts about the house pulling pictures from the wall (one of his wife as a stewardess from a cut version of the final scene of Say Anything…) and memorabilia from drawers (a framed John Lennon letter to Francis Ford Coppola, rare Heart artwork), all the while answering – and often redirecting, as only one used to the other side of the microphone could – questions about himself. At one point, he admits his discomfort at “proclaiming the glory of me,” and proceeds to interview his interviewer for half an hour. Despite his credentials as an A-list Hollywood filmmaker, Crowe still exudes the enthusiasm of a teen. He is also dressed like one: baggy green cargo shorts, a long, black T-shirt and some brand of extreme jogging shoe. His brown eyes twinkle with a sensitivity that has undoubtedly earned him the elusive trust of the suspicious. He speaks thoughtfully, taking pains to be clear and clearly relishing the interplay of conversation.
Crowe heads down a hall to the record room. In it is a round, red table. Bob Dylan once sat here with him to discuss the songs collected on the 1985 compilation Biograph, for which Crowe was tapped to write the liner notes – a rare second chance with the poet of a generation. “I had tried to interview him in ’78,” Crowe recalls, “and tanked. He was sitting on a bed in a rehearsal studio when he was doing Street Legal, and he had records spread out in front of him. He had just bought the Sex Pistols album – and I fucking didn’t ask him about it! Anyway, in ’85, the record company tells me he’ll do an interview for the liner notes, and that he’s coming into town and will come to my house.” After a whirlwind cleanup, Crowe and Wilson were ready – sort of. “So the buzzer rings, and he says, ‘It’s Bob.’ I go out to the gate, and he’s iconic, sitting-standing on his motorcycle, with his hair looking like early Bob. And one of the yuppie women who lived here at the time is standing at her mailbox, frozen, just staring at him. He’s completely Highway 61 Revisited – right there!” Wilson was too freaked to come downstairs to meet Dylan, but the interview was stellar. “The whole thing was me pitching him song titles, and it went well because I didn’t get personal,” Crowe says with another of his endearing, frequent grins. “Except for this: I say, ‘What were the Sixties like to you?’ He just says, ‘The Sixties were like a flying saucer. You know, everybody talks about it, but nobody saw it.’ “
Not so for the Seventies; Crowe absorbed the sights and sounds of that decade with the fervor of a documentarian. Right now, the Dylan table is covered with the photos, notes and discarded script pages that, over time – over a long time – became the film that is Almost Famous. “Everything was hard on this movie,” Crowe says, bent over collected print ads from the Seventies. “It was by far the hardest thing I’ve done. I tortured all of my friends, just calling all the time and moaning about it. They all said, in gentle and not-so-gentle ways, that this one was hard because it is about me.” Crowe is a fan of the personal album: the early, often awkward effort in which an artist is unintentionally revealed, the album without pretext. “Almost Famous is my most personal album,” he says. “I did want it to come off like a piece of music.”
His wife agrees. “There was a lot of procrastination on Cameron’s part because of the personal nature of Almost Famous,” Wilson says with a chuckle. “There was a lot of deep, dark doubt about even doing it. I don’t mind being a cheerleader, but I did reach my limit quite a few times. I do my own writing, so I understand, but I was pushed to the point of anger with the insecurity of it. Just when I’d have him all pumped up, the next morning it would start over again. His mother and I were a support group – with no paycheck. But I knew all along it was worth it.” As in the film, Crowe’s mother, Alice – a college teacher, now retired – did not allow rock & roll to be played in their home. “The thing about my mom is that she thought she was cool,” Crowe says affectionately, taking a seat on his living-room couch. “She wasn’t going to buy this tripe from rock bands trying to pull a fast one on her. She got so pissed off when Simon and Gar-funkel sang ‘Mrs. Robinson’ on The Smothers Brothers Show that she wrote a letter to the head of NBC calling it a glib, exploitative disgrace. Rock was smuggling in shit disguised as candy.”
Crowe’s older sister, Cindy, smuggled in records, hiding them under her bed; she passed them on to Cameron when she left home for college. “Those are all my albums in that scene where the kid is looking through them in his room,” Crowe says proudly. “I shot that scene so many times with the albums in different orders, but Pet Sounds was always first. That album is the sweetest sad thing I’ve ever heard. This movie is sad thing I’ve ever heard. This movie is sad and sweet, too. I could never aspire to make a movie as profound and deep as Pet Sounds, but I can make a movie about what it’s like to be a fan of Pet Sounds.”