My descent into groupie hell
Scoring a backstage pass, getting on the guest list, hanging with the band... these are a few of a groupie's favorite things. But how far are you willing to go to get close to a movie star with a band called Dogstar as his off-screen hobby? Where does the madness end?
by Jacqueline M. Calayag
I spent the night with Keanu Reeves last month.
Well, technically speaking, it wasn't all night, just till the wee hours of the morning. And, we weren't exactly alone.
It all started at a Dogstar concert. In case you haven't heard (and basically only Keanu Reeves fans have), Dogstar is an L.A. band comprising Reeves, Bret Domrose, Rob Mailhouse and Gregg Miller. I went to the concert thinking, "O dear, another movie-actor-cum-musician" but secretly looking forward to seeing Reeves live rather on celluloid.
About 10 minutes before showtime at Liquid Room, an SRO "live house" in Shinjuku, a crowd of about a thousand made up mostly of Japanese women - 18 or younger - was abuzz with anticipation. I asked some girls if they knew anything about the band. They had no idea what instrument (if any) Keanu played. We discovered together it's the bass guitar.
The band came onstage amid shrieks, and for the next hour or so I was treated to Dogstar Live. My first impression was another grunge band: untucked shirts, loud guitars; even the lead singer looked like Kurt Cobain.
Throughout the show the crowd did great imitations of standing corpses, except when Keanu came closer to the audience or jammed on a bass line. Then screams and cries of "KE-AH-NOO! KE-AH-NOO! AI RUBBU YOU!" drowned out the music.
When he waved, girls scrambled over each other to wave back. Like he can even see them, I thought. When he took the mike after being introduced and said, "Good evening," the crowd went insane. Girls screamed, "Keanu!" He screamed back. "Yeah!" Silence.
Talk about meaningful conversation.
In the meantime I started listening more closely. The band wasn't bad. They had a grunge/punk/garage/alternative sound. The lyrics and melodies were catchy, the lighting kind of funky.
Keanu took center mike for one of the encore songs and the noise was deafening. From the crowd, that is. That was his sole contribution to vocals - more yelling than actual singing. After a couple more songs, the show was over and I was prepared to write an OK review about an OK band.
But then everything changed.
I managed to finagle my way backstage, flashing a meishi and a smile. I climbed downstairs to where the band was holed up, only later recognizing this as the defining moment of my descent into groupie hell.
Liquid Room, Tuesday, 9:15 p.m.
Rei, a 6-year-old Japanese girl, and her mother are with me. Their ticket backstage was Rei's cuteness. Rei says to her mother, "Keanu wasn't really playing was he?"
Then suddenly there we are. There they are. There he is. I'm momentarily stunned but collect myself and repeat what the little girl has just said. Nice ice-breaker. The band just laughs it off.
Teenage Japanese girls file in. One trips and falls as soon as she sees Keanu. In between taking shots with the girls, Keanu nibbles oil gyoza. "Is there any plum sauce?" he asks. "Wrong country dude," parries Rob, a tall, dark-haired and handsome fellow who entertains us with Johnny Carson impersonations.
I do my best to avoid staring at Keanu: In fact I'm a little taken aback by his spiked dark hair and puffy face - too much partying, too little sleep, I guess.
I strike up a conversation with Bret. Up close he doesn't remind me so much of Cobain, his features are more chiseled. And with his long blond hair, he makes a striking contrast to the other Dogstar members: Gregg, too, has closely cropped dark hair, he seems the pensive, brooding type.
Keanu's talking with Rei and her mom. "Thanks for coming to the show," he says politely. The mother, somewhat at a loss for words, manages to mumble, "Thanks for coming to Japan."
She tells me later how foolish she felt, and I empathize. Somehow, in the presence of "fame," all capacity to conduct oneself as a rational human being disappears.
I'm asked to join the band as they head back to the hotel. Suddenly I'm sitting in a van across from Keanu Reeves, thinking "Oh my God, I'm sitting in a van across from Keanu Reeves!" I hold out my hand. introduce myself. Shaking my hand, he says, "Hi, I'm Keanu." Like I didn't know. My heart's aflutter. Like he didn't know. We're joined by Bret, Rob and Kenny the band's manager.
Police hold back screaming fans as we get on the road. I find myself mimicking bus-tour conductors: "To your right is Tokyo City Hall, at left the Park Hyatt Hotel, it's really beautiful, has great views from its restaurants.
"How come we're not staying there?" Kenny asks. Keanu coughs, I offer him a cough drop and his hand touches the package.
Imperial Hotel, 11:30 p.m.
At the hotel we enter through a secret passage. Keanu is beat and goes off to bed. I'm disappointed, but at least there's still Bret. He tells me about how he, the only full-time musician, joined the other three, all actors, to form Dogstar. As to Dogstar's future. Bret says "It's weird. It usually works that a band puts out a record, people buy it and then go see you play. People don't necessarily hear our music before they come see us."
Anticipating my comment about whether that's even important, he admits, "Yeah, I know they're mostly there to see Keanu," but adds he doesn't find this frustrating. "If it gets people to come see us, great."
We join the rest of the band, A Japanese girl asks for Bret's autograph, she speaks to me in Japanese, probably thinking I'm the band's interpreter.
Gregg, Rob and crew members are mobbed. The lobby's not so comfortable, so our group of around 20 moves to an upstairs bar. From here on it's a singles-club nightmare: people ordering Blue Hawaiis; reading each other's palms; girls being asked to sit on laps.
"Hey, if you come to L.A. I'll take care of you," says one bandmember to a Japanese girl, She just nods. Apparently she's heard it all before. "I'm Nao," says another girl, pronouncing it "now." "Can I call you later?" someone quips.
When the bar closes, Dan, head of the Dogstar Fan Club and the band's promotional manager, invites us to his room because it's got the best-stocked refrigerator bar.
The entourage has now divided into cliques. Sprawled across the king-size bed, two girls start sifting through a box of letters Dan collected at the show. They're all addressed to Keanu, all from women. One sent color glossies of herself posing nude. It's not the first time I ask myself, "What am I doing here?"
I decide it's time to go. but not before I grab Dan's card, memorize everyone's room numbers and beg to be put on the guest list for Thursday's show.
Wednesday I call the hotel a million times determined to confirm I'm on the guest list. I become more and more desperate but decide to give it a rest, at least until Thursday.
Thursday morning I dial the hotel so often they recognize my voice. I finally get through to Bret, who tells me I've made the list.
Yebisu Garden Hall, Thursday, 7 p.m.
There are more than a few men in the crowd. Most have accompanied their girlfriends. I ask one couple if they're familiar with the music. "Oh no," says the girl, "We're just here to see Keanu," I ask the guy if he minds. "Nah," he says. "My friend saw them in Shinjuku. He said I have nothing to worry about."
The show starts and all my previous cynicism has vanished, I find myself watching in a whole new light. The crowd here is a little older, a bit livelier. I feel almost proud as I listen to the music. Now that I "know" them, it's all so different. Slowly but surely, I feel myself sinking deeper into groupie mode.
Waiting to got backstage after the show, I see Rei and her mom with some pals. The band's meeting with record producers, so we're not allowed in. Three foreign women, obviously models, show up. They start talking to Joe, a Dogstar crew member, who met them the night before at Lexington Queen. "I can bring my friends in, can't I?" he says to the guy blocking the door and off they go inside, leaving me in the dust.
Then the rest of us get the OK and we're in. Keanu waves to me. My heart skips a beat, he remembers me! He looks much better tonight.
I break out my camera for shots of "backstage with Dogstar."
A video monitor shows the stage and empty arena. "'Hey guys, this is how the place would look if Keanu wasn't in the band." someone jokes.
The band has a big dinner date, so we're all asked to leave. We agree to meet later in Roppongi.
"The Lex," 11.30 p.m.
Lexington Queen: where celebrities in Tokyo go, where everyone's a model or just looks like one. The band shows up and we're escorted to our own sitting area at the end of the bar. Like moths to a flame, the models, with names like Shannon, Gabrielle and Charity ("Call me anything, but don't call me Chastity"), flock around Keanu.
We exit at closing time and walk to another club, picking up additional rats along the way with Keanu as the Pied Piper.
Rip, Friday, 1 a.m.
The dance floor is lined with sections of chicken wire, giving the impression of cages. Everyone wants Keanu to dance. He declines.
I see my chance and sit next to him. I try to engage him in conversation, but I don't want to sound like a groupie, don't want to sound like a reporter, so I end up just sounding like an idiot.
Tired yet? "No." Is it what you expected, this whole trip, this whole scene? "Yeah." How does it feel being stared at all the time? "I'm not." Come on, there are people coming around the corner to gawk. "I don't notice."
Seeing this is going nowhere, I switch gears.
Can I take a picture of you and your adoring fans? "No." How about just, you? "No." Well then, how, about a picture of you and me? "OK."
Imperial Hotel, 3 a.m.
A mob is waiting in ambush. We manage to get past them and up to - where else - Dan's room, which quickly fills with mostly women, mostly models. Keanu begs off, saying to Dan, "What am I going to do in there?"
I come to my senses then and realize I'm in a hotel room at 3 a.m. with strangers who just want to be near famous or near-famous people, and to win all the perks that come with it.
It was a close call, but I escaped. They had three more shows, but I didn't go. I did go back to see them, though, at the hotel. During the day.
Without groupies, without club kids hanging on their every move, every word, the whole gang - band, roadies, managers, etc, - was so much more relaxed. Keanu even asked if I wanted a drink, and when I requested water he got up to find a glass and poured it for me.
It was like hanging out in college. They reminded me of guys I knew then, talking incessantly about their music, making jokes about each other's sexual attributes and habits, and serenading me. Ah, the good old days.
Out of the spotlight, they were just a bunch of regular guys. Even Keanu.
But as they left, I still found myself asking for their autographs on my official Dogstar cap.
And for some reason I'm still hanging onto that cough-drop package.