Welcome to Big Star Country



An Intro to Big Star Country:

Andie MacDowell

Missoulians tend to pride themselves on their deferential attitudes concerning the rock gods and movie stars who occasionally squat among us. Celebrities are a little like car crashes—it’s tough not to look—but whenever a famous face makes a cameo appearance at a downtown restaurant or watering hole, you can always see the locals performing an elaborate pantomime of feigned indifference.

Well, almost always. Occasionally the floodgates burst, sending busboys and soda jerks into paroxysms of total star fever. I’m thinking of a warm summer night in 1994 when Andie MacDowell came into the riparian pasta trough formerly known as Goldsmiths, where I used to scoop ice cream and mix smoothies when I wasn’t too busy sucking nitrous hits off the tops of whipped cream cans in the walk-in cooler. Ms. MacDowell (code name: Rose Qualley) ordered an Oreo mint milkshake and drank about half of it on the back deck. As soon as she got up and left, a manager bolted out of the kitchen and guzzled the melted remnants of the sticky green confection right off her table, smacking his lips and wiping them with his sleeve as though he’d just gotten done licking the sweat off Jennifer Aniston’s back.

What an explosion of fetishism! I mean, it would be little more understandable if the shake had been slurped on by some pneumatic sex bomb whom my manager hoped to know in some abstract thrice-removed way by putting his lips to something she’d touched with hers. But jeez, this is Andie MacDowell we’re talking about! Not even Andie MacDowell, but Rose Qualley! The nice girl! The wolf-loving, pipeline-hating Nine Mile PTA mom!

Movie stars usually look a lot shorter in real life, but Andie MacDowell actually looks taller, erect of carriage, and every bit as translucent and radiant of skin as she appears in the old L’Oreal ads. As an actress she could just as easily be replaced by a painted stick, but in person she certainly commands attention.

The Qualley family moved back to South Carolina last year to be closer to Rose’s folks, but at the time of this writing the family residence deep in the Nine Mile hadn’t been sold. Some low-key snooping in the Nine Mile House, a Huson bar and restaurant, produced the names of a few prospective buyers, including Oprah Winfrey and Lindsay Wagner of “Bionic Woman” fame—both of whom have reportedly been up to look at the house.

The asking price? Well, let’s just say if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. (AS)

The Truth About Brad Pitt

I remember the first time I heard it. My co-worker at the time rushed into work, breathless.

“Guess what?!” she practically screamed. “My sister’s friend who’s a bartender at the Elbow Room says Brad Pitt was shooting pool in there last night! She said he just bought a house in the Rattlesnake!”

At first, I snorted in contempt. I mean, the information was coming from the same girl that almost spent her spring break vacation in Los Angeles in the hopes she would bump into Brad on the Santa Monica Pier.

But the stories persisted and became colorful with detail. Not only did Brad enjoy the low-brow dinge of the Elbow Room, but he preferred languishing in the shadows of the tiny Marvin’s Bar on the western edge of town.

“Marvin’s? Get out, why would he hang out someplace so small? He’d stick out like an iris patch in a vacant lot!”

“I don’t know, but my friend Cindy is friends with a gal who works there, and she says he hangs out there all the time.”

A former Indy employee claimed her electrician husband was working on his house in the Rattlesnake. Someone at Charlie’s told me his mom’s best friend was a prominent local real estate agent who sold Brad a house in Grant Creek.

These were classic urban legends with commonalities; he was spending time at small, out of the way bars where the clientele might be more inclined to think of him as a sissified pouf than an imminently desirable and wildly famous former “Sexiest Man Alive.”

Another major variance was that a friend of a friend was “doing work on his house,” but never could any of these rural suburban locations be precisely named or described.

My favorite Brad Pitt story was told to me by a colleague. She knows a woman who works at the Continuing Education department of UM. This lady says that a “surveying class” was roaming the elegant hills of the Upper Rattlesnake last summer.

One hapless student ventured up to a house and knocked on the door. Guess who answered? Brad Pitt!

People, come on. Why would a Huge Star like Brad Pitt have a home not protected by digitized gates and razor wire, especially given his popularity among teen stalkers? And why, with the entire state of Montana at his feet, would the privacy-worshipping actor want to establish a residence in a less-than-remote area such as Missoula?

Dear readers, the answer is simple. This is what his publicist told the Independent: “Brad Pitt does NOT (my capitalization) have a house in Montana. Rumors like this often get started about him in small towns, but it’s not true.”

Sorry, folks. After he filmed A River Runs Through It here in the Treasure State, perhaps he came back for a brief visit. He might have stopped to sip a beer in a local tavern. Maybe a friend of yours did see him there. But he doesn’t live here, not anywhere.

But don’t fret. The buzz around the office is that Ted Danson was spotted the other day strolling downtown with his wife. Maybe he bought Andie MacDowell’s place. (SS)

Are You Ready for Hank Williams, Jr.?

During my tenure as an employee of the DoubleTree Hotel, I saw famous people roll through there like the runoff-swollen Clark Fork River. I’ve delivered room service to half of the Seattle Sonics, I’ve seen Les Claypool’s Visa receipt after one of the guys from Primus smashed a stained glass window on the second floor, and I’ve heard Kenny G’s ire over what he considered an insufficient hotel exercise room.

But one of my favorite totally random celebrity encounters happened one slow winter night. I was vacantly folding napkins at the cashier’s station in the restaurant when I looked up to see a large, cowboy-hatted, sunglass-wearing man stride through the lobby. I didn’t think much of it and went back to folding.

Then, in my head, the wailing guitars started. “Are you ready for some football? A Monday night party?” The song went on silently yet rousingly. When I paused to wonder why it was playing in my brain weeks after football season ended, it hit me. That was Hank Williams, Jr.!

It turns out he was celebrating his wedding anniversary, and he and his wife enjoyed a hearty meal and glasses of Dom Perignon. By all accounts, he was a quiet yet friendly customer, just your richer-than-average feller squiring his lady.

According to Hank’s manager Merle Kilgore, the country star has maintained ranches near Stevensville and in the Big Hole Valley since 1979. My neighbor and his brother used to encounter him quite a bit when they lived on Flathead Lake next to a buddy of Hank’s, and describe Bocephus as “nice and funny.”

Those who know Hank personally also point out the nasty rumors that fly around the Bitterroot about his alleged drunken carousing are false and bred from jealous, player-hating attitudes.

And although they supplied me with the incorrect information that Hank owns a gun shop in Darby (“He owns no retail outlets,” Kilgore says), they recounted the story of when Hank fell off Ajax Mountain and nearly lost his life.

It was about this time of year in 1975, and Hank and his buddy were hiking around and shooting guns. The last ice and snow of spring remained on the landscape, and suddenly Hank lost his footing and slipped. He fell hundreds of feet, trying to jam his gun in the ground to halt his descent.

I’m told he landed boots first, but the impact was such that he flipped through the air like a tossed coin and finally smacked face down into a pile of boulders. Amazingly, he was still conscious. Hank’s buddy’s 12-year-old son pushed his eye back in his skull, packed snow over it and kept him talking until the helicopter arrived to fly him to the emergency room.

Judging by that anecdote alone, we know this much is true without a doubt: Hank Williams, Jr. is one bad-ass mother. (SS)

Jeff Ament and the High Line

Jeff Ament loves the Independent! That is, he loves our little ol’ rag when he’s got a show to promote.

Although he laid himself wide open for an interview about his mystic side project Three Fish, when it came time to answer three little questions for this feature—his favorite local rumor about himself, how long he’s lived here and why he chooses to maintain a Montana residence—he dismissed the Indy via one of his “people.”

A last-chance attempt at a conversation between an Indy freelancer and the Pearl Jam bassist at the Three Fish show last week was also foiled. Apparently, Mr. Ament was in a meditation session that just could not be interrupted.

Oh, well, no matter. I’ll just tell you the mundane facts about him I already know. He was born and raised in Big Sandy, a small town up on the High Line near Havre. He owns a spread near Blue Mountain where he stays once a month or so. I’m not sure how long he’s lived in Missoula, but I first saw him sipping suds in Charlie’s on Valentine’s Day of 1994.

Declaring herself the “Angry Valentine” that year, my friend Cathy twisted my arm into heading to the bar to celebrate our love of beer.

And there he was, inconspicuously enjoying a brew near the front of Charlie’s. This was back when Pearl Jam was fairly ubiquitous in the national music media, and to see a Big Rock Star mixing with blabbering drunks and fetid clouds of cigarette smoke in the Garden City was, well, surreal.

“Cathy, look!” I nudged my pal. “Isn’t that the dude from Pearl Jam?”

“Eddie Vedder?!” she virtually yelled.

“No, the other cute one.”

Emboldened by liberal glugs from her pint, she ventured over to his perch to make clever conversation. Except she was not exactly her usual, quick-witted self. And he was just trying to be a regular guy hanging out in a tavern. He tolerated her for a minute and then politely turned away.

At this point, he was still relaxing in relative anonymity. But Cathy and I made sure to alert a few patrons to his presence, and then they alerted their friends, and soon a growing knot of rubberneckers thronged near his bar stool.

Coincidentally, Cathy was recently seated across the aisle from him on a plane flying into Missoula. Having learned her lesson, she just stole furtive glances at him while he read.

And that’s about the extent of my Ament experience. I’ve seen the baseball cap enthusiast eating at the Black Dog and a few more times in Charlie’s, but then again, who hasn’t?

And what’s the point of even relating these humdrum stories? Just that if I had been allowed to speak to Jeff, I might have gotten more information than what’s contained in the celeb-mongering claptrap printed above, which is just the sort of b.s. he was probably hoping to avoid.

By all means, think globally Jeff. But please, next time, act locally. (SS)

Steve Albini: The Hellion of Hellgate

Though not quite as high-profile as other famous folks with putative links to these parts, Steve Albini has the triumphant distinction of being a genuine local boy. Wunderkind recording engineer to the likes of Nirvana, Bush, the Jesus Lizard and other huge alt-rock names, former member of Big Black (who actually have a song about Frenchtown Pond), current member of mathcore ninja trio Shellac—and Hellgate High School graduate, Class of 1980.

Vintage Hellgate yearbooks suggest a mild-mannered, bespectacled young Albini who took part in a number of extracurricular activities, including the speech team, the mime club (complete with priceless photo of Albini in full Shields and Yarnell regalia), and Hellgate’s student newspaper, the Lance. Urban legends abound, however, lingering in the halls of Hellgate like the smell of sweaty gym shorts. Chief among them are tales to the effect that: 1) Albini once got his ass kicked by jocks for panning a Boston album in the Lance, and 2) he jumped out a third-story window on the last day of school, clambering down to street level in an adjacent tree.

Strangely enough, Albini is wearing his old Hellgate Knights t-shirt when we reach him at his Chicago studio. “No, I never jumped out of any windows,” he laughs. “Some of us were going to streak Hellgate on the last day of school, but halfway through the day we noticed the increased security around the johns where we were going to strip down. So we went to one guy’s house to drink instead.” Sorry, kids!

And how about the Boston beating? “I got a few nasty letters,” Albini says, “but the only thing I ever got beaten up for was wearing a motorcycle helmet that said ‘Hell’s Kittens’ on it. An actual Hell’s Angel didn’t take kindly to that, and I got punched in the face. That was on Higgins Avenue.”

Albini concedes that most of his purported caper-cutting was limited to average antisocial high school stuff. “A few smoke bombs, stink bombs and acts of general vandalism,” he says. “My friends and I had a running contest concerning the delay action on strings of firecrackers we lit in the bathroom, so we could light them off and then enjoy the mayhem from the safety of, say, English class.”

As for his trapped-in-a-shrinking-box proclivities, Albini admits that his motives for joining the mime club were less than Ivory pure: “I joined because there were some loose women involved,” he laughs. “All I really did was skip the meetings to smoke weed with other members of the criminal element.”

In summing up his high school daze, Albini is fatally succinct: “You can’t imagine how hated I was at that school.” A number of former teachers remember him quite fondly, however, including Wayne Seitz, Albini’s advisor during four years he wrote, took photos and drew cartoons for the Lance. Seitz remembers a “skinny, runny little kid” whose mother brought him into the Lance office on the first day of his freshman year to see if Seitz could find something for him to do.

“Steve was constantly getting the newspaper and me into trouble,” Seitz recalls. “He had this real knack for getting under people’s skin. But he was one of those kids that you just never forget. A real triple-A egg, if you can say that.” (AS)

David Lynch’s Landmarks

You never know until you try, right? After days of false starts, rude publicity firms and fruitless rooting on the Internet, a routine e-mail search finally turned up a juicy lead: a Malibu phone listing for one David Lynch.

I debated. And I debated some more. Is it the right David Lynch? The twisted genius who directed Eraserhead, Lost Highway, “Twin Peaks”? Wouldn’t someone so famous want an unlisted number? Probably he would, but as an Internet neophyte I was prepared to hope against hope that a computer search might turn up something that the phone company either couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. Lynch might get a little salty about the slight invasion of privacy, I reasoned, but the hell with him. Genius or not, I was getting damned sick of trying to track the guy down. So I called the number cold, hoping to defray any initial suspicion or hostility with an admittedly cheesy British accent.

Genteel woman’s voice: “Hello?”

Me, in best Hugh Grant voice: “Yes, hello, could I speak to film director David Lynch, please?”

There comes a pregnant pause on the other end of the line, and then her petulant reply. “Now, do you really think that someone like that would be in the phone book? You’ve obviously got the wrong number.”

“Yes, but it was the only listing for Malibu so I thought I’d at least try to—”


The fact that David Lynch was born in Missoula in 1946 is a matter of public record. Lynch’s father, a research scientist for the Forest Service, moved his young family all across the country when Lynch was still just a toddler, finally settling down for a time in a suburb of Washington, D.C. when the boy was still in his teens. In truth, Lynch has never spent that much time here. So if the mere location of his birth was Lynch’s only qualifying connection to Missoula, well, wouldn’t that be downright boring?

Yes, but there’s something else: persistent rumors tying one of Lynch’s films, 1986’s creepalicious Blue Velvet, to events that supposedly went down in a local landmark: the Wilma building. Certainly the Wilma—with its flambeaux and carpets and general eerie ambience—looks like something straight out of a David Lynch film, especially before extensive renovations uprooted the mind-bending kitsch of the Chapel of the Dove to make room for more theater space. And it’s no secret to anyone around here that the Wilma has got a reputation for high weirdness. No doubt, Lynch would love it.

But it’s better to err on the side of caution and state that no such link between Blue Velvet and the Wilma can be conclusively established. Lynch spent most of his formative artistic years in the Washington, D.C. area, then Boston, and finally at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia. Locations suggestive of Missoula and its surroundings can be found in several of the director’s works—including “Twin Peaks”—but the notion that Blue Velvet is an homage to the Wilma is probably just wishful thinking.

Still, of all the celebrity rumors and cherished bits of local lore, this is one of my favorites. I just wish I knew what the supposed events were! (AS)

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