On Monday, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum posted a lengthy Reddit AMA explaining his reluctance to sign autographs for fans. The statement was originally published in a pamphlet Elverum hands out to concertgoers in search of his John Hancock. The statement is six single-spaced pages and nearly 3,000 words long. In it, Elverum not only questions the implications of autographing records, but instills the custom with philosophical weight. “I believe in equality and I don’t believe in god,” Elverum writes. “I believe that successful and well known people are regular people, of course, and I am made uncomfortable by our tendency as humans to elevate some people while not elevating others.” Elverum feels that the second he takes a Sharpie to his work, he is drawing up a barrier between the genuine human-to-human exchange that took place before this request – such as having a conversation.
Despite his unconventional position on this subject, the artist is quick to turn his argument against himself and examine the issue from every angle, particularly that of the fans. He goes into detail about a childhood collection of football cards that he sent to his favorite player Walter Payton when he was a boy. Payton signed every card and returned them, much to Elverum’s wildest delight. The songwriter claims that these cards remain in his parents’ attic to this day. “These little pieces of cardboard were important to me mostly because the boundary had been crossed and erased between this god-like football man from TV and me, a kid from the forest outside a small town in Washington,” he says. “The autographs represented that breach to me, proof that this special man and I were inhabitants of the same world, and there was a real tangible line between us, with evidence!”
The issue of celebrity signatures didn’t come fully into focus until later in Elverum’s life, after average Joes (and fellow Washingtonians) like Kurt Cobain and Beat Happening’s Bret Lunsford made their own mark on music history. The paradigm shifted for Elverum, who even then wanted to maintain relationships with heroes that didn’t teeter atop golden pedestals. “It’s not that I don’t have long rich fantasies of the conversations and interactions I’d like to have with my favorite artists, writers, thinkers,” he wrote on Monday. “I do. I want to personally know these brilliant people, and I enjoy hearing about their secret unglamorous regular life moments, the mechanics of their normalcy. I enjoy the reminders of my sameness with them because it reinforces the possibilities that lay open for me, always. An autograph is detrimental to all of this door-opening.”
Elverum speaks of a particular day in his adolescence, when the brand new Beat Happening album arrived at a local record store where Bret Lunsford worked. For months Elverum and his pals had been hanging around this shop, “becoming more comfortable, acting cool (we thought), and earning trust and respect.” After Elverum and his two buddies bought the new CD, his friends did something that horrified teenage Elverum. “[They] took the shrink wrap off the jewel case right there in the store and asked Bret if he would sign it. I felt embarrassment wash over me…I wanted it to be known that I didn’t care if Bret signed my CD.”
Many will disagree with Elverum’s longwinded essay about signing autographs, and even I bristle at some of its melodramatic phrasing, (“I die inside while doing it. My skin crawls. I hate it so much.”) But it’s difficult for me to disagree with Elverum’s stance on this issue, because as a fan, I feel exactly the same way. For years I have wondered why this rite has become so sacred, always preferring to beat the crowd out of the venue to lining up at a merch table for the chance to get an autograph. It seems to be a phony way of meeting your idols, similar to stopping your favorite musician on the street and asking for a selfie. The signature, the picture – the moment in general feels automated and disingenuous. These days I marvel at the reasons someone would want to even meet their artistic heroes, who rarely live up to our image of them, let alone get their autograph.
I say “these days” on purpose. Like Elverum, my childhood was dotted with fandom and autograph requests. I wrote to fan clubs for the signed headshots of Jonathan Taylor Thomas (affectionately known to his fans as J.T.T.) and Rider Strong. I adored the glossy photos, and felt certain that they indicated a special bond between these heartthrobs and me. The last time I remember consciously asking for an autograph from a (somewhat) well-known musician must have been around 2004, when my mom took me to see the ‘80s punk band Youth Brigade in Seattle. Always a master of one-upmanship, my mom gloated to me about how she’d been drinking at the bar with Youth Brigade’s drummer Mark Stern before the band’s set. Envious of my mother’s charisma and ability to legally drink in bars, I was hell bent on getting my own souvenir. After Youth Brigade’s set I spotted lead singer Shawn Stern at the merch booth. He sold me a white band shirt and signed the bottom of it. Even then it was anticlimactic, and if I even still have the t-shirt, it’s been worn and washed so many times, Stern’s signature is likely no more than a faded gray smudge.
My relationship with autographs really changed when yearbooks became a part of my school life. I admit, part of my denial to sign people’s annuals was pure boorishness, but the other part of my argument arose from this question: “What’s the point?” It didn’t make sense to exchange purple Sharpie pleasantries with people I didn’t know or like, and it made even less sense to do it with close friends, who I would see frequently throughout the summer months. Today, asking a professional musician for an autograph makes the least sense. I personally feel more intimacy with an artist by listening to their work and drafting up my own versions of our interconnectedness.
In the fall of 2016, a long distance boyfriend sent me a few packages over the span of our short relationship. Two of these packages contained signed vinyl records – one was a Mark Lanegan 12” signed by Lanegan, and the other was a Cass McCombs/Michael Hurley split 7” signed by Hurley. I was flattered at the time of receiving these presents, but now, long after the relationship dissolved, I wonder what made that guy think I cared about autographs in the first place. What he doesn’t know is that these records are currently slumped up against the rest of my collection, given no special treatment despite their “signed copy” status. Sometimes I even consider giving them to people who would appreciate them more.
Perhaps that is the only capacity in which I can stand to ask for autographs: on someone else’s behalf. Last November Swans played a set of farewell gigs at Greenpoint’s Warsaw. I had no plans on attending, but when a close friend came down with the flu and offered me his ticket, I couldn’t very well say no. My friend was devastated, having purchased his ticket months in advance only to be stuck at home vomiting when the show finally rolled around. I knew I couldn’t leave the gig empty handed, so in an attempt to repay the $50 ticket he’d just gifted me, I went to buy my him a t-shirt. I made my way to the merch table and bought one right before a swarm of fans flocked to the table – apparently Michael Gira was about to start signing autographs. Just as I thought, “Thank god, I can split before all of that hubbub begins” Gira appeared right in front of me, uncapped Sharpie in hand, with an expectant look on his face. I realized in that moment, that though it made me uncomfortable, it would have been far more awkward to tell Michael Gira, “nah, I’m good,” than it would have been to just let him sign the damn thing. I wanted it to be known that I didn’t care if he signed my t-shirt, but it wasn’t for me, anyway.