The Circle Game

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Kid Rock and his mother, Susan, arrive for the 43rd annual Grammy Awards

There is a conventional wisdom about people in the music industry. They are seen as social gadflies who dress black-on-black, talk irreverently all the way through award ceremonies and can't wait to party away all the easy money that accrues from selling low-royalty back catalog CDs to baby boomers replacing their vinyl collections of aural anarchy from the pre-disco era. That is an unfair characterization which covers only 99 percent of the industry.

Last night the other 1 percent was also out and about in Los Angeles, but I didn't see any of them at the two post-Grammy parties I attended. Now that the record industry has contracted down into five major conglomerates, those leaving the Grammy ceremonies to party have to choose which of the five bashes are most likely to yield good food, easy bar access, high star attendance and the best post-awards dish. I opted for the EMI-Virgin party held in downtown L.A.'s historic Hotel Figueroa and the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic party across the way at the L.A. Center Studios.

The EMI crowd are flying high on the current success of recent acts such as the Beatles (signed in 1962), who recently spent an unprecedented eight weeks atop the Billboard album charts with their "1" hits compilation. The famously moody art deco hotel had been transformed into a Moroccan disco on three levels, complete with incense, scattered cushions and the sort of ear-splitting techno music middle-aged record executives love to have people think they listen to all the time. The party bulged at the seams with hundreds of middle-aged men in black (many of them also bulging at the seams) and girls (though many were actually mature women in their late teens) sequined and wearing this season's glitter makeup.

The champagne flowed, the chili was scooped, and all around, partygoers debated the Grammys. One executive described the Album of the Year win by Steely Dan as a "Marisa Tomei" win — a reference to the year when two very strong Best Supporting Actress Oscar contenders canceled each other out and allowed the "My Cousin Vinny" dark horse to steal the race. Popular feeling was that the award should have gone to Eminem or Paul Simon.

Above the pounding music, one heard snatches of Grammy-related conversation — like shards from a dub mix of one of those party-line phone calls popular in the '80s. About Steely Dan: "I thought those guys were dead, man...." About Christina Aguilera: "Great abs, bad hair..." About award co-presenter Val Kilmer: "What was he NOT doing with Robbie Robertson...? Like, why was he even there?"

There was some discussion about the ever-expanding number of award categories, which now exceed 100. It can't be too long before we have Best Contemporary Alternative Albanian Folk-Rap Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (Not in the English Language.) Which should at least give an opportunity for Tirana rap duo Moxo & Oxo to win an award.

The most popular spot was the outdoor pool area, where smokers could light up. (Practically the only other place you can smoke in California these days is... Oregon.) Crammed dangerously close to the edge of the pool were trendsetters balancing plastic champagne flutes, polystyrene plates of Mexican food and cell phones (to find out if another party was hotter.)

The wonderful thing about today's music celebrities is how they blend effortlessly into the crowd. The only indication that you are in the presence of one is when you see people forming concentric circles. This is a sign that an alienated rapper or a bass player with a really angry rap-rock group has been spotted and is getting an adoration fix.

No actual Beatles showed up at the party that was principally financed by their recent sales, but two Beach Boys (who were honored during the Grammy ceremonies in the new Ten-Legends-Mentioned-In-Three-Minutes category), Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, walked through the crowd almost completely unrecognized. But then neither of them looked alienated or angry.

After a couple of hours wandering the Moroccan-themed rooms it was time to decamp for the Warner Bros. party, which is traditionally one of the night's finest events. This year's party was held in vast tents in a downtown film studio. The drinks were served in glass, the roast beef and three genres of chicken were on china, and the dessert tent boasted tarte Tatin. The stars of the Warner music family were in more obvious attendance. There were more of those concentric circles. At the center of one you could discover Mark McGrath, the singer with Sugar Ray (the group that had that catchy song and video about a girlfriend with a four-post bed). He was good-natured and goofy, not privy to the Be-Sullen school of rock singer aesthetics. I inquired about his musical heroes. He named a few, and when I asked him if he was a Beatles fan his eyes lit up and he said "Psycho," which I took to be a positive.

In another vortex of followers I discovered the ebullient Kid Rock, still wearing his trademark hat. He waxed lyrical about the Stones and the Who and in particular about how British groups had reminded Americans of their black musical roots. When he cited one of his American heroes, Bob Seger, I mentioned a relatively obscure early '70s Seger album that I recalled — "Smokin' O.P.'s" — and suddenly he launched into loud renditions of songs from the album. It was a wonderful moment. Like a celebrity human jukebox. Insert a quirky musical reference and out pours a song.

The crowd at the Warner party skewed a little older than the brasher EMI contingent, and seemed less dressed-down, which is nearly as good as being more dressed-up. In the music industry it is apparently a sign of caring too much if one is too well-dressed for an important occasion. Wandering around I bumped into Paul Simon, who was looking most casual both sartorially and in terms of his entourage, which was almost nonexistent.

Though on TV he can sometimes seem dour and uncommunicative — as in a recent Katie Couric interview — I found him bubbly and friendly. He was pleased that in recent days he had just seen an old buddy, George Harrison, who was apparently in L.A. (though NOT at the EMI party he'd helped finance!). Simon was also tickled by the news that the cult 1978 Pythonesque film spoofing the Beatles, "The Rutles," in which Simon had a memorable cameo, was coming out on DVD with some outtakes of his memorable mock interview. It was interesting that he was more animated talking about a project in which he'd had just a minor part than he was speaking about his own projects.

One of the most surrounded musicians at the party appeared to be Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who with his anti-Napster campaign has become almost as controversial as Eminem. He chatted easily and confidently, one of the few rockers equally at ease on C-Span as on MTV.

As the party raged on I wandered to the exit and accidentally found myself in the limousine line. I watched as satin-jacketed valets summoned stretch limos by number. Then, when these surrealistically elongated vehicles arrived, they would bellow out the name of the chief passenger. I felt rather underdressed in this line, not least since I had no limo, and I didn't think my car would arrive on its own however loudly it was called. Not having a limo at a Grammys party I realized, made me a member of the 1 percent. I slipped away quietly into the night, resolving to charter a limo next year. Or at least to summon the nerve to commandeer someone else's.