Paul Weller has been much in the news these last weeks, since he has a new record out. I've been enjoying his previous album, 22 Dreams, and will be looking out for the new one. Apart from a rather good compilation, tracing his entire career from The Jam through The Style Council and the solo stuff, that's about all I own by him, which isn't much when you consider the scope of his recorded output. He's very much part of the rock establishment now, of course - the "Modfather", in his early fifties. Melllowing too, by all accounts - he used to be notoriously prickly. But there are a handful of Jam songs that I think are absolutely wonderful - Eton Rifles, Going Underground, the usual ones, in other words. But while I like the fact of Weller, and I suppose I'm sort of a fan of the recent stuff, I wasn't a fan in any sense of the word in 1994, merely enough of a rock nerd to be aware of Weller's place in the pantheon, and respecting him on that level.
It was the end of the summer of that year. My wife and I (we weren't married at the time, but let's keep it simple) were on our way to LA - she'd spent a lot of time there before we'd met, but it was my first trip to that side of the States. We were on our way to stay with friends - she an actual detective in the LAPD, he heavily involved on the production side of what was then one of the highest rated US sitcoms - he's now a producer on another high-rating sitcom. They're still great friends of ours and we get to see them whenever we can, which is typically every four years or so.
I was really excited about going to LA. I'd been to New York a couple of times, Washington and Boston as well, but LA promised to be another universe. But this isn't about LA; it's about a close encounter with rock greatness. For as we were checking in late in Heathrow (our connecting flight had been delayed, and there was a mad, sweaty rush to get to the gate) I realised that the other passenger, also in the same predicament as my wife and I, was a proper rock star, someone who'd come to prominence in the seventies but whose career had stretched well into the following decade. This was 1994, though, and I wasn't really sure what - if anything - this man was now up to.
That man was ... not Paul Weller. It was in fact Midge Ure, him out of Ultravox. Properly pleased with that, I was. Not wanting to embarrass him - we were standing right next to him as our boarding passes were processed, late for the soon to be closing gate - I waited until my wife and I were seated on the 747 before mentioning how close we'd been standing to Midge Ure out of Ultravox. Actually, I'm not sure my wife was all that impressed. She didn't know much about Ultravox, but did at least remember that "Do They Know it's Christmas" song. Midge Ure co-wrote that, I told her. And I was thrilled; I know the purists say Ultravox was better in the John Foxx era, but it's what was in the charts that I remember, and those were the Ure hits - Vienna, Reap the Wild Wind, The Voice. Cracking early eighties synth-pop, and let no man say otherwise. This isn't about Midge Ure, though. It's about Paul Weller.
We landed in LA, and found our way to the line for the immigration control. As usual, it was about a million miles long. It was then that I noticed that the guy in front of us, immediately in front, was none other than Weller. He's pretty unmistakeable, really - I just knew it was him, even though I hadn't really been following his career all that closely. His hair was long, Mod-cut, not too different from the way he looks now, except with a bit less grey. Tall and skinny, though, and well dressed. Looked a lot sharper than I did, after a long-haul flight. But no doubt he was just as keen to get through the immigration crap, get his bags and get the hell out of Dodge.
So, anyway. Again, I don't want to embarrass the rock god, so I don't say anything out loud, although I may have nudged and whispered to my wife a bit. Eventually Weller and his travelling companion (his daughter, I believe) went to one of the desks and we waited our turn. I was getting a bit nervous at this point. I'd had enough experience of entering the States to fear the process. The general surliness of the immigration officials, the awful, illogical layout of the Visa-waiver cards, which seem engineered to encourage mistakes ... just thinking about all that was enough to make me feel shifty and semi-criminal. And that was setting aside any worries about our bags not showing up, and how long we were keeping our friends waiting on the other side of customs. Thank God it all got so much friendlier and more traveller-friendly in recent years.
But in due course we get allocated to a desk, and - although it didn't have to be - it turns out to be the same one that Weller went through. And this, more or less, is what happened.
The guy takes my passport. He's not even really looking at, just flicking through it in a semi-distracted manner. He's a young man and not too unfriendly.
"You guys just come off the London flight?" he asks.
I nod nervously and answer him. "Yes, sir."
"You see who else was on that plane, just ahead of you?"
At this point, stupidly, I say "Midge Ure" - which is sort of true, although I haven't seen the Ultravox frontman since leaving the plane.
"Midge who?" the guy on the desk asks. "No, I'm talking about that guy who just came through."
"Oh," I say. "You mean, Paul Weller?"
He looks really pleased. "Yeah, Paul Weller, man!" At this point, he's just stamping my passport on autopilot. Then he says: "I'm a big Paul Weller fan."
I say: "Oh." (I'm thinking: yeah, I kind of like him as well - Eton Rifles, Going Underground etc).
He says: "No, I mean - I'm a BIG Paul Weller fan. I'm maybe his biggest fan in the whole world! I even own one of his old guitars!"
He told me this; I have no idea whether it's true or not - although I've always liked to think it was. But the guy goes on to explain that he's massively into Weller, has all the stuff, rarities etc - he's not bluffing, no sirree. And, mainly, I think he's just absolutely thrilled that he can unload this onto someone else who sort of grasps Weller's significance. I'm more than happy to go along with it, of course - I realise, for the first time (and last, as it would transpire) I'm dealing with an immigration official who is possibly more flustered, sweaty and over-excited than me.
Then comes the kicker. After telling me all this stuff, he says: "But I froze. I couldn't look him in the eye, couldn't acknowledge I knew who he was. I just stamped his documents and sent him on his way."
I don't know what to say. I can understand where he's coming from, but he's just blown possibly the one chance in his life to tell his idol what he thinks of his music. My wife and I make sympathetic noises.
Then the immigration guy pulls himself together. "But I've got a second chance!" he tells us, winningly. "I know what flight he's going out on! I'm going to pull my shift and make sure I'm on the desk when he goes through again - and then I'm really going to do it, I'm going to say hello to Paul Weller!"
We wish him well. There's a lot of handshaking and general niceness. I really, truly hope that he did get to work his shifts and meet Weller, and that the exchange went well for both of them. I've had a few pleasant chats with immigration people since then, but (alas) more than a few less than pleasant ones, but I always try to remember the LA guy, the Paul Weller fan who couldn't bring himself to make eye contact.
And that's (almost) my Paul Weller story ... except for this. A few months later, we're somewhere else, collecting our bags from the carousel. My wife nudges me and points to another passenger waiting for their luggage. "Isn't that ..." she begins. I squint and can't quite believe it. It's Weller, again. We've been on the same flight, twice.
I don't bother him, but I rather wish I had, that time. I should have asked him if he remembered the LA official, and if not, I should have told him my side of the story. That was sixteen years ago, of course - and to the best of my knowledge I've never been on a plane with Paul Weller again. Mungo Jerry, yes. Joni Mitchell - possibly. But not Weller.
If there's ever a third time, I will ask him. I think he'd like it. He's mellower now, they say ...