Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
“Nah, that’s alright, I’ll just go like this,” says blues prodigy Gary Clark Jr., wiping his face with the sand-colored bandanna he wears wrapped around his wrist. We are in the green room backstage at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and the Austin, Texas native has decided not to hit the makeup room before going on camera. This is Clark Jr.’s first TV appearance and between tonight’s celeb guest Katie Holmes, twelve models in blue cocktail dresses hosting a game involving buckets, melted ice cream and loose cash, and Fallon’s in-house band, the Roots, Clark Jr. has enough to navigate without worrying about looking too shiny on TV. “I’m not going to lie,” the singer and guitarist says. “I’m freaking out.”
Being backstage at a late night TV show is surreal. Everything looks familiar but somehow off. The set seems too small, the celebrities are usually too short unless they’re too tall and the whole time you’re trying to pretend it’s normal to be loitering in the hallways at 30 Rock while shivering. (People say it’s no-joke cold in TV studios because it’s no-joke cold in TV studios, something to do with preventing nervous starlets from sweating through their silk dresses and keeping the audience awake. Bring a sweater.) After you’ve checked out the plush furniture and touched the combination lime sculpture/mirror in the green room, eaten a few bags of free Pop Chips and watched Fallon rehearse in his play clothes (a pretty rad Hawaiian shirt) there’s kind of nothing to do. That’s when, if you’re an up-and-coming rock star, you head downstairs to smoke. And if you’re me, a writer with the attention span of a five-year-old and profound distaste for arctic air conditioning, you follow said rockstar out of the building so that you can ask him really probing and important questions/warm the f*ck up.
“I don’t want to smoke near the kids,” Clark Jr., says, gesturing towards a crowd of poncho wearing mini-humans who are huddled under the NBC awning avoiding a violent late summer rainstorm. The guitarist is tall and lanky with the dapper hippie style (knit hat, suit vest) and warm reserve of someone laid back but limelight ready. We bitch about entitled and aggro New Yorkers who have bad umbrella manners. He smokes two Parliaments. I do jumping jacks. When I’m warmer and he’s calmer we head past the lines of soaked tourists and back up to the studio. As the elevator doors open there’s Questlove, the Roots iconic drummer, presiding over a buffet of brightly colored plastic tubs. “It’s rice pudding from Rice to Riches,” the drummer says, taking his plastic cup filled with white goo to a dentists-office-style chair and sitting down. “Have some. It’s the Haagen Dazs of rice pudding.” In half an hour Clark Jr. will play on TV with a band he grew up worshiping and later that night he’ll perform a private showcase at the Soho House for industry execs and connected urbanites but right now this is his life, a fluorescent lit hallway filled with assorted strangers a bunch of sugary rice. If you want to try this at home, go for the French toast flavor; Questlove says it’s the best.