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Catching Ziggy on the Lower East Side

An old friend of mine was in town a couple weeks ago. He said he wanted to see the Lower East Side, so we went out drinking. After the eighth or ninth round I can’t say how much local scenery we saw, but we did glimpse a familiar face across the tracks of the L train. The face belonged to an actor named James Ransone, who played this great tragic character, “Ziggy”, on a TV show called The Wire. Generally I would have let him go about his train ride in peace, but my bellyful of Jameson told me that yelling “ZIGGY!” across the tracks was a much better idea. He turned quickly and shot me a surprised and horrified look before the silver blur of the incoming train blocked out our line of sight.

After a full night of sleep and half a bottle of aspirin I got to thinking about artists and the characters they portray. It’s an old joke that even super fans can’t separate Shatner from Captain Kirk or Mark Hamill from Luke Skywalker. They go to conventions and talk to these actors as if they really are the people on their TV. Our culture tries to make it clear to us that these are just storytellers, not real people.

For some reason we don’t make the same distinctions with our musical celebrities. People don’t think of 50 Cent as Curtis Jackson in costume. We have a hard time seeing that the woman who created the character Tina Turner was a girl from rural Tennessee named Anna Mae Bullock. Instead, the guy with the microphone is supposed to be the same person on the street as they are on the stage.

And the greatest performers do put a lot of themselves into their characters. You can tell that the guy who steps on stage with The E Street Band every night is more fact than fiction. You can’t make a character that believable without finding some personal truths to support the image. Springsteen created a wildly popular persona from a lot of different sources, including his own personality.

My good friend “Ziggy” proved that the opposite is true as well. When I shouted the name of a fictional person he knew immediately who I was talking to. He turned quickly enough to betray more than just his annoyance, he was admitting that you can never really separate yourself from the people you “pretend” to be.

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com