This has got to be a dream... It's Wednesday evening and my wife, Christine, and I are holed up in a Paddington hotel room listening to the rain beating down outside. By 7.15pm it has virtually stopped as we take a 20-minute walk into the Little Venice district, ending up outside a blue-fronted chapel building which bears a discreet notice identifying it as The Amadeus Arts Centre. A further notice announces brusquely: "CONCERT SOLD OUT." Time for a quick drink in the pub opposite and we are first in line, waiting on the steps for the doors to open. A few sad souls drift by asking if we have any spare tickets for a concert which received minimal publicity. We shake our heads, trying desperately to convey sympathy instead of smugness, as a queue begins to form along the pavement...
The doorman finally admits us at 8.40pm and, after a brief bag check in the tiny foyer ("no hidden tape recorders in there I hope, sir!") we enter an intimate hall, approximately 50 feet square. Before us are some 20 white-draped tables with seating for five or six people, each bedecked with a small vase of flowers, blue napkins, dishes of nuts and olives, chilled bottles of San Miguel beer, mineral water and glasses. At the far end there is no stage, but a group of music stands indicate where the musicians will perform. We make our way to the front centre table, fully expecting to find it reserved for guests or sponsors, but it isn't and, disbelievingly, we sit down. Looking around in a daze, I notice the original dark oak gallery of the Welsh Presbyterian chapel running around three sides of the upper room, the pipes of the organ rising majestically to the ceiling at the back. It is easy to imagine that other prolific tunesmith, J.S. Bach, giving a recital in such surroundings.
Only now do I get a chance to study the sheet of paper handed out to us as we came in. It is a programme of the evening's music. I don't think anybody had much idea what to expect from this concert. When I booked tickets back in April it was described as a "work in progress." I suppose I was thinking of something in the line of the GBH soundtrack, definitely an instrumental work of some sort. However, when I telephoned to check that the concert was still on before travelling to London I was told that Elvis would be singing, so I assumed that he must have re-arranged some of his songs for string quartet accompaniment and that we might get one or two new ones thrown in. As usual with Elvis, I should save known to expect the unexpected.
Reading the sheet, events take an even more unreal twist as we learn that 17 new songs will be performed, all written by MacManus and various combinations of The Brodsky Quartet, and listed under the collective heading of The Juliet Letters. It's too much to take in at first, and the song titles merge into a confused jumble before my eyes. Suddenly, more than ever before, I get the feeling that we have chanced upon something really special here. It's a sad fact of life that these things usually only happen to other people and we get to read about them later in a frenzy of jealousy. And yet here we are sitting in the best seats in the house waiting for the show to start...
A door in front of us opens to admit a lady from the Arts Centre staff who nervously thanks the refreshment donors and causes some amusement by passing on a request from the musicians for us to smoke during the performance! As she is speaking, through the open door comes the sound of instruments being tuned, including EC's distinctive voice. Then, at just before 9.10pm, they walk out to begin the concert. Their dress is informal, no evening suits or bow ties. The Brodsky Quartet are immaculate in their much-vaunted Japanese designer casuals. Mr. Costello has on a long dark jacket, dark trousers and a buttoned up shirt with no tie. He is slightly unshaven but last year's beard and shaggy hairstyle have gone.
He waits in the background momentarily as the quartet takes their places, preparing their instruments and sheet music. Once they are ready, he walks forward, opens the music folder which he carries and refers to throughout the concert, and the opening notes are sounded. Now I really can't believe I'm seeing this. Elvis is standing right in front of me, less than ten feet away as he starts to sing, unamplified. The ensemble is arranged in a semicircle of five, with EC in the middle, the two violins to his right and viola and cello to his left. Only cellist Jacqueline Thomas is seated, with her chair placed on a podium so that she can be seen by those further back. The decorative, twisted curtain hung on the wall as a backdrop only adds to the illusion that this is all taking place in my front room.
With the first song, "For Other Eyes," completed, Elvis addresses the audience for the first time in his usual slightly shy but determined manner. Referring us to our "hymn sheets" he emphasises that all of the musicians have joined in the writing, making this a genuine musical collaboration; something which will be subsequently confirmed by the performance. He explains that the title The Juliet Letters was inspired by a newspaper article which they read concerning a Veronese professor
who, 20 years ago, took it upon himself to answer all letters addressed to Shakespeare's heroine. All of the songs take the form of letters set to music. "We'll leave it to your imagination to see any links between them..." he adds.
From such a simple basic idea, Elvis and the Brodsky Quartet have created a tremendous variety of lyrical and musical settings which complement each other perfectly. The second song, "Swine," which is introduced as "a letter found carved on a door," might also be described as a poison penknife letter as, to a jagged accompaniment, EC barks out the opening lines: "You're a swine and I'm saying that's an insult to the pig!"
"I Almost Had A Weakness" ("a reply by an eccentric and potentially homicidal aunt to a begging letter") is marked by constant tempo changes which, presumably, reflect the old lady's unstable state of mind. She begins her letter as follows: "Thank you for the flowers. I threw them on the fire. And I burned the photographs that you enclosed — God, they were ugly children..."
This black comedy is followed by "Why?," a short, poignant "note" from a child caught in the middle of a disintegrating marriage. Elvis appears momentarily nonplussed to hear a baby crying up in the gallery during this song which closes with a chilling repetition of the lines "Mummy's gone missing... Daddy's on fire."
The highlight of the first half, though, is "Taking My Life In Your Hands," ("a song about a compulsive letter writer") which must rank as one of the most beautiful songs Elvis has ever had a hand in. Appropriately, it draws from him perhaps the greatest singing performance I have seen him give. Spellbound, I watch him bending low before springing up to physically force out one of the dramatic high notes. It's a sight which I will never forget. I'm so close that I can see the colour rise up from his neck until his whole face is almost purple with effort. He grips his music stand and jerks it about convulsively. For one brief moment he seems slightly at odds with the surroundings and I have the impression of a dangerous maniac bursting through the French windows to interrupt a chamber music recital. Viola player Paul Cassidy stares at him in mixed admiration and amazement.
During the interval, the complementary refreshments are generously replenished and, at just after 10.10pm, the musicians return to begin the second half of the performance. Elvis has to shout for someone to turn out the lights "so that we can be ourselves." "I feel a bit of devilment coming on..." he confides as they begin "This Offer Is Unrepeatable," a comic piece which takes the form of a chain letter offering the reader some form of spiritual salvation. "You'll start seeing double in fishes and bread" it promises. Again, there is a dramatic change of mood as this is followed by the bleak suicide note "Dear Sweet Filthy World." For "The Letter Home," Elvis has recycled that beautiful melody from the GBH soundtrack which he used as part of his piano introduction to "Couldn't Call It Unexpected" during last year's tour.
"Sad Burlesque" is described as "a letter of wish fulfillment... written during a series of events which we've all experienced. It's like having your life flash before your eyes without having the benefit of dying!" Referring to those involved in this year's General Election, the song asks: "Can they recall being young and idealistic? Before wading knee-deep in hogwash and arithmetic?" On the following number, "Romeo's Seance," members of the quartet get to have some fun by joining in the chorus singing — something which I suspect is not a regular feature of their concert work!
The performance closes with a trilogy of songs for which Elvis did write all the words and music himself; and a pretty impressive achievement turns out to be. All three address the subject of life after death in different ways. "The First To Leave," with its moving lyric concerning a couple who disagree on the existence of an afterlife, is another which would place amongst the best things he has ever written. "Damnation's Cellar" considers the people who might be brought back from the dead via time machine: "Bring us back Da Vinci so we don't have to ponder the maddening smile of La Giaconda. The critics say Nijinsky, the dancer of course, while the punters would probably prefer the horse." Finally, there is the philosophical "The Birds Will Still Be Singing": "Banish all dismay, extinguish every sorrow. If I'm lost or I'm forgiven, the birds will still be singing..."
At the end, there is a spontaneous standing ovation. The musicians take two bows before returning for an encore. There is a request for "Pump It Up" which draws a smile from Elvis. He explains that they don't know any more songs and invites requests for anything we would like to hear again. They repeat three songs, all from the first half of the concert, before retiring to another standing ovation.
So how can I describe this marvelous music? Is it pop? Is it chamber music? In the end, I suppose it doesn't really matter what you call it. Suffice to say that this is most definitely not a case of "classical musicians disdainfully agree to accompany pop star for good cause" or "pop star hires classical group for credibility." It all seems so beautifully natural that there is no sense of two musical genres colliding. EC's voice blends perfectly into the varied musical settings, really becoming just another instrument. He appears much more comfortable than I had expected. During the instrumental sections he withdraws to a table behind the group, occasionally sipping from a mug of tea, and listening to the music with obvious enjoyment. When it is time to sing again, there is a thunder of elasticated shoes on wooden floorboards as he strides purposefully forward. It is also clear from their faces that the Brodsky Quartet is enjoying the music. They play it with an enthusiasm at least the equal of a certain other group (also boasting two Thomases) which Elvis once worked with.
After the show, EC emerges from the dressing room to applause from a large group of his family and friends and from those members of the audience reluctantly finishing up their beer and tapas, wishing that the night didn't have to end. A gentleman from our table offers Elvis an olive. which he accepts. The playwright Alan Bleasdale is more prudent though, declining the offer with a gesture which indicates that fruit's tendency to cause him certain difficulties which, in the interests of good taste, I will not record too specifically here. As midnight approaches, we decide to make our way back to the hotel. On the steps outside the hall, Paul Cassidy is still beaming with excitement and laughing about his singing part during "Romeo's Seance." We congratulate him on a great evening, and he informs us that a record of The Juliet Letters is scheduled to be made in September. Like ourselves, he clearly can't wait!
Next morning, the London skies are overcast once again. In Oxford Street the record shops are playing the new Springsteen album non-stop and peddling all the latest pop flavours. At the main HMV store, they're queuing up to meet Michael Crawford. None of the papers carry any mention of last night's concert. Perhaps it was too late for them, perhaps they're just not interested. Or perhaps it was all just a dream after all...