Musician, August 1995

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Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and all the other princes

Bill Flanagan

At St. James' Palace where he lives, just over the road from Buckingham Palace where his mother lives, Prince Charles stands up in the middle of his guests and says, "Paul McCartney put so much into this evening." The honored friends all clap their hands and Charles adds, "As somebody who was born a little bit later than he was..." McCartney holds up his forefinger and thumb a fraction of an inch apart to denote a real little as the Prince goes on, "I remember when I was at school and he was at the height of his fame. I was getting out of an aeroplane and a strong gust of wind blew my hair down into my eyes. In the papers the next day it said, 'Prince has Beatles Hairstyle.'" Ho ho ho, the gentry get a big kick out of that one! One Lord laughs so hard that his cummerbund snaps like a slingshot, almost taking out the eye of the bejeweled woman sitting next to him.

To be sitting in the palace patting palms with the aristocracy while the Prince makes jokes and the bourgeoisie cackle is a stretch even for Musician. But this is where McCartney has led, so this is where we follow. Charles seems like a good fellow, even if he does add a few inches to his height by standing on the neck of Ireland. It's unfair to make fun of him for that, though — it's an inherited characteristic. McCartney warned me yesterday that the palace security would peg me as IRA the minute I stepped through the royal door. "You've got a semtex face," McCartney said.

As it turned out, the palace could not have been nicer. Elvis Costello (who is now desperately avoiding eye contact with his future monarch as Charles tries to introduce him to the room) and I even took advantage of our royal guesthood to go exploring the palace's kitchens and pantries, the real Remains of the Day rooms on the wrong side of the velvet ropes. We found a lot of anxious maids running around with spoons and bowls and some paintings that must have been taken out of the parlour after colonialism became gauche. My favorite was a big canvas titled "The Defense of Zululand" that showed a squad of heroic British soldiers slaying wave after wave of wild Africans. Oh man. "Better move that one back to the servant's quarters, Jeeves — don't want company to see it."

We're here because McCartney agreed to put together a benefit concert for the Royal College of Music, of which Prince Charles is titular president. (It may be a small perk next to, say, Wales, but it's better than a key to the washroom.) McCartney recruited several friends, including his sometime songwriting partner Costello and Costello's occasional classical collaborators the Brodsky Quartet, to do a performance at the Palace to which the Prince would invite a couple of hundred of the British gentry, who would kick in a minimum of $400 each. The expenses would be picked up by Classic FM, Britain's independent classical radio station, in exchange for the rights to broadcast a recording of the performance. The Royal College would get $112,000, British radio would get a great show, and Paul McCartney would do his first-ever public performance with Costello, play his smallest show since the Beatles left the Cavern Club, and get a very unusual opportunity to demonstrate the range of his musical gifts, from Beatles songs to selections from his own classical work, The Liverpool Oratorio, to the debut of a new instrumental piece, "A Leaf."

It was a once-in-a-lifetime performance. If you had the chance to go and you didn't you'd be a sap.

"What a place," Costello says. "Nicest palace I ever played at." Costello seems to feel a bit misfit at the Palace. For one thing, he is the only gentleman wearing a red and black checked zoot suit at this black tie affair. A man whose Irish ancestry and anti-authority disposition have never bred love for the English establishment, Costello quit the U.K. for Ireland during the Thatcher era. It says a lot for his respect and affection for McCartney that he is here in the belly of the British lion.

"Really, it's because Paul asked me," Costello says. "To be honest, when George Martin asked me late last year to play at the Prince's Trust I said, 'Maybe when it's a republic here I would.' But I don't mind. If Prince Charles is there it makes no difference to me. He's the patron of the college. Just cause you don't neccesarily [sic] agree with that, you can't let that stand in the way. It's more important that the college keeps going, and if this is a little bit that helps..." Costello pauses, his sense of mischief wrestling with his diplomacy, then he adds, "It's sort of ironic that half-trained or untrained musicians end up coming to help. But that's where we've got to in this country."

That they have come through for the RCM is even more generous when you know that McCartney has his own music academy going. The Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, the "Fame" school opening in the old building where McCartney and George Harrison went to high school — begins its first term in September. McCartney's devoted a lot of time to LIPA, fundraising, lending his name and image to promotions, and doing all he can to proselytize the idea of a school where kids can learn music, performing, and backstage and management skills.

"The government doesn't even keep to their promises when they say, 'Go and get the money from the private sector and then we'll give you some help,'" Costello says. "LIPA's raised a fortune from private investors, and then the government welshes on the deal." He sighs and gets back to the event at hand: "So if it takes picking the pocket of a few court people, so be it. If the Prince turns up and brings his pals along and they dig into their deep pockets then they all go up in my estimation."

It's interesting to watch Costello play Nixon to McCartney's Eisenhower. Elvis's willingness to snarl out loud what Paul might hesitate to say has lately been put to good use. It is a coincidence that since they began writing songs together seven years ago both Costello and McCartney have gone off and worked on classical pieces — Paul's Liverpool Oratorio, Elvis's collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters. As Costello has continued to work in the classical world, he has run into the sort of snooty critic who attempts to praise Elvis by dissing Paul. Recently one such poop suggested to Costello that McCartney was attempting classical music in order to achieve immortality. Costello shut the windbag up by demanding to know if he really thought that Paul McCartney of the BEATLES, the composer of the most famous song of the century, needed to worry about his immortality.

I can answer that: spend a day in a little room with McCartney while he sits with his acoustic guitar and sings "For No One," "Eleanor Rigby," and that most famous song of the century "Yesterday," and you won't have any doubts about his immortality at all.

The afternoon before the Palace performance, McCartney surveyed a small, nearly empty rehearsal room at the Royal College of Music looking for his musicians. First on deck was Anya Alexeyev, a Russian born pianist and recent RCM graduate chosen to debut McCartney's "A Leaf." "Miss Anya," McCartney called. "Por favor." The young musician climbed up on the small stage and began moving through McCartney's piece with a prodigy's dexterity. An immediately compelling melody, "A Leaf" at first made you wonder why McCartney had chosen to steer the instrumental toward a classical designation — it would have made a great pop song. Then what would in pop have been the middle eight turned abruptly left into a sort of hopped-up Duke Ellington section and McCartney's motive became clear: serious music offers him a chance to take an idea in more than one direction, it allows a (love him or hate him you must give him this) brilliant melodist a shot at showing what he can do without one hand tied behind his back.

Yoko Ono once said that during John Lennon's long bread-baking sabbatical he was wrestling with the fact that he no longer felt comfortable cutting his thoughts to fit the pop lyric's cadence and rhyme scheme. While McCartney's work ethic would probably prevent him from letting a similar impediment slow down his songwriting, it must be a relief for him to be able to follow a musical idea where ever it leads. Anya played the piece with a lot of soul, with little pauses and then bursts of momentum that suggested she was confident enough to mess with it a bit. McCartney sat straight-backed, tapping his foot very slowly, paying strict attention.

A booming bass voice came from the back of the room. "Well, at least I know ONE person here!" McCartney looked up and saw two of his Oratorio vets, the opera singers Willard White and Sally Burgess, entering the room as divas do, with a flourish. After the usual How-ya-doin's the two highbrows ran through their part of the show — a few songs from the Liverpool Oratorio and a smattering of American popular songs.

Taken out of the Liverpool Oratorio, the McCartney songs Burgess and White performed stood up amazingly well. "The Drinking Song," as delivered by White, could have sprung from the darker end of Jerome Kern or the lighter side of Bertolt Brecht. But the revelation was Burgess' reading of "Do You Know Who You Are." In the oratorio that piece seemed justified less by its music — which is somewhat disorganized and dreamlike — than by its advancing of the plot. It is sung by a nurse in a hospital to the oratorio's housewife heroine who has been struck by a car and is hovering between life and death, as is the unborn baby she is carrying. In the libretto, "Do You Know Who You Are" sets up the moment when her estranged husband realizes he has been wrong to go off on a drunken binge and returns to his family.

You would expect such a song to be lost outside of the bigger context for which it was conceived, but "Do You Know Who You Are" actually became stronger when set off by itself. The title came from the words a policeman said to the dying John Lennon as he was being rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. They were presumably the last words Lennon ever heard. When you know that, the entire song becomes vivid. It might or might not have been intentional on McCartney's part that the series of crises flowing in and out of the fading consciousness of the character in the song — a mother being struck down by a car, an unborn baby struggling to hang onto life, a husband who goes off on a drunken weekend only to return and ask forgiveness of his wife — are probably the same as the emotional flashpoints of John Lennon's life. That this impressionistic life-flashing-before-your-eyes lyric is interupted with a repetition of the last words Lennon heard as he was dying makes "Do You Know Who You Are" vivid, poignant, and bit shocking at the same time.

McCartney sat down on a folding chair and talked about it. "When I read the story of John's shooting," he said, "there was a bit in it when he's in the ambulance going to hospital, and apparently it's standard procedure to say to whoever it is who's been shot or injured, 'Do you know who you are?' Which I thought was very ironic to ask John. I could almost imagine him laughing. 'Oh God, the final irony!Do you know who you are?Yeah, I'm John Lennon.' It just seemed very trippy to me. So I always remembered that phrase and I worked it into the oratorio."

Lately McCartney, Harrison, and Starr have for the second time gone into the studio to overdub and finish demos that Lennon left behind. The first new Beatles recordings in 25 years, they will probably be released next autumn. "We've got two new ones of John's that we've made into Beatles records, and they're cool," McCartney said. I asked if the three surviving Beatles felt inhibited about recording new songs as a trio, without any Lennon. "At the moment we haven't tried that," McCartney said. "It just seems more natural if John's there. It seems like a better idea. Even though we talked about it, when we actually got hold of the two John songs... then it was the Beatles. Then people can't say, 'You should get Julian in,' or 'You should get Sean in.'

"This way we can say, 'Look, it is the Beatles. Whether you like it or not, even if it is technically done, it actually is the Beatles on record. There are four guys on that record. Through the wonders of technology.' We haven't actually taken it beyond that yet. We did the first track last February, we did the second track this February. As we were saying goodbye to everybody we said, 'See you next February!' Our engineer, Eddie Klein who runs my studio, said, 'If we keep going for twelve years we'll have an album.'"

Costello entered the rehearsal room in the company of drop-in guest George Martin, who produced the Beatles' records. "You know this young man?" Martin called to McCartney, who eyed Costello and answered "I've known him forever!" The Brodsky Quartet appeared and unpacked their fiddles. A few minutes later another unexpected kibbitzer wandered in — Geoff Emerick, who produced Costello's Imperial Bedroom and engineered those Beatles recordings Martin produced. Martin, Emerick, and McCartney fell into the sort of old-mates chatter that might have derailed the rehearsals were McCartney not well- motivated. As Paul went back to listen to the assembled Brodskys rip through one of their own pieces, "Harold in Islington," Emerick said as if everyone didn't know, "The three of us have known each other for more than thirty years." Costello had been interviewing producers for his next album, which he will start in August: seeing Emerick, a lightbulb went on over his head.

The high point of the rehearsals, and the reason such big shots as Martin and Emerick dropped in, was the chance to hear McCartney play some of his greatest songs with the Brodskys. Paul picked up his acoustic and led the Brodskys through a version of "For No One" that made me wish I could travel back in time and trade places with myself in ninth grade. During the bridge in "Yesterday" Brodsky's Paul Cassidy hit a bum note on the viola and McCartney came back in singing, "Yesterday, viola was an easy instrument to play," cracking everyone up and turning Cassidy's face red. Emerick looked on approvingly as McCartney ran through his repertoire, cracking, "This is a man who failed his O-levels in music!"

It occurred to me listening that one reason for the Beatles appeal is never mentioned. We think of the Beatles as great melodists, but while Paul's melodies were quite sophisticated, John's were often very narrow and plain, almost folkie. Now there are advantages and disadvantages to both plain and elaborate vocal melodies. The good thing about a plain melody is that it tends to suggest that the lyrics are true, that the singer is speaking directly to you without ornamentation. That's why polemicists, leftists, and country singers like conversational melodies. Such tunes can, however, get boring. The good thing about ornate melodies is that they excite the ear and keep the listener's attention, but they can also erect a distance from the lyric and make the listener suspect that the blatant craft of the musical construction means that the singer is not speaking his heart, is putting on affectations. Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash, who favor plain melodies, sound very sincere but risk being repetitious. The Beach Boys are musically compelling, but the words and sentiments often come off as artificial or banal — disconnected from the voice singing them. What was remarkable about the Lennon/McCartney team was that the main melody, often sung by John, had that simple, plain-speaking directness that suggests this is true, while the harmonies, often sung by Paul, were innovative and aurally exciting. The combination (and each was capable of taking on the other's role) produced songs that felt both musically compelling and lyrically sincere, innovative craftmanship married to heartfelt delivery.

I spun this whole theory out for Costello who listened patiently and then said, "Which is why they were the best."

On the rehearsal room stage McCartney was at the piano, leading the Brodskys through a rip-roaring "Lady Madonna," after which he called a break. "It's wild," McCartney laughed. "Anything with a string quartet — it completely turns the stuff on its head. And I've never done it before outside of a movie or recording session. Actually doing it live is interesting."

"This is the first time you've played in public with a quartet?" I asked.

"Yeah. And it's the first time Elvis and I have played live. We've written together, we've made demos together, we've done a bit of recording together and we've always enjoyed it. But we've not actually played live together. It's a bit of a first."

McCartney requested that Costello and the Brodskys do a couple of songs and they played "I Almost Had a Weakness" and "The Birds Will Still be Singing" the former the funniest song from The Juliet Letters and the latter the most beautiful. Next they did a showstopping version of Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows," the best encore number from their tours.

"I suggested the Brods do something of their own choice," McCartney explained "Which was 'Harold.' Then I asked Elvis if he would do a couple of things off Juliet Letters because I really like that. I think I expressed that those two were my favorites, so I kind of chose them. Then he said, 'Well, I'll tell you what. We should do 'God Only Knows' cause it's a good showstopper.'"

With that McCartney went up and joined Costello onstage for some two acoustic guitar Everly Brothers action. They played and sang the Beatles' "One After 909" and the McCartney/MacManus song "Mistress and Maid." It was interesting that of the dozen or so songs they've co-written they chose to perform that one for their duet debut, rather than the better known "My Brave Face" or "Veronica."

"Mistress and Maid" is a hard dark song, a lament for a marriage as cold as "For No One" and considerably more acerbic. The refrain is the wife saying to her oafish husband, "Look what you've done to me, I'm just your mistress and maid." On the recorded version, on McCartney's Off the Ground, the song was overproduced and Paul sang it like a lip-smacking movie villain, as if worried that people might miss the point. Singing it stripped down with Costello, McCartney held back and in doing so made the lyric much more powerful. Scarier, too.

"It's lesser known than some of the others but it's one that we enjoyed writing," he said. "It's tempting on a short show to just pack it with your hits that everyone knows. But we decided it would be nice to stick that one in. One of the reasons we wanted to do it is because I did record it up. I sort of made more of a record of it when we did it. Afterward I remembered how it was when we demo'd it. For one thing it was a completely different key. We're singing it really low here and I think I put it up from D to G, I whapped it right up. So it is a more intimate version, which is what the original song was. It got lighter when we recorded it.

Hearing "Mistress and Maid" next to "Eleanor Rigby," "For No One" and "Yesterday," I realized that McCartney's public image as an eternal optimist is not supported by his work. It was something I'd been circling around since I heard Steve Earle's new version of "I'm Lookin Through You," as bitter a put-down song as ever got softened in the studio. McCartney has certainly written lots of positive songs, but from "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be" to "That Day is Done" and "Put It There," his optimism is always in the face of a shadow. There is always some awful thing that has to be overcome. If there's a defining subtext in McCartney's music it's probably "Take these broken wings and learn to fly."

"Yeah, well," McCartney said quietly, "that's me I suppose. I think that the danger is if you just get into the happy songs then it can be a little bit music hall. It can get a little bit light. So I like to always have a little bit of edge, or else a little bit of tongue-in-cheek. You know, 'When I'm 64' isn't really a song about growing old, although on the surface it is. It's a joke song, but it has serious concerns in it, a little melancholy.

'Yesterday' — she went away and all that shit. 'Suddenly I'm not half the man I used to be.' But if you think about it, I was writing those in my early 20s! Talking about not half the man I used to be when I was barely a man!"

I said, if you'd been half that man you'd have been eleven.

"They have more poignancy now," McCartney said, "just because of the water that's been under all our bridges. So we all now relate to those lyrics a little bit more seriously. Perhaps." He changed gears and said, "But you know, my composing has always been made up, it's a fantasy. I remember George Harrison saying to me when I did 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,' 'How'd you do that? You don't know anyone named Desmond or Molly, you don't know any of these people.'

"I said, 'I just like making up a story.' A short story writer doesn't necessarily know the pit and the pendulum, he hasn't necessarily been to Dracula's castle. But he makes it up as an escape in a way. I think a lot of my songwriting always was, and still is, an escape."


"From the harsh realities of the world. If I'm in a bad mood, I always find that a good time to write a song. Go off on your own and put the feelings in a song rather than in someone's face. The fact that it's a musical vehicle seems to defuse it a bit. Rather than just shouting at someone or wagging a finger, you can get those emotions out.

"I think 'For No One' was probably an argument with a girlfriend. I think that was a little bit of a tough time. But 'Eleanor Rigby' was completely fictitious. When I grew up I remember hearing from various people that people like sad songs. It had not really occurred to me. So as I became a songwriter I always remembered, 'People liked sad songs. I don't know why, but they just like 'em. They work in music.' I now know why. It's because it's a powerful medium to put those emotions in. But 'Eleanor' was completely fictitious. There is a grave up in Liverpool..."

Oh yes, the famous story of the grave of an Eleanor Rigby in the churchyard where McCartney met Lennon. "I think I made the name up!" McCartney said. "But right there in Woolton in the church John and I used to hang out near... It's all pretty spooky but as far as I'm concerned it was just a matter of chance."

It was about 11 PM when the rehearsal broke up. A while later I was walking back toward Hyde Park, toward my hotel, when a car pulled up alongside me and McCartney stuck his head out of the window. "Hey, want a ride?" I climbed in and he said, "Just push that junk over." A lyric book and an acoustic guitar. The next evening at the Palace Prince Charles' guests stood around drinking champagne and waiting for the royal gig to begin. As everyone filed into a drawing room where a makeshift stage had been erected under a particularly porcine portrait of Henry VIII, Paul Cassidy — the Irish Brodsky — spotted the Prince's butler telling four crestfallen teenage girls who had played violin music while the guests arrived that in spite of what they had been promised they would not be allowed to go in and watch McCartney play after all. The only chairs not taken by guests were close to the Prince and Charles could not be seated within eyesight of the help. Cassidy's Irish ears turned red at this insult to the only other musicians in the place. Pretty soon the kids found themselves seated behind the curtain with the McCartneys, while Elvis went and found programs for them. They got the best seats in the house.

McCartney says he doesn't think young Prince Charles was at the famous Royal Variety Performance in 1963 when the Beatles played for the Queen and her court. That was the night that John Lennon told the people in the cheap seats to clap "and the rest of you just rattle your jewelry." But you know who was there, also on the bill? The Joe Loss Orchestra with singer Ross MacManus — who got John, Paul, George, and Ringo to sign autographs for his eight-year-old son Declan, a very big Beatles fan. The other day Declan, who now calls himself Costello, told his dad he was playing the palace with McCartney. Ross replied, "Stealing my gig!"

Watching from behind the curtain as McCartney sings a heartbreaking "Yesterday" Costello says quietly, "Listen to that. That's why this guy is in the business."

The morning after the palace show, I follow Costello down to Paris where he has agreed to play his first-ever opening act slot, for Bob Dylan. Elvis has his new album of cover songs, Kojak Variety, to promote, but with his perverse ambition he instead treats the French crowd to a set full of new material, what will presumably make up his next album which he will begin recording in August.

When he finishes Costello stands behind the curtain watching Dylan weave through inspired versions of "I Want You," "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," and a fair chunk of Blood on the Tracks. Studying Dylan this close makes you conscious of what a commanding performer he can be when he chooses and how this endless tour has resulted in his developing, at this late date, unexpected if eccentric skill as a lead guitarist. He plays in blue lights, backlit with a white spot to disguise the lines on his face and emphasize the thin frame and halo of hair. He looks just like the cover of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits.

As he comes off stage Dylan confers with Costello, the two of them laughing. I look around and see an unlikely handful of guests gathering behind the stage, including expatriate Americans Elliot Murphy and Ernie Brooks, incoming Attractions Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve, and guitarists Marc Ribot and James Burton.

Those last four are here for rehearsals for Costello's Kojak Variety shows in London next week. The next day the Attractions, Ribot, and Burton set up in a Paris rehearsal studio and blast through hours of oldies. It's a gas to watch Burton — who played guitar with Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley — and avant-gardist Ribot trade licks, work out arrangements, and find common ground. "Better be careful here," Ribot cracks after they practice some harmony lines on the guitar, "We don't want to be mistaken for the Allman Brothers!" Burton is a pure pleasure to watch. He maintains eye contact with all the other musicians like a secret service agent and as hard as he works, he rarely stops smiling.

And here's what it leaves me thinking: if you love rock 'n' roll and all the music that has grown out of rock 'n' roll, you are very lucky to be around in 1995.

There will never again be a moment when so many of the giants are alive and operating at the same time...[long list of big names] What a great time to be a music lover!

At least that's what I was thinking when I went from watching Paul McCartney singing "For No One" on Thursday to Bob Dylan singing "All Along the Watchtower" on Friday to Elvis Costello jamming with James Burton in a little room on Saturday. How lucky we all are. Leave the complaints to the kids who'll come next, the ones who'll miss what we take for granted. We cats here in the 1990s, we've got it made.

<< >>

Musician, No. 201, August 1995

Bill Flanagan reports on the Royal College Of Music benefit concert, Thursday, March 23, 1995, St. James Palace, London, England.


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