The handshake and the executive producer

It’s twenty years since I moved to London, started a job in a margarine factory, and went on a blind date. I’ve written before about how me and my partner Simon met, and the impact on how I listened to music.

Meeting his Dad deepened my appreciation of the creative process. But in telling the story I’ve discovered that not everyone takes the time to listen to that bit. 

 

The car park at the Ipswich Hotel is as I recall a gravelly affair.

Cars line the outer edge on this particular morning in the middle of which is parked a two-storey bus with blacked-out windows. It’s comparatively discreet exhaust pipe chugs out a white cloud of something noxious. The vehicle hides the missed architectural opportunity of the hotel itself.

This is the third hotel I’ve visited in seven day, playing the role of pseudo-rock groupie to recent blind-date chance find, Simon the Quo Tour Manager.

It’s an odd part to play. I feel quite exposed quite a lot of the time. I’m not there for the music – they must realise that, surely – I’m actually there for what seems in the cold light of day for something a whole lot more sordid.

“Dad’s doing Richard and Judy on Friday morning,” says Simon on a late-night whispered phone call. “I’m coming up with him in his car after the gig tomorrow night. Come to Tottenham Court Road and meet us there.”

After a false start, a drunken conversation, and numerous letters exchanged in the intervening week after our blind date, this proposal was enticing but also a little terrifying. Meeting the parent(s) on a second date seemed a little premature. Also, potentially awkward.

Criminal

On that first hotel jaunt I’d hung back on the pavement opposite the entrance until they arrived, oddly self-conscious about the cheap leather jacket and the raggedy pair of jeans. I didn’t want to be seen. I also didn’t want to be seen in there dressed like this. This all felt a little seedy.

In error, I concluded that the most sensible option to play down the feelings of seediness I had would be to skulk behind a couple of parked cars instead. From here I could wait for a car I didn’t know the registration of, so that I could meet someone I barely knew in a location in London I’d never been to before.

I was waiting for a domestic travel arrangement – say a Volvo estate with Simon in the passenger seat offering directions.

What rolled-up silently was the distinctly more showbiz sight of a black limo, after which doors slammed and people darted around conspicuously. This was obviously them – I recognised Simon at least. But it all looked like another world passing by in front of me. Not one I’d ever pictured myself alongside.

This, like so many experiences over these weird four or five weeks, was surreal. On the one hand I was in the moment, standing outside a hotel in central London too frightened to go in and waiting for two relative strangers, one of whom I sort of knew, the other I’d known of since I was a kid. On the other hand, I was standing in the freezing cold in mid-December feeling like a criminal for no apparent reason.

It was exciting, don’t get me wrong. It was also a bit fucking weird. This kind of thing never happened in rural Suffolk. Now, within the space of three weeks it was happening to me in London.

I waited a while until my hands got really cold, and the tip of my nose even colder, and then headed in. Everything appeared fine and manageable in my embarrassingly closeted head, until I made the error of saying to the hotel receptionist that “I’m here to see Mr Rossi”. She dutifully picked up the phone and dialled the number. “Ah OK,” I heard her say into the phone looking back at me at the same time, “I’ll call him instead. Thank you.”

Three hotels in a week

Brighton followed Tottenham Court Road. Ipswich followed Brighton. By this time – the first time I’d been back in Ipswich since I’d left a month before – all were clearly at ease, and the first introduction seemed an inevitability and possibly something to look forward to.

The surroundings were inevitable though not exactly conducive to meet a current fling’s father. If you’ve not been lucky enough to go backstage at the Ipswich Regent then strike it off your list. There’s not much to see, nor very much space to see it in either.

Extremely cramped surroundings shattered any illusion I had about a rock band’s backstage life. Sweaty men with lank hair bounded around grumpily. A lady in the corner handed freshly ironed white shirts and jeans accordingly. If an orchestral musician had been told this was their backstage arrangement they’d have been up in arms.

“This is Jon everybody,” says Simon like he was introducing the new catering manager – hellos passed around the changing room like warm bottled beer. I smiled nervously and pointed out how shit the surroundings were.

Though each of these surreal experiences were progressively becoming the norm, I still felt incredibly self-conscious, as though I had a massive illuminated sign attached my forehead with the words “You Need To Treat This One With Kid Gloves”.

Less ageing rockers, more like friends on a spa weekend

They must have seen the sign, read it and acted on it. That night after the gig, back at the hotel, another round of introductions, and a little more time spent with them in what seemed to me like the grandest of hotel suites, all wrapped up in fluffy oversized bathrobes. Less ageing rockers, more friends on a spa weekend. I felt embarrassed to be there, desperate not to encroach on downtime. I hadn’t asked for this access. I didn’t want to take for granted the generosity which had resulted in that access either.

The following morning, I busied myself packing my bag in the boot of my tinny Seat Ibiza before my journey down the A14 back to Beckton.

I heard a crunching on the gravel behind me. I turned around to see a hand offered out in front of me. “See you on Christmas Eve,” said Francis shaking my hand, “See you at the family get-together.”

Recalling that moment now chokes me up. It took me completely by surprise.  An unexpected gesture. An invitation from a man I barely knew to join a family at Christmas I didn’t feel I’d earned a place in, because of a blind date I’d turned up late for. I’d barely spoken a few words to Francis, spilt beer in his son’s flat, dismissed Quo’s musical output to Simon, and I possessed a shit Spanish car.

We shook hands. I said yes. For a while I didn’t quite believe it had happened. That I had somehow made it up in my imagination.

It was only a few years ago, having spent a significant amount of the time I dedicate to daily rumination that Simon revealed an anecdote of his own. “Ron the bus driver saw it. He saw it happen. From behind the wheel Ron said hello to Dad when he got into the bus, then watched him step outside again and walk across the car park to you.”

Closing the circle

But it’s impact has been even greater.

The circle was closed in that handshake. I had witnessed a performer I’d made assumptions about show authenticity. It was a handshake that revealed the real person behind the performer on stage.

That image is a shift from the tropes a media narrative necessarily needs to rely on in order to communicate quickly and effectively with a reader, viewer or a listener.

The stage divides the performer from his or her audience. It distances both from one another too. What gets in the way are projections and assumptions, often fuelled by gossip, unsubstantiated claims, or downright lies. Permission is implicitly given to the audience to form an opinion about the performance, and because of the distance between us and them, we forget the human quality necessary for the performance to happen in the first place.

I had played, worked and lived in an orchestral world for years before I met Simon, but never really appreciated the necessary human connection between performer and audience member until I shook hands with his Dad in the Ipswich Hotel carpark. Now that I do appreciate it, I find myself striving for the closest proximity to the performer as I can, whilst simultaneously avoiding it becoming a police matter.

Proximity makes it real. Distance risks letting all sorts of unhelpful things getting in the way.

Executives with no time

Years later, I was at Broadcasting House giving a presentation to a group of exec producers and commissioners from BBC Music about blogging and social media.

Outside, on the piazza you see on The One Show from time to time, Status Quo’s stage crew were setting up for a sound-check.

There was a real-life example I could use as an illustration. I told the execs a shortened version of the story I’ve shared here, concluding that it was my belief that media narratives and the mistakes creatives make in contextualising music distances the audience from the joy of listening.

“What’s your point, Jon? Can you get to it quickly? We’re all of us very busy.”

It was obvious he was never going to get it. He was also fucking rude. So I trailed off. And then I glared at him – my best disapproving mother stare.

I never did finish off my point. There didn’t seem much point. So I’m going to say now what I wished I’d said to him then.

Acts of creativity like songs, symphonies, concertos, poetry or whatever are themselves the result of great personal investment on the part of the author, composer, songwriter or performer.

As consumers we unwittingly fall into the trap of letting that act of creativity become a commodity. And as soon as we do that we overlook the miracle of its creation. Remind people of that, and appreciation of multiple art forms will soar.

I imagine that executive producer must have been a very busy man.

Or maybe he was one with a very short attention span.

Or, quite possibly, he’s someone who doesn’t especially appreciate music. Shame on him.

The picture at the top of this post was taken at Status Quo’s Roundhouse live pre-record of an edition of Radio 2 Live in Concert in which the band played tracks from their then new acoustic album. The band appeared on The One Show at Broadcasting House a few hours before the recording. 

 

Blind Date

Twenty years ago to the day I went on a blind date.

It was a serendipitous moment. Not only did it transform my personal life, but it gave my musical appreciation a bit of a shot in the arm.

I was late to the date. Fifteen minutes late. But he waited.

The first thing I saw of Simon was his Converse-clad feet set at ten to two.

I apologised for my late arrival. He pointed to the closed White Swan pub behind him. “Shall we go to the Railway Inn next door?”

It was a shitty pub in which we drank shitty beer. But it was a safe location.

I wasn’t out to anyone. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing. What I knew was that Compton Street, contrary to perceived opinion, was not the place for closet case with a rural upbringing.

Chat Lines

Simon and I had been introduced via a mutual ‘friend’, Sean.

Sean was someone I had met via a chat line soon after I’d moved to London.

He was in search of someone with a rugby player build. I was good at spinning a line.

When I arrived at Sean’s flat, he inevitably looked disappointed. “Well I’m here now,” I quipped. “Waste not want not.”

Such pragmatism didn’t carry through. I may not have had the build, but Sean showed little sign of great technique. Things ground to halt soon after I clambered onto the mattress. 

“You should meet a friend of mine,” he said to me as I was tying my shoelaces. “He works in band management.”

This had been the line that hooked me. Two weeks in London, two weeks after leaving my job in orchestral management, and two weeks into my new job at a margarine factory in East London, arts administration still lingered like an ex unwilling to move on. And now, one complete stranger was introducing me to another complete stranger who also happened to work in arts administration. This was a lifeline. Or so it seemed.

Awkward

“I work for a rock band,” explained Simon as he sipped his cider. “It’s not very glamorous,” he added, “it’s lots of running around getting people cigarettes and paying for taxis.”

Conversation between us was limited in a pub occupied by a handful of mid-week East end drinkers.

“Would you like to come back to my flat?” he Simon. This man was efficient.

“Why not? Where is it?”

On the face of it, agreeing to go back to someone’s flat 45 minutes after you’ve first met them may seem a little rash. But in some situations instinct gives a guiding hand.

Simon seemed interested, interesting, and inviting. And most importantly of all he had the portable radio on the back seat of his car tuned to Radio 4. “I love Radio 4,” he told me as he started up the car, “I love the Archers.” Another tick.

At his ground floor flat in Kings Avenue, Clapham I casually flicked through the considerable CD collection whilst Simon retrieved drinks from the kitchen. Jussi Bjorling, Vivaldi Four Seasons, a bit of Tchaikovksy, and quite a lot of Status Quo. This could be problematic.

“What do you want?” he shouted from the kitchen. “A beer. Cider. Or a cup of tea?”

“Beer, please.”

I moved to the mantelpiece where a full range of framed pictures gave me a better impression of the man in the kitchen. In the middle, in a yellowy frame was Simon sat cross-legged next to someone who looked vaguely familiar. I looked in closely.

“I see you’ve got to the pictures then,” said Simon as he came into the room.

“Yes,” I replied. Suitably buoyed by the implicit permission given, I deployed my best attempt at my coolest humour. “I’ve also been through the CDs. There’s quite a lot of Status Quo. You’re quite the fan.”

Simon smiled nervously.

“And you’ve had your picture taken with the lead singer of Status Quo,” I said pointing at the mantelpiece. “Even for a fan, that’s quite sad you know.”

“That’s my Dad.”

We’ve been together ever since. Twenty-years today. I count myself very lucky indeed, every single day. I look at all the things that could have got in the way of us getting together and all the things that could have prevented us from staying together and count my blessings. It sounds corny, I know. But it is the truth. I cannot explain it. So it must surely be luck.

Maybe it was music

Simon and I appeared to bond over music. This in part because, like the ground floor Georgian flat conversion, I had never seen a music system quite so big.

Big JBL 4410s flanked a similarly over-sized television screen. On the table in front of me were a dizzying array of remote controls.

“You have to turn the amp up a bit to get the monitors performing well,” said Simon proudly, “that’s when you really hear the music.”

The room boomed and thundered. Top registers were bright and distinct. The music was all around us. I hadn’t heard music like this before.

On reflection I think we also bonded over music because a high quality music system gave each of us a reason to share in one another’s music.

For me that meant being introduced to the music of Stephen Sondheim, Fleetwood Mac, and Stevie Wonder.

And for him (because this was also the first opportunity I’d had to hear my collection played on a decent system) that meant Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, the first movement from Shostakovich’s Lennigrad, the second movement of Rachmaninov’s second symphony, and In Paradisum from Faure’s Requiem.

Music Tennis

Our blind date wasn’t only about sharing in one another’s music choices. It was about engaging in a bit of ‘music tennis’, a process of acknowledging the marvel of what we’d just heard and responding to it with something equally awesome for new ears – the kind of thing Spotify does for you now with an algorithm.

But more importantly, meeting Simon set me on a path to listening differently.

First, I’d never listened to lyrics quite so intently. Up until then I’d approached pop and rock as music first often overlooking the words. When Simon focused my attention on the agonising lyrics in Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again. What had previously been a sweet sounding song was transformed into something exquisitely dark.

Similarly, the jaw-dropping efficiency of Stephen Sondheim’s lyric writing combined with the complex multi-layered orchestra score in some of the master musical theatre composer’s greatest works made the combination of drama and music a revelation. Benjamin Britten appeared static, unadventurous and other-worldly in comparison.

That Simon is an audiophile seems an obvious point to make today, but twenty years ago it hadn’t dawned on me. He sat and listened to music, in the same way that I sit and listen to an entire Mahler symphony without the blink of an eye now. But back then, such active engagement in musical appreciation was new to me.

Listen now; talk after. This music wasn’t wallpaper, but art to be appreciated.

Twenty Years Ago Today

Twenty years ago today, I started a new job in London.

The day before I finished my previous job in East Suffolk, packed up the contents of my flat, and sped down the A12 in fourth gear in a clapped-out Seat Ibiza packed full of tat.

Four hours later (there was a lot of traffic) I parked up outside a house in Beckton owned by a violinst in the Royal Opera House in East London, from where a new life was scheduled to begin twelve hours later.

We’ll get to the detail in the next few weeks.

For now though what happened over the month-to-six weeks that followed twenty years ago was the most remarkable string of unexpected, unplanned, and still inexplicable experiences.

My car was packed with all sorts of things, very little of which would squeeze into the box room I was renting from my friend.

And in the CD crate, music I’d been listening to during two and half years spent in Aldeburgh.

I didn’t especially want to leave Aldeburgh. But, the pull of money and a long-term bet to sail around the world made the opportunity irresistible. The sailing idea sunk soon after I moved to London. We’ll come on to why that was in the next few weeks too.

In the meantime, take a listen (via Spotify below) to some of the music I drove to London listening to.

Brace yourself. This list is going to appear a little odd.