A Life in the Life
By Simon Fellowes.
I was sitting in the corner of my neighbourhood pub when McCartney walked in. I was surprised to see him, as was everyone in the room. I quickly worked out his reason for being there: his daughter lived only a few buildings away, her moving-in the final confirmation that my neighbourhood was now gentrified. Be-cause, like so many others around me, it was important to appear cool, I didn’t react to McCartney’s presence, not even when he took the stool adjacent to mine, sat down, and ordered himself a half of Guinness. I figured he was either keeping tabs on his weight, or didn’t plan on sticking around for long. ‘I’ll meet you at the pub,’ would have been the message to his daughter. ‘Grab a quick half before we go out to eat.’ ‘You sure you’ll be okay in the pub on your own?’ she would have asked. ’I’ll have someone with me,’ McCartney would have replied, ‘just don’t be too long.’ At least I figured that’s how the telephone conversation would have gone. Sure enough, McCartney did have someone with him, an anonymous bloke in his mid-30’s – leather jacket, blue jeans, mid-length hair – a studio engineer perhaps, or a member of McCartney’s management company. The two men didn’t seem too concerned with each other, engaging in intermittent small talk as Macca killed the minutes before his daughter arrived. To my relief and admiration, no one in the bar came over to interrupt them. This was important to me, as I liked to believe I was living in a part of London where celebrity sightings could take place without a stir. This was the reason many of my friends had moved there in the first place, to prove we could rise above such constructs, convincing ourselves that fame and celebrity was somehow beneath us, and merely the obsession of others, those less connected with the crude machinations of the world, the grubby levers of power, the choosing of who might be ‘in or out’. Our reaction was nonsense of course; there were certain celebrities who would have set the room alight… Bowie, Prince, José Mourinho… if anyone of them had entered the bar, people would have jumped up and down like sugar-gorged toddlers. But McCartney was no longer seen in the same way. He was now the thumbs-aloft everyman, wrecking yet another eight-minute version of ‘Hey Jude’ at some charity sing-a-thon. He was the man who had been played for a fool by a one-legged gold-digger with a shady Arabian past. A man who insisted on dying his hair the colour of a 1970’s coffee table, his once boyish features now owl-like, though illuminated by remarkably enthusiastic eyes. I myself had once toyed with the ‘Nice & Easy’, but found it a chore once realising it was a process that had to be administered every six weeks; the tedious mix-and-match palaver, head painted James Fox-style over a bathroom sink, splotches of black ink discovered days later staining the floor, rubber gloves tossed like used condoms in a basket. It was an ignominious rigmarole and one I grew tired of, reinforced by the claim made by numerous women, that ‘grey suited me better’, women over 40 I might add, who spend ludicrous amounts of money having their own tresses tinted and streaked, and would no more dream of letting a strand of grey show than wear a thonged bikini in a public area. But McCartney persists. Then again he is a public figure, one of the last remaining Mop-Tops. He regularly plays to tens of thousands of people, his face projected on giant video screens. He knows that many of the crowd watching him are re-living their youth. Would it be so easy for them to do so if confronted with a silver-haired troubadour long past the age of 64? For some of his contemporaries such youthful pretence is no longer an issue: Bob Dylan sports a pompadour of grey cumuli, Jimmy Page, a raffish mane of white. James Taylor meanwhile is defiantly bald on top and has been for some time. But there are more who resist: Mick Fleetwood, Paul Simon, the Edge, none of whom are ever seen out of doors without headgear. Jeff Beck, who I recently spotted in my local branch of Planet Organic, also resists the Hi Ho Silver Lining. Like them, McCartney tenaciously holds onto his youth, no doubt to please please those who love him yeah yeah yeah.
I sipped on my lager and did my level best to return to whatever I had been thinking before the former Beatle walked in. But of course it was impossible. I was sat beside a man who had half-written the soundtrack to my life. I also had a personal relationship with the guy, bookended by two remarkable experiences.
As a child – my mother tells me – she would soothe me in my pram by placing a transistor radio next to my head. Back then it wouldn’t have been playing Radio One as Radio One didn’t exist, but whatever light programme happened to be buzzing from the speakers, it had the effect of indoctrinating me with the power, the structure and the magic of the three minute song. Of all the beat combos flooding my orchietto-sized ears, the Fab Four were my favourite. So much so, that at the advanced age of four, like some Merseybeat version of Rainman, I knew all the words to their songs. My mother would find me twisting in the aisles of supermarkets whenever their songs were played on the PA system. I would habitually arrange a set of kitchen stools in our front room, close the curtains, and using a pair of plastic skittles, hammer away at them, imagining I was Ringo. Thus it seemed only right, that for the Christmas of 1965, I should receive a very special gift, a ticket to see my idols performing at the Hammersmith Odeon, a venue I myself would play some twenty years later.
In truth, I don’t remember too much of that evening. I remember we had good seats in the stalls. I also remember that many of the girls sat around us were wearing T-Shirts hand-scribed with the words John Paul, George & Ringo – black felt-tipped on white cotton. There were several other groups playing that night, the proceedings hosted by a comedy compere, the event more like a variety show than a gig. I still have the programme – the cover, a powder blue background [above] with a cartoon version of The Beatles in their matching peg-legged suits. I now know that the concert took place on the 10th of December, but what no one knew at the time, was that would turn out to be the last UK tour The Beatles ever performed. After the night I saw them, they would only play two more British shows – Finsbury Park Astoria, and the Capitol Centre in Cardiff. I am pretty sure therefore, that I am the youngest person in Britain ever to see The Beatles play live. There may be a four year-old who attended San Francisco’s Candlestick Park – the Beatles last ever gig, not counting the rooftop jam above Savile Row – who can beat my record. But not here in the UK. This was a fact I considered mentioning to McCartney as he sat beside me in my local pub. But I figured, the guy already dyes his hair – why make him feel any older than he does?
When the band came onstage back in December ’65, I remember seeing a blinding white light as the auditorium erupted with hormonal screams. The band couldn’t be heard at all, and I felt as if I had been thrown into the guts of a jet engine. Everyone around me was up on their feet, howling, wailing, imploring. Lord knows what I must have made of it at the time, but I was clearly excited because while the teenage girls around me were peeing their pants, I went a stage further, and in true rock and roll style, projectile vomited over the next row. I was immediately shepherded to the back of the venue where, in a St John’s Ambulance room, I was hastily wiped down. Unlike today, no one questioned the wisdom of a mother bringing a four year-old child to a Pop concert – it was The Beatles after all, and all the rules were being rewritten. Once cleaned of my sick, I was taken back to the hall, now a seething mass of silhouettes. In the distance I could still see the same white light, and standing within it, the four skinny mannequins so firm in my mind, their faces a bright sweaty pink, the light radiating off them as if they were alien beings. It was a struggle for me to see, but a kindly policeman, the likes of which are now only seen at the Notting Hill Carnival, hoisted me onto his shoulders where I was able to enjoy the rest of the performance in peace, no doubt clapping and singing along as I tried to make out the inaudible words emanating from the lips of John, George or Paul.
The event was a marker for the rest of my life. It defined me both as a lover of Pop music and also as someone who under-stood what made Pop music great. I felt intimately connected to the holy tablets, much like the American kids who had watched agog as Elvis first swung his hips in Memphis. At least that’s the way the memory makes me feel. You’re welcome to challenge it.
I followed the trajectory of The Beatles for the rest of my life, the release of Sgt. Pepper’s the highpoint. It coincided with my parents’ divorce and I note now how the band’s subsequent releases didn’t become part of my existence until some years later. At the age of six I could recite the entirety of Sgt. Pepper’s word for word. The albums that came afterwards, I didn’t get around to purchasing until my early twenties. I guess at the age of seven I must have had other things on my mind.
I didn’t bother telling McCartney this snippet of information either. Somehow it didn’t feel appropriate. Not after his own trials on the domestic front. Neither did I mention my final connection with him.
I had been making a record in London’s Air Studios at the time with my then musical partner Simon G. Working out the chords of a song, I was sat at a Steinway piano clumsily bashing out a sequence. Simon was beside me, playing the bass notes as I struck the passing chords. The song was gradually coming together when we were interrupted by a studio engineer who had entered the room to pick up some equipment. Noticing the two of us sitting together, he mumbled, ‘That’s McCartney’s that is.’
‘You what?’ one of us replied.
‘The Steinway. It’s Macca’s. Had it brought over from Abbey Road.’
‘This is the Steinway from Abbey Road?’ I asked semi-incredulously.
‘The one McCartney used for ‘Hey Jude’?’ spluttered Simon.
“The very one,’ the engineer grinned, shuffling out of the room.
Simon and I froze, our hands instinctively lifting from the keys. We stared at each other and exhaled. We were touching something divine, something precious and magical… an instrument on which had been recorded some of the most profoundly important and affecting songs of our lives.
And we were messing about on it.
We felt like fraudsters, muppets, a pair of kids who had sneaked in backstage.
Nevertheless, there was still a song to be worked out, and the things never wrote themselves. After a few seconds, we began playing again.
I could have told Macca that story as well. Not that he needed it telling. Even to this day, I figure he would have enjoyed both my tales, and who knows, one day I might still get the chance to recount them. Instead, I let him finish his Guinness in peace. I figured it was the best thing to do. And if John, George or Ringo had been watching from the other side of the room, I am sure they would have smiled and given me a wink, if only to let me know that I had made the right call.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Simon Fellowes is a writer living and working in London. Beginning his career as a freelance journalist for the NME, he went on to form the duo Intaferon (‘Get Out of London’) before enjoying a successful solo career in the USA as Simon F. Moving from NYC to LA, he spent the next decade directing music videos before returning to London to work as a screenwriter. More recently he has been working as a creative strategist for several major corporations while writing his Hollywood trilogy of novels, the first two of which – Don’t Breathe the Air and My Name is Ferdinand! – are now available via Strata Books.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 12th, 2014.