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- The Observer
- Timeline More from year 2003
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Don’t know how lucky you are, boys
We actually flew into St Petersburg. Brian Eno’s wife Anthea has links there, and after Brian did a masterclass at my old school, LIPA, she said I should do a masterclass there. So when we started talking about Russia, I told the promoters I wanted to link in Anthea’s offer to do a masterclass and cut the ribbon at an orphanage called the Menshikov Foundation. Then the St Petersburg Conservatoire decided they were going to give me an honorary doctorate. Which is unbelievable! I mean, this is where Tchaikovsky went! There is similarity between LIPA and the Conservatoire, but I was just walking round, thinking, ‘Stravinsky_ Tchaikovsky_’
I didn’t play for them. I would have had to practise a little bit, seeing as Tchaikovsky was the opening act. But it was a lovely thing, fantastic. And when it was time to leave St Petersburg I was joking, saying, ‘Come on, it’s time to march on Moscow.’
Really knock me out
The concert was great, the reception we got was fabulous. At first it was just going to be 35,000 people, all seated, which wasn’t what we had in mind at all. But they opened it up and we had real hardcore fans at the front and back, and dignitaries and paying customers sandwiched in between. The rest of the crowd was bananas. It was everything I’d ever hoped for. And then Putin did turn up halfway through, which was an added bonus, because he’s very popular – I’m sure it won’t do him any harm either. Heather and I had spoken to him about landmine clearances earlier, and when he turned up I was singing the line, ‘May we never be called to handle all the weapons of war we despise,’ on ‘Calico Sky’, which is probably the only anti-war sentiment in the whole show.
Hardly knew the place
In the Sixties, we’d heard The Beatles were massively popular in the Soviet Union, and that there were Levis and Beatles records on the black market. We were massively touched, because when we were kids, with the whole idea of the Iron Curtain and stuff, it just seemed like a mystical land of intrigue. We were quite honoured that they knew us and apparently loved us.
Finally to go there and get officials coming up to me saying, ‘We learned English from your songs_ “You say yes! I say no!_ Hello!_ Goodbye!”‘ – I couldn’t believe it. Another one would come up and go ‘When I find myself in time of trouble_ Mother Mary come to me.’ I mean, bloody hell! These guys were, 50, 60 years old, and one of them was the Russian Defence Minister, who said to me ‘When I bought “Love Me Do…” – and I was just went ‘Woaahhh!’
Back in the USSR
The reaction to ‘Back in the USSR’ was just electric. I knew it was going to be good, but nothing could have prepared me for the actual reaction. And I should have known really, logically and intellectually. Lots of people said to me, ‘This is the only song that anyone ever wrote about Russia,’ – in the pop genre. And they asked, was it tongue in cheek? And I said, ‘Yeah, ‘course, it was a pisstake on Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”.’ Everyone was like, ‘We can’t wait for you to play it!’ We usually play it in the middle of the set, and for most shows it works well there. But when we did it, I just thought, it’s in the wrong place. And Putin had missed it by the time he’d arrived, so I just added it to the encore and razzed it up a little bit more, and I introduced it by saying, ‘We’ve had a special request for this one again.’
Take me to your daddy’s farm…
At the Kremlin we were met by a very Russian-looking general, taken down these huge corridors and shown into the inner sanctum. I asked if Tony Blair had been in here but the translator said no, apparently there was another room for him, and this was even more inner sanctum, this was Putin’s private quarters. Putin stage-managed it of course, but when you’re in the Kremlin you don’t walk in and say, right, we want to do this and that. So we met Putin in front of all the cameras, then he sent all the press out, and eventually he even sent his translator out, because he speaks pretty good English. And he was fabulous. We had a quite intimate conversation about his life, which was quite refreshing. Then I asked, ‘Are you coming to the show?’ and he said, ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to get there,’ which I understood, because of all the security issues. But there was a piano in there so I played him ‘Let it Be’. I hadn’t been so nervous in years – it was my first gig in Russia, and it was just me, Heather and Putin.
Been away so long…
The idea of playing Moscow was first mooted back in the Wings days, I think, but it didn’t happen for one reason or another. Then a couple of years ago I was going do a few gigs to get back into the swing of things, and the idea of Red Square was raised again, and I said I’d love to do it. But that was before 9/11. We’d been in New York to pick up an award for my wife Heather and on that day we were on the runway at JFK waiting to take off when the first plane hit the Twin Towers. We could actually see it through the window. So we ended up spending a week or so in America, reliving it with the American people, and then got involved with the Concert for New York. But after the US tour, we did Japan and Mexico, and we were coming back to Europe and I said we really must go to Russia. We did, and it was fantastic.
Leave it ’til tomorrow
We went back and had a look around Red Square the day after the show, and we had a bike ride. I was told off by the cycling bureau or someone. The guy couldn’t speak very good English and he just kept going, ‘Niet! Niet!’ and I was like, ‘What?’. And he said, ‘No cycling,’ meaning on Red Square. So I asked, ‘Why not?’ and he said, ‘Sacred place.’ So I said, ‘But I just did a concert here last night,’ and he said, ‘I know_ good show, great show!’ And there were a lot of incidents like that, but it was all very good humoured… and at the end of the day we sneaked a little bike ride in.