Friday, 12 October 2012

The sixth Beatle

If Pete Best is the fifth Beatle – or is that Stuart Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein or George Martin – then Hunter Davies is surely the sixth. More than Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr themselves, he is still the go-to authority on all things Beatle-related – 44 years after he wrote the only authorised biography of the world's most famous band. 

Davies is one of my very favourite people. Warm, funny, nosy and indiscreet, he is still, at 76, a prolific author and old-school hack. I first met him through a close friend, his nephew, and when Ross lived at his uncle's house one summer in my early 20s, I fell in love with that leafy corner of London, close to Hampstead Heath. Fifteen years later, I live there, as does Davies still. We sometimes meet for lunch, during which he hounds me for Guardian gossip, insists on wine, and supplies me with feature ideas I should be writing.  

This week, nearly half a century after his first, Davies has published his second Beatles book, The John Lennon Letters (on what would have been Lennon's 72nd birthday). Davies turned sleuth, tracking down letters, postcards, scribblings and doodles from all corners of the world. Yet the hardest part was persuading Yoko Ono, keeper of her late husband's estate – and owner of the copyright to all his letters – to let him go ahead with the project. He did it by pointing out that the owners weren't getting any younger. 

Although he has written over 40 books not about the Beatles, Davies will probably be remembered for his Fab Four one. But with good reason: he spent hundreds of hours with them at the height of their fame; was there, in the studio, while they created some of their best-loved songs; was there for the shoot of the Sgt Pepper album cover. But more than that he watched, observed and made sense of them – something they never did themselves. They were too busy being Beatles. 

Doesn't he ever tire of them? Yes and no. As he wrote, by default, the only official biography (they split by the time his exclusivity ended), he could, he wrote in the The Guardian this week, "spend the rest of my life, every day, giving a Beatles talk somewhere around the world. Sad thought". 

But he admits that he was, as a humble hack, privileged to be part of history. Listening to him talk about that time, at the book's launch last night at the British Library, he's as excited as if it happened yesterday. 

He even showed a Super 8 video he shot in 1968 when he was living in Portugal for a year, enjoying the proceeds of his newly published book. Just before Christmas, there was a knock at the door – it was McCartney, with his new girlfriend Linda and her young daughter, Heather. They ended up staying for three weeks. The photograph below was taken during that time. 

Davies is the first to admit he's no match for Beatles experts: he spells things wrong, forgets sequences of events. But, as he pointed out last night, that's what they're for. One fan is writing a taxonomy of the typewriters Lennon used in his life, using Davies' new book as a key reference. I don't think that one will trouble his publisher. 

Hunter Davies portrait: David Woolfall

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Renaissance men

At the end of the new film Liberal Arts – a sweet, campus-love-literature-coming-of-age story starring Elizabeth Olsen – the camera pans out from the leafy college town in which the movie is set, as a jaunty song starts playing. 

Although it had a medieval feel, it sounded so fresh, so contemporary with its syncopated rhythms, drums, and folky Mumford & Sons vibe, I thought it must be a modern reworking of an old tune by some hip music producer.

But no. It was a madrigal called Zefiro Torna by Claudio Monteverdi, an Italian composer who lived from 1567 to 1643 and was a bit of an innovator in his time. He composed a lot of madrigals – secular pieces for voice – and is generally believed to have marked the transition from Renaissance music into Baroque. This is him, above, aged around 30 – a touch of Javier Bardem. 

Monteverdi's modernity made me think of another Renaissance man who speaks so clearly to our generation, Michel de Montaigne (1533 to 1592) – a book about whom I am currently devouring (How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell). 

Montaigne was a French nobleman and writer of "essays" – free-floating think pieces with titles such as "Of Friendship" or "How we cry and laugh for the same thing". He jotted down whatever was in his head, while trying to answer the bigger question: what it feels like to be alive. 

By writing about the essence of human nature, and pondering the emotions and motives behind what people did – which, arguably, haven't altered over the centuries – his words still feel fresh today. "To read Montaigne is to experience a series of shocks of familiarity, which makes the centuries between him and the 21st century reader collapse to nothing," writes Bakewell. "Readers keep seeing themselves in him." 

Just as I mistook Monteverdi for a contemporary songwriter, so Montaigne, with his exhortations "Wake from the sleep of habit", "See the world" and "Do something no-one has done before", could be a 21st century self-help guru. In fact, they are both those things – modern men whose work resonates through the ages. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Music and words

Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs – “last” because they were the final works he wrote, in 1948 when he was 84 – are sublime spiritual meditations on life and the acceptance of its passing. The soprano who sang them with our orchestra last night, Helena Dix, was young, beautiful and voluptuous, with a voice like creamy velvet.  
A week earlier, while performing the last song, Im Abendrot (At Sunset) – based on a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff about finding peace with death – she noticed an elderly couple in the audience reach for each others’ hands at precisely the point where the words say: “We have gone through sorrow and joy hand in hand”. The music, after cascading, Out of Africa strings, resolves onto an exquisitely tender major chord that makes the heart ache. 
The gesture moved Dix so much she had to fight back tears on stage. Did they know the piece, she wondered afterwards, or understand German? Or had Strauss simply created a musical expression of the words so moving and so perfect that ordinary people, unaware of the poem’s meaning, felt it on a profound physical level? 
She sought them out after the concert. No, they said, they neither spoke German nor knew the piece. They weren’t even aware of what they’d done. But they too were so moved by what she told them that they broke into tears, right there in the bar. It's testament, I believe, to the powerful combination of two things I love, music and words.