Wednesday, December 10, 2008

(I Did It) My Way

The door at the back-left of the impersonal yet surprisingly friendly chapel opens. First one then another and then, finally, seven Mariachi musicians – each traditionally dressed as for an afternoon out playing for tourists in Mexico City’s cafĂ©’s and bars – have formed a semi-circle in front of us all.

The trumpeter on the far left of the ensemble sounds the first note, two violins join in, the big acoustic bass is plucked by the man wearing the largest of all the Sombrero’s on display and gradually the song begins to take on a recognisable shape. Most of those sitting in the pews or standing behind where I’ve squeezed in or crouched in the aisles will have been more conversant with the leader of the rat-pack by way of Hoboken’s classic rendition of the song; some would say… his song…

This is just a little bit different… and somehow far more appropriate.

In the pew in front of me, Bono’s slightly grizzled semi-crew-cut head starts to nod, a pew in front of him and there is Tom Waits breaking into a smile; in front and to the left is Tina grinning broadly – the final master-stroke has been pulled off to make this funeral the tribute that it was always hoped that it would be.

Suddenly, there is the undeniable squawk of a mobile ‘phone going off beside me. Then another, from the middle of the aisle right behind – but, the band play gamely on, the trumpeter plays the vocal line just a tad louder drowning out the savage interruption by technology and the smiles just keep coming and coming.

I did it... my way...

A few minutes later, we’re standing in line, waiting to pay our final respects to the man who Billboard termed A Giant of PR; who others have termed as being far more than just that. He lays in a coffin up the short steps in front of us, a coffin unlike any other I’ve ever seen that looks suspiciously as if it has been constructed of slatted wicker-work. Inside, I’d not be the least surprised if someone hadn’t thought to have him adorned by his QPR scarf. Tina’s white Lilies lay a-top and beside it a framed picture of the man who’s finally sleeping in peace, away from pain.

We’re all slowly edging forward. Everyone stops to hug Tina. She wraps her arms around me and whispers in my ear, He wanted the band to be all dwarfs but… I don’t think he’d mind… do you?

A few minutes later, I’m outside and wander over to where Edge, underneath his trademark black bobble-hat crossed with a skull-cap is standing, lost in thought. Bono asks for a match, swiftly diving into his pack to share one of his Marlboro Lights. Do you know which way round he was, Neil? Asks Edge. Its just… I didn’t know if I was saying good bye to Rob’s head or his toes.

I wasn’t sure either, offers Bono, smoke exhaling from his nostrils like a horse breathing hard after a long canter in the cold afternoon air… So I sort of said goodbye to his middle.

A very long time ago, in 1972 to be exact, I’d joined EMI; my first foray into the world of the business of music. Within eighteen months or so, I knew that EMI was not where any kind of self-destiny lay… oh no, I knew where I wanted to work… EMI was but a stepping stone and Island was where my future lay. The job was secured and I casually mentioned that I was moving on to my parents expecting the happy kind of response. Error #1 – they were both aghast. What about your pension..? What is this Island label..? They’re not as big or important as EMI… are they? Why do you want to give up (what they saw as a career) to join… somewhere that didn’t much seem like a career (to them)?

I had but one answer. A few weeks before, the Melody Maker had advertised a series of articles on the smaller record labels. I don’t actually recall that it ever became a series – though the first piece most certainly did run. It was what I used to answer all my parent’s questions and was entitle Island Of Dreams. The journalist who penned the article – a three page, in-depth, fully illustrated spread was the man who lay before us yesterday; the man whose life we’d all gathered to honour… Rob Partridge.

An inbound e-mail from the Guardian’s Robin Denselow this morning prompted the use of that word; Very good to see you at that quite remarkable Rob send-off yesterday. An extraordinary event, and quite right too. It was an honour to be there.

It was also extraordinary… meaning… out of the ordinary. Here I should confess that crematoriums and self are not happy bed-fellows. In fact, its true to say that I come from the Tescos check-out side of belief with regard to crematoriums, as attractive a manner in which to finally depart this world as being met by the missing link as one guides an over-burdened shopping trolley to one of the tills, you know the one – he/she is bored to tears by the job and with minimal if any customer-service skills.

This, for many many reasons was totally different and has even started me thinking that its got to be about the best way to be despatched. I’m still not terribly keen on ending up as a puff of smoke – and have always wanted to be planted – but, the service… if that’s what it could be called… was what it was all about.

I suppose it has quite a lot to do with one’s own religious (or not) beliefs. And, for those who believe in something that isn’t constricted by constrictive doctrines – like me – whereby I subscribe to a church not made with hands belief… then, a humanist service has to be the way forward. It is spiritual yet earthly; it is full of light and never dark; full of sadness and yet with few tears. Happiness in the middle of a gale of sadness.

The minister – I suppose he’d be called that – was a long tall thin lanky fella called Mark Hayford. Straightforward yet neither solemn or business-like; it was as if he actually cared about the man who’s casket lay not ten feet from him – so unlike others who preside over such events.

We gathered outside, the Crematorium forecourt awash with people… it was like a gathering of the clans, everyone seemed to know everyone else, there were very few handshakes with people one hadn’t seen in years… just a lot of hugs and firm embraces.

The early arrivals included the Captain – Bill (now Nick) Stewart, the man who’d physically signed Paul McGuinness’ U2 to that skinny little label where we all worked in the late seventies; Paul himself standing alone just a few yards distant – one to thank for the kind, kind words he’d said of Rob during last week’s Radio 4 programme, The Last Word. He grasps me, pulls me to his large chest and, as I draw back see tears sliding like small rivulets down his face being dabbed away by a white handkerchief.

A few minutes later, its stumbling from one embrace to another; a sea of faces… everyone wants to talk to everyone… people from the past to the present face of Coalition; journalists to musicians, industry people like HMV’s head honchos Brian McLaughlin and Steve Knott – that company being amongst our very first clients before Coalition was so-named.

More usually, the coffin arrives last, preceding all the distraught relatives through a gaggle of onlookers – not so… Rob (as often he did) led the way and we all crammed in; we knew a lot of people would be there – you never can tell – but the attendance outweighed all we’d imagined. The doors finally shut, a little like on a crowded subway in Japan… there weren’t people pushing others in… nor were there people asking that we crowd down into the aisle… but, it was close. The most packed, standing room only, funeral I’ve ever attended.

Billy Bragg opened proceedings in his best bard-of-Essex manner. He sang Jerusalem unaccompanied; the words bereft of accompaniment, stark and forlorn. Tim – who now runs Coalition Management spoke eloquently and movingly; Nick Football (to differentiate him from Rob’s other footy-pal also called Nick) talked powerfully and with deep feeling; Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow / What A Wonderful World followed – a cherished musical moment from Rob’s diversely eclectic i-Pod – before a poem by Mary Oliver led into Tom Waits own Take It With Me – a song (so Barney Hoskyn’s reminded me) that he had dedicated to Rob and Tina from the stage at Edinburgh when last he played in the UK.

During which came a truly surreal moment. For me. Tom’s lyric over the starkly simple, crushingly-haunting piano melody are quietly tearing at my insides, there is a welling behind the eyes that’ll soon spill over.

I glance up and look toward to coffin, draped by the purple-green-orangey/yellow flag of the imagined Republic of Rob Partridge and look deep into the black and white picture of him, propped up against it.

He’s not smiling in that picture, he sort of is but isn’t quite.

As I glanced up and held the pictures gaze… it smiled… not for long. But, it smiled.

The song ends, Tony Crean who worked with Rob on all of the War Child records takes to his feet and starts to talk, using metaphors for time. In this broadband world, his words strike the most perfect note – we don’t spend enough time, proper time, with those we love… we put things off to the next again day, believing there’s something more important to be getting on with. Then, when its too late, we meet up at an event like this and realise it is just that. Too late.

Afterwards, Adrian Boot in his most nutty-professor guise wanders over saying, we all used to go to weddings and there would these kind of gatherings, now it only happens at funerals. I’m going to grow really old and outlive everyone. There won’t be any one at mine!

Unexpectedly – in that it wasn’t scripted, Tina gets up and makes her way to the podium. Clearly (and obviously) deeply emotional she looks us all in the face saying she had had just a wonderful life with Rob. I wanted it to go on forever. I couldn’t have had a better life. I’ve been hugely blessed. Love – and there is only one way to describe this – love comes back at her in waves.

Later and late, mentally drained and physically exhausted from the days intensities, I’m back to my suitcase existence. Back to the uncertain and unsteady word of Project X; back preparing for the next meeting next week… with Christmas fast closing in.

Rob never gave up on however improbable the task was – he just imagined different ways around whatever the situation might evolve.

30+ years of working together, on and off, and one learns a few things.

Project X may well be currently faced by Problem Y – the global economic crisis… thus, I reckon, time to think lateral.


Drew said...

Beautiful account.

You've often spoke to me of your chagrin with the rather perverted presence that mobile and wireless technology imposes on us. I can imagine your inner reaction to the insensitive intrusion yesterday, as you were observing a united farewell to your dear friend.

Project X may be at risk of being affected by Problem Y, but in Rob's memory, you'll discover Solution Z.


Fifi Dessein said...

A beautiful tribute for a beautiful person from a beautiful heart.

Cheapest line rental and broadband said...

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