The Montreux Festival is one of those events you promise yourself you’ll attend someday and never make it. Life, Ms. Fitzgerald overtakes us in its way and I am here finally but long after my own rock and roll dreams have vanished.
Another small Swiss town, three community squares, red roof tiles, the smell of fresh bread and butter. For two weeks, once a year it hosts Europe’s most important music festival maybe the world’s most important. Musicians, wanna be musicians, has beens, will bes, those who are still trying, who haven’t given up, who will succeed eventually, who have already failed, thousands of young people, a braless young woman standing at the bus station, no makeup, a lost look on her face, a violin case slung over her shoulder.
Norah Jones takes the stage in a red dress, strapless, her hair pulled back, her skin shiny and radiant. “I hope you think that I am glowing,” she said, “but the truth is its perspiration.” We all laughed. The heat was oppressive between rain showers and it took hostile control of the town and found very little opposition. The Swiss don’t believe in air conditioners not in the hotels, not in restaurants and certainly not in concert halls. The air was heavy and didn’t smell great either. Jones sits at the piano and begins playing ‘Come Away with Me’. After some 20 minutes the victory of the stench was nothing compared to the victory of no smells.
She is only 28; a pretty girl who was rejected by the first record company to whom she turned and since then has sold 8 million records. There is no real way to explain it. We are used to measuring everything in terms of success and failure but what separates them? What determines who out of hundreds of thousands who are trying only one is chosen to perform on the central stage of the festival?
A week later I am still pondering the question. I see dozens of musicians on the various stages set up throughout the town. Seal, B-52, Pet Shop Boys, Dr, John and Van Morrison and the fat black woman at ‘Harry’s Bar’. There are thousands of bars in the world called Harry’s and the same fat black woman sings in them all. I wonder how she does it.
After a few days I travel to the town of Verbier to hear pianist Lang Lang perform. We have coffee in a small restaurant facing a view so spectacular that even a picture postcard would make it look kitsch. He’s only 23, but already considered the world’s best classic pianist since Barenboim. Two years ago he played in my living room, a duet with my six-year-old niece. Now he’s got a chauffeur in a suit waiting for him next to black car and his own designer line of Adidas sports shoes. In China, he says, there are 30 million children who play piano, many of them possess extraordinary technical skill. So how, I wonder, is it that he is here and they are not? He himself isn’t sure.
I have been dealing with musicians for 25 years and here is what I think. It’s not better or worse than what others may speculate. Those who make it had passion for something else entirely. They didn’t try to achieve anything. They just wanted people to listen to them during their search. I have nothing against the ‘Idol’ talent programs but music isn’t about winning. In the evening I am sitting with Karen Ann in the lobby of the hotel. She is hiding under a big green hat and Croc sandals. No one notices that only two hours earlier she was performing on the stage. “What’s the idea?” she asks in her slightly French accent. “The idea is that he doesn’t want to be like any one else.”
The next day at lunch we see Van Morrison enter the restaurant with a blonde who oozed silicone. The first time he performed in Montreux was in 1974 and he makes a return performance once every decade or so, checking himself relative to the time that has elapsed. We asked to take a picture with him. “Get outta here,” he muttered at us. “I ain’t workin now.”
That doesn’t stop me from admiring him. ‘Moondance’ will always be one of the major songs of my life even if he throws his harmonicas at me. That night we go to his concert at the Stravinsky Hall. He’s a short fat guy in a black suit and a white wide brimmed hat. He and his band were supposed to perform for an hour but everyone was really waiting for the collaboration between Morrison and Booker T and the MGs.
You may think the name MGs is unfamiliar but during the sixties, they were the band that came to epitomize what was then considered the sound of Memphis – a synthesis of rock and roll, blues, and three bottles of beer sitting on the amplifier.
Afterwards they were the back up band for Ackroyd and Belushi in the film Blues Brothers. Today they are over 70 years old, really over. The collaboration with Morrison was supposed to be a kind of proof old musicians never die, they just vanish from the scene waiting for their comeback.
Sometime around midnight, after Van Morrison finished his set, one of the concert organizers appeared on the stage – quite flustered --- and told us that His Highness has decided he is too tired for a set with the old guys, then they appeared on the stage alone. It does create a certain problem: The MGs have no vocalist and never have. They know how to play but have no one to sing.
They approach the stage hesitantly, a little disoriented. They all have white hair and the slow gait of the elderly. Booker Tee sits down next to the Hammond organ, places his sad fingers on the keys. Donald Duck Dunn connects his guitar to the wrong amplifier. A 20-year-old sound technician is summoned to the stage and changes the cable. The entire audience holds its breath. The band looks at one another. Their biggest hit, ‘Green Onions’ was released in 1961, 46 years ago and then they hit their first chord, and then the second and for the next hour and a half gave one of the best performances Montreux has ever experienced. Like I said, they just want people to listen to them.