I met one of my heroes once: John Martyn. It would have been in the early 1980s, and I was recently dropped out of Sussex University, unemployed, inclined to melancholy, and with time on my hands. So I went to the Brighton Dome as his band was unloading, slipped past the rather unconcerned people at the stage door, and went into the hall to sit down and watch the set up and sound check. It was easier than anything I could have imagined.
The moment arrived and I went up to the front to say hello and get an autograph. The great man stooped, listened to me babbling nervous nonsense at him, smiled, signed a slip of paper: “Sorry to be so long, John Martyn” and was on his way.
I was elated and flattened. Elated because a plan had worked, flattened because somehow I had not managed to express how much his music meant to me at that point in my life, how our deep emotional bond had formed, and how we should absolutely be firm friends forever.
What I’d realised is that meeting your heroes is always a losing bet. It means way more to you than it does to them, and frankly they meet many more examples of you than you do of them; there is always some babbling idiot stammering his or her best shot at an invitation to connect. So they sign what you thrust at them, and go to the hospitality room.
From that point I’ve always studiously avoided it. And so it was with Prefab Sprout until quite recently when I went up for the Joakim Milder concert at the Sage in Gateshead, where he played versions of Sprout classics.
In the run up, Wendy had been plugging the concert on Twitter, and asked if anyone was going to which I tweeted yes. And up I went, had a lovely tour of Sprout sites with fellow obsessive, the delightful Miranda (who had recently interviewed Paddy for her great Rephertoire blog), eventually ending up in the Sage for the pre show talk. And fully resolved not to try to meet any Sprouts I might spot, and particularly not Wendy whom I guessed would be there.
Strike One… On the way out of the talk I spotted a very tall man with unkempt white hair, something of the Roger Waters about him, accompanied by a diminutive (relatively speaking) but good looking youth: Martin and son Jonathan – a gifted writer and reviewer in his own right incidentally, worth seeking out. With a deep gulp I asked him if he was who I thought he was and attempted conversation. It was stilted and awkward and the day was only rescued by Miranda diving in and asking him about his former protege, the excellent Chopper Harris, possibly the only musician in history ever to be more awkward than Paddy McAloon. On the day of signing a major deal, he essentially became an almost Syd Barrett style recluse starting with the taxi ride from the record company when he announced his disinclination to record anything at all, ever. Martin was managing him and must have been wondering if he exuded some sort of reclusiveness pheromone. But I digress.
Leave taken of Martin, we left the hall and I mentally confirmed the wisdom of never having the foolishness to break my hero rule ever again. And back again to the concert, first half Joakim, and Wendy very visibly waiting stage right to introduce. I filmed her doing just that, then into a bewilderingly wonderful excursion into Sproutland, hearing the music as if for the first time. Really it was wonderful.
Strike two… Sort of. Joakim was on the stage as the half ended and I was at the front, so I said hello and chatted to him for a while. He’s great, but not a hero. So it was comfortable, fan to fan. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a line of other people waiting for him, some youngish girls, and so I gradually moved back to let them in to the conversation wondering how he’d sneaked them into his demographic. I was backing away properly when I heard one of them, older than the others, explain that she was Paddy’s wife and these were his daughters, and could they possibly have a photograph taken with Joakim for their father?
You simply can have no idea how tempted I was to butt in and stammer how important their father’s music was to me and those other babbling fools like me, but I’m glad to say I decided this was a private moment and left without committing any of them to memory. All I remember was how unremarkable they were for such a remarkable group of people, and how I could easily have frozen them out in my slightly self important attempt to talk to Joakim Milder. I’m happy I did the right thing.
Anyway, the mercurial Django Bates followed with a dizzying and rather elevated performance, a little beyond the place in music to which you can make an emotional connection if truth be told. At some point I looked at my phone. I’m not sure when exactly. But I remember strike three as a heart stopping moment. A tweet to me from Wendy asking if I’d like to say hello. And obviously I said yes and I said I’d meet her in the hall at the conclusion.
I hung around. no-one there. I tweeted to ask where she was and she said the door where I was. But she wasn’t. I went out to check the number and, horror of horrors, they LOCKED THE DOOR behind me I realised this meeting really wasn’t going to happen, then got a message again asking where I was and somehow guessed, panic stricken, she must be downstairs. So I piled at speed down to the ground floor, waited where I thought she might be and….
At this point I have to refer you back to one of my earlier blog posts about the moment I became bewitched by Prefab Sprout because Wendy had raised her sunglasses and looked up, intriguingly, 41 seconds into the video to King of Rock N Roll. Music followed, but to me she was and always has been the shaft of bright sunlight that brings technicolor to the beautiful landscape of the music. And I’m a middle aged bloke, and I’m not exactly blind to grace and beauty. So put yourself in my position, looking across the lobby, seeing Wendy Smith from Prefab Sprout steaming towards me, mouthing my name and waving…
These are things that simply do not happen in real life. My former life flashed before my eyes and was found wanting.
What is she like? Well not the distant Ice Maiden you might believe from the public persona. She is funny, warm, capricious. Gracious, in all senses. Engaging. And above all generous: she didn’t ration her time despite having other people to talk to, and in fact we ended up drifting into other conversations with her as we left the venue: Joakim Milder was one, and then Martin, who was a totally different person post gig. I think it helped that watching the concert himself he had been put into the position of being a fan, and had heard the music in a way anew. I was reminded of (I think) a George Harrison quote about the only people never to have seen the Beatles being the Beatles themselves, there was something of that about it all. I didn’t ask for an autograph, nor a photo, and I’m glad I didn’t. I just enjoyed the moments, one after another.
So what did I conclude? Well maybe when the warm tropical wind blows in just the right direction and the starlit evening is as enchanted as Rodgers and Hammerstein could ever make it, meeting your heroes isn’t so bad after all. Paddy himself wasn’t there of course: how could he be without being the centre of a scrum for attention? And had he been I’m fairly sure I’d have stuck tongue tied to my golden rule. Yet I admit I do still fantasise a little about meeting him over a curry and a beer to discuss the influence of Nursery Cryme over the guitar part in Horsechimes and obtaining the lyrics to Tin Can Pot, the two great Sprout questions I yearn to resolve.
Time will tell. But it will never happen. And if it did it would never be so magical.
One last thing. Wendy’s association with the Sage includes work with InHarmony, which uses music to engage disadvantaged children and broaden their horizons. It’s a brilliant concept, and she has of course been doing that sort of thing for almost as long now as she was officially a band member previously. So maybe it’s time to wire that into the image of who she is, rather than regarding her as just the least reclusive former core member of Prefab Sprout? Should anyone care to support the work of the InHarmony team (and you should) you can do so by clicking on the image on the left below:
There’s a little interview with her on her career too below.