Getting ripped off my rails…

Damnit Malcolm Gladwell

June 1995. London. Queen Elizabeth Hall. Rehearsal running way too long...

The singer arrived really late, moments before the show was due to start.

Dishevelled, all cheekbones, cool hair, black jeans and the biggest boots you’ve ever seen supporting a rake thin body. He looked strangely out of context on a concert stage whose varnished boards were worn thin by classical orchestras.

He asked me what country he was in… he was confused whether he was still in Germany. He was disorientated for sure.

We were due to perform the Lament from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, a pure masterpiece of classical music dating back to 1688.

I had been booked to accompany this American rock singer on the cello (who to be quite honest I’d never heard of), and it was not looking good.

He apologised for having missed the afternoon rehearsal and pulled out his copy of the music. It appeared to be a kid’s school exercise book. The lyrics of songs were written out crazy biro scrawls. This guy certainly wasn’t using conventional sheet music.

I realised, with a chill, that if a word was written further up the page, it was because it was a high note. The low pitched words hung below the lines. To be honest, my shopping lists looked neater.

This was going to be a total disaster. As the ‘continuo’ cello player I would have to weave around whatever he was going to do and keep this together at any cost.

I looked at him getting settled. This chap couldn’t fight his way through a fogbank, let alone the most demanding aria in the soprano repertoire.

But then he sang.

Holy shit. Did he sing.

When he started singing Dido’s Lament at the rehearsal, there were all these classical musicians who could not believe it. Here’s a guy shuffling up on-stage and singing a piece of music normally thought to be the property of certain types of specifically developed voice, and he’s just singing, not doing it like a party piece, but doing something with it. Elvis Costello

That’s an understatement… I remember the lights being pretty bright and the silhouette of his frame as he bent almost double to wrench every last bead of sweat from a song written 300 hundred years ago.

This wasn’t good. This was better than any classical musician I’d ever heard. Doing anything.

My last memory of him was at the little party in the green room afterwards. There were all these people sitting round Jeff who’d never met before … all talking and laughing about music. He’d charmed everybody. I’d much rather remember that than anything. Elvis Costello

He hadn’t charmed me, he’d just ripped my soul in half.

I realised at that exact moment that for all my training, my years’ of practice, my 30,000 hours (damnit Gladwell), my academic studies… I knew pretty much nothing at all about music.

I had no right to play the cello to people if, for all my training, I couldn’t generate 1% of the goosebumps this guy could from a single perfect phrase. I was disturbed and disrupted. Profoundly.

The visceral connection between Heaven and this human — sadly soon to swim away forever into the Mississippi river - is still something that leaves me ecstatic and inconsolable at the same time.

I was given the chance to make a BBC radio programme about his interpretation of this song. It’s at the end of this page.

Thanks Jeff Buckley. You ripped me off my rails. I love you man.