Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Macca and Me

So my life took a turn for the rock’n’roll surreal at the start of the month. A few weeks earlier a friend had sent me a retweet of someone in Bogota looking for “a production assistant with fluent English”. Well English doesn’t get much more fluent than the mangled diatribe that we spew in Norn Iron, so combined with my outstanding background in production, I duly spent a whole three and a half minutes firing off a CV. Nothing ventured, as they say.

Having long since forgotten about that, I received a phone call in the middle of the Theatre Festival’s production master class that I was attending on behalf of the El Espectador newspaper. I obviously ignored the call, but several hours later rang back. I got through to a gentleman who reminded me about the production assistant job, and rapid fire invited me to come and see him. When? Now. No, after lunch. OK see you. Click.

I wandered into the kitchen, still none the wiser about what exactly it was I was possibly getting myself into, and asked the resident nationals who Fernan Martínez was. There was a pause, then a hesitant “isn’t he the ex-manager of Juanes?”

Determined not to be overwhelmed by the occasion, I managed to arrive late (sort of inevitable with Bogota traffic). But as soon as I was in his office I was wide-eyed. The walls were lined with gold and platinum discs, and there was an entire shelf full of glossy magazine covers featuring the royalty of latin rock. It was all a bit surreal for basically I felt immune to the glamour on show – I didn’t grow up listening to latin rock and it doesn’t mean an awful lot to me, so I could recognise the form (the discs, the cover shoots) but not the content.

Fernan was lovely, put me right at my ease, and then told me that he needed someone to be chief translator and artist liaison for, ahem, Sir Paul McCartney for his concert in Bogota on April 19th. OK, so now I was officially overwhelmed. It wasn’t so much a job interview as him sizing me up, but he seemed to like what he saw, and then we agreed on a price for my services. I believe that in the business world my negotiating manoeuvres are referred to as “rolling over”.  I’m not used to haggling with millionaires!

Immediately we set to work, for the emails were already coming in thick and fast, and in English more’s the pity for his Colombian staff. Then it was off to inspect the two nearest five star hotels for the purposes of vegetarianism (“can we change that leather sofa? Paul’s not that keen on leather” said his gently spoken hotel inspector. I loved it. It’s not often you get to be a smug vegetarian in Colombia, but hanging on the coat tails of Paul McCartney’s entourage was one of those moments.)

The work slowly picked up, and with the increased rhythm so did the level of surreality. The end of the week saw me standing outside Bogota airport waiting for the advance security guy. He was a lovely bloke from Louisiana, and his itinerary included a meeting with the head of the Colombian National Police, General Oscar Naranjo. I’ve met a few police in my time, but since Bush and Blair decided to help themselves to Iraq, it has usually been at the wrong end of a truncheon, or from the inside of a kettle. Two weeks after the meeting General Naranjo announced his resignation. I really wish I could claim the credit on behalf of the South Wales Anarchists, but I have a sneaking suspicion that other factors might have been at play.

Glad it wasn't me up there in the rain.
Once the security issues had been sorted out (it seemed like half of the Bogota police were going to be on duty for the gig), it was on to the more familiar stuff of actually putting the concert together. Thankfully, as the translator, all I had to do was translate the arguments about where the delay speakers towers were going, and if the house mix position could be moved back a metre to allow a regulation sized gangway for stretcher crews. I certainly didn’t have to lay a hand on a piece of scaffolding, nor did I have to rig truss, hang lights, fly speaker arrays or set up a backline. Bliss. Right in the thick of it without having to break sweat even once.

Crwods throng the street outside the hotel
Come the day of the gig, we were called for 10am in the hotel. By the time I got there, it was clear that Beatlemania had arrived in Bogota. There was a crowd of easily 150 outside, complete with placards declaring undying love for Sir Paul, guitars waiting to be signed, autographs waiting to be requested. Then I and my small group of translators sat down and waited. What we found was that as people with concert passes round our necks, we were attracting the attention of some of the guests in the hotel. Hardcore (and wealthy) fans had booked into the hotel in the hope of rubbing shoulders with the man himself in the lift. As if! One couple latched on to us, and I noticed that the woman had a vinyl copy of Abbey Road and a sharpie in her grasp at all times. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I knew for a fact he’d be ringed by some serious muscle in the shape of personal security whose job was precisely to keep encounters such as the one she was evidently hoping for from happening.

The one person I spoke to who wasn’t overwhelmed about me working next to Paul McCartney was my friend Grant, drummer for the fabulous Mountain Firework Company among others. His first reaction was “McCartney has an amazing drummer – he’s a monster!” Indeed he was. Mr Abe Laboriel Jr filled half the lift by himself, and charmed the other half of it with his smile. We got the call to go to the stadium, and jumped in the armoured 4x4s with the band. The convoy was four vehicles long, and it was something to watch from the inside how the private security firm’s drivers did a Blackwater through the congested streets of Bogota.

Once at the stadium it was back to hanging around hoping someone had something to translate. I was in charge of a team of 12 interpreters, but the tour had over-ordered the number of translators (just in case), and my little crew were being picked off as wardrobe assistants and dressing room helpers. Although Ana Maria got the short straw. I asked to her shadow the tour’s head of venue security, a stocky little Scottish man who ran everywhere and who had an accent that made mine sound like BBC Received Pronunciation. I don’t know how she coped with him all day, but she certainly won’t have any problems if she ever goes on holiday to Scotland.

Beatles in Belfast - Ritz Cinema 1963
Macca leaves the Ritz, Belfast, November 1963. Father isn't in the photo, sadly.

Then the man himself arrived, and within seconds was tearing through his sound check. This is where it all gets a bit gooey, for as a lifetime theatre worker I’m sort of programmed not to be particularly awed when standing next to famous showbizniz people. I mean, during my days at the New Theatre I’ve crossed paths with what’s-his-name from Bros, and even one of the Nolan Sisters. And I once managed to hold the door open for Pete Townsend in the Sherman. But standing at the side of the El Campin stadium, listening to a Beatle playing Penny Lane, the hair began to stand up on the back of my neck. As kids my father had told us that he had worked on the Beatles concert in Belfast as police security in November 1963. He even told us that he had got the four autographs on a single page of his police notebook. Strangely, though, when we asked to see it, he was never able to put his hand on it. Now the wheel had turned as far as full circle as 2012 would let it, and I was awed to be standing listening to this. Then, as the sound check finished, Macca came stumbling down the steps from the stage to the dressing room, greeting the assorted workers as he went. Clocking me, presumably somewhat out of the ordinary in a taller and whiter and Irisher way in the middle of Bogota’s football stadium, he paused and said hello. I have no idea what I said back, if anything at all, but I hope I didn’t let myself down.


Back at the dressing rooms I waited. At one point one of the promoters told me that he would need me to translate for the meeting between McCartney and the Mayor of Bogota, accompanied by the First Lady of the Republic. Mouth went very dry there for a while, but fortunately they all managed to cope in English and I got to hide out of sight. Then the gig kicked off, and the tour manager practically ordered me away to watch the show. “Got to Get You Into My Life”, “Back In The USSR”, “Blackbird”, there were Beatles songs aplenty and my heart thrilled to the sound of them. I think my one regret is that I headed backstage before the end of the show to be ready to jump into the convoy to take him and the band back to the hotel. And so I missed “Helter Skelter”, perhaps my favourite Beatles song of the night. I heard it ok, I just didn’t get to watch it.

And that was that. A surreal race through the thickening crowds with police outriders stopping the traffic at every set of lights, and we were back at the hotel again. Freshly changed on the bus, Macca and the band graciously shouted hello to the straggling Beatlemaniacs who continued to lay siege to the hotel even at 12.30am (the man with the guitar was still there as well). And then off home. To catch up on some sleep. The football stadium is a short ten minute walk from our flat, but it will never look the same to me again. I think I miss Paul McCartney already.