Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Wish you were here

AT the start of the autumn term, when I was a boy at Danesfield County Primary

AT the start of the autumn term, when I was a boy at Danesfield County Primary in Medmenham, the head, Mrs Green, would ask us all to write an account entitled “What We Did On Our Holidays”.

The memories of golden days in the rock pools with a 99, the pounding surf and sunburn at Newquay would all be duly committed to posterity in no time at all.

It was part of the summer end’s ritual that helped hone what little journalistic skills us kids might have, albeit in a roundabout way.

Subsequently, I thought that I would revive the scholarly tradition as this latest August comes to a gradual end.

And so it is that I offer the following account of what I did on my holidays this year, some 50 years on, this time with another Henley boy, my son, in tow.



This year’s version is delivered with a variation in the title, courtesy of the rock band Pink Floyd and another well-known rock celebrity of the era, as will become self-evident. Hence I use the revised headline, Wish You Were Here.

The last three years or so have presented me with four heart attacks and a handful of cardio-vascular procedures, including a partially successful triple heart bypass.

All events have a silver lining, of course, and the inner layer of these challenges offered a directive from my wise cardio consultants that in future I should no longer fly in economy for long-haul flights and that I must always be accompanied.

So it was that I found myself taking my seat on the business class only airline La Compagnie observed by my military escort for the trip, our son, Lieutenant Oliver Burness-Smith MA RN.

The format of this carrier is to fly dependable American aircraft, the Boeing 757 fitted with only 72 seats, crewed by English pilots with Kenneth More accents, loaded with classic French cuisine and service.

It’s obvious really, and as good as it sounds, especially at less than half the cost and being twice as good as other major label outfits. I have done most of them, including a few Concorde flights to New York, so I am entitled to say that.

Luton airport duly fell behind us as Liberty airport in Newark beckoned.

The air train quickly delivered us to Penn station and we took a walk of some 25 blocks up midtown, through the giant TV screen that is Times Square, to the hotel. I counted four super-heroes on the sidewalk, plus the naked cowboy and the obligatory massed Cuban barbecue on the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue. My Spanish is good enough to ensure safe passage through the eclectic bedlam of this place.

I would not want to see the electricity bill for one hour of Times Square’s non-stop variety show. But it is, happily and in every sense, all on the town.

An early breakfast at the Utopia diner on West 72nd was followed by a walk up that street, passing the Mayflower, where my friend Ray Davies has a place next door to the Dakota, the chez of Paul Simon, Rosemary’s Baby, Yoko Ono and the late, great John Winston Lennon. The place is under wraps, having a good clean-up. I would not want to see the service charges for living there either.

The Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields then offers a glorious and meaningful entrance to a walk in Central Park on any sunny morning or afternoon, even if the taxman has taken all your dough.

Alice Cooper was right on time at the studio, making it over from the Warwick, having played the night before at the Barclays Arena in Brooklyn.

I had rented a few hours at Avatar on West 52nd to record two vocals with him for the rock symphonic remake of the Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here, which I have produced at Abbey Road with the London Orion Orchestra, Dave Fowler and Steve Mac, the guitarists from Australian Pink Floyd, and Rick Wakeman on the Steinway.

Alice quickly reminded me that he had trounced me at golf in Sao Paulo. That was the last time that we had seen each other. Alice is a scratch player. I reminded him that the third hole had been mine. We both knew that he had gifted it.

After two hours we had the vocal on Welcome To The Machine completed. Alice warmed up well and was happy with me as record producer. The South American arena tour had seen me as tour director and concert promoter.

We took a break to discuss the start of the PGA major at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin and of our separate times working with Paul McCartney.

I learned from Alice that his buddy, Phil Mickelson, never practises and that Alice once lived next door to our mutual friend Frank Zappa on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills. It took 20 minutes for our man to impressively rattle off the vocal on the song Wish You Were Here. Then Alice departed, on time for a Fox TV special and an arena show in Philadelphia.

I decided that a visit to my favourite Manhattan bar would be in order that evening, simply to wind down, you understand.

After a meal at Empire Sushi near the Lincoln Center, we headed for the landmark Dublin House Tap Room on 79th and Broadway. It was as welcoming as ever.

The golf was showing over the bar (Jason Day was making a charge) and the Guinness and Jameson were standing on it, charged to a tab.

John, the young Irishman sitting next to me, told me that he is a rooftop landscape gardener and a fan of my erstwhile clients the Chieftains and of Alice Cooper, d’accord.

John is currently completing a big roof garden for Madonna on the Upper East Side, while creating a run on Dublin’s Bow Street distillery.

Oli spent the next morning at the Guggenheim with Picasso and at the Met with the sphinx. I went for record label meetings with the suits.

The evening was spent on the boardwalk at Long Beach on Long Island with Rory, my New York based Irish-American partner, and Nancy, his wife, discussing the events of the hurricane that recently washed them away, really.

We were almost washed away by shots of Paddy at Lookout Point. That’s the whisky that you see being pirated in On the Waterfront, the classic movie set in Hoboken and starring Marlon Brando.

The train delivered us back to the uber cyber mayhem of Times Square at midnight.

Saturday was the lieutenant’s day. That’s pronounced “leftenant”, as you know. It was also VJ Day.

Marlonesque Godfather brunch at the family-run Italian Patzeria on West 48th set up a visit to the USS Intrepid, a giant aircraft carrier now permanently docked at West 46th Street.

It is a must-see. There’s a flight deck full of classic aviation, including the CIA’s mach 3 Blackbird, the “Top Gun” F14 Tomcat, a Super Etendard and the handsome Harrier jump jet. Below decks is an Apollo space capsule.

Across the quay sits a menacing submarine called the USS Growler under the prying nose of a real BA Concorde. All this and more is lined up for public viewing.

Lt Oli gained free admission, being a serving naval officer and my military escort. I got four dollars off for being 62 years old. God bless America and Horatio Nelson.

A visit to the NY Transit Museum at Grand Central station and an ice-cold beer at the Warwick finished things off. It was time to check out. We’d had a nice day.

La Compagnie delivered us back to sunny Bedfordshire in style on Sunday morning, my French being complimented by the steward from Perpignan who took the defeat of Les Bleus at le rugby the previous day very badly but with a customary Gallic shrug. “C’est la vie, c’est tout.”

So that’s what we did on our holidays, Miss. Or should I say, as Alice Cooper famously did, “School’s Out For Summer”?

He also used to do a neat version of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall as the encore for the shows that he did with me in Brazil and Argentina.

If there is no such thing as a “gap weekend” we just invented it, with a little help from my friend Alice in his slice of New York wonderland. It’s some tea party.



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