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Parisian heights

Charles Spencer on seeing Neil Young in Paris

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

Mrs Spencer had to spend five days in Paris during half-term observing ballet classes, so my son Edward and I tagged along too, on the strict understanding that watching dance lessons was absolutely not on the agenda as far as we were concerned.

It came as a jolt to realise that my first visit to Paris had been 45 years earlier when my parents took me there at the age of eight. I can’t remember much about it except the pungent smells from the drains, buying a much loved penknife and the evening when my mother was taken ill in a restaurant while tackling a particularly glutinous bowl of onion soup that trailed yards of elastic cheese.

My father went off to help her in her distress and I was left alone at the table, only to be joined by an overfriendly American who offered to buy me all the sweets I wanted and to take me on a trip around the world. He was probably only trying to cheer me up but I had been warned about strangers who promised sweets if you went away with them and began to shout, loudly, as I had been taught to do if such circumstances ever arose. The manager bustled over, the man promptly disappeared and I felt I had had an exciting adventure, and greatly enjoyed being the centre of attention. As far as I know my mother has never eaten French onion soup since.

Ed and I suffered a serious overdose of French Impressionists at the Musée d’Orsay, as if we had pigged out on chocolate, and spent a lot of time climbing things, ascending to the gargoyles and belfries of Notre-Dame, the cupola of Sacré-Coeur, and the top of the Eiffel Tower. From the last we watched the sun set, corny, perhaps, but truly magical, too, and what a reproach to London the beautiful, unwrecked centre of Paris is. Apart from the blocks of skyscrapers on the periphery, the view must be much the same now as it was a century ago, the only significant blot on the townscape provided by our own Richard Rogers’s ridiculous Pompidou Centre.

Nevertheless, I noticed some startling changes in Paris on this trip. Firstly, the Parisians have mysteriously become much nicer (the reverse seems to be true of Londoners). I don’t think I saw a single example of that contemptuous Parisian shrug, nor did anyone’s face register pain when Ed or I attempted to speak in our fractured schoolboy French. We were made to feel genuinely welcome.

The other change was less welcome. The food struck me as mostly terrible. The bistros all seem to serve up the same limited menu of ropey steak frites, greasy, gristly boeuf bourguignon and, yes, glutinous French onion soup with tasteless elastic cheese. Admittedly, we were eating at a pretty basic, touristy level, and the food was cheap, but one begins to understand why McDonald’s and Starbucks now have such a stranglehold on Paris. In the old days Parisians would never have allowed such transatlantic interlopers to prosper.

There was, however, one hugely welcome visitor from America during our stay, the great Neil Young; I’d been kicking myself for failing to secure tickets for his recent London concerts and here he was in Paris. Needless to say his shows were sold out, but a charming tout sold me an excellent seat for 400 euros (to the vocal dismay of my wife and son) and it proved worth every cent.

I’ve loved Neil Young since I was 15, when After the Gold Rush was the hip record of 1970 at school, while the thrilling duelling guitar epics on Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere accompanied many a prolonged and enjoyable snogging session with my first girlfriend, the lovely Mandy Street.

At 62, and having recently recovered from a brain aneurysm, Neil is in fantastic form. That beautiful high and lonesome voice is still intact, and was deployed to magnificent effect in the first acoustic half of the show, when he performed alone on piano and acoustic guitar. Pottering about among his myriad instruments and singing songs like ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’, his stooped, introverted manner and shy introductions made him seem like a delightfully bumbling old don.

After the interval, however, all was changed, changed utterly, as he and his band tore into his rockier back catalogue in a climactic orgy of rumbling, wailing, feedback-drenched guitar solos. The meek figure of the first half now seemed like some deranged and savage Neanderthal on the warpath as he pounded out the riffs and celebrated the sheer soaring strength of rock’n’roll at its greatest.

Neil Young isn’t the world’s subtlest or most virtuosic electric guitarist, but for sheer passion, power and feeling, he strikes me as unbeatable. As he took his encores first with ‘Cinnamon Girl’, then with ‘Like A Hurricane’, the latter perhaps the greatest song in his magnificent back catalogue, I felt completely blown away by happiness and discovered that tears of joy were running unstoppably down my face.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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