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Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 5th July 1997

Saturday 5th of July was Gay Pride, a flesh-fest of quarter of a million pasty men in mesh. What a lurid contrast to New York's Gay Pride, a sea of tanned muscular gorgeousness, fabulous fashion and fierce ruling drag divas. Julian Clary was slit-eyed, being led around in a tight black lycra number completely wasted by around 4pm, the horrendous toast of Puerto Rico (despite his Australian accent) Peter André jumped around on the main stage followed by Texas, and Rosie Gaines. I had to drag myself away from getting down in a dance tent with a couple of flabby white queens to make it to see 'Rescue'.

The theme of 'Rescue' was explored and interpreted by Laurie Anderson's invited guests for a four-hour performance marathon. Lou Reed, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bill T. Jones, Philip Glass, and music composed for the occasion by Brian Eno headlined the event. There were a few extraordinary surprise guests too, namely Salman Rushdie and Michael Niemann.

The War Child gala charity event opened with the vocal spectrum of Tibetan Yungchen Lhamo, whose solo Tibetan spiritual devotional rarely heard in the West filled a full-house with resonant redolence. Across the stage spot-lit in shimmering white silk 'chinoiserie', Bill T. Jones appeared, New York's foremost avant-garde dancer and choreographer providing a physical dialogue with Lhamo's ethereal voice. His resilient body impelled with latent power was brought into check by mellifluent grace.

Salman Rushdie, unannounced, recited a passage from his iconoclastic 'Satanic Verses', dense and inauspicious, rich with spectacular prolixity, profligate with imagery. Two screens behind him mirrored an apocalyptic storm scene coloured red and black. This was the text that ensured this man's death warrant. The fatwa imposed on him by fundamentalist Muslims and the Islamic government, seeking his extradition and execution for blasphemy was the very text he himself was reciting to us, his captive audience.

Coincidentally in The Observer newspaper the next day, Rushdie was referred to by the zealous convert to Islam, the former Cat Stevens. With a past chequered with groupies and psychedelic substances, a pseudo-spiritual soul-searching quest and awakening has transformed Stevens into Yusuf Islam. He is now an active member of the Supreme Council of British Muslims and one of the most forthright fundamentalist Muslim spokesmen in Europe. He spoke euphemistically of Rushdie never actually mentioning his name, ensuring not to mention The Satanic Verses. Yusuf likened Rushdie to Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs. He claims he doesn't want Rushdie murdered, he just thinks he should be extradited to Iran (The difference?). For eight years now, Rushdie has been living like a Mafia informer, with round-the-clock police protection. Yusuf, furthermore admitted that he used to think of women as chattels, which apparently effortlessly transforms into extremist Muslim beliefs of deterrent terrorism against women: "Yes, I agree, it's frightening. That's the purpose."(1) According to The Observer, by 2002 Muslims in Britain will outnumber Anglicans as the largest practising religion. Where will Rushdie be?

An inconspicuous man followed by a spotlight seated himself at a grand piano at the rear of the stage, suddenly erupting forth with one of the epic classical pieces of this century. It turned out to be the composer himself, Michael Nyman, recognisable only through his theme for 'The Piano'. With this brief flourish he left stage for the next man.

Lou Reed played an acoustic duet with intensity. He was dressed in his old black leather jacket. The old surviving New York denizen still had enough passion to belt out a good tune, and thankfully, it still sounded like The Velvet Underground. The tragic, melancholic lyrics were provided with the programme, the music composed by Brian Eno who is at present living in St. Petersburg.

Ryuichi Sakamoto, fore-father (Kraftwerk aside) of techno and electronic music appeared in a white suit to conduct the quartet Electra Strings, he then sat down at a piano for a portentous accompaniment to computer generated graphics of morphing black and white abstract shapes on the two screens behind them. These suddenly appeared three dimensional, round balls bouncing off rectangular cushions. It was dolefully reminiscent of his soundtrack for 'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence'. However passionate and jazz-oriented, the piece expressed the classical vein of the evening. These notorious knob-twiddling technophiles, whom one could be forgiven for expecting to promise a high-tech multi-media event, unfolded a poetic, lyrical and primarily acoustic session. With traditional Asian gong and drums creating eddying climaxes, Sakamoto thundered alongside on the black and white keys. He tinkled the higher notes accompanying the strings, and adhering to traditional Japanese art-forms emulating the sounds of nature, insinuated a parallel emotional range.

Laurie Anderson wound up the show by screening a 1904 silent film of a young orphan boy being knocked around in New York. Electra Strings and her own synthesised violin accompanied the tragi-comic act, the boy escaping his abusive and fetid environment by being rescued by fairies, put into a decorated dinghy, then drifting out to sea in the sunset with a very long shot at the end: An Ophelian deliverance for the imagination and the senses.

Alice Hutchison
15 July 1997

1. The Observer, Saturday 6th July 1997, Cat Who Got The Koran, Andrew Anthony.