Monday, November 26, 2012


As one of the most sensitive, thoughtful and caring husbands I can think of in our apartment, I like to humbly and quietly do the little things that make my wife feel treasured and turn a marriage from merely ‘great’ to ‘fantastic’.

Be it nodding slowly and humming at regular intervals whilst she’s talking about curtains or handbags, not opposing her choice of schools for our kids, or giving her more than an hour’s notice that I’m going to the pub to watch football, I like to think I’m some sort of a perfect husband, though of course that’s not for me to say.

Take the other week when I – with about a month to spare – presented my darling wife Stef with two tickets to see the one and only Mr Elton John live in concert at his piano right here in Beijing.

Bam! What can I say? It’s what I do. That’s how I roll. All you sucker husbands out there can eat my husbandy dust.

Imagine my horror, then, when Stef met my gesture with the words: “Yay! You can come with me.”

Oh, the humanity.

“No no no,” I said, backing away. “That’s two tickets for you and the person of your choice … that is, not me!”

Nothing against Elton John personally. He’s just not my cup of tea. I’ve got far too much street cred, am far too groovy, to be going to an Elton John concert.

I take music very seriously. Its import was pounded into me - often literally if I liked the wrong bands - by two elder brothers from when I was three. Now, I get far less offended by, say, Charles Manson than I do by Robbie Williams. Our daughter Evie could steal a car and I’d tell her not to do it again and hurry up for dinner. When she came home singing Lady Ga Ga last week she got an instant time-out - and a lecture I titled Musical Substance over Gimmickry: The Disposable and the Important.

Elton John was fairly inoffensive. He had a couple of likeable songs. But to me he was always Captain Mainstream. He didn’t invent a new branch of music, was not a fantastic innovator, barely even wrote his own lyrics (Bernie Taupin did that, and John the music). What I liked about John most was that he owned an English football club, Watford. Watching the 65-year-old play his elevator music was the last thing I could want. It was also the last thing I could afford for a reputation for hipness which, as it is, gets battered when your first child is born and they hand you your first pair of dad jeans.

The last concert I’d been to was Bob Dylan, also in Beijing. Now there’s a musical god, a genius, and innovator. At that stage he was two weeks short of 70. I went with two other husbands and we sat there sympathising about how our wives just didn’t get the great man. OK, our jaws dropped ever closer to the floor as we endured one of the worst concerts ever, but never mind.

And so, with these two tickets in my possession, I went on a crusade to find someone to take my wife, please. Like all crusades, it was hard work. It was also not helped by Stef undermining my every step, telling those I asked that if I didn’t accompany her it would cause deep, lasting damage to our marriage. I assured them this was no biggy compared to me not watching Elton Bloody John. Typical of this selfish modern society, these ‘friends’ shuffled along, saying they’d rather not get involved.

A couple of other husband-dragging-wives assured me John would put on ‘a great show’ because he’s ‘a great showman’. The words just made me shudder more, for it should be about the music. The beauty and wonder of Beethoven, for example, is not so much in the performance but the fact the music was written as it was.

But finally, when the man with the tricycle who hauls rubbish away from our compound said he was busy, I resigned myself to going to the Elton John concert last night.

Elton John's first China tour was possibly a shock to the
system for authorities here, who are probably more used
to blokes getting in front of a crowd looking like this ...

... than this.

And definitely not like this. John and his partner David
Furnish with their son Zachary.

John possibly didn’t know this, but millions of people know him as Erdun Yuehan. This is because the Chinese have to come up with similar-sounding syllables, using existing Mandarin characters, to approximate the sound of western names. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to write them in Chinese.

The results certainly contrast those “what to call your baby” books where every name means strong (for boys) and precious gift/beautiful flower (for girls). Elton John’s name here can be translated as Thou Grain Receptacle Roughly Writing Brush (Er is thou; a Dun will hold your grain; Yue is approximately, and han is a Calligraphy brush).

Similarly, Bob Dylan was Bao buo Di lun, or Salted Fish Vigorous Lead Logic to his Chinese friends.

The Beatles are the Pi Tou Shi (Unroll Head Bachelor), Michael Jackson is Mai ke Jie ke xun (Stride Gram Outstanding Gram Inferior). Arnold Schwarzenegger is a mouthful: A nuo de Shi wa xing ge, a lovely name that means Flatter Promise Moral Impose Tile Suffering Grid.

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine there’s a man in a government office in Beijing whose job it is to work out what to call foreigners in Chinese. Every time someone new comes into the limelight in the west, it will be his task to come up with some similar-sounding syllables, carve them in stone, and distribute them to the press.

“Today,” he might say, “I’ll do Mitt Romney, Justin Bieber and Serena Williams, and then have lunch.”

Madonna is Mai Dang Na, which sometimes causes the
material girl to be confused with the burger giant, for
McDonald's is Mai Dang Lao.

Prince is, well, Wangzi - the Chinese word
for the son of a king. When he was The
Artist Formerly Known as Prince, his
Chinese name went on for several minutes.

The Rolling Stones were different. They're called Gun Shi.
The words simply mean 'rolling' and 'stones'.

For Elvis Presley they got really clever.
Rather than approximate the sounds of
his name, he's known here in quite hip
style as Mao Wang - Cat King.

In the end I went to see Elton John and, ok, after a while I was ready to grudgingly concede it wasn’t that bad. In fact I had to say it was very good. Not mind-blowing, but wonderful.

He doesn’t go for the high notes any more, but his voice remains strong. And I hate to say it, but if we're comparing quite old singers, he put Dylan in a pretty poor light. Dylan’s last three songs – Ballad of a Thin Man, Like a Rolling Stone, and Forever Young made that concert worthwhile. But for the proceeding 90 minutes he had groaned and croaked through the motions.

John gave what the people had paid a lot of money to see. He played hits he has played a million times with passion and commitment, and just how the fans wanted. There was none of the self-indulgent re-working with which Dylan turned much-loved songs into barely-recognisable 12-bar blues rubbish. I credited John’s role as a football club boss. As someone who has paid footballers’ wages, he knows the importance of turning up week-in, week-out and performing for the faithful. And thus sport is again a great teacher in life.

Ladies and gentlemen - Erdun Yuehan!

And as he looked from our seats. We believe in nicely
spaced crowds here.

John also showed spine early on by dedicating his concert to “the spirit and talent” of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Then he performed for a very decent two-and-a-half hours. It seemed none of his songs were vetted by Chinese authorities. The Rolling Stones weren’t allowed to sing Let’s Spend The Night Together here. But here was John singing the subversive-sounding Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting – a song banned by the BBC in Britain during the 1991 Gulf War.

And if you listen to music even a little, someone who has been big for 40-plus years will unavoidably provide soundtracks to parts of your life. Your Song got me emotional, as it always does. It has a sadness that makes it an achingly poignant reminder of time's relentless march. Again I felt its disarming power to trigger more nostalgic yearning than most other songs. I remembered hearing it in my sunny backyard at seven. It was also on when I was 14 and learned my beloved cat had died one winter night. And when John sang Daniel it made me think of a dear so-named friend in London, and how the song reminded him of his childhood.

You couldn’t help but gain respect for John the dedicated performer. He’s touched a lot of people over many years. We rarely think this of our contemporaries, but considering his popularity and longevity, we were in a room with one of the major figures of western cultural history, like him or not. Here was the guy who’d played live to a couple of billion viewers at so monumental an event as Princess Diana’s funeral, and hadn’t stuffed it up.

Alas many seats were empty for what was supposed to be a sell-out concert at a 15,000-seat arena. We can blame scalpers ambitiously over-buying. But this at least created an atmosphere of some intimacy with the man for a crowd of about 8,000, split roughly 60/40 for westerners and locals.

I left feeling glad I was dragged along, which showed this husband one thing: not everything our wives makes us do is bad for us.


  1. Is your street cred still intact though?

    I felt like you did prior to the concert when I got tickets to see Abba first time around. When my mum got them I was a big fan but by the time the concert came around my bro and me were more than embarrassed to be seen in the queue to get in.

    1. Street cred ENHANCED I'd say ... for it takes a big music know-all to admit he's been won over like this. ABBA, though ... much as Dancing Queen and Chiquitita are guilty pleasures, I'm pretty sure there's a line there somewhere that I would cross under no circumstances. As Meatloaf said, I would do anything for love, but I won't do that.

  2. Great read.

    Elton is a real old school music pro. A bit like Matty Elliot.

    Think you need to get some cred back. When are Kraftwerk going to China?

    1. Thanks Dan. And here you make a good point. Kraftwerk are, of course, gods. Yet could I drag my wife to see them with me in Sydney a few years back? Oh-ho no! As usual it's one rule for wives, another for pointy-headed German electronic music tragics. And yes, I'm sure Elton would have loved to have had in his Watford side a Matt Elliot in his prime - or even past it.