“Encounters With Hackett” - Author Chris James relives his meeting with our guitar hero for TWR. Photographs by Alan Hewitt, Chris James and Hackett’s Archive.
The Ibis Hotel in Zabrze, southern Poland, sits on a main road along which trundles the commercial and civic traffic of any medium sized town. From outside I stare past the red and grey logo on the glass and into the dark foyer where in a few moments I am scheduled to meet guitarist, Steve Hackett.
The doors slide open and I enter. Two young Polish girls at the reception desk flash polite smiles and welcome me. Nerves jangling, I survey the furniture for the best place to sit and chat with Steve, and I hope, his wife, Jo. I steer away from the two-seater couches around a coffee table: none of us is a spring chicken and getting out of those at the end of our chat might necessitate unseemly groaning. I mark out four plain wooden chairs around a table and order a coffee from one of the girl. I can’t sit down, not yet.
One or two customers arrive in the otherwise deserted foyer. I scan beyond them anxiously, with my imagination throwing up all kinds of minor disasters to prevent Steve from having the time to talk to me. Abruptly, a mane of sandy brown hair sweeps into view from the other side of the check in desk. Beside him walks the petite form of Jo.
I mutter out loud, “they’re here” and stride with my hand outstretched to intercept them. I shake hands with them both and thank them for making the time to meet yet another fan. Steve and Jo seem genuinely happy to meet me and settle for a nice cup of tea. I jabber on about how great it is for the show to come to Poland and tell them that almost exactly a year ago I saw the show in Hamburg.
Now seated, with drinks ordered, Steve takes in my A Trick Of The Tail T shirt and asks a couple of questions: where am I from? How did I end up living in Poland? I answer as affably as possible; Steve appears satisfied. I try to separate the observant writer I should be from the loopy fan I am. At once Steve is both relaxed and focused. Light blue eyes with pinprick pupils look out at me from fair skin which exudes exceptional vitality for a man of sixty four years. Our eye contact is good, his body language, fluid and easy. Before I can ask a question, he begins talking to me as though we have known each other for far longer than two minutes.
Four days ago, he tells me, he caught a cold and temporarily lost hearing in his right ear. The biggest upset this caused, however was to make him play twice as loud at the previous concert. Now he is still bunged up, but the hearing is back. Another small disaster struck after the previous gig where he accidentally damaged a fingernail. I stare at him, nonplussed on the outside but reeling on the inside that he shares this information with me. I force myself to look down at my sheet of prepared questions and prioritise a few things I’d really like to ask him.
I get my first question in: “which part of the show do you enjoy the most?”
Steve takes his newly arrived cup of tea, adds milk to the pal brown liquid and answers while stirring it: “All of I, really. I enjoy it the most when the audience enjoys it and the best for that is Supper’s Ready. I like it when they sing along. It would be ideal if everyone sang along to all of the songs. I usually try to get them going with Dancing With The Moonlit Knight…”
And we’re getting Squonk this time…?
“Yea. We’ve also done Hogweed. It’s nice because by the end of it I end up playing something like a police car siren by moving my fingers up and down.”
I know from watching many previous interviews that Steve likes talking about technique so I interrupt him to let him know that I am completely musically illiterate. I tell him I purposely don’t want to know how it is done because I suspect that would cause some of the magic in great music to be lost somehow.
Steve warms to my observation. He talks at length about his early years, about how the music of Peter Green, John Mayall, The Beatles and The Stones was magical to him. He enthuses about how The Blues developed at the end of the 1960’s and draws an adroit comparison between music and acting: how the ‘not knowing how’ can add a special layer of magic to an artistic experience. For Steve that level of magic from music faded the first time he went into a studio. He talks about the first album he recorded as part of Quiet World before taking a moment to think about the magic.
“Yeah” he says, stroking his chin. I listened to a piece recently by Rachmaninoff and it really took me away, really had some magic.”
I get to throw in a compliment: “And that’s what happens to me every time you play your guitar” and am rewarded with a broad smile.
He sips his tea and speaks at length about this passion about how music ‘talks back to you’. I drift into a ridiculous semi-rapturous state; the disciple listening to the prophet enthralled in descriptions of music I barely understand.
Again I force myself to concentrate, however much I only want to listen to anything he feels like saying. I finally mention that I have a teenage son who is very keen on the electric guitar. Any advice Steve can give to today’s youngsters?
He looks me in the eye and I notice that that the pinprick pupils have dilated. My commonsense, feeling lonely and neglected points out that his pupils having grown larger might mean something. Steve answers my question with conviction: “You have got to love it. You have got to enjoy it. Too many musicians seem to forget that”.
Too soon, our allotted time is coming to an end. We are interrupted by a nervous young lady, short and plump, who proffers a Genesis biography for his signature. Steve takes the thick book and a pen, looks at the lady and speaks words of calm encouragement: “Yeah, of course, with pleasure. Who shall I make it out to?”
While he autographs the book, I stare at the lady and wonder if I come across as so hopelessly overawed at meeting him. Probably a bit more so. From the seat next to him, Jo patiently explains that there are a couple of things for them to do before the evening’s show. I take my bag and whip out copies of my Stories of Genesis books for her to dole out to the other musicians, roadies and helpers such a tour must require, all with my sincerest thanks.
A few more fans arrive at reception and I sense Steve is pleased to see how young they are. One man with a crop of thick black hair offers up a vinyl copy of The Lamb… He can be no more than twenty five years old. Again, Steve willingly signs and poses for photographs, all the while exuding approachability: “Yeah, of course… Great to meet you… Glad you’re looking forward to the gig tonight… me too!” Steve doesn’t hurry, taking his time to shake hands and make the same strong eye contact he made with me; indeed, which he makes with everyone he meets I suspect.
I just have time to get one last question in about his autobiography, which he answers is still a work in progress. When we stand he happily poses for photographs with me and my books. I shake his hand, thank Jo effusively for her help with arranging the meeting, and reluctantly let them go with offers of help if ever they are in Warsaw.
A writer of any ability should be able to summarise such a meeting succinctly , but I fail in this. I cannot describe Steve Hackett in any of the usual descriptive cliches writers employ: Steve is not “approachable” - he is much more than that; Steve is not “a nice guy” - he is much more than that; Steve is not “a musical genius” - he is certainly much more than that. Not only does Steve have these and many other qualities but he can deploy them to create an unparalleled sense of calm wonder in those that meet him.
I leave the hotel, speechless, breathless and shaking my head in amazement. The loopy fan inside me tells my commonsense finally to shut up, and I wander away not altogether sure my feet are touching the ground.
Four hours later, I and three thousand other fans will congregate inside The House Of Music And Dance, a post modern concrete box of a theatre arranged in a vast kind of triangle, the stage and seats arranged orientated at what the architect must have thought was a fashionable angle.
The set will start with Dance On A Volcano and Steve will introduce the next song as “another one about dancing which you can’t dance to. But if you’d like to sing along…” Recalling the interview I will start yelling out the lyrics to Dancing With The Moonlit Knight at the same time as Nad sings them. A few other enthusiastic fans will join in, but most of the audience nearby will look at me as if I must be drunk.
As one great song follows another, I will notice how much younger Steve seems when he is playing in front of an audience. He will introduce special guest Ray Wilson for Carpet Crawlers and he will be back to do the vocals on Firth of Fifth. The band will do a staggering version of The Fountain Of Salmacis, The Musical Box will take everyone’s breath away.
Gone will be the quieter tracks of the previous leg of the tour like Blood On the Rooftops and Ripples. In will come Squonk and a rocking version of The Knife. But towards the end of Supper’s Ready, Steve will let out an almighty curse off-mic and I will realise at once that it is the nail problem he told me about. After having a sit down during the quieter part of the song, Steve will finish it and the set standing up.
Before the final song; Los Endos, Steve will even apologise to the audience for missing some notes during Supper’s Ready. I will be able to sense how much that means to him as a professional but will be able to shout back to him that it doesn’t matter. We will have been superlatively entertained and most of us will only want to thank him and his band and all of the people who support them, for keeping this great music alive.
Amen to that, Chris. Thanks for sending this in to us at TWR - keep ‘em coming!