THE Arts: TOURIST

It may have been the shortest world tour in pop history. It had a beginning in a Polish forest, an end in New York - but no middle. In a candid interview, Annie Lennox, solo star, explains why the show must not go on
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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST I didn't recognise her. Fifty people were milling about at the General Aviation Terminal, Heathrow. General, here, means particular: the terminal for chartered jets. It was Bank Holiday Saturday. We were making a 24-hour trip to Gdansk, for a pop festival, Sopot 95, and top of the bill was Annie Lennox.

She was standing with her managers, talking rather animatedly for 8.45am. Slight, ageless, classless, with cropped brown hair, little tinted glasses, open-toed sandals and striped grey trouser-suit, she could be from the record company. But she isn't. She is Britain's best-selling female singer, and she is going to a country she doesn't know, to give her first public concert in six years - her first ever as a solo artist. And she is "utterly, utterly nervous".

Annie Lennox's group shuffles towards the plane. She shakes my hand. "Prepare yourself," she says, "for a surreal experience."

SECOND on tonight's bill is Vanessa-Mae, the classical violin prodigy who is now a pop star too. She wasn't born when Annie Lennox landed on Top of the Pops, with the Tourists, in 1978. But her entourage is the same size. Vanessa brings the family: father, mother, even grandmother. She also has the bigger sunglasses.

On the plane, Lennox sits next to a tall man with big eyes, a grey beard and a Powerbook: Stephen Lipson, her producer. For the first two chapters of her career, Lennox's partner, and sometime lover, was Dave Stewart, an oddball genius, somewhere between Prince and Eric Morecambe. For chapter three, she has worked with Lipson, who engineered the Frankie Goes to Hollywood records and has produced acts from Simple Minds to Paul McCartney. "He's my man," she will say, but not like that.

The plane is laid on by the promoter, who has also issued home-made guidebooks, listing our names and roles ("Mrs K Chua - grandmother") and telling us that the show, now in its 32nd year, is broadcast live "to countries in the old Communist sphere of influence". For Annie Lennox, this is both a leap in the dark and a return to a life she knows well - too well. Eurythmics were a major live band. "The trouble is, what starts off very memorable becomes like The Mousetrap. When you go on stage, you have to be convinced that it's for real. Doing it night after night, it becomes abstracted and fictional. And your refuge is to create a persona for yourself. Then you get locked into that persona and it becomes mechanical. And you start hating yourself because it's mechanical, and hating the audience because they think it's for real when it's not. It's quite a strange dilemma. And I was in it for years, because the momentum of Eurythmics was huge and I didn't have the guts to say, excuse me, I really cannot bear this.

"It took years for the whole thing to unwind, slowly slowly slowly [her hands part like a theatrical curtain], and finally just disappear into the ordinary world, into the ether of nowhere-land, and not hanker after living in the media, being that persona. I have a lot to say about all that, because I've been there and I've lived it."

AT GDANSK, we are steered into a VIP hut, although the main hall looks empty. Waiting beyond are a gaggle of fans and two Volvos, one per star. Feeling "like a fifth-rate Madonna", Lennox sets off with a wave and a police outrider. It starts to drizzle. The band get on a bus, which also has an outrider. The driver is unused to this, and as we chug along a dual carriageway, the bus hits the bike. It's only a tap, but next day, the cop brings a car.

Drab countryside gives way to drab city. The only splash of colour is a Pepsi billboard - Cindy Crawford, simpering in the rain.

Sopot sounds like a state agency, but is actually a town, bordering Gdansk. It's leafy, affluent, dotted with villas - the Fiesole of the north. The festival venue, Forest Opera, is deep in a wood. Under a stripy canopy are enough narrow white benches to seat 5,000, ringed by spindly conifers. The venue combines fresh air and intimacy, a mixture unknown in British pop.

The beauty is marred only by a swirly green stage design, possibly referring to Lennox's recent covers album, Medusa, but more clearly evoking an old Yes LP. At the soundcheck, Lennox finds the TV people enthusing about the set. "Of course I didn't have the heart to say, the best thing you could do is take it down."

Teenage girls with long legs and thick make-up hand out free cigarettes. Other girls, less alluring, dish out soup, courtesy of Knorr. The rush to capitalism doesn't extend to official merchandise. A solitary cap says ANNIE I LOVE YOU in felt-tip.

The crowd, smartly dressed, watch eagerly as two Polish bands perform. At 10pm, a small bombshell lands on stage in a star-spangled black minidress and white boots. Vanessa-Mae jiggles, giggles, says a sentence in Polish, and plays her violin over a thumping backbeat. Her marketing invites cynicism, but her exuberance banishes it. To the list of experiences I never expected to have can be added: sitting in a Polish wood listening to a violin version of "I Will Always Love You". And enjoying it.

Vanessa enjoys it too, and plays for 55 minutes instead of 30. Hefty figures are still shifting gear at 11.20, when there's a torrential downpour. Annie Lennox's lyrics are full of images of water, and here comes the rain again. The crowd scramble for the benches. On stage, a man with a mop approaches a puddle.

The rain soon relents. A chant goes up: "Any! Any!" At 11.45, 70 minutes late, Steve Lipson leads the band on stage. The men are in white jeans and T-shirts, with Mickey Mouse ears on their heads. The backing singers are in Victorian nighties, with angels' wings on the back. The ears are a multiple reference, Lennox says - "to some kind of fantasy, some kind of cartoonland, some kind of naivety, some kind of corporate entity. And a statement about myself, because in a way I might represent - an iconic thing. But if I explain it, it becomes a bit lumpen. I have a very absurd sense of humour - if I have a sense of humour at all."

A lilting groove strikes up and Annie Lennox dances into view. She is recognisable from this morning, and quite different. The trouser-suit is black satin, with flares. The look is less Nineties woman, more Joel Grey in Cabaret. But mostly the difference is charisma. On stage, she has the presence to match her voice, which is as powerful as that of any living white rock singer.

A concert for TV suits her, because there are video screens. The image is sharp: clean lines, no jewellery, wide mouth, good teeth. She moves little and well. She doesn't attempt any Polish, but apologises so politely that she gets as big a cheer as Vanessa-Mae.

Her material is drawn equally from Medusa, its predecessor Diva, and Eurythmics, whose chirpy pop hit "Who's That Girl?" grows into a blazing torch song. It's as if, having made an album of remakes, Annie Lennox has the confidence to remake herself.

Six years' rust shows through only in the running order. "Walking on Broken Glass", the most upbeat number, gets the Poles on their feet. It should conclude the main set, but it's followed by two slow songs, so everyone sits down.

The encore starts with a reggae version of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and culminates in the song that is Lennox's signature tune, in quite a precise sense: "Why".

In six years, Eurythmics moved from electro-pop to electro-soul to stadium rock to sparse R'n'B and back to electro-pop. Towards the end of the journey, they lost their way. In the six years since, Dave Stewart has remained restless, with mixed results; but Lennox has found a style and moved in with it. She did so by writing "Why" (1992), a lament with a lovely meandering melody. Her first solo single, it went to No 5 here and gave her a boost in the US: Diva sold 1.5m copies there, more than any Eurythmics LP. In an era when singles last as long as ice-creams, "Why" has lingered on. It's on many compilations and a million jukeboxes. The music is electro-soul, but warmer, lusher. The words are lethally conversational. They could be about the end of an affair, or of a pop duo.

When Dave Stewart first saw her, working as a waitress in Hampstead in 1971, what attracted him was "a sadness - a beautiful sadness". With Eurythmics, as usual in pop, that showed up only at the edges. On "Why", it is dead- centre.

As Lennox sings the song at one in the morning in this Polish glade, I scrawl in my notebook: "the perfect open-air concert?" Since the rain and the rush for a seat, I've been kneeling on the floor, next to a dustbin, which has been getting smellier as I get more numb; so the sentiment, if exaggerated, is probably sincere.

LENNOX gave up touring to be with her family. She and her husband, Uri Fruchtmann, an Israeli documentary-maker, have daughters of four and two; their first child, a boy, was stillborn.

In Poland, part of her was nostalgic for life on the road. "And it was my life." Part of her enjoyed the "roughness - the smell of woodsmoke in the air" and worried that the Poles were emulating our consumerism, when "we might need to learn from them". And part of her was acutely relieved. "On the Sunday I got up and thought, I want to walk about. Knowing that there were two bodyguards outside the door. I approached them and said, we're going for a walk - Catri [her assistant manager] and I, because I didn't want to go on my own, obviously - but don't worry, just stay here. And there was no way on earth that they would allow that. So we had a beautiful walk around the back streets - I just wanted to get a sense of a Sunday morning in that little town. And a hundred yards behind us were four big burly security men, trying to be discreet. And I thought, Jesus, this is how it would be, if you were a massive star. This would be your life."

THE SECOND date on the shortest world tour in history comes 12 days later. It too is al fresco and intimate: another gap in the trees, another 5,000 punters. But it's in Central Park, New York. The venue is the Summerstage, a dusty plateau due east of the Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived, died, and unwittingly boosted the pop-security business.

Lennox does the sound-check in her grey suit and sandals. She asks what I thought of Poland. As I answer, a TV camera rests on my shoulder. Typical New York, I think, but Lennox is unruffled. The cameraman is working for her: he co-directs her beguiling videos. He's making a documentary about her. She's co-directing that, too. It will go on sale, and on TV, in most of the 40 territories into which her record company, BMG, divides the world.

Soundchecks are notoriously dull, and when the drummer does his stuff, I head for the gate. Then the drums abate and a voice swirls up into the trees, accompanied only by an echo. "Why do I feel so incomplete," Lennox sings. "When you're not here I'm just obsolete, solete, solete." You can still hear her seven blocks away.

The night is warm, and the audience casual, apart from a tall person of indeterminate gender who has copied the head-dress from the cover of Diva. It's not a celebrity crowd, and to prove it, here is Kylie Minogue, who is not famous in America. When Annie was at No 1 in Britain with "No More 'I Love You's", Kylie was presenting Top of the Pops. "I was mesmerised. She's one of my heroes."

Lennox's show is subtly improved. The running order is smooth. The set is a row of plain drapes, orange and crimson, billowing in the breeze. The ears and wings remain, but Lennox's trouser-suit is red tartan. It looks better than it ever did on Rod Stewart.

Her voice is faintly off-colour, which is no bad thing; the danger with her sound is the risk of it becoming too polished. Her huskiness adds yearning to an acoustic version of Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain", her new single. It's followed by some patter. "I sincerely want to thank you for being here ... " There's a big cheer. She may not speak Polish, but she's fluent in American.

This time "Walking on Broken Glass" concludes the main set. The band slip behind the drapes and swig at bottles of Poland Spring water. Lennox has a laugh with her road manager. Then she goes out and summons up the beautiful sadness of "Why".

The tickets said "An Unforgettable Hour in the Park with Annie Lennox". This is uncharacteristic, maybe unwise. But not untrue.

LENNOX wakes up next morning in her gilded cage at the St Regis hotel. The gilt is literal: this is the kind of American hotel that wants to be in Paris. She's on "a real high. I had to drag up all my courage, but once it was over with, it was magnificent. It's good to dip in, but it's better to dip out. I couldn't stand to be a prisoner of that. You can get really stuck, and become a prisoner of the circumstance - the protectiveness. And it is very difficult, once you have that profile, to walk down the street."

She has a few more duties, including a charity concert with Paul Simon. This turns out to be the reason for the whole expedition. "It all started because Paul Simon called me up and assumed that I had accepted to play in his concert, and I didn't have the guts to back out when the great man was on the phone."

It then made sense to do a couple more shows. She also felt she owed it to BMG, who "allow me to make my records without interference". But this is it? "Definitely."

The idea of Annie Lennox being daunted may seem odd, especially to women, for whom she is a role model (in a 1989 poll in Time Out, she was voted the woman most women would like to be). It doesn't seem odd to her. "Most people have a bag of misconceptions about me. Even being a 'strong woman' - I don't feel strong. Perhaps wilful, and determined, and opinionated, but also vulnerable. Human beings are unpredictable and contradictory. We're a mixed bag - it changes, it evolves. We are beautiful and we're ugly. We're generous and we're selfish. And that is me."

At Simon's show, in the Paramount Theatre, Lennox does 40 minutes and looks demob-happy. At the end, she joins Simon, Pete Townshend and Wynton Marsalis for "You Can Call Me Al". They take a verse each, and Lennox speaks hers, thickening her Aberdeen accent: "A Scortsman woks down the strit/he says, why um ah short of attairntion ... " It's very funny, but Paul Simon, who is a serious sort of genius, seems only half-amused.

A headline in the New York Post says: "At Paul's party, Annie takes prize". Lennox's hotel room turns into one big vase. The bouquet from Clive Davis, boss of her US record company, a revered figure in the business, carries the message: "New York, New York is in your hands. You have taken the town by storm."

THE EVENING after, Lennox is interviewed for her film. I have been asked to ask the questions, which makes for an upside-down occasion: she keeps saying, "This is very good of you."

She's so tired, she feels "light-headed". Under the big TV lights, she looks pale and frail. The director says to me, "Keep it light". The other director, weary as she is, has other ideas.

She talks about her nerves - "a gut-wrenching feeling for the whole day. Complete physical terror. It does not help me to be nervous. It doesn't give me edge. I have edge already."

So can she enjoy performing? "Oooh. It's like riding a bucking bronco. Those men on those horses - they seem to have some kind of purpose, and if the audience seems to be with you, it does make it much easier. The problem is the overview where one part of your mind is focused on the performance itself and the other part is thinking: Will I get through this? My shoe is hurting me. That person down there is scaring me. And at the same time, wishing to pour into that moment all the instilled feelings and reasons why you're standing there in the first place. It's very odd.

"It's a bit like [pause] being in touch with a deep level of yourself. And I don't want that to sound incredibly stupid. Music is an invisible force, and very powerful. And in this age where we are disassociated from ourselves in an emotional sense, and all our rituals are confused, perhaps a concert is a kind of communion of the audience and the performer. At best. At worst it's simply Spinal Tap. It really is. The whole thing is quite surrealistic."

WHEN THE cameras stop, she keeps talking, as if to make the occasion less artificial. Then she confers with her manager. The plan was for them to eat out, and be filmed, but she can't face it. The manager remonstrates, gently; the artist prevails. She stays in with a video. You or I might choose something undemanding. Lennox watches Hoop Dreams, the fine, but long, documentary about two aspiring black basketball players. "Fascinating."

Next day, we do "my" interview. "Welcome to mah boudoir," says Lennox, looking refreshed. Her room is tidy, calm, and still full of flowers. She talks freely, hardly needing the questions.

She talks about Eurythmics. "I was very unhappy in those years. Unbalanced, moody, difficult, panicky, fearful, defensive."

Throughout those years? "Most of them, yes. They were not easy years for me, or the people around me. I mean I wasn't Boy George, but I was - not easy. And I'm not saying I'm easy now, but I've mellowed, in a good way. I've matured. I take my responsibilities, and I try very hard not to self-indulge."

She talks about why she sings. "There are profound reasons. As corny as that may sound. It's a deep need to affirm myself, because life's always been a kind of absurd mystery to me. And music helped me to define myself. To tune into something abstract, invisible, not of this world and yet completely of this world."

She talks about working motherhood. "Part of me wants to just go home and bake. It's a dilemma of our time - women want to have our cake and eat it too. Something's got to give. Having said that, I'm not your ordinary mother in the playground. And it's not easy for me to integrate, or for people to embrace me. It's almost like being crippled. When ordinariness is a privilege, you're in a strange place."

Does she have a core of friends from before she was famous? "No. It's been a long time, you know. Ever since my twenties. Yeah, my family, but then I was a bit of an oddbod anyway. Not easily understood. Our friends are very scattered, with all this travel. It's difficult to make new friends, and I don't want to just hang out with other celebs. I hate that. I'm dead shy and quite daunted by other people's charisma. I don't see why we should be in a sort of fame club. That's a shitty way to start a friendship."

Fame is the theme to which she keeps returning. "Many people in this profession are mystified by their own mythology. They don't know who they are - they deeply believe that they are kings and queens. Because you get to the stage where the only people you see are working for you. And on tour, nobody wants to upset you. So you become marginalised, and as a woman, more so. A woman has to be particularly driven and strong to challenge that."

SHE HASN'T talked about her daughters. She hates it when people "gush about their families in print". Now, unprompted, she produces a Polaroid, two toothy grins in the glare of a flash.

She has something else to show me. She rummages in a carrier bag, unwraps some tissue paper, and waves a cherrywood rhombus. "Look! A slicer for my pizza. It's from this shop called Crate & Barrel. And this is my veg scourer. It's so nice, when you're in a hotel, to go and get kitchen things. Housewife, superstar!"

There's a clear note of camp in her voice, but also a ring of truth. A singer who has sold 30 million albums in her career goes shopping in New York, and what does she come back with? Two cooking utensils, costing $3.95 and $1.95 respectively (plus tax).

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