It was a hot afternoon when I heard the news ... George Harrison was going to be in concert at Madison Square Garden--a superstar benefit, which was unheard of at the time, and all I knew was I had to be there. But I had no money to buy a ticket and the sheer logistics of it seemed a bit too much for me to deal with.
The show would be on Sunday, August 2, and as the weekend approached and I had no hope of being there, I still knew, somewhere deep inside, it would be my fate to be there. How could I not be? I, who had seen the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, had grown up listening to Meet the Beatles next door on David Yankus' parents' stereo, had pretty much memorized all of Beatles '65 in Harmon and Jonathan Levine's basement/rec room one weekend after the next; had blasted the White Album countless times on Saturday mornings when no one was around; had reveled in the bootleg copy of Let It Be that my hippie brother Steven had brought home when he returned from his days in California.
So when Joel Lamm called me, said he had an extra ticket and it would cost the astronomical price of $20 ... well, let's just say it was the first clear sign that my life could be driven by destiny.
The show itself (like my bar mitzvah) was one of my earliest psychedelic experiences. It was quite a rush--intense, surreal and bigger than life. And when Dylan was introduced, coming out of the shadows in his jean jacket, harmonica rack and all that hair ... imagine being in the middle of 19,000 people having a spontaneous and shared psychic orgasm.
Somebody passed Joel a joint. He was the first person I knew (aside from my brother) to ever partake of that kind of activity. A good story would have me doing the same right then. But the truth is, I was momentarily shocked and it took my breath away to see my good, middle-class, clean-cut buddy Joel take a big fat hit. But toking, not toking ... none of it mattered as in the immensity of that moment, I knew my life was already forever changed.
NOW GEORGE IS GONE. His solo work, with a few notable exceptions, goes largely ignored, unnoticed or panned by critics. Maybe that's why I relate to him so. He wasn't interested in being famous but rather in being interesting and good and just a little outside the box.
In 1974, when he went on tour, he didn't want to sound like the Beatles but something else. So people didn't like it when he infused jazz, blues and even gospel into the show. "If you want the Beatles, go see Wings," he remarked dryly, clearly frustrated that people would not accept him as a post Beatle on his own. Of course losing his voice didn't help. But I got to hear a good-quality bootleg from the show in Toronto and it was an awesome performance! Lots of guitar, blues, soul ... a great show, new and musically exciting and reinventing his music not unlike his buddy Dylan, who would come to specialize in reinterpreting his tunes from one tour to the next. The North American tour of '74 was not what people were expecting or even wanting, with promoter Bill Graham begging him to make it a little more Beatlely. But that was George, marching to the beat of his own tunes and consequences be damned.
It would take almost 20 years for him to muster the resolve to tour again. This time, backed by Eric Clapton and his band touring Japan, Harrison did indulge the ghost of Beatlemania but on his own terms, including tunes slightly off the beaten path like "I Want to Tell You," "Old Brown Shoe," "Taxman" and "If I Needed Someone."
After all was said and done and a two-CD set was released, most people still yawned. It was as if playing great music and being really good at what you do just wasn't enough. Isn't it a pity ...
Perhaps that's why in some ways he's been a role model, giving me permission to be quiet, different and still impactful. His songs were not the same as Lennon/McCartney--not as big or hyped. But that's part of what made them special, unique. And his guitar playing, and slide work in particular, was mostly understated but always tasteful and precise.
Harrison's sharp wit, of course, would not let him ignore his Beatles legacy either. On Saturday Night Live he deadpanned how if Lorne Michaels could come up with just a few more hundred dollars, they might just get that Beatles reunion. And when Eric Idle and Neil Innes were putting their mockumentary on the Rutles (the pre-Fab Four) together, Harrison was very much a behind-the-scenes presence.
I don't know why, but I am compelled to write. Grieving for someone you don't personally know can be an awkward process. Or perhaps as I get older, having just turned 47, I'm finding more meaning, solace and lessons from the past as I continue to part stumble, part charge and part float into the future. And as I move forward in my grief and life, I muse that what do we really have but our memories, reflections and the lessons we have learned?
Must all things pass away?