Saturday, June 03, 2006

Why Is George In New York?

Sunrise doesn't last all morning
The cloudburst doesn't last all day

Seems my love is up and has left with no warning

But it's not always gonna be this gray

By Al Aronowitz

NEW YORK - Come walk with George Harrison in New York's parade, brightening the city's sidewalks as he leaves a trail of doubletakes behind him, a long-bearded figure in faded denim while the sun puts a halo through the spray of his flowing hair. When George smiles, golden palaces materialize on the hillsides of your brain. Poor George, the forgotten Beatle, seeking asylum in our garbage air, a refugee from Paul McCartney's declared war on his brethren.

Why is George in New York? He really has no answer to that question. He awakes before dawn for his first full day in our town, a victim of London's sunrise, only five hours away but still clinging to him like the last few burning words that Paul had spoken into his ear over the telephone. The sparkle in George's eyes blinds you to the jet fatigue on his face. I take him a borrowed guitar and he sings me a song he has written: ". . . Sunrise doesn't last all morning . . ." I tell him I feel privileged to hear it.

It has been 18 months since George was allowed in this country, barred because of a marijuana bust of questionable notoriety. Would they have done the same to Princess Margaret? The Beatles are another kind of royalty, and maybe George has come just to celebrate the fact that he is permitted to. "I had to pick up my visa, anyway," he says. Of course he will spend time with Allen Klein, the Beatles' business manager, but on this day Allen is at the funeral of his 74-year-old father. "Allen is the first to really take a personal interest in me," George says. There is no bitterness when he talks of Paul. There is only hurt.

Our first stop is at the cigar store at 54th and Broadway to buy sunglasses. Derek Taylor, the Beatles' press officer, is with us, talking about how unexpected Paul's attack had been. "He was only supposed to write out information explaining how he made his album," Derek says. "Instead he hands us this interview with himself asking questions such as would he miss Ringo. It was entirely gratuitous. Nobody asked him that question. He asked that question of himself."

Outside the cigar store, a black woman with a shaved head is arguing with a white woman who has objected to her appearance. "Stay out of it, wench!" the black woman shouts, walking away. "Well, that's New York for you," Derek says. George is amazed at the city's floor show. "Om Hari Om," he begins chanting, like somebody crossing himself after just seeing something awful. "Gopala Krishna, Om Hari Om . . ." At the Underwriters' Trust Co. across the street, a teller refuses to cash one of Derek's traveller's checks. The guard looks at George suspiciously. "How are you today?" he says.

Ah, New York, you give with one hand and pick pockets with the other. At every street corner, George watches the parade. "If I saw any one of these people in England, I'd think they were sick," he says. "But in New York, they all look like that." He talks about the time he visited here before the Beatles became famous. He stayed at the Pickwick and took a trip to the Statue of Liberty. Is there a city alive with more garbage in the streets? George wonders where Lee Eastman, Paul's father-in-law, lives.

At Kauffman's on E. 24th St., George buys some shirts. Charles Kauffman, one of the owners, also sells him a white denim outfit, saying, "I think I've just revolutionized the music industry." Derek says the whiteness drains all the color out of George and hands him a bright scarf. Kauffman stands there with a tweedy smile. "Just call me Chuck," he says. George asks Chuck if he is any relation to Murray the K. Back in the car, George brushes his long hair out of his face, pinning it behind his ears. He talks about how much Allen Klein has done for Apple Records. "I wish he was our manager nine years ago," he says. For the first year of Apple's existence, Paul ran the company almost single-handedly and Apple lost more than $1 million.

We head down Second Ave. past the theater where Oh! Calcutta is playing. Derek wants tickets but doesn't know if he can cross George's puritanical streak. John Lennon wrote one of the skits for the play, but George remains silent. On the sidewalks, we notice that none of the girls looks very healthy in this part of town. Ah, New York, is this a way to treat such an honored guest? "Om Hari, Om," George chants. According to the figures, the Beatles earned a total of $17,000,000 in their first seven years. Since Allen Klein took over, the Beatles have earned $17,000,000 in seven months. "How could anyone have anything bad to say about Ringo?" George says. I ask him if there's a group he'd like to tour with. "Yes," he says, "the Beatles."

You can see from the way George looks up at the emerald towers that he can feast on New York as well as anyone who comes here just to sit in the audience of the Johnny Carson Show. As a Beatle, the best he could do was to visit the city under house arrest. George dances down the sidewalk like a kid on a field trip but he also knows you can't get to heaven on an express elevator. A member of the parade? They look at him, most of them not even knowing who he is but because his glow tells them he is somebody. The spires of the city point to vanity, but George finds God in the streets.

"Everybody's doing, all the time," he says, "and it's very difficult to stop doing, but that's my ambition. I thought after moving into my new house, I wouldn't do a stroke. Instead, I'm here. If you don't just go out, you don't get in trouble." Trouble? We walk into Hudson's on Third Avenue, where they're always too busy to wait on you if they don't feel like it. George wants a pair of crepe-soled work shoes, but the blond-haired kid in the cellar footwear department refuses to budge until George goes back upstairs, looks in the window and gets the catalogue number of exactly what he wants. "You can't have me pulling out a dozen pair of shoes just to find the right one," the kid says. George hasn't been treated so rudely since the last time Paul McCartney talked to him.

Back in the car, George laughs and wonders if he shouldn't also have bought a baseball bat to carry into the next store he visits. "Om Hari Om," he chants, this time under his breath, "Gopala Krishna . . ." George talks about the road he is on, knowing it must lead to God. The Beatles? As a director of Apple, he had to sign a letter which he wrote with John ordering Paul not to release his McCartney album on a day that would conflict with the release of the next Beatles record, Let It Be. When the letter was finished, Ringo had volunteered to deliver it because he didn't want Paul to suffer the indignity of having it handed to him by some impersonal messenger. At Paul's house, he gave the letter to Paul and said, "I agree with it." Then he had to stand there while both Paul and his wife, Linda, screamed at him. When Ringo returned from delivering the letter, he was so drained his face was white.

Inside Manny's music store on W. 48th Street, all the kids buying instruments crowd around George like Little Leaguers on a visit to Mickey Mantle. "I've got a lot of toys for you to try out," says Henry, one of the owners, and he breaks open a box with an electronic mixer that can make your voice sound like horns or cellos or strings or a bassoon. George samples a few guitars while everybody listens. When Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael walk in, Henry pulls George over and introduces them. Miriam smiles sweetly. Stokely offers a stiff hello. George borrows an electric guitar and a practice amp and we head uptown for a look at Central Park. In all these years, George has yet to set foot in it. "They tell me the best time to visit it is after 11 PM," George says, and he laughs.

When we get there, we walk into the zoo, but have to turn back. "You can't make it?" I say. "No," says George. The squirrels look as if they are dying, the grass seems to be gasping for breath, the foliage is cancered. "Now I know what Bob Dylan meant by 'haunted, frightened trees,'" George says. We walk back to the car discussing where to go for lunch. Derek wants some place where he doesn't have to look into Anglo-Saxon eyes. Riding in the car with George, I could see him laughing at the city like some holy man just in from the mountains. Where else can you witness sin in all directions only to see it committed by clowns? Ah, George, you were the first Beatle I ever met back there in 1964, and now look at you, with your Indian guru's hair flowing over your shoulders like wisdom from a fountain.

On the dashboard radio, American troops are crossing the border into Cambodia, and Paul's Rubicon suddenly becomes a trickle in the gutter. George listens to the news and starts chanting his mantra, "Om Hari Om." What can you expect from a country that had refused to buy his Doris Troy record? We decide to go to the Brasserie on E. 53rd Street, and on the way we pass a girl in a tight jersey dress swinging her way up Lexington Avenue. She isn't wearing a bra and we have to rush around the block for a second look. "Tell her I'll put her into the movies," George chuckles. Ah, New York, your squirrels suffer from emphysema, but you're still a garden. We pass her again just in time to see a man in a checked jacket come up from behind. Through the open window, Derek hears the man ask her, "Where are you from?" We pull away laughing. "Where are you from?" Derek keeps repeating, "Where are you from?" At the Brasserie, George tells the waitress he's a vegetarian and she orders him grilled filet of sole. I ask George what he wants to say about Paul. "I don't want to say anything about him, really," he answers. At the Brasserie, the tables are all empty except for that handful of fortunate who can afford the leisure of sitting over lunch at 4 PM. "The thing about Paul," George says, "is that apart from the personal problem of it all, he's having a wonderful time. He's going riding and he's got horses and he's got a farm in Scotland and he's happier with his family and I can dig that." The waitress brings the filet of sole and George digs in. He'd rather talk about his own house, Friar Park, a 40-room mansion in a 36-acre estate in Henley on Thames.

For 16 years it had been a convent and someone had found it necessary to protect the nuns' sensitivities by painting clothes on all the bare bottoms of the seraphim that decorate it. There are secret passageways and two lakes connected by a series of grottoes and an Alpine garden and a maze you can actually get lost in and electric light switches that have friars' faces smiling at you. You click the friars' noses to turn on the lights. "It also has a thousand telephones that won't ring," George says. "It's like a horror movie but it really doesn't have bad vibes. I've got over any of those dark corners in the back of my mind. It's had Christ in it for 16 years, after all."

He orders espresso and when it arrives he realizes he should have asked for cappuccino. Instant Karma. It's been a long road from Liverpool's Cast Iron Shore to saying that he still loves the Maharishi, but George is a religious man. "We're all just characters in the same play, aren't we?" he says. "And He's writing the script up there." One of India's greatest wise men had once told George that success had come too cheaply for him, but now George knows it was meant to be that way. We lean back in our chairs and talk about the first time we met, I, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post, and George just arrived from England to promote Beatlemania. It had been on the Beatles' second day in New York and George was alone in his room at the Plaza, bedded down with a sore throat while the others went to Central Park to pose for pictures and then over to the Ed Sullivan Show to rehearse for the next night's performance. His sister had let me in to see him and I had found him with his throat wrapped in a towel and a transistor radio in his hands, raising and lowering the volume according to his interest in the conversation. As for me, all I could do was pace the floor, unable to speak until I demanded a glass of scotch and got it. Afterwards, George had told me he thought I was some sort of a junkie weirdo. Now we laugh about it. "You kept asking me, 'what's bugging you?'" George remembers. "You wouldn't say a word until I gave you the scotch and then you kept asking, 'I want to know what's bugging you?'"

Outside the sun hangs overhead mellow and benevolent, almost enough to make New York's chuckle, but then how can concrete crack a smile and not come tumbling down? "I thought after I moved into my new house, I'd take a year off and do nothing," George says again, "but here I am getting ready to make my own album in two weeks. The point is that we're all of us writing too much now to put it all onto one Beatle record anyway." On the sidewalk afterwards, someone with a mustache comes up and asks George if he's George Harrison. "No," George answers and the mustache walks away. "We've got to explain to them that we're not these bodies," George laughs.

In the car again, we pass a group of Hare Krishna chanters dancing down Fifth Avenue with their shaved heads and yellow dhoties. George has already produced two records by their London counterparts from the Radha Krishna Temple and he now has three of them working at Friar Park. George jumps in his seat when he sees them. One of the reasons he's come to New York is to find out why their records aren't selling.

It isn't that he's sick and tired of being Beatle George. It's just that he knows he's stuck with it. Paul can have his quarter of Apple, but he'll have to leave the core. George talks about the days when the Beatles were touring and he remembers flying to Seattle in a Constellation so out of practice that they had to burn open the luggage hatch with an acetylene torch. "Everyone else on the tour got off, they refused to fly on it, but we - we just sat on the floor and got wiped out," he says. "We didn't give a damn."

On the radio, they're playing Paul's album now. George may be the youngest of the Beatles but his attitude toward Paul is the same as a big brother trying to wait out a kid's tantrum because the kid can't get the candy he wants. He talks about the last time Paul spoke to him on the phone. "He came on like Atilla the Hun," George says. "I had to hold the receiver away from my ear."

We look for a parking space and I race another driver to get one, nearly knocking over someone on a motorbike. George is appalled. "That's New York for you," I explain. He steps out of the car, a tall, gaunt figure who once conquered the world, with the help of three partners. "It's great being a tourist," he says, and I suddenly remember the song he sang that morning:

Darkness only stays a nighttime

In the morning it will fade away

The daylight is good in arriving at the right time

You know it's not always gonna be this gray

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