Friday, June 06, 2008

Two Portraits of George

He'll never go back
says Frederick James

One Friday afternoon in January George became the unwilling centrepiece of what the public were led to believe had been a Beatle Punch-up. In fact not a fist had been clenched nor a Beatle voice raised in ager. But, it was true that George had walked out in the middle of a day's recording rehearsal at Twickenham Film Studios and left John, Paul and Ringo at the canteen table to finish their lunches.


Basically the point of disagreement between George and the other three had been on the question of making a public performance. For months we'd read plans, rumours and tentative dates for The Beatles to give their first 'live' performance in front of a concert audience in more than two and a half years. Throughout the 60-minute show, cameras would capture both performance and crowd reaction to make a TV concert for the world's Beatle People to see.

Paul was the main man behind the whole thing. When all the Apple aides reported that they had problems finding a venue for the affair, Paul popped up with the suggestion that they forget indoor locations, take camera crews and guitars into a field and film it all there by the light of bonfires.

George's attitude was that to do any 'live' show was like going back to the touring days instead of maintaining the group's standard of progress. It's true that John and Ringo were not quite as sold on the whole effort as Paul but George came right out and declared that he felt far too much Beatle energy was being put into something which all four had agreed to stop doing in 1966--concert work. He made his point in discussion at first and, finally by leaving Twickenham and driving home. And the demonstration worked, for that very afternoon the rest of the group agreed to scrap their show plans and concentrate on the LP instead.

Had he stormed off, raged about amongst them in a temper, it would have been non-typical of George who thinks silently for a long time before making decisions and then speaks their contents firmly but quietly. George is easy-going but determined, a superb guitarist who cares much more about the techniques of the music he makes than the other Beatles and has studied his subject with deep care. Just as he studied meditation and Indian sitar playing with a devotion which all but obsessed him for spells in 1967 and 1968.


George can be the most polite, kind-natured and considerate of The Beatles. Yet he can be cruel in his bluntness too when he thinks the time is right. When unwelcome strangers invade Beatle sessions and neither Mal nor Neil notice their presence, chances are the cry of 'Mal--Cripples!' will come from George who knows that this cryptic cry will lead to the instant departure of the intruding person(s) as soon as Mal gets the message.

George has changed a great deal since we met in the early days of the group and the earliest days of The Beatles Monthly Book. I think he was the last of the four to show outward signs of Beatlemania strain yet as a highly sensitive boy and, today, an equally sensitive man, he must have bottled up within him in 1963 and 1964 enormous pressures which would break many a weaker mortal's spirit. So, having weathered the most hectic times without display of temperament, George found in his studies of Eastern culture a new interest great enough to divert him from being a Beatle. By 1966 he was the first to assure himself that The Beatles should cease to exist as a touring show and should stick together only as a recording group. He was the first to put behind all the trappings of pop stardom. Yet, at the same time, it's important to notice that he will still take a genuine pleasure in stopping short outside a studio entrance or beside his car to talk to fans. So here's the curious mixture that is George--the hatred of letting Beatlemania living beyond its first three years plus the pleasure of making small-talk conversation that's far from artificial with a Beatle Person who wants to spend moments in his company.

Too Honest

Summing him up, I'd say he's a bit too honest for today's plastic world. With relatives, colleagues or casual acquaintances he'll say what he truly feels at the time. And if he's sore about something at the time it'll show without any cloak of conventional politeness to hide his bitterness.

He and Pattie have very few close friends but for those several trusted buddies George would do almost anything. Even on a professional let alone social level just look at the help he's given one-time Liverpudlian group rival Jackie Lomax upon whose new solo career George lavished his time and energy throughout the last months of 1968. And look at his loyalty to the friendship he's built with Ravi Shankar, a closeness that made him willing to travel 6,000 miles to America's West Coast for a minutes-long guest appearance in a documentary film with Ravi.

The helpful Beatle
by Billy Shepherd

He's certainly the last show-businessy of them but he's also the Memory Man when it comes to harking back to those image-building loud-stamping days in Hamburg or Liverpool. And he's surely the most dedicated instrumentalist of the four.

Where do you start to analyse the man inside the lean, angular frame? I'll start at the beginning. A very early recording session at E.M.I's Abbey Road studios. Paul was the public relations expert of the team . . . moving straight over to a visitor, hand extended. 'Like to ask you about how it all started' . . . and right away Paul pointed to a lounging George and said: 'Oh, ah--HE'S your man.'

George talked slowly, taking pains to make sure that every fact offered was accurate. He recalled names and places and dates -- putting them in chronological order. He was literally the fount of all knowledge on Beatle matters. And, as the source of info, he became the one I latched on to. For his generous patience I'm still very grateful. In those days, life for the Beatles was hectic to near breaking-point, but George was always willing to give up time to answer even the most futile-sounding questions.

As he told me: 'It gets me down when I read untrue things about how we started. It's worth it to me to get things right, even if it takes a fortnight.' But the facts which interested George, the down-to-earth Beatle, were musical facts . . . not so much the fan fodder as to what he ate for supper or how often he changed his socks.

What also impressed me at this stage was his dedication, love almost, for his guitar. One could see Paul or John virtually sling their guitars away after a show, but George treated his with the utmost reverence . . . almost as if it was a part of him. He'd re-tune it, polish it, rehearse on it. His sober appraisal of other guitarists was a revelation--he was almost like a top soccer manager when it came to working out the weakness and strength of the opposition.

In those days, I felt that nothing could ever shake George out of his collected calm. He talked languidly, never seemed to get excited, even by the fan furore. Once, approaching the boys' Bournemouth hotel, I moved peacefully up behind a mass of fans, looking for a gap in the ranks. George, peeking behind a curtain, spotted me, flung open the window and yelled, 'Hi, we're up here'. And, of course, everybody outside went mad. Later George said, 'I honestly forgot that sticking my head outside can cause that sort of scene . . . '

And it was easy to believe him. Super-cool, often baffled by Beatlemania. Yet as the strain began to tell, George proved that he was capable of getting ruffled. In Paris, he got upset with the non-stop stream of visitors. 'Leave me alone,' he blazed. 'For the time being this is my home, and I don't see why people should traipse uninvited round my pad.' Later he unleashed a load of orange juice over a member of the entourage . . .

Losing Patience

As time went by, it was obvious that George was losing patience with the non-musical side of a Beatle life. That was when his mind started wandering to India and things Indian. The culture and the music of the Far East appealed to him because it gave him fresh fields to explore. The one-time Rocker had gone off at a tangent. For a time, it was much more difficult to talk to him. He felt, I believe, that it was time-wasting to simply chat about things that 'most people' didn't understand. In the company of Indian-music experts like Ravi Shankar, George felt at ease . . . and miles away from a Beatle life that, to him, was becoming rather routine.

For a while, George virtually disappeared from the scene--submerging then emerging for the occasional recording session. And the rumours started. 'George has gone so far out nowadays that he's almost vanished. And if he does talk about anything normal, it's usually about money . . . '

True, I'd always found that George WAS interested in the financial side of the business. He often asked me if I knew how much such-and-such an artist was getting. Once I 'caught' him studying the Financial Times. He grinned and said, 'It's just a new prop to enable me to live up to my image.'

Then, suddenly, I met up with George again. An informal gathering, the usual instant recognition, the handshake. Rarely did he forget a face or the name which went with it. And whatever he'd been like during his 'Eastern' period, this was George back on a rock kick . . . talking about his mate Jackie Lomax and the single he'd produced for him.

Generally speaking, the quiet, thoughtful, slow-to-anger Beatle, George Harrison, values his friends even if he is slower than most to make friends, and a man with a worthwhile ability to switch off his Beatle-image and retire into his Harrison-image. It's not too easy to maintain that ability when you are such an important international figure.

But I think of him still as the HELPFUL Beatle.

No comments: