On stage at Madison Square Garden the spotlight embraces a slender man who hasn’t yet begun speaking. It’s August 1, 1971. A crowd of 20,000 is on its feet cheering. But it’s more than a typical standing ovation. More than cheering. More than mere applause.
The main event is not yet underway and the bearded, slightly bemused looking young man still standing in the light shining on an otherwise darkened stage—he smiles a bit.
He raises his hands in a futile gesture to quiet the crowd. They roar their admiration. And George Harrison stands there. The applause is mixed with whistles broadcasting youthful glee, amplified by the relentless bellowing of unconditional appreciation.
The first words he utters into the microphone are the obligatory “Thank you, thank you!”
He says it four or five times. And if he feels nervous—as he claimed in a press conference to announce this benefit concert for the refugees who are plagued by everything from disastrous floods to wartime atrocities in a distant land whose new name is now receiving worldwide focus—then, somehow, he manages not to show it.
He may very well be something beyond nervous. Standing there alone on a vast, empty stage, the youngest member of what had been the most famous band in the history of the world is only 28 years old. When the Beatles had officially announced their break-up at the very beginning of 1970, George Harrison had not yet turned 27. And all those years ago, in the halcyon days of Beatlemania during 1964-66 and throughout the rapidly ever-changing 1967-69 years, he had written and performed in the shadow (usually) of the two living legends whose last names alone—Lennon and McCartney—often defined the band.
Now the group is no more. Yet, more than just about anyone else, as he stands still, clearing his throat and with the audience at last quieting down, George Harrison surely understands that the legacy of the Beatles looms as large as ever. It has to be that way. It is the only way to explain so many things. For example, the fact that he’s there now.
No, it’s not his big-time debut. It is, though, the first time that he and he alone is on stage as a frontman in his own right. Five years earlier, for their two Shea Stadium concerts on the 1966 American tour schedule, the Beatles had played to throngs in New York. And a little further back, at the landmark first-ever sold-out Shea Stadium concert launching the group’s 1965 summer tour of America on August 15, 1965, John and Paul and George and Ringo had made pop history once again. That had been going on since their February 9, 1964, debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, after which the youth of the world, barbershops, show business, and the culture at large were never the same again.
Now it’s August 1, 1971. After having dominated the charts for nearly a year with two hit singles (“My Sweet Lord” and “What is Life?”) taken from his artfully ambitious and hugely successful solo album All Things Must Pass, the so-called “quiet Beatle” begins to speak. His accent is distinct. His words are simple. The rapt audience now listens.
In the Garden, the crowd finally hushes down. Holding the microphone gingerly with one hand, while he allows it to stay put on the mic stand, George Harrison welcomes the audience. His Liverpool accent is doubtless familiar, thanks to the reruns on TV of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Or the recent theatrical screenings of a far less spirited Beatles film, the 1970 documentary Let It Be (which inadvertently chronicled the group’s demise as they were filmed laboring through 1969’s “Get Back” sessions).
When interviewed in July at the press conference organized to announce the Concert for Bangladesh, a question was put to Harrison about how he felt, in that the affection once lavished upon the Beatles as a foursome was now being shown toward him individually. It was a pertinent inquiry. The commercial success of “My Sweet Lord” (in particular) and the critical praise for All Things Must Pass (tagged by Rolling Stone magazine as 1970’s Album of the Year) showed that a worldwide audience was enamored with him.
Neither Lennon nor McCartney had yet enjoyed such a post-Beatles renaissance.
Through the lyrical content of his latter-day songs and in the sheer timing of his new music, with a hefty amount of value also placed upon the image he is generating, ex-Beatle George Harrison is transmitting a vibrant example of personal authenticity and integrity in a world sadly lacking either trait. And the audience to whom he speaks: they see him as more than a musician. He is clearly a force for good, now opting to use his fame and his clout as a former Beatle to try to help those who are badly suffering on the other side of the world. It seems fitting.
After all, it’s George Harrison’s blockbuster three-disc solo album that features not just titles like “All Things Must Pass” or “My Sweet Lord,” but also “Isn’t It a Pity?” and “I Dig Love,” plus “The Art of Dying” and “Hear Me Lord.”
At this moment, Harrison personifies not just the mythic status of the Beatles. He has somehow come to embody the noble remnants of the lost ideals of the 1960s.
Perhaps he doesn’t see himself manifesting this. But the audience puts him on that pedestal. In Harrison’s eyes, that pedestal belongs to someone else. And to ensure that his musical idol and personal mentor is not maltreated by a boisterous crowd so palpably anxious to see and hear a pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll trailblazers, these words are said:
“I’d just like to say before we start off with the concert . . . to thank you all for coming here. As you all know it’s a special benefit concert . . . we’ve got a good show lined up (I hope so, anyway). The first part of the concert is gonna be an Indian music section. You’re gonna hear a Sitar and Sarod duet. And as you realize, the Indian music’s a little bit more serious than our music—and I’d appreciate it if you’d try to settle down and get into the Indian music section. So let me introduce on sitar . . . Ravi Shankar . . .”
It cannot be helped. Now the sound of Harrison’s voice carries more than the weight of the Beatles, with its lilting overtones and the inflections of the British Invasion. As he introduces the four members of Ravi Shankar’s Indian ensemble who will perform for the two sold-out shows on that Sunday, George Harrison’s role has evolved into that of a World Music Ambassador.
The fact that 20,000 people are about to sit patiently and absorb nearly one hour of instrumental classical Indian music is partly due to the deeply personal evolution Harrison has had in the prior five years, during which time he has visited India on several occasions.
Single-handedly, with his fame as a Beatle granting him enormous influence, George Harrison has bridged East and West.
Everything from the sprawling Oriental rugs to the colossal incense sticks and the attire (plus other adornments) now worn by the ensemble onstage—it’s all being emulated by youth in places as disparate as Paris, Texas and Paris, France.
The Beatles made a community of youth everywhere; now it’s Harrison who most embodies their mystique. As Ravi Shankar tunes his instrument, the titles of George’s so-called “Sitar songs” with the Beatles (heard first on 1965’s “Norwegian Wood,” subtly enhancing Rubber Soul) are probably remembered by untold numbers of concertgoers in the Garden.
George’s titles alone set a tone; they convey a theme . . . The sequence unfolds like this: “Love You To” . . . “Within You Without You” . . . “The Inner Light” . . . and no sooner are the titles recalled than the albums are vividly recounted: “Love You To” hails from 1966’s Revolver, which blazed the trail that led to Sgt. Pepper in 1967, on which “Within You Without You” found a home. And if the versatility of the Beatles in 1968 still requires proof, one merely has to cite how the B-side of the rollicking “Lady Madonna” single was George’s mystical, Rumi-like “The Inner Light.”
At Madison Square Garden, something is adamantly clear. George Harrison is spearheading a concert promising much more than music. What comes to be known as the Concert for Bangladesh is actually a medley of cosmic elements: music, of course, but also multicultural trends, a touch of nostalgia, and hints of spiritual yearning.
(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, will be published in October by Heliotrope Books.)
Watch the entire Concert for Bangladesh here.