COLUMN SIXTY-SIX, DECEMBER 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
GEORGE AT THE BOBFEST
(Photo By Myles Aronowitz)
I, of course, think you have to be a total narcissist to want to become a musician in the first place. But what sets George Harrison apart from most other superstars I have known is that he doesn't treat his superstardom as a license to act like a spoiled brat. I am proud and happy to be able to tell you (even at the risk of sounding too much like the smarmy, gushy, awe-struck Beatles fan I happen to be) that, on a personal basis, George Harrison is one of the sweetest, kindest and most considerate men I know. I've seen him try very hard to be a prick and each time I have seen him fail miserably.
For instance, I was riding with George in London once when a Bobby accused him of blocking the box at an intersection during rush hour. It was a close call and when the cop stepped into the path of George's expensive blue Italian sports car and started to write out a ticket, George gunned the engine and inched as close as possible to the Bobby, as if threatening to run the cop down. But the Bobby just had to take one look at George's face to know George was just bluffing. The Bobby stood his ground in front of George's car and finished writing out the ticket.
Another time, while visiting at George's home, Friar Park, a landmark estate built years ago as a sort of Disneyland Castle by an old eccentric millionaire, I went with George and George's brother to the local pub where George's brother's mates in the volunteer fire brigade were drinking. This was during the anti-war days when we were all railing against the government's Vietnamese policies. George had a drink or two, got a little loose and slipped into his belligerent-anarchist-activist mode, telling the fire brigade volunteers how much he despised cops and all similar arms of fascistic civil governments, such as the local fire brigade, who therefore were as bad as cops. George worked himself up enough to tell the fire brigade volunteers that even if Friar Park started burning down, he wouldn't allow them on his property, not even to put out the fire. This attempt at nastiness struck the fire brigade volunteers as so preposterous that they laughed it off as a send-up. With the volunteers thinking that George must have been putting them on all along, the argument turned into a hilarious joke, and the laughing fire brigade volunteers went home thinking that rich Beatle lad sure was a lot of fun to hang out with.
George's face is so accustomed to having a smile on it, that no wonder everyone can see the kindliness engraved in his visage. The folds of George's facial skin just don't have any practice wrinkling in any other direction. George is too much of a Mr. Nice Guy, as if there can be too much of such a thing in a world so dominated by an absence of Mr. Nice Guys.
I wrote to George asking for an interview and a few days later he phoned me back
George radiates a warmth and love that a fan can take home with him from a seat all the way in the uppermost bleachers of Madison Square Garden (or of any similar arena with bleachers that put you as far away as outside the city limits or so high up that you interfere with the flight control pattern). For me, personally, George radiates a warmth and love that has reached across the Atlantic for more than a quarter of a century.
In September, I wrote George:
I hope this letter gets to you in time or gets to you at all. I just got wind you're going to give a concert in New York with Bob, etc. Bob isn't talking to me these days and I've been blacklisted out of New York journalism for the past 20 years, but I'm starting all over again at the age of 64 with a column in a new newspaper that's going to be part of the alternative press. I sure wish you'll let me see you when you're in New York for an interview so I can get a "scoop" for my new column.
A few days later, George called from England and said of course he would give me my scoop. He said he would call again as soon as he checked into a hotel in the city. On the phone, he reminisced about all the good times we'd had years ago when we were running around Manhattan together. But then he added sadly that he hasn't been able to feel the same about New York since John was shot here. Later, when I saw him after he checked into his Pierre Hotel suite, George explained:
"Well, a city where a Beatle has been shot is obviously not going to be one of my favorite cities to visit."
Running around atop Popdom's Mount Olympus, I always found George one of the most human, one of the most natural, one of the most unaffected of the superstar gods. I also always found him to be the most composed and the most at one with himself, starting with the part of him still very much a member of a bus driver's family, a kid from the working class, a baby brother who hit it big. To win a million in the lottery or to earn a million with your talent, you still had to be struck by the same kind of lightning, touched by the same finger of God. George is so giving that, while others in his profession often have to feign humility, George has to hold his in check.
"There's something very sincere about him," a woman who watched the Dylan Tribute concert on Pay-Per-View TV later told me. "Just looking at him, I could tell he's a gentle soul with a very forgiving nature."
So, I wasn't just imagining it. Just from watching George on the tube, this woman friend of mine had gotten all the same sweet vibrations that I always had gotten from George in the flesh. Do I have to conduct a survey? Do I have to take a poll? I don't think I'll have many challengers when I say most of us are ready to agree George inspires good cheer wherever he goes. What I mean is that everybody---even yours truly---has been a spoiled brat at least once in a while. But not once in the 28 years I've known George have I ever seen him (or even heard of him) lose his cool, fly into a rage and throw the type of tantrum too often displayed by George's egocentric equals in Rock's Royal hierarchy.
Not that I mean to point any fingers on the occasion of what Neil Young called a "Bobfest," the Madison Square Garden tribute to Bob Dylan, a man who has been probably my greatest idol, my most adored hero. Whatever harsh words Bob and I may currently harbor for each other on a personal level, I'm certainly ready to agree that Dylan has been an overwhelming influence in my life. Whether for the worse or for the better remains to be seen, but Bob has without question enriched my life. And, in fact, he has enriched the lives of all of us.
George and I, we're both fans of Bob. Obviously, George shares my opinion at least to some degree that Bob has done more to change the English language than anybody since Bill Shakespeare. But nobody, not George nor anybody else, was ever a bigger Dylan fan than I was (or maybe even still am). I was famous as the World's No. 1 Dylanite. Didn't one of Bob's biographers refer to me as a "notorious pop star lackey"? That's what I was! There was even a time I went nutso enough to think Bob was the New Messiah, a misconception that caused me no end of mental complications in view of the fact that Bob had once joked in a well publicized interview that I was the only man who could save the world.
I hadn't seen George since I went that crazy. I hadn't seen George since 1973, when he last came to New York to play the Garden. I hadn't seen George since I lost my grip and fell off the edge. I'd been staying away from people like George because nobody wants to hear a horror story and all I had to offer were letters from Desolation Row. I used to think
I was a winner, but I looked back at a trail along which I had tripped too often.
"I've made a lot of mistakes!" I told George as the two of us sat on the sitting room couch of his Hotel Pierre suite while Myles, my photographer son, snapped pictures.
"I know I've fucked up!" I added, for emphasis.
Putting his hand on mine, George looked at me and said:
"You didn't fuck up with me, Al."
Then he added:
"We all did, didn't we? We all fucked up. D'y know that tune of Bob's, 'Every grain of sand. . .' In which he says, "don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake. . .Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must now break'?"
Almost ever since I introduced George to Bob, George has always been quoting Bob's lyrics to me.
"It started to get painful for me to listen to Bob's stuff," I explained.
"I can imagine," he said.
But then I told George about someone giving me a copy of Bob's Most of the Time.
"I love that song!" I said. "His stuff is still inspirational! His stuff is still great!"
I told George that hanging out with Bob had been maybe my most memorable adventure, except maybe for hanging out with the Beatles. He nodded.
"Bob's kinda--" George started to say and then he interrupted himself. "Obviously," he said, "I know him much more now than I knew him when we. . . when I knew you. . . when we were in that period. From what I've seen, he doesn't judge people. Sometimes people don't---what they're lacking is whatever that is that just. . . that's able to just reach out. But I've seen him being very forgiving and not really. . . He don't put anybody down and in that way I think hes really cool."
"Do you think he's mellowed out?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah!" George said. "Yeah, he's. . . Sometimes, he's very ordinary. He's just an ordinary person whos got a lot of knowledge."
Sometimes it's tough for a genius like Bob to accomplish tasks that are easy for ordinary mortals. The truth is that I am proud to have contributed at all to the career of one of the greatest songwriters of our time. Still, I don't think Bob was ever straight with me. Like I say, I don't know if Bob ever gave a straight answer to anybody.
"I've seen Bob in all kinds of moods," I told George. "What he did with me, the way he dumped on me, I've seen him do with many guys along the way. Oh, by the way, I spoke to Leon Russell. . ."
It was at Leon's urging years ago that George sent me to ask Buckminster Fuller for suggestions on what to do with the proceeds from George's Concert for Bangladesh. "Bucky" kept me spellbound for hours with a plan for a city of his geometric domes, using (among other innovations) recycled human methane for energy. The plan made perfect sense, but George gave the money to agencies with less radical agendas. I told George I had seen Leon recently, explaining that Leon had undergone a hip replacement identical to that of Bo Jackson.
"Leon should've been on this show, really," George said, "doin' Hard Rains Gonna Fall on the piano. That's where I would have had him on this show, because Leon was hot on that piano."
I told George that Leon had once disclosed to me that Bob had shat on him, too.
"He told me that Bob shit on him in the same kind of way that I've known Bob to shit on a lot of people," I said.
"But I don't know," George interrupted, "because I haven't seen Leon, either, and maybe he thinks I shit on him, too. But he moved out of L.A. in a real depression when it wasn't so good for me, either. The record companies were going through that period in the '70s
The record company
where they were having market surveys on the streets to find out what was supposed to be a hit tune. And at that time, I was told a hit song constitutes love gained or lost between 15- and 20-year-olds. And I thought, 'Well, what chance to I have?'
"And at that period, Leon was making albums. He made a couple of really good albums and the record company said, like they said to me at that point, 'It's very artistic, but we don't hear any hits.' And then Leon made a new album and then another album and then I think from what I could see of it, he just got disheartened and he gave up. And the next time I came to L.A., he'd gone. I didn't see him and I heard about 20 years later---I asked where is he? And they said, 'Oh, I think he lives in Nashville now!'
"And I saw him on a TV show from somewhere like Austin, Texas, with Johnny Winter. And that's the only thing I've seen of him for years, and I often think of what happened to him. But I wonder if he thinks like I shat on him just because he never heard from me. But how do you keep in touch with people if they don't. . . Like I just saw Al Kooper last night and I was vaguely in touch with him, but if he leaves town and changes his phone number and address and goes to live in some other state, unless he sends a post card, how are you to know where people have gone?
"It's like somebody wrote this song in the past, like 1930 or something, and it says, 'Famous men, they come and go/Where they go to, I don't know/'All I know is clear/I'm still here!'"
I knew George wasn't going to have much time to spend with me. Somehow, he was going to have to shoehorn my "interview" into a very tight schedule. He was only going to remain in New York a day or two or possibly three. When he called from the Pierre the day before the Friday night "Bobfest", he said he wished he could take me to the rehearsal with him and then added: "But I can't." To me, "But I can't" meant that George had asked Bob if he could bring me along and Bob had specifically vetoed the idea. At one point, George wanted to know what was Bob's beef against me. I laughed and told him that the last time I had seen Bob, he all but accused me of being the reason Albert Grossman was suing him. He kept demanding to know, as if I were in the witness chair and he were the county prosecutor:
"Why is Albert suing me? Why is Albert suing me?"
As if it were all my fault. Albert, of course, was the personal manager who is generally credited with having invented Dylan, although it's perfectly obvious that it was Bob who really invented himself. In the end, Bob and Albert were at war with each other and when two men are at war, they fight with words or fists or clubs or knives or guns or armies or lawyers. As far as I knew, Albert was suing Bob for money that Bob had wittingly or unwittingly ripped off from Albert. But the fight had to be over more than money, because it got so bitter that the legal fees on both sides soon exceeded by far the amount in dispute.
Bob and Albert were really fighting over something deeply personal, but George knew probably as well as I did that the super secretive Bob would never reveal himself by giving anybody a straight answer about it. In all the years I've known Bob, I don't think I've ever heard him give a straight answer to anybody about anything. He has certainly never told me the real reason why he took the liberty of ordering me out of Levon Helms's dressing room into which Levon invited me. It was when Levon was appearing with Rick Danko at the old Lone Star, on Fifth Ave. and 13th St., with a giant replica of an iguana on the roof.)
Probably all of us who have ever loved and adored Bob, who have been inspired by him and who have followed his leadership, who have been kept spellbound by his songs, who have had the good fortune to get close enough to him to dote on him and sit at his feet, we all have known that, on a personal level, Bob can be about as rational as a big baby and ten times as demanding. But he is our big baby. To a certain extent, I feel the same way about my own one-year-old grandson. I'll do anything I can to keep my grandson happy.
I've been told by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary that he had to teach Bob to brush his teeth and clean his fingernails when Bob was 22. The people up in Cambridge claimed Bob's teeth were still green when he first showed up there looking for a gig in the early '60s. All along the way, people have mothered and fathered and babied Bob for many reasons, not the least of which has been Bob's innate ability to charm the birds out of the trees. But Bob's most redeeming quality has been his genius. I, for one, was proud to know as brilliant a writer, a performer, a star as Bob. As I said, I used to feel ennobled simply being in his company. Although Bob would never reveal himself by giving anybody a straight answer, I found eternal truths in his lyrics.
Some of those in Bob's inner circle had hitched their wagons to his star because they knew he would make money for them. I, for one, was attracted to Bob by his artistry. But whatever reasons any of us had for clinging to him, we all took our turns coddling him. Every last one of us let him get away with never giving any of us a straight answer. We let him keep putting all of us on. We let him keep enjoying his game of manipulating us, sometimes playing cruel jokes on us just for laughs. That was the price we paid for the honor of hanging out with one of the greatest talents of our time.
"Bob's not the only one who's turned his back on me," I told George. "I can't get through to Robbie Robertson, either."
"Oh, Robbie!" George laughed in response. "Robbie doesn't even talk to Bob any more!"
I suppose I should feel honored to be lumped with such a distinguished and talented legion of old friends and old lovers discarded into the trash heap by Bob for reasons I don't know if he ever really made clear to any of us. It seems that, constitutionally, he can't reveal enough of himself to tell what he's really angry about, so, like Ross Perot, he gives any old reason, no matter how irrational it might sound.
Obviously, he kicked me out of his coterie to punish me for what I know not. Obviously, he meant I should suffer pain and do you know what? I do. The truth is that I am as pained as Bob meant me to be. Still, I could go down the list, starting with Bob's ex-wife, Sara, or Bob's ex-lover, Joan Baez, and I'll bet every one of us would jump at the chance of doing it all over again. Even Albert would rise up from the grave like a petulant giant of a ghost to do it again. For those of us who thought we were helping pioneer new breakthroughs in music, art and culture, who thought we were helping open the door to new artistic and social freedoms, the 1960s were thrilling times. Flawed as he was (and, I presume, still is), Bob was our hero, always an adventure to be with. Yes, those were glory days for all of us. You'll notice, however, that Baez wasn't on the lineup for the Garden "Bobfest," even though she played Manhattan's Bottom Line a few nights later.
George is a peacemaker. Like me, he believes in patching things up. Like me, he believes that fighting wastes too much energy. Lighten up, everybody! It's only the extremists who want to start the wars. I figured George must have made overtures to Bob about settling the problem between Bob and me. I've got my beefs with Bob, too, but I'm all for harmony and brotherhood. Yes, George wished he could take me to the rehearsal and I would have liked to go. George wished he could take me but he couldn't because, obviously, I had been disinvited. I understood. ##
GO TO PART TWO
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