George Harrison had told me to meet him at the Pierre at 4 p.m. but it must have been close to 5 when a charming, dark-haired woman assistant whose name I think was Linda found me downstairs in the Pierre Cafe, just off the lobby, where I was with my photographer son, Myles, having a cup of coffee at my table in anticipation of the long night ahead. In my all too wasted past, I would have equipped myself with stimulants much more exotic and illicit than coffee, but that great self-destructive binge of creativity spawned by the 1960s had long ago come to an emphatic end, no matter to what extent its fruits might be celebrated later tonight.
Tonight would be when George would mount the stage of Madison Square Garden to join a veritable Who's Who of Rock's most accomplished heroes in a "Bobfest," which is what Neil Young would call it when it came his turn to step up to the mike. What's a "Bobfest?"
"'COLUMBIA RECORDS CELEBRATES THE MUSIC OF BOB DYLAN' HONORS HIS 30TH YEAR;" the headline on the press release said. "ALL-STAR OCT. 16 MADISON SQUARE GARDEN CONCERT EVENT SELLS OUT IN RECORD 70 MINUTES." I think the last Garden show to sell out that fast was George's Concert for Bangladesh. I don't know. I've been out of the loop for the last 20 years. Except that the tickets for this show started at $80 and went up to $150 and you were allowed to buy only one pair at a time.
The cast for tonight's show included a house band consisting of Booker T. on keyboards, Steve Cropper and G. E. Smith wielding guitars, Duck Dunn on bass and Jim Keltner on drums. I told George I still had my "Jim Keltner Fan Club" pin that George had made up on one of his previous tours years ago. For this show, George ordered a supply of black T-shirts that bore a line from one of Bob's songs, in crazy, colorful lettering:
"It's That Million-Dollar Bash."
The show certainly had a million-dollar cast. The lineup featured Eric Clapton, Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Tracy Chapman and on and on and on, including Roger McGuinn, whose Byrds got their first hit with a pop version of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man."
In an article in the Times two days before the concert, Peter Watrous quoted Roger as saying that if Dylan hadn't come along, pop music might have stayed strictly "bubblegum" and there might not have been Bob's brand of "thinking man's music."
"All those concepts of his might have been lost," Roger was quoted as saying. "The Beatles were doing straight pop, and Dylan had a talk with Lennon and after that the Beatles changed, got motivated to do something more interesting, more intellectual."
Which is exactly the reason why I decided it was so essential for me to get Bob and the Beatles together in the first place. Well, it wasn't exactly like acting as go-between for the Arabs and the Jews, but I knew that such a meeting was going to be an earth-shaking
At first, Dylan waslukewarmto meeting the Beatles event. I wrote about Dylan and Lennon as mirror images of each other. To me, it was obvious that if I could get Dylan and the Beatles together, what would evolve is exactly what did evolve. They influenced one another and everybody's music got better still. The world benefited.
It's true that I had youthful ambitions of one day claiming far greater contributions to contemporary culture than that, but I certainly feel honored to have played at least that role. At first, Dylan was lukewarm to meeting the Beatles. He sneered at their music as kid stuff. To Bob, the Beatles were more "bubblegum." Bob had started out as a rock-and-roller like all the other kids, but when I met him he was in his folkie-purist phase. He turned up his nose at pop, but I argued:
"Today's pop is tomorrow's folk music."
I finally got Bob and the Beatles to meet in Manhattan's Hotel Delmonico. Afterwards, when the Beatles were playing a benefit at the old Paramount Theater in Times Square, I brought Bob to the show. He stood on a chair in the wings to watch. He was staying a lot at my house in Berkeley Heights, N.J., in those days and afterwards he asked my wife to drive him over to Rondo Music on Route 22 in Hillside. There, he rented an electric guitar and took it back to my house. Soon, he was in the studio recording his first electric album.
"It's chaos, absolute chaos down there at the Garden!" George told me when Linda, after apologizing profusely for her boss' lateness, finally ushered me into the sitting room of his suite. "I don't know how they're ever going to get that show together. I'm sorry I had to keep you waiting but they kept me waiting. Then I still didn't even get to do my run-through."
He smiled and we shook hands and then we hugged. We hadn't seen each other in close to 20 years. I reminded him that the last time was in his suite at the Plaza after his last Garden concert.
"That was in '74," George recalled. "We used to come to New York a lot when [Allen] Klein managed Apple. Then he no longer managed Apple and we no longer came to New York so much. I've only been here probably two or three times in 20 years since John was shot. Actually twice. The [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame in February, '88 and then '89 or '90 to do a couple of tracks on Eric's [Clapton] 'Journeyman' album."
I asked George what he thought about New York nowadays.
"I think they should pull a lot of it down and plant some trees in it," he laughed, "and thin out the people a bit. Ship a few people off into different places. I don't think it's very healthy at all. It's crumbling, it's tired, but it still has a kind of atmosphere. In the '60s and '70s for me, it was kind of interesting when we used to hang out, we used to go in weird places.
"Then there's that kind of thing where you can get into feelin,' 'Hey, man, yeah, we're in the city and this is city life and we're cool.' But for me, I have no desire to be in any city, even a small city. I don't like cities. I want to be as close to nature as possible. Purely just because I want to survive and I think it takes its toll on you---the pollution, the noise, the uptightness, the hostility---and all it does is it fries your nervous system and knocks years off your life."
I asked George what he has been doing to advance his musical career.
"Musically, I've just sort of come along," he said, but then he quickly added: "Not really. . . Like I'm doing it like most people who are doing their career, making sure they have an album out every year and the tours and all that. When I feel like it, I'll just do an album. I'll probably make one. That's what I've been planning to do the last couple of months is to start writing some new tunes. . .
What about the Traveling Wilburys, I asked, referring to the fictional group that George concocted with the help of Dylan, Petty and ex-ELO leader Jeff Lynne.
"The Wilburys was fun," George said. "I think we should do some more again, because it is relatively simple. It's not like a solo album, in which the responsibility is on you. You can hide behind each other's backs and maybe write lyrics that you maybe wouldn't write
George alsohad becomea movie mogul on your own. I thought that was fun. I like that last album we did. The first one, we did in 10 days, to write it and do the basic tracks, and then Jeff Lynne and I spent a bit more time with Tom puttin' it together.
"The last one, the second one we did, it took six weeks to write it, record it and mix it, everything. It's really good because you tend to get bogged down doin' solo albums. You get used to doin' it over and over until you lose the point. So, it's a little rough bug. It's got that more natural feeling."
Since I last saw George, he also had become a movie mogul, producing a string of films that won critical and commercial success.
"When the economy went bad in the world," George said, "a lot of people couldn't pay us what they owed us and we suffered a little bit over the past few years, paying interest on bank loans that were due to the bank from the money that the other people hadn't paid us. Now we had to sue Cannon Films. Then Cannon sold the company to this Italian, Paretti, who was even worse than Cannon and then he got rid of it to MGM. You know that big story that was in the papers about Credit Lyonnais. It ended up we won the case and we got the money from MGM, but it wasn't MGM's fault.
"The people who actually caused all the problems in the first place got away with it, really. But they'll get theirs, eventually. A lot of people in film, well, in any business, are like that, where they take the attitude, 'We just won't pay and they won't sue us!' We just had a few years of trying to regroup and we've got a few projects that we're trying to get started. I'd like to do just a few more projects and then see how it goes.
"We would change the way we do the business because in the past we raised our own money from the banks. But I think now the days of those smaller budgeted films which we were making---there's no market for them. It's just becoming difficult. So, we've been making films with Hollywood, with those people. Did you ever see any of the films we made? Did you ever see Life with Brian? That was the first film we did. There were a few that were quite good. One with Bob Hoskins. Bought this film that was being shelved. Good Friday. One of his first films."
The telephone rang and George picked it up. It was a friend of Tom Petty who cracks backs. George didn't tell me if the friend actually was a chiropractor or not.
"Where are you?" George said, talking on the telephone. "I don't think I have time. Today has just been a mess. I have so many things to do that I'm just gonna spend some time before I come back just tryin' to get myself calmed down and have a shower and do all that. If I get time, maybe I. . . I think it might be best to pass. . . I am a bit tight around the neck, but I wouldn't worry about it. If I see you backstage, you'll understand. . . Maybe you'll be able to fix my neck or something."
George explained to me that the friend had done George's back the night before but his back probably had just snapped right back to where it had been before the friend had cracked it. Anyway, George said he had found his salvation in guess what? Transcendental Meditation. Remember the Maharishi?
"It's quite good to get an amount of stress out," George said. "Today it's a bit odd because I've been doing a lot of this meditation to gettin' myself together. I just do it. It's part of my day, that's the most important thing, twice a day. And today, because my boy came in with some friends of ours on the Concorde and they came in at 9:30, and we'd. . . so I missed my program this morning and it's like it feels wrong all day, it's not quite right yet.
"So, I'm planning, before I go down to the Garden. . . I'm just going to cool out and do a big long one and get myself together."
George said his wife, Olivia, was in the bedroom, where their 14-year-old son, Dhani, was having a bath.
"But I feel tired as well, for some reason," George said. "Oh, I know why. Because I'm five hours' jet lag, and that's it! I go on at 10:30 tonight, which is like 3:30 in the morning for me, IF the show comes off, because it looked pretty chaotic this afternoon. They were trying to run it down in order to get the timings of everybody. I think they For the 'Bobfest,'they didn't knowwhen to say no made a mistake either by not being able to say no---remember in the '70s when we did Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden? For me to get the commitment of those people for the basis of the show, it took quite a while. But once I knew I had the show, after that, EVERYBODY suddenly wanted to be on the show.
"We were getting phone calls, 20 calls a day. All these different artists who were then volunteering to do it. But I just said, 'NO! That's it! We’ve got the show now!' Whereas this show, it's like they can't say no. Or maybe they feel indebted to so many people for one reason or another or maybe they're just gettin' carried away. And so consequently, they're paying the price of that right now---by being three hours behind in the run-through to time the show. And the show is like three and a half hours long. I mean I wouldn't personally want to sit in the audience for three and a half hours, although, at least, it's not just one person to watch. I mean I don't know anybody I would want to watch for more than two hours. The best show I've seen in the last 20 years was a lecture by Deepak Chopra, this doctor I heard, and it was more entertaining than most rock shows I've seen. He was talking about the spontaneous fulfillment of desire."
George looked at me and then looked at the cassette recorder lying on the couch between us as it wound up every one of his words.
"I would like to just some time hang out with you, not with that feeling that we're doing an interview," George said. "Not that there's nothin’ I don't want to say. . ."
All of a sudden, I was like a cub reporter who couldn't think of the next question to ask. The truth is that George and Bob both became suns around which perhaps too much of me had once revolved. At the concert later that evening, I would find myself weeping with awe over Dylan's enormous body of work.
"I used to know these guys!" I felt obliged to explain to the pretty blonde sitting next to me. She said her name was Sally and she surprised me by referring to Dylan as "Mumbles," affectionately, of course.
"He always changes the lyrics," she said. "You can't tell what he's singing anyway."
Later, when George came onstage, I felt so proud, I turned to Sally and said:
"I was just talking to him."
"Is he really as sweet as he looks?" she asked.
"He's a saint!" I said.
In his Pierre suite, George said he still had to shower and shave before the 8 o'clock start of the show, which was now close to two hours away. He also wanted to know if there were still a Hare Krishna restaurant open in New York. Myles said all the ones he knew of were closed.
"They've got food over at the Garden," George said, "I got them to get some vegetarian rice and dahl, but now I'm not going to be there to eat it, am I? I could do with eating. Otherwise, I'll have no strength at all by the time I get to 10 o'clock. That's when I'm supposed to go on."
Once, years ago, George and I went to a Salsa night on East 86th St. Another time, I took George for his first and last New York subway ride, from Sheridan Square to 14th St. on the Broadway line. When we got out at 14th St., cops were chasing someone down the platform with their guns drawn. But the best night of all was the night I turned the Beatles on to marijuana. That was the night I brought Bob up to meet them at the Delmonico Hotel. We all had one of the best laughs of our lives that night. We did nothing but laugh at one another. That was the night that ushered in Pop's Psychedelic Era.
Now, 28 years later, I no longer smoked anything, but I had scored a chunk of hash in my pocket for George just in case he needed it. But George wasn't having any, either. He started talking about the guy who lives for so long in the country but then decides to get an apartment in the city.
"He sits in the dark because he doesn't know how to plug the light," George said. "In a way, that's what we all do. That's enlightenment. People don't really wanna look for enlightenment. And so, it's like we go through our lives in the dark. But we can just go inside and plug in the source within you/without you. Just learn and be able to dip in, that's the thing. Each time you meditate you can dip in. Each time you meditate you can dip in to that reservoir.
"I forgot about it for years and then I got really stressed out during the early '80s or it was the culmination of all the monkey business I'd been doing. It took me years trying to figure out what's happening to me? I think it was just the accumulation of those years when there was drugs in my life and those years of staying up all night and partying and just being in recording studios and business problems and all these people I talked about earlier---the banks wanting their money and these other people not paying us and all that got me to the point where I said, 'Jesus! I gotta do something here!’
“And I remembered, 'What about meditation!' I had forgotten totally that that's what it was all about---to release the stress out of your system. And I got back into that! And I do a double-dose now and it's like, say, whereas an alcoholic can't go through a day without going to AA or doing some kind of a program like that, for me, it's the meditation program. In order to keep myself focused and keep the buoyancy, the energy, and also to realize that all this stuff that's going on is just bullshit. It's hard to be able to not let that get next to ya!"
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