Saturday, July 05, 2014

My 1979 chat with George Harrison (thanks to 2 Pythons)

George Harrison (left) and some other famous guy

So there I was, seated with Eric Idle and Michael Palin, lunching at a posh Manhattan eatery in the fall of 1979. Warner Bros. had taken over the place for an entire day, so ink-stained wretches like myself could have quality time with assorted members of the Monty Python ensemble prior to the national release of Life of Brian.

And I’m not going to lie: I was feeling pretty damn good about myself, since it was only me seated at the table with Idle and Palin. (Remember: This was 1979, back when print journalists -- even print journalists from Flyover Country -- got to enjoy lengthy hobnobs with the stars during junkets.) And I felt even better when one of the Life of Brian producers strolled into the restaurant, ambled over our table, and asked: “Do you mind if I join you?”

The producer was George Harrison.

(Years later, when I reminded Eric Idle of this episode, he quipped: “Yeah, what we should have told him was, ‘Aw, piss off, George. We’re trying to talk here.’” That Eric. Always the kidder.)

What follows is a slightly revised excerpt from a piece I wrote a few weeks after my close encounter with the late, great former Beatle. Please understand: I’m recycling the article not to show off – well, OK, not only to show off – but rather because some of what Harrison had to say strikes me as especially relevant while A Hard Day’s Night takes a 50th anniversary victory lap though venues nationwide this week.

At first, Harrison – then 36 – was understandably eager to join Idle and Palin in discussing Life of Brian, which already was generating outrage among the easily affronted. (A true story: Just a few days after my return to Dallas, where we were living at the time, my wife and I had to struggle to keep from laughing out loud during a Sunday mass while the presiding priest, obviously inflamed by hearsay, devoted most of his sermon to condemning the not-yet-released Python picture.) Once that topic of conversation was exhausted, however, the talk turned to his often frenetic days with The Fab Four.

Did he miss that eventful era? “Well, yeah,” Harrison conceded as the waiter cleared the table. “When you’re in a group, you have problems, you know, conflicts. But at the same time, you would have good moments. You’ve got some pals to hang around with, and you’ve got some more strength in a way.

“You can draw strength, and you can also get some feedback, from each other, when you’re writing and recording together. I miss all that side of it…

“You know, when we first started out, it was fun just being in a band. We weren’t trying to be rich, we were just having fun. I miss all that side.

“Fame is the thing that screwed it all up, really, as far as I’m concerned. We wound up going around the world singing the same old tunes, just to different people.”

Even so, Harrison recalled with a smile, the Beatles tours were not without random pleasures. “The only thing that spoiled the tour was that we had to go and play at the end of the day. If we just toured the cities of the world, checking into hotels and all that, it would have been okay.

“We had great fun in the bathrooms of all the hotels of the world, because that was the only place we could go, with all the crowds everywhere else.”

Harrison would not definitely rule out a Beatles reunion, but he was not holding his breath while waiting for it to happen. And he was not particularly pleased by the efforts of moviemakers and theatrical producers to keep the Beatles legend alive. (Though he had not yet seen either the movie I Wanna Hold Your Hand or the Broadway show Beatlemania at the time of our 1979 encounter, he dismissed both as “a lot of junk… I wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole.”)

As far as Harrison was concerned on that afternoon all those years ago, his stint as a Beatle was something rapidly receding into the distant past. He didn’t seem to mind if it stayed there.

“It was like another lifetime, you know? Some previous incarnation. It’s been a long time. It’s been 10 years since we split up – and we were splitting up for five years before that.

“In actual fact, we’ve been split up longer than we were together. We were only together a short time, really. I mean, in the length of my life, the Beatles was just a very little part of it.”

A part, Harrison claimed, that many people already were forgetting – or never knew about in the first place.

“You know, they asked kids in England – mind you, they asked 6-year-olds – but they gave them our names and they asked them if they knew who we were.” The result of the inquiry? “They said, ‘Oh, yeah, wasn’t he a famous doctor?’ Or something like that. ‘George Harrison, wasn’t he a famous doctor?’ Ringo Starr? ‘He was one of the Muppets, wasn’t he?’”

(Postscript: As Paul Harvey might say, here’s the rest of the story. At one point in our discussion of Life of Brian, I blithely began a question with, “I know you guys don’t have any sacred cows…” And Harrison, with a perfectly straight face, interrupted by saying: “But I do.” It shames me to say that, even after he, Idle and Palin began chuckling, it took me about five seconds to remember that Harrison had converted to Hinduism years earlier. But what the hell: I can honestly say that, even if had to make myself the butt of the joke, I got a good laugh out of a Beatle and two Pythons, all at the same time.)

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