COLUMN SIXTY-SIX, DECEMBER 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
GEORGE AT THE BOBFEST
(Photo By Myles Aronowitz)
[In COLUMN SIXTY-TWO, I told about George Harrison agreeing to an interview before his participation In Madison Square Gardenís 1992 concert celebrating Bob Dylanís 30th year with Colombia Records. PART ONE begins the original manuscript of what I afterwards wrote. Portions first appeared in the short-lived New York Planet.]
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
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.
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
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
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.
I wrote George:
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:
city where a Beatle has been shot is obviously not going to be one of my
favorite cities to visit."
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.
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
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.
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
I've fucked up!" I added, for emphasis.
hand on mine, George looked at me and said:
didn't fuck up with me, Al."
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
since I introduced George to Bob, George has always been quoting Bob's lyrics to
started to get painful for me to listen to Bob's stuff," I explained.
imagine," he said.
But then I
told George about someone giving me a copy of Bob's Most of the Time.
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
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 heís really cool."
think he's mellowed out?" I asked.
yeah!" George said. "Yeah,
he's. . . Sometimes, he's very
ordinary. He's just an ordinary
person whoís got a lot of knowledge."
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.
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.
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
I told George
that Leon had once disclosed to me that Bob had shat on him, too.
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
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?'
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!'
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?
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:
Albert suing me? Why is Albert
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.
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.)
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.
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.
not the only one who's turned his back on me," I told George.
"I can't get through to Robbie Robertson, either."
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.
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
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. ##
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