George Harrison is a special soul.
Forty-nine years ago, August 1, 1971. The Concert for Bangladesh. In reality, two concerts. Performed to raise awareness, and funds for relief, of refugees caught up in the war in Bangladesh.
Earlier that year, Ravi Shankar, an Indian musician and friend to George, told him about the desperation in Bangladesh and asked George to help. The short of it is George said okay. A couple of months went by without a real plan, but another five or six weeks and George pulled together his friends, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Ringo Star, and the band Badfinger, and Ravi Shankar recruited another Indian musician, Ali Akbar Khan, and they all performed at Madison Square Garden on the first day of August.
The back story covers a lot of musical history, and intersects the lives of some well-known and talented people. In 1961, George was 18 and performing in Germany with an early pre-Ringo version of The Beatles. Fast forward ten years, the musical group called The Beatles exploded into THE BEATLES and took over the world, until the individual Beatles went their separate ways in 1970. George was more and more interested in spirituality and eastern philosophies and music traditions, and was evolving musically to bring these influences into his craft. By 1971, he had his own solo albums and was producing the soundtrack for Raga, a documentary film on Shankar. Nevertheless, he hadn’t performed on stage as a solo act yet.
That summer, George was 28 and organizing in my memory one of the first big, really big, aid concerts in modern history. Dealing with the venue, performers, filming, recordings, the tax man, and everything else that’s involved in planning an event like this, with the goal (and determination) to get the money to where it was needed, in Bangladesh, and not everywhere in between.
So. Picture this. The end of the concert. George at the microphone. The master of ceremonies. The other performers were done. Clapton was dealing with some serious addiction issues and barely made it through his bit with George. And George didn’t know at this point if Dylan would perform. The day before, Dylan told George he was too nervous. About the crowd. For every one of us who’s stumbled over our own words because looking out at faces brings on brain freeze, there’s the idea of a nervous Bob Dylan. Are we all human or what? Bob Dylan, yes THE Bob Dylan, was nervous about the crowd and not sure he could perform. Whatever was happening in his life, he hadn’t really performed in concert for a number of years, and wasn’t sure he could do it. Why does this awkward little detail appeal to me?
George looked around the darkened stage, bright lights in his eyes, to see if the big act would come out and sing.
And yes, Bob Dylan was the big act. There was in fact a question mark next to his name on the concert playlist. What was George thinking during that flash of a minute? It must have been something like, “Oh shit, what am I doing here?” I haven’t seen that quote, but what else would be going through his head?
Then, yes … there he was. Bob Dylan. To paraphrase George’s description, his denim jacket, his harmonica, and his guitar. Dylan looked young and uncomfortable, but the music started. It was A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall, and he knew his song well.
Forty-nine years ago.
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