The coming of age of George Harrison
What began as a rock star’s heartfelt response to a humanitarian disaster went on to become one of the most influential concerts in music history. Here Graeme Thomson reveals how the disillusioned ex-Beatle turned a chaotic night in New York - and the years of financial haggling that followed - into the vast and vital legacy of the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh
A matter of hours before one of the most feverishly anticipated rock concerts in recent memory is due to start, all the musicians taking part are sharing a room for the first time. The room happens to be Madison Square Garden, which tomorrow afternoon and evening will be filled, twice, with 20,000 people. Eric Clapton has just arrived from London looking like a wraith; somebody has been dispatched to find him some uncut heroin. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, is so terrified he’s ready to run.
As the instigator and organiser, George Harrison is in charge of crisis management. “The night before the show was a bit tricky,” the former Beatle later recalled. “We went down where they were setting it up. Eric was in a bad way… and [Dylan] stood on the stage and it suddenly was a whole frightening scenario. Bob turned to me and said, ‘Hey man, I don’t think I can make this. I’ve got a lot of things to do in New Jersey.’ I was so stressed, I said, ‘Look, don’t tell me about that. I’ve always been in a band, I’ve never stood out front, so I don’t want to know about that.’ I always just tried to be straight with him, and he responded. But right up until he came on stage I didn’t know if he was going to come.”
The lecture comes from the heart. Harrison has never regarded himself as a solo performer, nor has he ever wanted to be one. Far less has he ever seen himself as master of ceremonies, charged with carrying an entire show. It is a role to which he believes he is almost wholly ill-suited. “Just thinking about it,” he said at the press conference on 27 July, “makes me shake.”
"He had to really steel himself and be very brave to do this, and he knew that," says [ex-wife] Pattie Boyd. "Apart from the stress of putting it all together, he was actually going to have to front it. He was excited and he was extremely nervous."
The Concert For Bangladesh is rock music’s first chaotic attempt at being socially useful on a global scale. There is no blueprint, and no safety net.
The borders of modern Bangladeshwere drawn during the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947. Despite its lack of physical proximity, eastern Bengal became part of the newly formed state of Pakistan, separated from West Pakistan by almost 1,000 miles of India. It was an ill-conceived plan, and East Pakistan very quickly fell prey to political, economic, cultural and ethnic discrimination by the Pakistani state. By 1971, the tensions had led to the Bangladesh Liberation War.
One of the immediate triggers was the Bhola cyclone of November 1970, which had ravaged East Pakistan and West Bengal, killing an estimated 500,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more, who spilled over the borders. The lacklustre response of the central Pakistani government to the disaster and its catastrophic aftermath brought matters to a head. On 26 March 1971, a declaration of Bangladeshi independence was broadcast. In response, Pakistan ordered the killing of insurgency leaders and intellectuals. The violence of the war resulted in many civilian deaths, particularly among the country’s minority Hindu population. Estimates of those massacred range from 30,000 to three million, while around one million refugees fled to India.
Back in the material world, the crisis barely registered with the western media. “I was in Los Angeles when all this happened,” the late Ravi Shankar told me in 2011. One of Harrison’s closest friends, Shankar’s family had roots in eastern Bengal. “I was reading and getting news on television about the terrible tragedy, the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Calcutta, and their plight. The whole thing was so horrible yet almost nobody knew about it. I was in this terrible state of mind when George came to LA for a few days.”
Harrison had gone to Los Angeles in June 1971 to produce the soundtrack album for Howard Worth’s long-gestating film about Shankar, which had finally been completed and was now called simply Raga. While staying in a rented house overlooking the ocean in Malibu he wrote two songs. “Tired Of Midnight Blue” told of observing - and perhaps participating in - “naughtiness” in the back room of an LA club and suddenly being struck by a wave of depression that made him wish he had stayed at home. “Miss O’Dell”, on the other hand, was a friendly come-hither to his old Apple pal [secretary Chris O’Dell], currently based in California after a romance with Leon Russell. It was a breezy, knockabout confection which had plenty of the zip and zest his next album would lack.
Buried with the in-jokes and local references was mention of “the war” and “the rice that keeps going astray on its way to Bombay”. “I don’t really think the song is for me, it’s more about Bangladesh,” says O’Dell, who was summoned to Malibu just after the song was written to hear it. “I remember him telling me all about it and I didn’t really understand, but he had a love for India and the people and of course for Ravi, and he felt a real connection.”
Harrison’s empathy for Bangladesh was largely down to his personal connection with Shankar, many of whose friends and their families were directly affected by the tragedy. “He saw I was looking so sad, he was really concerned and I asked him if he could help me,” says Shankar. “I said I felt I had to do something and had decided to do my own concert to raise money. Immediately he called his friends.”
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