time spent with ‘the quiet Beatle’
Let’s face it, Mary was a striking, raven-haired woman from the west country, from Wiltshire, the mystical and mysterious shire of golden wheat fields and chalk hills and ancient geoglyphs, and she was upper class too, always talked of “mummy and daddy” in that affected way they use to signal status, to signal that they know the code, so what could she possibly see in me except the occasional bottle of nice wine and ceaseless admiration and now and then the obvious?
Nonetheless, I knew she was fond of me. She was breaking up with her boyfriend who never paid her any mind and she liked it that I held the door open for her and always paid for dinner. For my part I liked how her face looked in the morning when I stayed over and the sound of the gate when she came back from the corner store with breakfast and the Times. We had to be careful of course, we both worked in the newsroom and consorting was frowned upon. She was much better at that stuff than me. I didn’t really care who knew. It seemed to me that an ordinary rhythm to our life was already emerging. So why didn’t she want to come?
“Look,” I said, “I’ve never had a chance to look around a real folly before, never been inside one, and he tells me he’s fixing this one up just like it once was. I hardly know him at all but he seems lonely. It’s only a few years since the band split up and the divorce has been painful too, I can tell. If you don’t like it, I promise you we won’t stay for the whole weekend, we’ll drive straight back to London, I don’t care if it’s three o’clock on Sunday morning. Okay?”
I wanted her to come, sure, but what I wanted almost as much was the chance to drive out there in her new car. Daddy had just bought her a red Alfa Romeo, it had a wooden steering wheel with four spokes of polished steel, she made me buy driving gloves before I could get behind it. I didn’t think I was anything special, but I really didn’t want to drive all the way out to Henley in my old Morris Minor with the hole in the floor. Who knows who else might show up?
“I don’t even know what to wear to a weekend away like that,” said Mary. “Wear that beautiful blue summer dress,” I said. “You look so good in that. And maybe bring some jeans for Sunday.” “Who are you now?” she teased, “Mary Quant?” That’s when I knew she would come. I mean, who wouldn’t? She knew I could ask anybody else and they’d jump at it in a second. She realized that I was going to go no matter what and I was going to take someone with me rather than get out there and then find myself hanging around like a spare prick at a wedding. Maybe she saw an element of risk. Maybe she was interested in keeping me around after all.
On the morning of September 1, 1939 the engineer in charge of the transmission towers at Alexandra Palace got up from morning tea to answer the phone and on the line was the head of BBC Television himself. “You will switch off television service at noon,” he was told. The date means nothing unless you happen to know that Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, declared war on Nazi Germany just two days later. Great Britain was preparing for war. If the towers were powered down they could not act as homing beacons for the Luftwaffe bombers everybody knew were coming.
At five minutes to noon that day the BBC was broadcasting a Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Mickey’s Gala Premiere.” Without warning the cartoon stopped and a continuity announcer called Mr. Alvar Liddell appeared on the screen, sitting behind a desk and dressed as was the custom then in the most formal attire, black bow tie and morning coat. In sonorous, magnificently inflected tones he explained why the television service was about to be discontinued. “Good day and may God bless you all,” he said as he concluded.
The signal went dark. The world went to war.
Millions died. Millions more suffered. Six years later, fascism was defeated. On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered.
The next day television sets in Britain flickered back to life. BBC Television was back in business. The somber image of Mr. Liddell again appeared on the screen, dressed again in his morning coat and tie. “Good morning,” he said. “We shall now return to our previously scheduled broadcast.” Mickey’s Gala Premiere resumed, exactly where it left off.
There were, after all, five minutes of the program yet to go.
I was 25 years old, old enough to recognize how lucky I was to be working for such an organization and determined not to screw it up. My presence perplexed everybody else in the newsroom. “Tell me,” one or other of them would say over lunch downstairs at the club, “What did you do before you joined the BBC?” “Joined.” That’s the verb they used, like you just made up your own mind to work there and that was that, again the language of well-bred entitlement. None of them had to run the gauntlet of the three interviews with the chair facing the bright sun through the window behind the interviewing panel and the lady in the corner keeping a shorthand record of everything you said, or the writing inquisition, long and short, close editing under pressure, or the current affairs examination. “What is the history of Pakistan?” What do you think is the prognosis for Spain now that the Generalissimo has died?” “Who is the prime minister of Ceylon?” Hours of stuff like that. No, I hadn’t “joined” the BBC. I had to fight my way in.
At first I would stupidly tell them about the mushroom farm in Leicestershire, about the unique mixture of cow shit and chicken shit with which the chanterelles and white buttons were forced with unnatural speed out of the growing pallets and how I was literally showered with shit every Tuesday, clean-and-reload day, because I had to stand with my scraper immediately below the point where they were upended and emptied, before they were scraped and scrubbed and filled again.
And then I would compound their bewilderment by carrying on about working in the village pub near Uppingham, serving the locals Ansells Bitter until 3am on a Saturday morning and then rushing back to open up again at noon and god help you if the keg on the thrall had not been changed or the fire wasn’t blazing or there was a dirty ash tray from the night before on a table in the back. But later, to spare myself the startled looks and pretentious shaking of the heads I would head straight for the story about how the BBC had called me after somebody had read an article of mine in the Observer one Sunday.
Of course they had got the article all wrong, I was trying to make the point that women were the equal of men, anybody who thought otherwise was an idiot, I knew it because New Zealand was the first country ever to accord women the vote and the notion was fundamental to the way we looked at the world, but it seemed to me that women, while equal, were not the same as men and many feminists were beginning to confuse equality with sameness. They were demanding entry into the Special Air Service or into the rugby club changing rooms for post-match interviews and all that had nothing to do with equality and besides, it blurred the exquisite differences that enabled gender to operate as such a fundamental instrument of social life, not to mention propagation. It was a subtle point to make and making it with clarity was obviously beyond my expressive capability so all of a sudden I found myself a sexist pig. Still, I had leveraged that article into an initial interview and a shot and I had made the most of it.
I loved the BBC, I went there with an excitement it immediately justified. On my first day I handed my editor the draft of a story I had been working on all day. “Here’s that draft you wanted,” I said. He tore the piece of paper into pieces. “Here at the BBC,” he said, “we do not accept drafts, we accept only perfect, finished, copy.”
In my imagination Television Center was the center of the universe, with correspondents filing reports from 172 countries, and a library where a chap who had interviewed Indira Gandhi had written “the woman does not blink” in her file, and four production studios going all day every day, Blue Peter in number 1, Python in number 2, Midsummer Night’s Dream in number 3, Parkinson taping in number 4, and Elvis Costello having a beer in the club on the second floor after Top of the Pops filming on a Thursday night, and drawing travel rations from the office on the ground floor whenever you crossed the Channel and went abroad on assignment to Europe, a foreign place of strange customs where the food could not be trusted. I loved it, lapped it up, but the British Broadcasting Corporation was not so sure about me. So while I was based in the newsroom I was also shuffled around as they tried to figure out where I might fit if indeed I fit at all; a stint with Radio 2 in Belfast, then with David Attenborough’s wildlife unit over in Bristol and then off to OB, Outdoor Broadcasts, which is how I found myself covering the 1976 British Formula 1 Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, down in Kent.
Above the start-finish line we built a gantry for Camera 1. It was more than a hundred feet high, and from up there we could zero in to any point on the circuit as well as present an eagle-eye view of all the action when the flag came down. That’s where they put me, up there out of the way in the wind and rain, instead of in the production suite, which stood on a platform about 70 feet below. I was annoyed, I wouldn’t get a chance to meet Jacki Stewart, the former world champion, who was doing color commentary for the broadcast that day. The cars were just moving into their pole positions when the producer’s voice came through on my headphones. “We just saw two men climbing up the gantry ladder,” he said. “Tell them it’s BBC property and they need to scarper.” I walked over to the ladder and peered down. Sure enough, two blokes were climbing up. They were only 10 feet or so below me. “Sorry about this, but you’re on BBC Property, you’re going to have to climb down if you don’t mind.” The one in the lead stopped and looked up at me. “I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if we watched the race from up here?” he said. I recognized the voice first, and then the face. It was George Harrison. “George, after what you’ve done for me,” I said, “you can work the fucking camera.” He told everybody that story over an Indian dinner a few weeks later, when Mary and I spent the weekend at his very own folly, Friar Park. God how he loved that place.
Truth be told, Patti had found it, he told me. They used to live in Surrey, the town of Esher actually, but Lennon and Starkey each lived close by and he loved them of course, it was Lennon who christened him “Harrisong” in the first place, but they were around all the time with a million hangers-on from all over. With that and work the two of them had no time alone together at all, no refuge from the insanity, and it drove her crazy. And he told everyone over dinner what fun we had watching the race, how the Englishman James Hunt — “Hunt the Shunt” — had made his way back to the pits after a big pile-up that stopped the race early and then taken a shortcut to get back out on the track by driving the wrong way down pit row, how he had won the race and the crowd went wild but later they disqualified him for driving half a lap less than anyone else and gave the win to Niki Lauda in the Ferrari and how I said I was glad I wasn’t commentating because Hunt’s car was a McClaren and McClaren was a Kiwi but The Shunt was a cheating bloody Englishman so what could I possibly say if I was on-air? Then he told them how halfway through the race I went down to the studio to pick up some sandwiches and George’s mate Frank Rossi from Status Quo came with me to carry up the teapot, how Rossi was stoned out of his mind at that point and we were terrified that he would fall off the ladder as he clambered up clutching a teapot and a couple of mugs with one hand while he hung on for dear life with the other.
We had quite a picnic up there, the rain ended and the sun came out and we devoured egg sandwiches as Hunt and Lauda battled on furiously below. “My favorite,” said George. “Can’t beat an egg sandwich.” Rossi was talking about a new single his band was working on, the Quo was moving into heavier rock he explained to George, trying to manage a tricky transition from their success in the 60’s. “We’ve had a couple of big ones,” he said, and quickly recovered himself, ‘but not like you of course.” “Oh, I like your stuff a lot,” I heard George say, appreciative of the sensitivity.
“But it’s amazing, what you guys did,” said Rossi. “I mean, you were only at it for a few years.” “Seven,” said George.
“What’s your favorite album of all of them?” Rossi asked. “I like Rubber Soul,” said George. “I got three of mine on that, plus the sitar on Norwegian Wood of course. It felt like I could keep up then.”
“You must come down to see my house,” he said as he began to climb back down the ladder after the race. And then he was gone. He got off at the production studio and went in and I could hear Jacki Stewart exclaim “George! Come in! I had no idea you were here, you could have watched it all from in here. How are you?” I helped the cameraman dismantle the camera. George was back in his world, I was back in mine, left with just a story, a small story about spending an afternoon in the distant company of the quiet Beatle.
There was no reason for me to know it then, but in 1976 George was coming out of a two-year dark period. After the Beatles’ break-up and Patti chose Clapton he started drinking hard and doing prodigious amounts of coke. Musically, he poured everything into the Dark Horse album, which was panned. The accompanying tour had been a disaster, too much sitar, not enough Beatles music. He was depressed, hurting, locked for the first time ever in self-doubt, no longer exploring. It was a two-year hiatus in his famous spiritual progression, a time when meditation wasn’t enough. So he did what many do. He surrounded himself with people. And women. Lots of women. They loved him, he loved them. That’s how he hid. I was surprised when his fixer Terry called me of all people about coming out to Henley for the weekend, but looking back now, I understand. That was the one thing I figured out about him. Even later, after Dhani came along and he married Olivia and got his life back together again, I’m sure he still ran at full throttle at whatever he did, all in, all the time. No half measures. Intense. Committed. Back then George was still hiding in plain sight. If he was having people around for a party on a Saturday night, it was going to be a blow-out.
I was attracted not by the mythology surrounding him but by the ordinary humanity I saw in the man at the center of it. You got the sense that he had worked harder at his craft than the others, that it didn’t come easy, though like most genuinely talented people he was not illuminating on the subject of his gifts and the source of his spectacular success.
The complexity in him was obvious. I think it sprang from his deep belief that life is about change and self-discovery. I’m projecting that of course, we talked little about stuff like that, but how else should I rationalize the evident contradictions? An ascetic — and a libertine. An introspective loner — and a sociable host with a wicked sense of humor. A competitive perfectionist — and a sensitive, observant soul. A public performer — and a quiet gardener. A lover of fast cars — and Indian classical music. Capricious — and kind. Practical — and mystical. George was not the quiet Beatle. He was the enigmatic one.
With Ringo, what you see is what you get. Lennon? Hiding behind a wall of his own construction, the cynic and the show-off. McCartney? A natural-born genius for marvelous melody but with absolutely nothing to say. But George? George was complicated. After just a few hours in his company you saw that “the quiet Beatle” didn’t even come close.
Friar Park was built by an eccentric lawyer, Sir Frank Crisp, in 1875. The very first thing we saw as we drove in was the gatehouse with its steep pointed roof. Then there’s a three-story mansion with 20 or so bedrooms, two lodges, a ballroom, a library and 12 acres of gardens. Oh, and all the whimsical stuff that makes a folly, like a huge re-creation of the Matterhorn, a labyrinth of underground tunnels and secret places and a huge pond right in front of the main building with a trapeze and narrow rope bridge dangling over it. George gave us what he called “the royal tour.” He told us it was a rundown heap by the time Patti found it, an order of nuns lived in it and ran a school there, Sacred Heart it was called, me dear old mum loved that, he said. Then Harry, his brother, showed us around the gardens. George, he said, spends every moment he can working with me on the gardens now. It’s good for him. Our dad loved his garden too, but it was smaller. He grinned. “I still really don’t believe all this either.”
A big crowd gathered at Harrisong’s Folly that Saturday night. It was chaos. Harry had warned us to find a room in the back of the house where we could stash our overnight bags so maybe we would have a place to crash, later. We found one with a couple of sleeping bags on a mattress, put our stuff there and went downstairs to dinner. I spotted Rossi as we entered the kitchen, and he greeted me like a long-lost friend. That felt good, because there must have been 30 or 40 people milling around and while some of them had familiar faces, the only people I knew were Rossi and George. The dinner itself put in mind of the sanatorium scenes in all those 60s movies about drunks, like Days of Wine and Roses, or Alfie or even Valley of the Dolls, where the main characters all imbibe too much, develop delirium tremens and eventually need restraint and professional help.
Over there was John Mayall, with Blue Mitchell, who Rossi said was a fantastic trumpet player, but I never got to hear him because he keeled over early and was carried from the field of play, whereupon the beautiful black woman he had come with started making out with Keef Hartley, the drummer in Mayall’s band. Then there was the lawyer from Dark Horse Records and his lawyer wife and their lawyer couple friends, all from L.A. They had come over in first-class on the same flight as Mayall but didn’t have a clue who he was. Then there were two Scandinavian girls who Rossi insisted I meet. They mostly didn’t mix because they spoke no English at all. While I was trying to talk to Inge I noticed Mary giving me an odd look but I may have been mistaken because at that point I was very stoned. She had been talking in an animated fashion with Olivia, who Rossi said was George’s latest serious girlfriend, and George had joined them both and appeared very attentive. She seemed to be enjoying herself at least.
By way of small talk I asked people how they had met George. One said “I’ve never met him before.” Voorman said he couldn’t possibly remember, once upon a time in Hamburg. Alan Wilson said he met him in the loo backstage somewhere. “Filthy bastard,” said Gary Brooker.
Rossi disappeared and came back with a guitar. “Alright then,” said George, who was still talking to Mary, but he sounded weary at the prospect of hamming it up, like Old Davies in The Caretaker when he finally runs out of excuses. Everyone wandered into the ballroom, the recording studio on the first floor was too small, and those who were going to play went and fetched their instruments. Rossi asked me if I was going to play too.
“You’ve got be kidding me,” I replied, unable to imagine doing anything of the sort with the group taking shape in front of me. “I haven’t played in a band since high school.” Fortunately George came back from somewhere right then carrying a ukulele, with a trilby perched on his head. “Me name’s George Formby,” he announced, in an hilarious mish-mash of Cockney and Liverpudlian. “Lancashire born and bred. ‘Ere’s a little song I wrote wif me trouble and strife.”
His version of old Formby’s “Chinese Laundry Blues” kicked off the concert.
To my amazement, some of the crowd started to fall away as early as 2am. Me? I was going to be in ’til the bitter end. George himself disappeared around 3. But it wasn’t until Rossi led the band in a third raucous version of Rocking All Over the World — went to number three in Britain for the Quo later that year — that the show was over. It was 4 or 5am by then. I hadn’t seen Mary leave and I stumbled off to find our room. One hallway stopped at a locked door, I guess it was private. I saw a lawyer lady sleeping on the floor of a bathroom, dress up around her waist, arms around the porcelain. I covered her with a towel. I wandered down another corridor completely lost and then a third until I found what looked like the right door. But I thought I heard George’s voice from inside the room, and maybe Mary’s laugh, too. Christ, I’m whacked, I thought, I don’t know where the hell I am or where the damn room is and now I’m hearing things.
Mary found me late next morning fast asleep on a red leather sofa in the library. She kissed me on the cheek. “I’m sorry,” she said. I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was talking about so I just said “that’s okay.”
“Did you have a good time?” I asked. “I lost track of you somehow in all the madness.”
“Oh yes, it was lovely,” she replied. “Olivia is a sweetheart.”
Harry and his missus had cleaned up the kitchen and we helped ourselves to morning tea and toast and marmalade. Slowly the dazed crowd assembled. Bloody Rossi staggered in with both of the Swedes, naturally. “You have a great voice,” he said to me. “Only compared to yours,” I said, and he threw a weetabix at me. Then we wandered out to the driveway. George came out to say goodbye. It was starting to rain. “Thanks very much for coming,” he said. “Hope we see you again soon. I think I’ll going to the Venue next week, let Terry know if you want to get past the rope.” He kissed Mary on the cheek and patted me on the back with a smile and we were off. Mary invited me in but I told her no, drop me at home if you don’t mind. I had to get some sleep. Early shift in the morning.
She wouldn’t go the Venue. I did, but there was no ticket at the door and the bruiser managing the rope said I couldn’t get in that section either without it. I could have made a fuss, but I left that to the brassy blonde girl who said she had an invite and “I’m no star-fucker, so let me in, Eric’s expecting me.” She was formidable and I liked her for it because I knew I could never do that and so I said “why don’t you let her in?” to the bruiser, whereupon she snapped at me; “Let me handle this, you little shit.” Later she saw me at the bar and told me she’d meant it affectionately. I never saw George again.
Mary and I had a lovely time together but not for long and after I came here I heard she up and married some corporate up-and-comer from the British Post Office. I was so melancholy when I heard that George had died that I nearly called her. But by then of course years had gone by and I had learned a lot about death. I knew how to take my precious memories of him and put them somewhere in the space inside my head where all the others lived, a void of essential private truth safe behind a mental cordon, but not exactly a zone of nullity because each representation is as clear as sunlight and sufficiently cauterized by time so that retrieval and consideration can occur whenever I want, with no fear of darkness and no wah-wahs at all, not even one.
Harrisong would like what I just said, I’m sure.