The George Harrison Bangla Desh Benefit

A report from the former Beatle's concert to support the impoverished South Asian country

George Harrison and Bob Dylan perform onstage at the Concert for Bangladesh in New York City on August 1st, 1971. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

New York — It wasn't only the glamor of the event that made it memorable, or the brilliance of the music, or even the impossible pantheon gathered on stage. It was more than that: The George Harrison benefit for the starving children of Bangla Desh was a brief, incandescent revival of all that was best about the Sixties.

By now it is a cliche to say that Dylan and the Beatles constructed important myths of the last decade, and more than anyone else helped us toward a common cultural vision. Now the things they sang about — love, peace, and the courage to explore our own minds — so often seem to have passed into suspension.

The Harrison concert marked, even if only briefly, a rediscovery of those old concerns. Dylan sang "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and it seemed the more chilling for the passage of years since he sang it last. George performed his new single, "Bangla Desh" — proceeds from which will also go to the refugees from East Pakistan. In a way, these two men reasserted themselves as leaders in music and regained for it some of its moral stature.

The concert was great. In fact, there were two concerts, on the afternoon and evening of Sunday, August 1st, each before a sellout crowd of over 20,000 in Madison Square Garden. The performances were nearly identical, the evening perhaps slightly more lustrous.

It opened with Ravi Shankar and one of India's finest sarod players, Ali Akbar Khan, backed by Alla Rakha on tabla. Seated on a richly-colored rug, they performed a beautiful evening raga, moving swiftly to the fast sections as an accommodation to the audience, then improvised an exciting duet based on a folk tune from East Pakistan. With his incense, his yellow flowers to either side of the stage and the beauty of his music, Ravi calmed the audience and then offered a preview of the hard rhythm to come as he and Ali Akbar exchanged and imitated each other's energetic riffs. Ravi Shankar had conceived of the concert in the first place, and he lent it enormous dignity.

During the intermission between raga and rock at the Garden they screened a disturbing film of the Pakistani refugees: it showed crows picking at carrion, children bloated with malnutrition, the dead and dying victims of cholera.

As the stage was reset in darkness, the anticipation of the audience swelled audibly. A surprisingly young crowd was seated in a huge horseshoe sweeping around the stage set up at the west end of the Garden. All but a little wedge of seats directly behind the stage had been offered for sale, and were completely sold in a few hours in the middle of the night ten days earlier to people who had waited in line as long as 48 hours.

The silhouettes of the musicians entering the stage area blotted out some of the red amplifier lights, the applause began, the first loud notes of George's "Wah-Wah" came rolling out of the dark, the spotlights switched on, and there was George in a white suit and burnt orange shirt, surrounded by an ocean of musicians.

The band was so strong during "Wah-Wah" that George's voice barely cut through. No wonder: Eric Clapton, in a Levi shirt, jacket and jeans, stood to George's left, churning out wah-wahs. Leon Russell was flailing the piano just behind Eric. Ringo Starr — Ringo! — and Jim Keltner of Joe Cocker fame were behind the two sets of drums. Billy Preston sat at the organ to George's right, where Jesse Davis (formerly with Taj Mahal and now on his own) worked on another guitar and Klaus Voormann, who did the extraordinary bass on George's and John Lennon's albums, picked away.

And on one side of the stage, four members of Badfinger whose No Dice album George produced, amiably strummed acoustic guitars that no one could quite hear. Next to them were seven horns under the direction of Jim Horn from California. And on the other side, behind Preston and his Hammond B-3, was a nine-voice choir: Don Nix, Claudia Lennear. Marlon and Jeannie Green, Dolores Hall.... George vamped on his white solid-body guitar and looked anxiously around to see if the whole ship was getting off all right. He seemed nervous — "Just thinking about it makes me shake," he said beforehand — but everything sounded fine. The biggest, largest rock band — or rock orchestra, better yet — ever put together.

One night only!

Without a pause, they went into "My Sweet Lord." The opening was engulfed by a classic two-part applause pattern — a swarm of cheers from aficionados picking up on the first couple of notes, then a heavier barrage on the opening words from the folks more into Top 40-radio. George's voice sounded confident and more relaxed than at the first show; he sang trills around the notes, rocked from foot to foot, and seemed to be enjoying himself. The choral hallelujahs were handled nicely by the consort of rockers extending off into indefinite darkness.

Without comment George followed "Awaiting on You All," very professionally, everybody holding together on the changes and breaking cleanly.

"We'd like to continue ... with a song from a member of the band," said George, and introduced Billy Preston, who proceeded with a fantastic version of his "That's the Way God Planned It." George chorded guitar and left the lead work, which was splendid, to Eric and Jesse.

Billy sang two verses, then went into a slow duet between his cathedral organ and Eric's guitar that literally rocked a couple of people out of their seats. The horns came in with a stairstep progression behind the next chorus, the whole thing speeded up, and then Billy, dressed in all leather topped with a purple knit cap, shot out from behind the organ and danced wildly across the stage in front of George. Nearly everybody was up and cheering by the last note.

Before anybody could catch a breath, the spots went to the drums and there was Ringo, smiling in his natty beard and a parson-like black suit. His lapel sported a bright yellow backstage security button, so folks would know he belonged there. He sang "It Don't Come Easy" happily, slamming out the beat and never quite missing a note or a beat, either. George picked out the big Crosley notes at the end. The ovation was tremendous.

George pulled things together a notch with "Beware of Darkness." Just as the tension began to ease, he turned his back and the second verse emerged from Leon Russell in the fashion of his last album. More cheers of astonishment at the sheer resources of this band; he had been obscured from sight behind Eric Clapton and it was like being locked in battle aboard a man-o'-war and suddenly remembering that you had an extra deck of cannon.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps," with its implicit invocation of the Beatles, brought things still higher. The audience sat in respectful silence while it built, George and Jesse trading guitar lines with Eric, who did the solo as he had on the Beatles' white album. By the end the guitars and horns, were playing intricate interwoven lines, with George's spare evocative guitar emerging at intervals.

Like Ringo's solo before, it had been another song — despite the panoply of musicians, the growing madness of Madison Square Garden concerts, despite time itself — that in the hearing, so brought back the image and memory of the Beatles that you knew somewhere in the audience there were people crying.

Leon Russell put his everpresent cigarette down on the piano, pushed his long hair back from his eyes, and pounded out the opening of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" with such force that half the audience was clapping time before anyone else played a note. Leon sandwiched the Coasters' classic "Young Blood" in the middle of "Flash." And George took a turn, a little hesitantly, stepping to the mike to intone, "Yo' th' one." (His hesitation may have been prompted by the mike itself, which kept giving him electrical shocks.)

It was one of the big rockers of the night, and when it was done, the musicians left the stage, leaving George and Pete Ham of Badfinger to do an acoustic guitar version of "Here Comes the Sun." Those two boys can play guitar. They picked the tune standing in a single spotlight on the dark stage and the "Sun, sun, sun" refrain near the end emerged as if by magic from the nine-voice invisible choir. George sang more easily and creatively than on the record, and the song took on an astonishing beauty and sadness.

The lights went down for a minute. Leon Russell suddenly appeared and plugged in his bass. George picked up an electric guitar and slipped a steel slide around his finger. Ringo appeared from the side with tambourine in hand. The stage remained dark.

A short man with fuzzy hair and a denim jacket hovered near the amps to the right of the stage. George stepped to the microphone and said, "I'd like to bring on a friend of us all, Mr. Bob Dylan."

So there he was, in baggy brown pants, a Levi jacket and green T-shirt, toting a D-size Martin, the old harmonica-holder around his neck. He stood smiling slightly during the prolonged ovation, licked his lips, began strumming, stepped to the mike and sang: "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." He sounded better than he ever has, his voice lean, cutting and under perfect control. He stood almost bowlegged, unwinding each line then leaning back from the mike and ducking behind the harmonica without blowing a note.

He didn't actually play the harp until the middle of his next song, "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." His harmonica playing ran along the old edges of sadness, dischord and suspense. George played a light, quiet bottleneck guitar, and altogether it amounted to probably the finest version ever of a splendid song.

Without a word, Dylan went into "Blowin' in the Wind." It was becoming clear that this was to be a session of greatest hits. Deja vu: What year was this anyway? With his beard trimmed below the jawline, his hair medium short but wiry, he looked as if he'd stepped off the cover of Freewheelin'. His voice now had a beautiful fullness to it, but it was closer to The Times They Are a Changin' than to Nashville Skyline. In the dressing room with George before the concert Bob had done some new songs, but onstage he ventured nothing more recent than 1966, and so people were offered another Dylan puzzle to contemplate.

Enormous applause, and Dylan muttered "Thank you," his only spoken words in the two concerts. He changed harps, conferred with Leon and George, and sang "Mr. Tambourine Man." This was his only variation from the afternoon session, when he had done "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" instead. It's axiomatic that one measure of an artist is his ability to pull together a large group of people; by this point the Garden seemed like a snug recital hall, and the air was heavy with the emotional baggage summoned up by Dylan's songs. Dylan played a confident break on the harp, pivoting around two notes in a beautiful, dying warble that brought a gasp of appreciation. He played with phrasing: "Just to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand wav-in' free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands..."

After the applause another conference with Leon, a minute of tuning with George, and then Dylan launched into a little Mexican guitar riff high up on the neck, abandoned it, blew a few notes on the harp, dropped that too, and strummed into "Just Like a Woman." The flanking microphones were off, so George and Leon leaned in over Bob's shoulders to sing country harmony on the refrain. For the first time that night Bob had trouble sorting out the words — take, make, break, bake? — but he grinned and seemed to be having fun. It came out a stronger and much slower version than the one in Blonde on Blonde. Bob came down heavy on the beat, sidling the guitar onto one hip, seemed about to break into a full rock tempo, with George, on electric, doing a hint of rock vamp, and slid back into the next verse.

The song ended and the lights came on. Dylan looked around hesitantly, held up both fists like a strongman, grinned, and then strode off stage.

The applause went on for two minutes, but it was clear that Dylan wasn't coming back on stage. Any man who has Ringo Starr playing tambourine in his pick-up band does not take encores.

The applause died. The score of musicians returned to their places on stage and George spoke into the mike: "It's really hard to follow Bob." He then introduced all the members of the band, a well placed pause for the audience still overwhelmed by the little man with just an acoustic guitar.

And then George hit the opening lick of "Something" and the show was off to yet another peak, another performance that seemed to defy history. It closed the show.

The audience was not going to move, and even after the encore stood in their places for five minutes without any movement to the exits as if staying still would mean that it would never end again. After "Something" the applause went on for minutes and minutes though the stage was empty.

But the band came back on — this time, for the only time in the concert, met with the high-pitched scream of 20,000 people, like the scream with which Shea Stadium once heaved — and you knew then that concerts like this can happen again.

For his encore, George chose his new single, "Bangla Desh":

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes
Told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies;
Although I couldn't feel the pain
I knew I had to try.
Now I'm asking all of you
To help us save some lives
Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh

Bangla Desh means Bengal Nation — the name taken by secessionists in East Pakistan. In recent months, East Pakistan has become a lightning rod for misery; the very fact that it took something like the Harrison concert to awaken many in America to the suffering in East Pakistan is an indication of how compassion dwindles with distance.

A cyclone struck Bangla Desh last November and killed 500,000 persons — a figure impossible to understand at all. Then, as if to conspire with nature, the Pakistani army launched against the people of the East one of the most brutal military slaughters in modern history, machine-gunning crowds of civilians, destroying whole villages and putting the torch to the dense slums of Dacca, East Pakistan's largest city. In the four months since that campaign began, by the most conservative estimates, a quarter million persons have been killed, possibly another half-million.

(East and West Pakistan are divided by 1,000 miles of India and by animosity — it is impossible to name any single cause for the conflict. It is partly a religious war between a Moslem government against a Hindu minority; Hindus comprise only ten percent of East Pakistan's population, but the majority of those killed by West Pakistan's soldiers have been Hindus. It is partly a cultural conflict; the result of an attempt to graft the Bengalis of East Pakistan with the Punjabis of the West 24 years ago. But the immediate cause is political. Although East Pakistan contains the majority of the nation's population, the West has dominated the government, and last December when in the nation's first free elections the East won a majority in the new National Assembly behind a leader — Shiekh Mujibur Rahman — committed to autonomy from the West, Pakistan's military dictator, General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, reacted by simply postponing convention of the Assembly indefinitely. Then he unleashed an army on the East.

(So refugees have poured over the border into India to escape the horror of Yahya's soldiers. Over seven million now are in India, living in drainage pipes or no shelter at all, and thousands have died from cholera and other diseases. Even this less than basic human care is taking roughly three million dollars a day from India's anemic economy, and the threat of a famine or cholera epidemic is immediate.)

The suggestion that George Harrison do a benefit for these people came from an Indian whose father was born in East Pakistan: Ravi Shankar.

"I was very much concerned," Ravi said in a conversation at his hotel the day after the concert. "With millions of refugees coming — cholera, plague, illness, dying, all the stories we have heard. My guru Ustad Alauddin Khan — Ali Akbar Khan's father — his property was completely burned and destroyed by troops from West Pakistan....

"I was asked by many different societies, mostly by Indian student associations in places like Berkeley or different cities wherever I tour for my program, to give some benefit performances to raise some funds. I wanted to do something like that, but when I found that most of these associations really cannot raise something more than three or four thousand dollars at the most, I said, 'Gee, one can go on performing one after another but it's nothing.'

"...So I thought of getting a big performer, a big show and getting a minimum of $50,000, and I just asked George. One day in Los Angeles I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news, and I said, 'George, this is the situation. I know it doesn't concern you, I know you can't possibly identify...' But while I talked to George he was very moved, he felt very deeply, and he said, 'Yes, I think I'll be able to do something.'"

That was six weeks before the concert, and then George became the prime mover, gathering musicians, making the phone calls, getting the commitments and setting up the show. He had immediately called his manager Alan Klein, who acted as producer, and got Madison Square Garden Booked. And he called Bob Dylan who said he was "interested."

Badfinger flew in to New York from London on the Monday before the concert, followed by the horn players. George wrote arrangements for them and began rehearsals in New York City at Nola Studios on W. 57th Street. Ringo arrived Thursday; he'd agreed to play immediately when George explained the situation to him. Eric Clapton was sick and wasn't sure he could perform, but Jesse Davis joined up to make sure they'd have a second lead guitarist if Eric couldn't make it. Leon Russell arrived Friday night, having talked to Dylan without getting a definite answer. Finally Dylan showed up at George's hotel room Saturday morning, played a few songs, and said he'd do it.

The first full rehearsal at the Garden was Saturday, the night before the concert. The musicians sat around for a long while while lights and sound equipment were adjusted, but then, said Tom Evans of Badfinger, "Dylan came up and he just lifted it. That gave the place a bit of atmosphere for people to get into it, you know. From then on, it just started working."

Leon seemed to be suggesting songs for Bob to do and they tried them out. "They'd just all walk back from the mikes for a minute and talk and then they'd come back and they'd have it all worked out, doing harmony, and then they'd go out and talk and in another few minutes they'd come back with another one," Tom said. "That really blew my mind."

George had phoned Paul and asked him to play, but Paul said no. John Lennon stopped in New York a couple of days earlier but went home to attend to the legal battles he and Yoko are fighting for custody of her child. Mick Jagger, recording at the Stones' camp in the south of France, tried to make it but couldn't get a visa.

The event itself was simply one of the great rock concerts. George had insisted that he wanted to do a solid, professional show rather than some kind of superjam and it worked. The audience responded with exceptional warmth and respect, listening intently and exploding into applause when the music ended.

"They were so happy, the joy of their being there was felt by each of us," Ravi said. "This hasn't happened for so long now. Since Woodstock I have been to about five or six rock festivals and I have seen it go down gradually. And the last one was three months ago and I promised myself never again, because there is no more flower child and love but only violence and drugs."

There was only a smattering of human wretchedness at the Garden, in pleasant contrast to some other recent New York music events.

Outside, scalpers got up to $50 for a $7.50 seat, and when the few tickets were gone, offers climbed to $600 for a single ticket. A few people got in by bribing guards, and some peanut vendors smuggled in their girl friends by hustling upstairs en masse with the girls crouched between the peanut bins.

Some less subtle fans broke nine panes of glass at the Garden's main entrance in a struggle to crash. The cops responded by shouting, "Go get 'em boys," and clubbing the crowd. They bloodied a girl's head and managed to beat up Wavy Gravy, the Hog Farm alumnus who'd wrangled up a single night's release from his TB, pneumonia, dysentery and spinal fusion convalescence at Roosevelt Hospital. Wavy was so grey and emaciated that nobody recognized him as the police carried him away on a stretcher, wearing his Mickey Mouse jumpsuit and jester's cape with a plastic Donald Duck dangling from the tip. He'd had a ticket.

According to Allen Klein, who produced the concert, every penny will go to Bangla Desh children in India: At least $250,000. ABKCO, Klein's company, reportedly spent $50,000 putting the thing on.

"ABKCO is taking nothing," Klein said. "It was so much easier for me to say I'm not taking anything, so I don't have to answer any questions to anybody. Isn't that easy? If you do it, you do it; if you don't, you don't. I made it clean. It was easy."

Apple is rushing out an album produced by Phil Spector and George from 16-track tapes made at the concert and rehearsals. All proceeds from the album are to go to Bangla Desh, and a note on the jacket will encourage people to send additional contributions to The George Harrison-Ravi Shankar Special Emergency Relief Fund, c/o UNICEF, United Nations.

On Monday night, George and Phil Spector began a week of all-night sessions at the Record Plant mixing the 16-tracks from the Wally Heider mobile unit into a two- or possibly three-record set which could be released as early as August 15th. The majority of it will be the main show, one side Ravi Shankar, and George is now staying in Woodstock with Dylan playing him the mixes of his performance for his decision whether to also have a whole side of the set.

"I promised him," Klein said later, "that if he didn't like what it was we'd burn it. Afterwards I told him it was the best I heard."

The whole thing was filmed by Sol Swimmer, who's directed two ABKCO films — "Come Together" with Tony Anthony and "Blind Man" with Ringo Starr. Klein said ABKCO won't take anything from the film either; all the money is to go to Bangla Desh refugees.

After the concert there was, of course, a party for the boys and for some of what the New York Daily News would call the Biggies in the audience, which had included Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Swami Satchidananda and members of the Who, the Band and even Grand Funk. At the party the booze flowed like booze, George and Billy Preston played a bit, and Phil Spector, described by a fellow guest as "slewed," sat at the piano and worked his way through his old hits like "Da Do Ron Ron." When the sun came up Spector was still playing the piano, with Keith Moon of the Who drumming like a crazy man. Keith finally tried to get up but knocked over a snare drum. He stared at it, then kicked over the whole set. The night was over.

* * *

But the event was not over; the weeks afterward have been full of the talk of it among friends and on the street, in the papers and on the radio, which has been occasionally broadcasting "re-creations" of the evening.

The awe of history surrounded the concert and infused all who played and all who saw. Seeing Ringo Starr drumming and singing on stage has a joy in it that is one of the happiest feelings on earth still. It was the first time Dylan and any of the Beatles had ever appeared together.

In a year in which promoters and the press have decried the motives of the musicians and the level of the audiences, and each neo-Woodstock has been more avaricious than the last — which has been seized upon by some of our least friends as proof that we, the kids, are up to no good — the Bangla Desh benefit, in the magnificence of its music and the selflessness of its motives, was proof that the art and the spirit are still alive. And the audience and the musicians and the producers were respectful and cherished it, not just as history, but because it was also a sign of spring.