The first time I met George Harrison, he appeared behind me as if he were a ghost. It was 1987, and I was coming to his home in Henley-on-Thames, a leafy London suburb, to interview him for the 20th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone. I got off the commuter train and, because Harrison’s wife Olivia had told me that someone would be there to pick me up, I was looking around for my ride.
Everyone else on the train had gone to their cars, and I was standing alone. Then I heard a voice remark, “You look like the only person here who might be from New York.” I turned around to see a smiling George Harrison. Partly because he had always been such a reclusive, mysterious figure, it was a little shocking to see him in the flesh. He hadn’t spoken to Rolling Stone in thirteen years; really, he’d done very few interviews of any kind during that period.
Just getting in touch with him had been problematic. I had left messages and FAXes with everyone that I thought might be able to reach him. I heard nothing back for weeks, until one afternoon Olivia called me to find out why I was trying to contact George. She and I talked for about half an hour that day and, because of that conversation, I was able to break the news that Harrison was working on a new album, which eventually became Cloud Nine, to be released later that year. Olivia and I talked on the phone a number of times after that, but, even after I’d flown to London, Harrison had not agreed to do the interview. Just that morning, a Saturday in June, Olivia had called me at my London hotel to tell me that “George will be around this afternoon,” and if I could make my way out to Henley, he would speak to me.
Now I was lying in the low passenger seat of Harrison’s black Ferrari 275 GTB, as he drove me to his Friar Park estate. As he drove — unnecessarily fast, his fondness for racing cars much in evidence — he glanced over at me. “So, I understand you spoke to Paul yesterday. How is he doing?” So this is what’s become of the Beatles, I instantly thought to myself: George Harrison has to ask me how Paul McCartney is doing.
I explained that Paul seemed to be doing pretty well. I’d interviewed him the day before for the same anniversary issue of Rolling Stone. I told Harrison that, while McCartney had been friendly, it was hard for me to get control of the interview. I had to really assert myself to get to ask the questions I wanted to ask. Harrison was quiet, and then looked over and flashed a sly smile. I thought of the scene in Let It Be, where George bridles at Paul’s bossiness as Harrison is attempting to play a guitar part on one of Paul’s songs. It was as if Harrison was saying to me, “Well, that’s what it was like — and that’s why I’m asking you how he’s doing.”
Harrison and I talked for two hours that day in a guesthouse on his property. He set the tone of the interview at the start when, after some casual chat in the kitchen as he prepared coffee, he tossed a pack of cigarettes down on the table, and said, “Well, what would you like to talk about?” That interview is the most distinct in my mind of any that I have done in more than twenty years of music journalism. The Beatles, after all, had changed my life. More than any other single factor, they are the reason why I do the work I do. Being able to speak with Harrison was a rare enough opportunity in itself. But being able to ask him everything I wanted to about his experiences in the Beatles and afterwards was almost too much for me to handle.
I’ve met plenty of famous people in the course of doing my job, but when you meet the ones who got under your skin when you were a kid, it’s a whole different story. As we sat there talking, so many images flooded my mind: seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, seeing the amazing videos they made for “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane,” seeing Harrison’s dark eyes staring out of so many album covers and photographs. It seemed impossible that, at one time in my life, I was sitting in my living room watching the Beatles on television, and he was one of those four people on the screen, and now we were sitting at a table talking.
It was that day that, out of pure necessity, I created the internal mantra that I repeat to myself whenever I’m interviewing someone and I’m in danger of losing my focus because my emotions are threatening to overwhelm me. “Get excited later,” I tell myself. Meaning, get excited when the story is in the magazine. For now, concentrate and do your work.
As the afternoon progressed, the room darkened and filled with the smoke from our cigarettes. As he spoke, Harrison conveyed in the most compelling terms how strange it was to be in the Beatles, and be constantly besieged. “That year — I mean, you could say any year, really, from, say, 1965 up to the Seventies — it was, like, I can’t believe we did so much, you know?” he said. “But those years did seem to be a thousand years long. Time got elongated. . . . I mean, sometimes I felt like a thousand years old.”
The major impression Harrison left with me that day was the depth of his spiritual conviction. Speaking of his feelings about John Lennon in the wake of Lennon’s death, Harrison told me that their closeness continued. “That’s there permanently, whether he’s in a physical body or not,” he said. “I mean, this is the goal anyway: to realize the spiritual side. If you can’t feel the spirit of some friend who’s been that close, then what chance have you got of feeling the spirit of Christ or Buddha or whoever else you may be interested in? ‘If your memory serves you well, we’re going to meet again.’ I believe that.”
I hope he’s right.