Olivia Harrison likes to quip that were she to write a book about her 27 years with “the quiet Beatle,” she’d call it “Never a Dull Moment.”
George Harrison mixed his well-known passion for music and his quest for spiritual truth with utterly worldly penchants for auto racing, gardening and socializing with a zeal that seemed to run counter to the public image of a shy, inward-looking musician and family man who rarely made a splash in public after the Beatles broke up.
“People would say to him, ‘You’re not touring and you’re not recording -- what do you do with yourself?’ ” says Olivia, a Southern California native who came into Harrison’s life after his first marriage painfully and famously fell apart when his wife, Patti Boyd, fell in love with one of his best friends, Eric Clapton.
“He had an extraordinary work ethic,” she says, occasionally twisting the wedding ring she still wears. “He never stopped. He always had something going.”
So much so that 3 1/2 years after his death from cancer in 2001, Olivia still isn’t close to completing the various projects he started.
Not that she’s complaining. In an interview at the Santa Monica offices of Harrison’s Dark Horse Records label, Olivia says her only goal is to bring to fruition projects George had begun, or intended to, before his death.
There’s the re-release later this year of the 1971 live album (and now DVD) from “The Concert for Bangla Desh.” She’s also determined to continue the philanthropic work of the Material World Foundation, which George set up in 1973.
She also helped supervise the six-CD boxed set “Dark Horse Years -- 1974-1992" that came out last year. She’ll be active on George’s behalf as Cirque du Soleil assembles a Beatles-centered production slated to open next year in Las Vegas. And she’s hoping to see the two albums he made with the Traveling Wilburys reissued on CD.
More immediately, she’s overseeing next week’s U.S. publication of “The Concert for George,” an elaborate tribute book to the guitarist-singer-songwriter by Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and dozens of others who took part in the 2002 London memorial concert of the same name. Proceeds go to the Material World Foundation.
Oh, and she just collected her first Grammy, as a producer of “The Concert for George” DVD. She can set it next to the five inscribed for the Beatles that sit unobtrusively on the cabinet behind her desk.
“I need a five-year plan just to finish all the things he started,” she says with a chuckle, noting that all the activity helps her feel that, spiritually, she’s still carrying on a relationship with him.
She smiles easily and speaks honestly, even about the reason she prefers to veer away from certain subjects.
The couple spent much time in Hawaii, but when she’s asked about favorite memories or locales in the islands, she demurs. “I’m sorry, I can’t talk about Hawaii. It’s too ... " Her voice trails off before she can fill in the missing word.
One memory she doesn’t hesitate revisiting is the tribute concert that Clapton organized and that is memorialized in the new 308-page book, which is being published in two editions: a regular, albeit elaborate, handmade version (limited to 2,150 copies) selling for $540, and a $940 “deluxe” edition signed by Olivia and including several additional mementos from the concert. The 350 copies of the deluxe edition quickly sold out.
She’s doing an in-store appearance for the book (also available directly from the publisher at www.genesis-publica tions.com) at Taschen Bookstore in Beverly Hills on Tuesday, the U.S. publication date.
“My initial reason for doing the book was that for the concert, a big tidal wave just swept over all of us, and after the concert it was like it was still reaching shore,” she says. “It felt like there was still a bit to be said.
“When you watch the DVD, all the images are going by, and it’s like a moment in time. With a book, you can hold it and take your time to look at a photo, to look at those eyes looking back at you. You can sit down quietly with a book. That’s what I wanted.”
The heart of the “Concert for George” book, beyond the dozens of gallery-quality photos, is the anecdotes and other remembrances of Harrison provided by Olivia, Clapton, McCartney, Starr, George Martin, Ravi Shankar, the couple’s son, Dhani, and others.
Clapton notes that during rehearsals for the tribute concert, “I thought that if he were here he’d probably say, ‘Thanks very much Eric, but I don’t really want this.’ ... I thought, ‘What would I say if he said that?’ And I then thought, ‘Well I’m doing this for me, actually.’ And that’s more the truth of it; I needed to do it for him, but it was for me most of all because I needed to be able to express my grief in that kind of way.”
In the upstairs office, decorated throughout with Indian-influenced artworks and artifacts, Olivia says George’s sense of humor was often overlooked because of his reputation as a spiritually focused musician.
His wit, overshadowed in the Beatles by John Lennon’s, still came through from time to time. Years after the Beatles disbanded, he said, “The biggest break in my career was getting into the Beatles. The second biggest break was getting out of them.”
And his humility often superseded any displays of pride. Recalls Olivia: “He always said, ‘If you’re going to be in a band, you might as well be in the Beatles.’ ”
Before she became Olivia Harrison in 1978, she was Olivia Trinidad Arias, an Angeleno whose grandparents immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico.
She grew up in Hawthorne, hometown of the Beach Boys, which turned out to be a major point of interest for George when she gave him a tour of her old neighborhood.
She was working at A&M; Records, which distributed Dark Horse releases at the time, and started chatting with Harrison when he’d call about business.
They found they had musical and philosophical interests in common and soon began seeing each other regularly. “I was from outside of his world,” she says. “I was shelter from the storm. I was simple, and he needed some simplicity at that point.”
She says she never really stopped to think about the implications of getting involved with a musician, much less an ex-Beatle. “You can’t really think about it that way, otherwise you’re just playacting.”
How will she cope when all the projects are completed? Is she simply postponing the feelings of loss with all the activity?
Those are questions she doesn’t worry about, and she knows what George would have said on the subject.
“One of his favorite things to say was, ‘Be here now,’ ” she says. His song by that title, from his 1973 album “Living in the Material World,” remains one of her favorites, and it’s one she plays any time she feels in need of a booster shot of moral support.
“Sometimes he and Dhani would be talking and Dhani would ask, ‘Well what if this happens?’ or ‘What if that happens?’ ” she says. “George would say, ‘Be here now. Be here now.’ ”