Olivia Harrison reflects on the music and a book marking what would have been ‘quiet Beatle’s’ 74th birthday
To hear Olivia Harrison tell it, it wasn’t unusual for George Harrison to stroll through their house spouting words at random — a process that could cause an outsider to wonder whether the ex-Beatle had suddenly started speaking in tongues.
“George would throw out words one after another,” she said in an interview this week. “He knew he’d find the word. He was good at that. Sometimes he was quiet and just thought about it, sometimes he just kept writing down words that began with ‘S’ until he got the right one. … It didn’t matter what they were — he knew he would get to something.”
In fact, that method is exactly what helped him get to “Something” — and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Awaiting on You All,” “Brainwashed” and so many other songs he wrote in the Beatles and as a solo artist.
Olivia Harrison had good reason to recall that detail this week. She’s been deep in her husband’s writing for months, culling scraps of paper, notebook entries, scribbles on hotel stationery, napkins and other bits of writing surfaces for the new “extended edition” of Harrison’s 1980 quasi-autobiography, “I Me Mine.”
The new version was published Saturday, Feb. 25, on what would have been “the quiet Beatle’s” 74th birthday.
And even after all these years, the project held at least one surprise for Harrison’s former band mate and lifelong friend, Ringo Starr.
At a private reception Saturday at artist Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects gallery in Echo Park, Starr was perusing the lyrics to one of the previously unpublished songs included in the new volume, one that name-checked him, “Hey Ringo.”
After smiling at a rhyme about “my guitar sounds so bare/when your drums aren’t there,” the 75-year-old drummer became choked with emotion by the next line: “Hey Ringo, there’s one thing that I’ve not said/I’ll play my guitar with you till I drop dead.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes misting and turning back toward his wife, actress Barbara Bach.
They were among a slew of musicians and other celebs who attended the reception along with Olivia and Dhani Harrison, Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, Monty Python alum Eric Idle, Jakob Dylan, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Bangles members Susanna Hoffs and Debbie Peterson, producer George Drakoulias and Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler.
The expanded edition of “I Me Mine” arrives in conjunction with a massive box set — a hefty 18 pounds’ worth —that gathers newly remastered vinyl pressings of his solo albums. Additionally, the Austrian Pro-Ject audio company has created a limited-edition George Harrison turntable that retails for about $540 in the U.S.
“George Harrison —The Vinyl Collection” spans Harrison’s two pre-Beatles breakup efforts — “Wonderwall Music,” the soundtrack from a film that went unreleased in 1969, as well as his Moog-synthesizer exploration, “Electronic Sound,” the same year — through his 1970 blockbuster three-disc set “All Things Must Pass” and on up to his final studio collection, “Brainwashed,” released in 2002 after his death at 58 from cancer a year earlier.
“It’s kind of a no-win,” said Dhani Harrison with an impish smile. He has worked closely overseeing the box set for more than a decade. “If you do it right,” he said Saturday, “nobody notices and everybody says, ‘Yes, the great George Harrison.’ And if you screw it up, you’re the guy who screwed up George’s music.”
Olivia Harrison said the impetus behind the updated edition of “I Me Mine” was simply because of the fact that the original version had gone out of print.
“At first we thought of doing a digital version,” she said, “but then I said, ‘No, we need to do it right.’”
The original 399-page book wasn’t so much a formal autobiography as an annotated scrapbook, culling 48 photos and numerous reproductions of many original sheets along with fully printed lyrics to 83 Beatles and solo songs.
It was the first celebrity-driven book for Genesis Publications, the British literary publisher that had assembled collector’s editions of journals from the HMS Bounty and other esoteric historical volumes. The new edition of “I Me Mine” is the 100th book Genesis has published.
The re-release has grown to 632 pages with 52 photos and lyrics for 141 songs. Fairey’s portrait of Harrison is featured on the cover.
“The book is mainly lyrics and text,” Olivia said, “so I didn’t think it was fair to add a lot more photos.”
Instead, she focused on gathering more lyrics for songs he never released, such as “Mother Divine” — “It’s a lovely sentiment,” she said, “and something he did sing over the years, maybe as a mantra.”
Her goal was to spotlight the songs Harrison released after the original book came out. “Several albums came out after that book was made in 1980, which was pretty early on. I really started looking for songs recorded after that.”
“I have a story for you,” Starr said shortly after arriving at Fairey’s gallery. “When he originally was doing the book, he called me up and said, ‘Ringo, did you play on “All Things Must Pass”?’ And I said, ‘I don’t remember.’ People were on a lot of medication in those days.”
Starr continued: “So he checked and called me back and said, ‘You were on about two-thirds of it!’ Then he wrote that in the book — that I didn’t remember whether I’d played on that album — but he didn’t say he forgot too!”
The original text remains as it was, a virtual conversation between Harrison and old Liverpool pal and longtime Beatles publicist Derek Taylor. Harrison’s narrative covers his childhood in the hardscrabble seaport, the heady days of Beatlemania and life after the breakup.
Although initially pigeonholed as “the quiet Beatle,” Harrison quickly replaced that image with one as the spiritual Beatle, being an early devotee of Indian mysticism and music, which exposed him to new philosophical ideas and cross-cultural sounds.
“When I work with young players today, I always use George as an example,” said drummer Jim Keltner, one of the world’s foremost studio musicians who worked with Harrison, Starr and John Lennon after the Beatles dissolved.
“When somebody writes a song and plays it for you as the band, or just to the drummer when you start to record,” he said, “my feeling is it should be so strong already without the band, that you know that once you put the band on it you’ve really got something.
“George was like that every time he would play a song for you,” he said. “That’s the amazing thing about him.”
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