George Harrison: Hare Krishna to the Chief
Perhaps George Harrison and President Gerald Ford had more in common than met the eye. The two were seen happily greeting each other at the White House on December 12, 1974, exchanging buttons and chatting amiably. They also could’ve shared some ideas on judgments of the press and the public at-large. Rather recently, both had been widely acclaimed, but were now beset with low approval ratings and bad reviews. Certainly, Ford and Harrison could agree that, whether it’s politics or entertainment, pleasing the people doesn’t come easy.
President Ford’s second son, Jack, attended a George Harrison concert in Salt Lake City, Utah. After the show, he invited Harrison and members of his band to pay a visit to the White House. Jack got on the phone to check it out with Dad, who showed interest in meeting his son’s new friend, a former Beatle. Everything was set.
The irony couldn’t have escaped keen observers at the time. Less than three years before, President Richard M. Nixon, Ford’s predecessor, utilized the power of the federal government in efforts to have former Beatle John Lennon deported from the United States. Lennon’s political ties and outspokenness against America’s role in the Vietnam War did not sit well with the Nixon Administration and its most paranoid supporters. They made themselves look silly, and rather non-American at that, in trying to send Lennon, a brilliant artist, thoughtful individual, and when one thinks of it, quite the job-creator, back to England. But silliness, paranoia and more serious offenses came easy for Nixon, as they eventually led to his resignation as the nation’s 37th president. Replacing him on August 9, 1974, was his appointed Vice President, Gerald R. Ford of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who less than a year before, as a Congressman mulling retirement after the ’76 election, had no idea he would become the next President of the United States. It was among those odd turn of events, quite like what George Harrison experienced in ’70 and ’71, when he became the most popular ex-Beatle.
“The greatest show on earth,” as John Lennon once described the Beatles, officially closed on April 10, 1970. It was on that day Paul McCartney sent to members of the press review copies of his self-titled solo album. Along with McCartney, he included copies of an “interview” revealing that he was leaving the Beatles. Millions were saddened, but for George Harrison, it was a new beginning. After years of fighting to get at least two of his own songs on the Beatles’ albums, Harrison wasted no time. The music world witnessed George Harrison unleashed. On November 27 , less than eight months after McCartney called it quits, Harrison released All Things Must Pass, his first “real” solo album (He recorded two mainly instrumental albums, Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound, between late ’67 and early ’69.). On a roll as a songwriter the previous two years, Harrison finally emerged from the shadows of Lennon and McCartney. A 3-record set, featuring the hit singles, “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life,” All Things Must Pass was a critical and commercial success, eventually designated six-times platinum in the United States alone. The “Quiet Beatle” was being heard loud and clear.
Since millions were listening, George Harrison then made the most of his new-found acclaim, promoting and headlining two benefit concerts on August 1, 1971 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Saddened by the plight of the starving refugees of war-torn Bangladesh, Harrison persuaded Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston and others to join him in what was perhaps the greatest all-star rock concert ever. The performances were thrilling and the overall effect was edifying, as Harrison, in the song, “Bangladesh,” pleaded to “help us save some lives.” The Concert for Bangladesh received a nice spread in the August 13, 1971 Life Magazine, and made a lasting impact with a film and album of the proceedings. George Harrison, with his work as an artist and a humanitarian, continued to leave a singular impression.
In May ’73, Harrison released his Living in the Material World album. Though not as bold and dynamic as All Things Must Pass, the album still made it to number one in the U.S., as did its first single, “Give Me Love.” Reviews were positive as well: Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone called Living in the Material World “profoundly seductive” and “miraculous in its radiance.”
Something miraculous seemed in order less than a year and a half later. Harrison, while on a February ’74 vacation to India with friend and sitarist Ravi Shankar, decided to embark on a concert tour of America that fall. Shankar, who first presented the plight of the Bangladesh refugees to Harrison’s attention, would bring his orchestra along for the tour, opening the concerts at such American venues as the Forum in Los Angeles, the Omni in Atlanta and the Boston Garden. The hour of Indian music was tolerated by the majority of Harrison fans at the show, but it was hardly celebrated. Of greater concern to fans and critics, though, was the shape of Harrison’s voice, as he had come down with laryngitis on the eve of the tour. Harrison hardly helped matters by rushing to finish his Dark Horse album before the tour commenced. Being hasty compounded matters. In ’87 Harrison admitted to rock journalist Timothy White that he “got my voice blown out by singing all day long.” Some very fine songs on Dark Horse were negatively impacted by the strain Harrison put on his voice, making the album a lost opportunity as opposed to what could have been a measured and compelling work.
Then it was out of the L.A. studio and on to what some called the “Dark Hoarse Tour.” The show must go on, even if at times, raggedly so. The camaraderie and energy displayed by Harrison and his tight band couldn’t offset the ex-Beatle’s impaired vocals. Rolling Stone, so influential at the time, called the tour “disastrous.” That seemed to set the tone for how the shows were regarded in the music business, although many reviews from the country’s leading newspapers were positive. The Atlanta show, on Thanksgiving night, was a crowd-pleaser, with a gracious Harrison and invigorated Billy Preston particularly working well off each other.
Jack Ford was every bit as elated with the Harrison concert he attended in Salt Lake City as were patrons in Atlanta’s Omni. He also likely felt empathy with Harrison. Ford’s father, the President of the United States, was also getting nailed in the press. A late November ’74 cover of New York magazine depicted Ford as Bozo the Clown. In the same issue of New York was an excerpt from the book, A Ford, Not A Lincoln by political columnist Richard Reeves. In the book, Reeves referred to Ford as “slow,” “unimaginative,” and “not very articulate.” Also, like millions of Americans, Reeves was critical of Ford’s pardon of former President Nixon for any crimes he could’ve been found guilty of committing in the Watergate scandal. The Nixon pardon, the failing economy, the administration’s Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign and perceived bumbling made Gerald Ford appear a very weak leader, with his only political attribute being that he wasn’t Nixon. The perception of Ford had changed significantly just a few months after that hopeful August day when he declared “our long national nightmare is over.”
So there was George Harrison and his entourage, walking into a White House where the guy in charge knew something about the judgement of critics. But a bad press did not mean bad vibes; a splendid time was had by all. Jack Ford greeted the Harrison party outside the White House and then took them on the standard Executive Mansion tour. Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Billy Preston, saxophonist Tom Scott and Harrison’s father were invited to the Cabinet Room to meet the president. According to Scott, Harrison was “great at breaking the ice,” and President Ford proved a congenial host, exchanging one of his WIN buttons for Harrison’s OM button. Scott told Larry Sloman for the January 30, 1975 Rolling Stone that President Ford “took us into this little side room where he had all this WIN paraphenalia — posters, watches, sweaters, T-shirts and it looked just like the back room at Dark Horse records, which is loaded with T-shirts and bags and towels.” Already, the president could admit, even to a group of rock and rollers, that his own grand promotional effort had fizzled.
In the Cabinet Room, Harrison posed for pictures taken by White House photographer David Kennerly, as he sat in the president’s chair. Harrison and company found the house piano and launched an impromptu jam session. Such fun couldn’t be expected from Nixon and his Ray Conniff Singers.
The White House visit left quite the impression on Tom Scott, as it did on Harrison. Scott remembered that Harrison said, “From a foreigner’s point of view, there was a tremendous sense of relief in Ford.” A native of California, Scott was more than relieved, he was inspired by all he discovered at the Ford White House. “It’s just a regular old, groovy American family living there, ” Scott said. “I thought I’d be very cynical about it all, but I was uplifted, it was like an unexpected shot of patriotism.”
And so it goes. Harrison’s American concert tour ended eight days after the White House visit, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the site of his triumphant Bangladesh shows in ’71. As much as he enjoyed his band and the concerts, Harrison, no doubt, was glad to head back home. Dark Horse, the album and the tour, at best, generated mixed feelings., with adverse response slowing the pace of Harrison’s career. Still Harrison persevered. In the late ’70s and early ’80s he recorded some well-received albums, resulting in a few hit singles, but most importantly, returning the air of good feeling long identified with Harrison.
It wasn’t until ’87, though, with his Cloud Nine album, that George Harrison again found approval from the critics and record buyers alike. The momentum continued the next year as he joined Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to record Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. The formation of the band was quite incidental, but it was also inspired, as was much of what Harrison created in his career.
Gerald Ford, the accidental president, recovered from the low approval ratings and beat back a Ronald Reagan challenge for the ’76 Republican presidential nomination. Still, Americans seeking to put Nixon and Watergate in the rearview mirror, chose Jimmy Carter that November. Ford’s pardon of Nixon, which he went to his death believing was a wise move for the country, essentially denied him the chance of gaining the Presidency in his own right. In the years and decades after Ford’s presidency, the vast majority of political observers and pundits came to agree the pardon of Nixon was appropriate for the U.S., so the “long national nightmare” could truly be over. Especially mindful of Ford’s prescience was Richard Reeves, whose damning words New York published in November ’74. Twenty- two years later Reeves filed a story for American Heritage magazine entitled I’m Sorry, Mr. President. Reeves described his ’74 take on Gerald Ford as “cruel, unnecessarily so,” saying Ford became President “by accident, done the best he knew how, and we now know, muddled through a very dangerous time.”
On one afternoon during the “dangerous time,” President Ford spent some light moments with George Harrison, the former Beatle, a symbol of the culture that many of the president’s more conservative supporters believed was leading the world to ruin. Some of those supporters could have gleaned insight from what Harrison sang in “Far East Man,” one of the better songs from Dark Horse. Harrison, naturally enough, surmises “It gets harder to see who your friends really are.” So true. Yet then there are times when we’re surprised by those who reach out in the spirit of friendship, just like George Harrison and Gerald Ford did that day in December ’74.
Author’s Note: This story was written for the October 2011 Beatlefan magazine, which will be a special issue on George Harrison. Check out this fine magazine at http://beatlefan.com