• Paul, George, Ringo, and the one that got away
“Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only Jack remembers their songs.” So goes the tease for the 2019 film, Yesterday. The movie-going public (or what was left of it) disagreed with film critics who find Yesterday kind of meh. The people rate it 90 on Rotten Tomatoes; the reviewers only 62. Put me somewhere in between, in the “It’s good but not great” category.
Its release had me thinking of the times I was in the presence of former Fab Four folks.
Paul was promoting his foray into classical composition, The Liverpool Oratorio. It was a buffet-style media junket: TV crews, like mine from CNN, set up in suites down the length of a hotel corridor. Paul came down the line, sitting in for interviews lasting about twenty minutes each. Just time to talk about the classical CD, not much time for anything about, y’know, the band he was in before Wings.
I had brought a camera and I asked the publicist, Joe Dera, if it would be okay to ask Paul for a photo of him and me. He said put it away; he’d hired a professional photographer for just that purpose. The photog took my email address and promised to send a shot. Weeks went by but no photo came. One night I ran into him at a music industry event and asked, “Where’s my McCartney-and-me photo?” He said, sort of sheepishly, that he had submitted the contact sheet of all the pictures he’d taken that day of Paul and his interviewers and, after looking closely, the musician ordered them never to be released. He said he looked too old in them!
Reading my disappointment, the photographer said he’d send me mine but I had to make a promise: that it would never turn up on the internet. That wouldn’t have been likely to happen right away. This was 1991, and I was probably using Prodigy to get online; I guarantee I didn’t know how to upload a photo. (I’ve since posted the pic on Facebook and neither the photographer nor Paul has objected. Like McCartney follows me, right?)
I interviewed Ringo in 1989, when “Shining Time Station” premiered on WNET in NY and on other PBS stations. There was a launch party on the studio set. I was offered a very brief, taped radio one-on-one with Mr. Starkey, who played Mr. Conductor for the first season of the show, which included episodes of England’s “Thomas & Friends.” There must have been a ban on photos with Ringo, because I know I would’ve wanted one. But no such luck.
The one that got away — meaning I never got close enough to interview him much less get a photo for my Wall of Shame(less) photos with celebs — was John. But I did obtain a pass for the photo pit at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the John Sinclair Freedom Rally was held in 1971. Sinclair was a radical activist who had been sentenced to ten years in jail for possession of two joints. I took this shot of John & Yoko performing with my Nikkormat and 35mm-105mm zoom telephoto. The blurred heads in the foreground attest to my amateur sloppiness or maybe just a bad vantage point. Or both. Nowadays I could easily crop it with tools on my phone . . . but I’ll let it be.
The former “mop-top” I spent the most time with was the one who, in 1964 was ranked 4th by me when the question of the moment was “Who’s your favorite Beatle?” Yep, it wasn’t until much later that George’s phenomenal talent and compelling personality came to be appreciated by the NJ schoolboy who thought John and Paul were the coolest and Ringo the funniest and George . . . well, he played the guitar.
In 1987, Good Morning America sent me to Burbank, California, to interview George at the Warner Bros. Records offices. They distributed Harrison’s Dark Horse record label and he had just completed his first solo studio album in five years, Cloud Nine. It was to be his last. The LP had a hit, Got My Mind Set on You, and a music video, and it added up to a decent morning TV package about where George fit in towards the end of the century that he and his friends had so significantly impacted.
Then, in 1996, CNN was invited to interview Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso who had turned George on to Indian music, philosophy and culture in the Sixties. They’d been friends and collaborators for decades and, in conjunction with a year-long observance of Shankar’s 75th birthday, Harrison helped produce a boxed set, Ravi Shankar in Celebration. Interviews were to be held in a suite at the Plaza Hotel. When my CNN crew and I arrived, a TV outlet had just finished their interview. They’d need time to break down and our guys would need time to set up. George said a polite hello and turned to his publicist to ask, “Could I perhaps go for a walk and a smoke?” Sure, she said, take a half-hour or so.
While he was gone, I started thinking: Wait. This was the Plaza Hotel, where in 1964, on their arrival in America, the Beatles holed up and thousands of screaming teenagers gathered on the surrounding streets and sidewalks. Beatlemania! And now George Harrison was going to go for a stroll around the building? By himself??
When he returned, as we were getting mic’d up, I asked him, “Did you, like, wear a cap or sunglasses, or anything?”
“Oh no,” he said.
“And nobody recognized you?” I asked, in disbelief.
“Not really,” said George.
I pressed him and he admitted, “Well, there was this one bloke . . .”
“I was strolling along 58th street, around the back side of the hotel, and I walked past this fellow having a smoke himself. He looked up, said, ‘George?’ I kept walking. He said ‘George!?!’ Kept walking. Then ‘GEORGE!!’ I continued on but turned, gave him a nod and said, ‘Hello, mate.’ “
Made the guy’s day. And mine.