George Harrison: The Beatle Everyone Forgets
an except from Bridges With Spirit
It’s possible that the Beatles wrote a song about my dad. This is a new revelation. It’s a story of drama, suspense, humor, money, a boy and a girl. Formless at first, more of a muddle of facts than anything else, it’s been told and re-told any number of times. Since I first heard it, things have been added, subtracted, multiplied and divided. If you were to ask my dad to tell you the story today, you’d receive, more or less, the same basic facts I did six or seven years ago. But I’ve stolen (inherited, maybe) the rights.
It used to be that when I’d tell the story, friends, co-workers or whoever would smile at the proper places. They’d nod their heads in agreement the entire way through, and after I’d finished, they’d spout off about how crazy the whole thing is, ask me if it’s really really really a true story and laugh a bit about my dad’s attitude toward the whole thing. The fact is that most of my friends at the time, if quizzed, could name two, maybe three of the Beatles, none of them able to come up with George Harrison. Most of them could whistle the chorus to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and if they were on top of things, might have been aware that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is, in some way, drug related. This, however, was years ago. These friends, co-workers, whoever and I would often rock to the sounds of dirty punk boys from New York City, Washington D.C., and the California coast. When we talked on and on about these bands, we never mentioned the Beatles.
When I tell it now (quite a few years later and after a number of those punk boys' faces have shown up on TV), it’s another story completely. It’s gotten better with time. So have the reactions. Two days ago I told the story and the reaction I got then hasn’t left my head. Marty, a co-worker, is responsible.
I’ve spent five years in college. That light at the end of the tunnel that’s been talked so much about is finally visible. It’s a nice light, looking nothing like the Midwest. To reach it I’ve got to stumble through some clean-up classes. I’ve got to spend forty hours a week at a small music store for minimum wage. For the most part, I’m the polar opposite of my fellow employees. It’s true that we all listen to music, like everyone in a college town does. But, at work, I’m alone with most of my obsessions. My favorites are the other’s headaches. I could, at this point, enter into a longish description of my woes; how nobody cares about my records or even wants to understand why they excite me so much, or how I’m looking for something beyond musical masterpieces of the sixties and seventies. I could go into all of my obsessions, but things are changing.
At work and after, which have become something like one in the same, it’s not uncommon to bust me listening to records that came out years before I could drive, some before I was born. This is new, and somewhat difficult. There are strong disadvantages I’m dealing with. At the time I got hired, my knowledge of bullshit music trivia from the past was suffering at best. My favorite trick involved smuggling information about such and such a band from co-worker number one, and feeding it back directly to co-worker number two the next day as if it had been swimming around in my head since junior high school. I’m happy to report, however, that as often as we listen to the songs of dead people and dead bands, I continue to push for those still breathing.
Two nights ago I was at work, playing a record we don’t even carry at the store. When Marty asked the name of the band, my reply made him laugh. “So what’s their story?” he asked, obviously mocking.
“You’re not impressed? You miss that slapping bass?” Marty enjoys the funk.
“It’s fine.” He paused. “Don’t quite know what to make of his voice.” He threw me a friendly, but creeeping-on-condescending smile.
“They’re younger than you and me and I’ll bet they’re not living with their parents.” I aimed for a sore spot. Marty only shrugged. The game we play is important. It’s a sizing up that we’ve been messing with for a few weeks. Although we don’t know each other well, we have a nice time at work. We’re not, necessarily, friends. Somewhere inside this ritualistic challenge and reply, somewhere lower than the surface, a place where music doesn’t matter, we’re trying for friendship. But first, we prove ourselves.
“You ever go out to shows in town?” I asked.
“Why, they coming here?”
“Next week. You should go.” This was a serious invitation.
“I should go, huh?”
“I’ve seen them a few times. It’s something to see. The last show I went to… The guy spent most of it on his back in the crowd, beating his guitar, screaming nonsense at the top of his lungs,” I pushed.
“Screaming nonsense,” Marty laughed. “Might have to check that out.” This was not a serious commitment.
“You want to hear a funny rock story?” I asked.
“Yeah. Let’s hear it.” He was already bored.
* * *
My mom swears it was in the Spring, possibly the Summer of 1964. My dad agrees that it was in 1964, seems to remember it being in the Fall or Winter, but unashamedly admits that his memory doesn’t always make the long trip back that far and then usually proceeds to ask my mom. Regardless, in 1964 The Beatles played a sold-out concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In that same Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter of 1964 my dad was in his early twenties and working for the city as a tax collector.
The city of Pittsburgh had at the time, and possibly still has, what is called an Entertainment Tax. My dad’s job involved traveling to assorted convention centers, stadiums, and big tent set-ups to collect a certain amount of money from whatever entertainers were in town to perform that night. My dad was in his early twenties, a young guy in a biggish city. On his way to collect these taxes he was, no doubt, swaying to the sounds of any random Pittsburgh radio station totally and completely unaware of the names of the groups getting air time or the songs that they were playing.
The Beatles were, of course, a different story. In 1964 if one were to round up every person from the age of eighteen to thirty, the vast majority could name and sing any number of Beatles’ songs. My dad, not as into it as most, could sing a few himself. Add that his girlfriend, now my beautiful mom, was slightly younger than my dad, a past soap-box derby queen in high school, and an all around hip young lady. Take all of the hip young ladies in America at the time and you’d be hard pressed to find one that wasn’t, in some way, struck by the British Invasion.
The night of the Beatles’ 1964 concert in Pittsburgh brought out the cameras. At home, my mom watched the newscasters on the scene rambling into microphones about the evening’s events while in the background, hoards of women without tickets screamed. Toward the front of the crowd, several women had their hands and noses pressed against glass windows, peering inside and hoping to catch a glimpse of John, Paul, Ringo and What’s-His-Name. My mom was glued to the television and probably screaming herself. Some girlfriends were hanging out at her apartment.
“Susie, if my Ralph was going to that concert without me, you can bet he’d wake up tomorrow lonely,” joked Carol. Ralph was, at this point, working third shift as a security guard and slept different hours than the rest of the world, waking up alone most of the time anyway.
“If I could find someone to go out with, you can bet your ass that we’d be there together or he’d be at home with me and the television,” said Darlene. She was loud and funny at the same time, which is rare to come by. She hadn’t been out on a date for two years.
“Would you girls be quiet. He’s not going to the concert,” said my mom. “He doesn’t have a ticket. It’s his job. And besides, you both know Larry. I don’t think he’d go if they let him in for free. He couldn’t care less.” The three of them laughed at my dad’s expense and turned their eyes back to the action on the screen.
In real life, at the source of the action, my dad and Lenny sat quietly in the venue office imitating the high pitched shrieks from outside. Lenny also worked for the city. He wasn’t involved with the taxes exactly. He worked in the tax office doing some filing work, some cleaning, and serving as a part-time maintenance man. But, he was a larger guy, a friend to my dad (a smaller guy), and having him along never hurt anything. An important Pittsburgh businessman involved in promotions came into the room with another man wearing sunglasses and a dark suit. My dad and Lenny were introduced to the man in the sunglasses as the business manager of the boys responsible for all this noise. The man in the sunglasses spoke with a heavy British accent, which I won’t even attempt to reproduce, and was friendly when handing over a check made out to The City of Pittsburgh.
“Quite a beautiful city you got here,” he said. “Don’t feel so down about helping a city like this one. You fans of the Beatles?”
Lenny chuckled and looked at my dad for an answer. “Yeah,” said my dad. “They’ve got some good songs.”
“Why don’t you come into the press conference? It’s about to start,” said the man in the sunglasses. “I don’t think anyone would mind.”
* * *
At this point, Marty is doing the nodding, only it’s not the same nod as those from a few years back. These are totally unimpressed nods. He’s not even putting in the effort to act interested. Three years ago, I would have already discovered that Marty owned not only a Primus T-shirt, but more than two Red Hot Chili Peppers records and was heavily into “P-Funk,” “Marley,” and “Floyd” and I would have disqualified him from being able to play in the You’re Good Enough to be Friends with Me game. I think I’m moving past that now. The fact that Marty is unimpressed is a minor roadblock. Telling someone like Marty that someone I’m related to sat through a Beatles press conference is the equivalent to telling someone from Seattle that I was down with Nirvana before they broke (which I wasn’t). To people from Seattle, bands like Nirvana break the day people from the Midwest find out about them. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have even attempted a story like this with someone like Marty. But, things are changing.
So, I let him nod his head. I paused. He said, “So your dad saw the Beatles at a press conference? Hmm. My mom and dad were in London once eating at some fancy place and George Harrison was there by himself. I think they talked for a minute or something nuts.”
“Really,” I said. “That’s crazy, but listen…”
* * *
My dad and Lenny followed the man in the sunglasses into a room with about thirty seats and approximately fifty people. Some stood along the walls which were lined with television cameras. Flash bulbs were bursting. My dad and Lenny stuck close to the man in the sunglasses and the three of them stationed themselves at the back of the room. Up front was a longish table with four sharply dressed young men seated behind it. A mess of microphones covered their faces, and the women’s screaming from outside drowned out most of whatever questions they were being asked and whatever answers they were giving. Lenny leaned over to my dad. “That them?” he asked.
My dad craned his neck to get a better look. He leaned back into Lenny’s ear, trying to talk loud enough so that Lenny could hear, but quiet enough so that the man in the sunglasses couldn’t. “Yeah, I think so.” They laughed for a second. Neither had a clue, and this was funny to them. “Susie’s going to kill me.” The man in the sunglasses noticed the two of them exchanging words and smiled. “The worst part,” said my dad, “is that this guy thinks he’s doing us the world’s biggest favor.”
This conference, my dad informed me, went on and on and on and on and on.
After the last question and a few posed pictures with important people, the four boys left through a door in the front of the room. They were smiling and waving on their way out and most everyone in the room was applauding. My dad stuck his thumb and index finger in his mouth and blew out a piercing whistle. Lenny got a kick out of that.
When the applause died, the journalists started milling around, mumbling with one another and comparing notes. The photographers disassembled their cameras and placed the parts in bags. The television cameramen started rolling up cords and wires. The man in the sunglasses smiled again. “Now you’ve seen the Beatles in person,” he said. “What’d you thinka that?”
“Not bad,” answered my dad. “My girlfriend’s going to kill me.”
“Big fan, is she? You ought to bring her home an autograph.”
Lenny nudged my dad with his elbow. “Boy, Lar! I bet she’d love that. Why don’t you follow them out there and ask them for their autographs? They seem like good guys.” Lenny’s tone was thick with sarcasm. Sunglasses didn’t catch it. When you represent something as big as the Beatles, I suppose you really believe that nobody could possibly make fun of it.
“Hey, an autograph would be great,” my dad said. “I’m sure that she’d love it. But really, seeing this was a treat. More than we’d expected. I don’t want to bother anyone for autographs. But thanks for the offer, really.”
“Bother anyone? Who’s bothering anyone? Come on and watch the show. You can meet them after and if you’re lucky you can take something home to your lady.” And before my dad or Lenny could say anything more, they were following Sunglasses down a hall, through some doors, and to a small section roped off just in front of the stage where a few more men in sunglasses and dark suits were standing. The first Sunglasses smiled at one of the others, held up two fingers and gestured with his head toward my dad and Lenny. The other guy nodded his head and made a note on a clipboard.
The screaming inside the show was double that of outside. Lenny held his ears until the band took the stage and started in on a song, the title of which my dad can’t remember. My mom insists that he told her the name of it at one time, that it had something to do with falling in love, that the title has escaped her, and that it will come to her any minute now. Like the noise heard during the press conference, the noise from the crowd drowned out a large amount of whatever was coming from the four boys on stage. Dad did, however, manage to recognize a handful of tunes and Lenny, laughing, caught him singing along more than once. This, of course, is another tidbit added by mom. Dad doesn’t necessarily remember singing or not singing, but rather states that he remembers almost nothing about the whole experience save the screaming women.
* * *
“That’s not bad. Free Beatles show. What tour was that?” asked Marty.
Embarrassed, but not defeated. I did imaginary figures in my head. “That waaassss…. Let’sssss ssssseeeee… 1964…. Soooo….” I counted back and forth on fingers, like naming albums off in my head.
“1964 would have been sometime before Rubber Soul,” chimed Marty.
“Right,” I said with confidence. “Just before Rubber Soul.”
“Yeah,” said Marty. “I think my parents saw three shows in all. They were way into that whole thing. I’ve been hearing about the Beatles since I was born.”
Yesterday, the day after this conversation with Marty, I did some research. I learned that Rubber Soul was released in 1965, that the band didn’t tour the United States for that album and something about John Lennon professing that he was smarter than God. There are other fast-facts that I can throw out, none of them overly impressive. I should have known all of this before sharing the story with Marty. I should have been prepared. What other hitches and snags is he going to throw at me? At this point, Marty’s looking good. Better than me and my story. He’s good. I move forward.
* * *
So dad doesn’t remember much aside from screaming women. There is, however, a flying drumstick. At the end of the second encore, audience going totally nuts, Ringo stands up from behind his drum set while John, Paul, and What’s-His-Name take numerous bows. He lifts his sticks in the air and waves them like mad. This, his own manner of bowing, and to top it off he throws the sticks out to the wailing crowd. Lenny watches them fly from the drummer’s hands, one sailing far and landing somewhere twenty or thirty rows back, the other veering slightly off course, losing altitude fast and smacking directly into the open hand of my dad.
* * *
Like the crowd, Marty goes bananas. “Get outta here,” he said. “He caught a stick? Your dad’s got Ringo’s stick? Man, that’s hot!”
I had him. “Listen,” I said. “It gets better.” And it did. From here on it was smooth.
Me and Marty's job involves purchasing used compact discs from customers for three or four dollars each. Throughout the day, customers come in with classic albums that they’ve listened to so many times they’re committed to memory and taking a measly four bucks for them doesn’t sound all that strange. And I, the employee, use my ten percent discount to buy these records for the first time. Twice before my conversations with Marty, I’ve bought Beatles albums. Sgt. Pepper’s and White. The timing here is crucial. Damn, Marty probably has all the albums on cassette.
* * *
Sunglasses saw the stick’s flight and gave my dad the thumbs up. Lenny was laughing hysterically and trying to yell directly into my dad’s ear. “There’s a present for Susie!” Dad heard nothing, thought nothing, shrugged his shoulders and tossed the stick in a clean arch back up to the stage. After the toss, dad looked at Lenny and smiled. Lenny, baffled, punched him in the shoulder. “You idiot,” he belted out. “What the hell are you thinking, Lar? You just gave up one of the Beatles’ drumsticks!”
Dad couldn’t hear a thing. He leaned far into Lenny’s ear and yelled, “Guy must have gotten carried away and lost his stick or something!” Dad looked back up toward the stage, mildly confused. He leaned back into Lenny’s ear. “He didn’t even come back for it!” Sunglasses, more thrown by the whole incident than Lenny, shook his head and started to lead them away from the stage.
* * *
I definitely had him and I allowed myself to smile in victory. Marty was cracking up, repeating the words Man, that’s hot! over and over. For a few minutes, and at Marty’s request, I re-told certain parts of the story. I was feeling successful when we slipped back into work mode, sweeping floors, cleaning the windows and straightening the stock. After a while, Marty laughed to himself. “Hey, what if they wrote that song about your dad. Now that would be out of control.”
That song. That song?
I laughed and nodded like I knew what he was talking about. “That’d be crazy.” It wasn’t a put-down. It wasn’t even a stab. It was just Marty talking more about a great story. Nevertheless, the fact that Marty topped it off with a joke I didn’t get was unsettling.
“Hey, when did you say that band was playing?”
* * *
Earlier today, someone brought in a used copy of Revolver. I checked the disc’s condition, flipped it over and studied the song list: “Taxman,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Good Day, Sunshine.” Some big hits. Release date: 1966, and I got the joke. I bought it from the customer for four bucks and spent eight on it for myself later in the night.
* * *
The three of them exited through a door off to the side of the stage, a different door than they had entered through. Dad and Lenny found themselves in a mostly cement hallway which carried a strong echo. Somewhere far down in one direction were the muted and repetitious sounds of the women. Sunglasses started walking, heels clicking loudly, in the other direction.
“Follow me. We’ll see about those autographs for your lady,” he said. Dad, resigning now to Sunglasses, followed. Lenny was giving my dad the eye, following as well. “Not a fan of the drumstick, hey?” asked Sunglasses over his shoulder.
“I don’t play the drums,” laughed dad, only slightly aware of his blunder. Sunglasses forced a laugh which dad heard and felt reassured. Lenny felt stupid. What neither my dad nor Lenny saw was Sunglasses rolling his eyes behind his shades.
“Wait here and I’ll see what I can do,” said Sunglasses. He spun around a corner and clicked away. The two of them heard a door open and close and Lenny immediately went through the entire punch in the arm bit again.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he asked again. “That was the Beatles’ drumstick you gave up, Larry.”
“What do I care? I don’t play the drums. He’ll need it before I do. They’ve probably got more concerts to do anyway,” defended my dad.
“Yeah Larry. They probably do,” said Lenny, giving up. "They probably do."
Inside a large room with plates of food, bottles of wine, cans of beer and four tiny dressing compartments there was mayhem. The four musicians were undressing, fighting for the single shower, and singing lines from their own songs to one another. There were a few men in sunglasses, the original Sunglasses, and a reporter trying desperately to get a quote from each of the boys. Sunglasses announced a few things about a hotel address at the top of his voice and then made his way over to the boy who played the drums. “Ringo, someone from the city here wants an autograph for his lady.”
“Right. Gimme a minute, would you?”
“No problem, Ringo. He’s a bloody fool, this one. Caught one of your sticks and threw it back at you tonight.”
The boy who played the drums looked confused and challenged. “Threw it back?”
“Bloody fool. He works for the city. Collects an entertainer’s tax for a living. Just sign a piece of paper for a fool and be on with it,” said Sunglasses.
Another one of the boys walked over to the drummer and started singling la la la to a certain catchy tune. “You like that, Ringo? That’s a new one I’m working on just now.”
“That’s great, George. But get this. Some taxman caught my stick tonight. He threw it back up on stage. He didn’t want my stick. Now he want’s an autograph.”
The boy who was singing the new tune recognized that the drummer was upset, and to him, it was funny. Making the drummer feel no better, he started up again, this time replacing the la’s: He’s the taxman… Yeah, he’s the taxman. “Ringo, that’s going to be a hit! We owe a poor fool an autograph,” he joked.
“Tell that git to go to hell,” the drummer barked. “He’s got our money already, doesn’t he?” The singing boy laughed and kept up his tune. Sunglasses exited the room. Outside, in the hallway, dad and Lenny heard the door and listened to the slap of Sunglasses’ feet growing louder. He turned the corner and, still a number of feet away, announced: “Apologies. I’m afraid the boys aren’t signing autographs tonight.” He walked straight up to dad and shook his hand, then Lenny’s. “I hope you enjoyed the show. You can exit that way,” and he pointed toward the women’s voices.
Later, my mom and dad watched the late edition of the news together. There was a clip of the Beatles entering their hotel with more flashbulbs going everywhere. “I can’t believe you saw The Beatles,” mom said. “And you can’t even get me a simple autograph!” A camera focused in close on the face of one of the boys. He was singing something but, as always, the crowd around him was in hysterics and my parents couldn’t make out the words.
I’m the taxman… Yeah, I’m the taxman. No use. He waved to the camera and walked through the hotel doors following the others.
“Sorry, babe. I tried. They must have worn themselves out up there. The guy told me they weren’t doing any autographs,” said dad. “Who was that? The one they just showed jabbering on into the camera.”
“That’s George, honey. George Harrison. He plays the guitar,” scolded my mom.
“I didn’t notice him much while they were playing. The other one, there, the first one that went in, the one that sings... You should have seen him bopping around on stage,” said dad.
“They all sing, Larry. And yes, I know I should have seen them. And an autographed drumstick would look nice on the mantel, too.” She laughed and wrapped her arms around my dad’s neck, planting a kiss on his cheek. “My boyfriend’s an idiot,” she said. She squeezed harder. “But, I love you anyway.”