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New Book Takes A Deeper Look At Quiet Beatle George Harrison

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The singer-songwriter George Harrison was known as the quiet member of The Beatles. It was an image that he sometimes promoted in interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK CAVETT SHOW")

GEORGE HARRISON: I'm probably the biggest bore you've ever had on the show.

DICK CAVETT: Really?

HARRISON: They asked me, do you want to come on "The Dick Cavett Show?" And I said, I've got nothing to talk about, really.

CAVETT: Yeah. You don't like to talk, then.

HARRISON: Well, not really.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK FOR YOURSELF")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) I've got a word or two to say about the things that you do.

INSKEEP: This image was a little misleading. Behind the scenes, George Harrison pushed The Beatles and other artists towards social activism. Many of Harrison's words are now collected in a new book called "George Harrison On George Harrison." It was edited by music journalist and former MORNING EDITION commentator Ashley Kahn. Ashley, welcome back.

ASHLEY KAHN: Thanks, Steve. It's great to be back.

INSKEEP: You know, it's easy to think of John Lennon as the politically active Beatle. What makes George Harrison worth a deeper look?

KAHN: Well, I'd use the term socially active and using rock as a sort of mobilizing force. He helped put together one of the groundbreaking events as far as using rock music for the sake of social service, and that was the Concert for Bangladesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANGLA DESH")

HARRISON: (Singing) Now I'm asking all of you to help us save some lives. Bangladesh, Bangladesh...

KAHN: It was an all-star, two-show concert at Madison Square Garden in 1971, and it was all for the sake of raising funds to help those who were disadvantaged and dispossessed by the extreme violence that was going on in Bangladesh at the time.

INSKEEP: I think of music as inherently political, Ashley, because it tends to represent a culture, and sometimes, it tells dramatic stories about particular kinds of people. But you're talking about celebrities using their fame in a particular way. Is that what George Harrison got people doing that they weren't doing as much before?

KAHN: Well, it was in the music already. I mean, you think about Sam Cooke. You think about Bob Dylan. You think about Nina Simone and the statements that were coming through their music of the 1960s. But the actual idea of doing an event and raising money for a very specific cause or reason - that's really the breakthrough moments. And there's a long line of various concerts and movements, et cetera - No Nukes, Band Aid, et cetera, et cetera, that have followed in its wake.

INSKEEP: Live Aid.

KAHN: Yeah, Live Aid.

INSKEEP: Farm Aid - lots of aids over the latter part of the 20th century and into this century, I guess.

KAHN: Absolutely. Think about the number of concerts after Katrina, after the hurricane disaster in New Orleans.

INSKEEP: Well, now you have this book of George Harrison's words, and I gather a lot of those words were recorded. Let's hear some.

KAHN: So yeah, I mean, the whole idea of the book was to really present the unfiltered George Harrison, and here's a great example of where he's looking back at the '60s, at this sort of idyllic moment of the Beatles and what he learned regarding the idea of the social role of the musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRISON: If you've got a platform to speak from, then, you know, you should speak. I found in the '60s, we'd all sit around thinking of these great ideas, and after a few years, I thought, wait a minute, nobody's doing anything. You know, everybody's talking about it, but nobody's doing anything.

INSKEEP: Did he think of his own initial group, The Beatles, as among those who were talking but not doing anything for a while there?

KAHN: I believe not because I think he got a lot of inspiration, definitely, from John Lennon. The whole idea of Concert for Bangladesh began as a request for a $30,000 check and John Lennon's whole notion of, well, if you're going to do something, do it as big and with as much impact as possible. And he credits John Lennon's influence on him for thinking big.

INSKEEP: One reason it's interesting to hear this discussion now, Ashley, is because everybody in society is being pushed to take a political position - musicians, every other kind of entertainer and ordinary people in the audience as well. What do you think George Harrison would make of this moment we're in?

KAHN: I really think that, one, he would be severely disappointed by what's going on right now. But at the same time, I think there would be this feeling that there's still hope and that he was an optimist. And if you come from that starting point, the path is going to be very obvious as to what you should and should not be doing.

INSKEEP: You've got a bit of tape here in which Harrison describes his optimism in his time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRISON: If you look now just through, say, from the '60s or the '50s, there's a much higher awareness, generally. I mean, where did all the really good hippies go when they all dropped out?

JOHN FUGELSANG: They're driving Volvos, George.

HARRISON: They're all - well, I don't think all of them are. I think a lot of them are - you know, have brought up - there's probably two generations of kids now who are much more open, that help the society become much more balanced.

FUGELSANG: You're optimistic.

HARRISON: You have to be optimistic, yeah.

KAHN: He was an optimist to the end. And I think the fact that "Here Comes The Sun," which is the most streamed of Beatles songs on streaming platforms - and it's a George Harrison tune - many hospitals, when COVID survivors are being discharged, they will play "Here Comes The Sun." I think that he would be very pleased by that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE SUN")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. I say it's all right.

INSKEEP: Do you think George Harrison could find something to be optimistic about in this moment of pandemic and recession and political division?

KAHN: I'd think absolutely. I think we have to remember that George Harrison was someone who took his spiritual studies very seriously, and the Vedic view, the Hindu view, looks at the world in 25,000-year cycles. So what we're going through right now would be a half of a blip on a very large radar screen.

INSKEEP: OK. I like to take the long view of things, but taking the 25,000-year view had not occurred to me.

KAHN: Yeah. Alice Coltrane ascribed to that same sort of view. We're on the planet to evolve, and this is a test that we're going through.

INSKEEP: Ashley Kahn is the editor of "George Harrison On George Harrison." Thanks so much.

KAHN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "HERE COMES THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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