´He wasn´t particularly quiet. He just didn´t demand to be heard.´
The rain had lifted and the October sun was warm enough for us to pull on pairs of galoshes and stroll across the meadow at Friar Park. An afternoon with George Harrison and his wife, Olivia, was a treat Jeff Kramer (our mutual friend and manager) and I had promised ourselves to relieve the monotony of airplanes, hotel rooms and sound checks; the everyday humdrum of musicians on the road.
I hadn´t seen George for several years and was anxious to know, in person, how he was faring after the harrowing attack he´d endured just ten months earlier, on New Year´s Eve 1999. ´I´m really happy to see you,´ he said as we shook hands and embraced, ´and these days, when I say I´m really happy to see someone, I mean I´m really happy.´
He looked healthy and his mood was up as we approached a wooden bridge over a pond of waterlilies. I´d never been to Friar Park before, but the rhythm of the wind in the leaves and the cluster chords of autumn´s orange, gold and evergreen made it easy to understand why he´d chosen to spend the last thirty years gradually planting, pruning, editing and reshaping the land while at the time recasting himself from pop-culture icon to master gardener.
The three of us paused for a minute at the crest of a hill to let George catch his breath. Gazing down at the black pond, he told us that there were interconnected caves beneath the water´s surface, caves that he´d explored before his lung capacity had been diminished by his battle with cancer and a madman´s deranged obsession with celebrity. Every gardener knows nature´s random cruelty - frost, drought and predators - but most of us are shocked when jagged violence lunges from the shadows and reveals our own vulnerability.
We walked toward the sun and slipped through a copse of weeping willow. There in the middle of a field of wildflowers were two huge boulders weighing several tons and standing one atop the other like a pair of giant granite acrobats. ´Are those the work of a sculptor?´ I asked. ´No,´ he said, ´they came from opposite ends of the property, but we moved them here and stacked them in this field. Everyone wants to know about them. In fact, when Ringo came round for a visit last summer, he asked about them as well. I told him that Paul´s record company had sent them as a promo for his new album, Standing Stone. Ringo was really miffed that he hadn´t gotten his standing stones, but I said they´d probably only posted them to A-list people.´ Liverpool accents always sound to me like a joke is coming, but Harrison´s wit was deadpan and dead-on.
The roots of my friendship with George Harrison go back to 1976, when we performed together on Saturday Night Live. Sitting on stools side by side with acoustic guitars, we sang ´Here Comes the Sun´ and ´Homeward Bound.´ Though we´re in the same generation and weaned on Buddy Holly, Elvis and the Everly Brothers, it must have seemed as strange to him to be harmonizing with someone other than Lennon or McCartney as it was for me to blend with someone other than Art Garfunkel. Nevertheless, it was an effortless collaboration. The mesh of his guitar and voice with my playing and singing gave our duet an ease and musicality that made me realize how intrinsic and subtle his contribution was to the Beatles´ brilliant creative weave. He made musicians sound good without calling attention to himself.
His songwriting, too, which I always thought to be stylistically close to mine, was gentle and sad with country and skiffle influences rippling beneath his often sardonic lyrics. It all seemed deceptively simple until masterpieces like ´Here Comes the Sun´ and ´Something´ made people realize that the Beatles had three major writers competing for the limited space of the vinyl LP. They called him ´the quiet Beatle,´ but he wasn´t particularly quiet; he simply didn´t demand to be heard. He knew who he was, where he´d come from, what he´d accomplished. He wasn´t humble, but he projected a humility that implied a vision of his fame seen in a larger context. God gives us color and fragrance, the gardener waters and weeds.
At Friar Park, the rain was threatening an encore, and the English sun sets early at that time of year, so we headed back to the house and the warmth of a fire. Nature´s vibrant fall colors are misleading. They imply life and vitality, but they camouflage the muted browns and grays of winter. Soon the leaves will float to the ground and turn to dust, a blanket for a long winter´s sleep.
Sitting by the fire, we drank tea and ate chocolate biscuits while George, to my astonishment, played a miniconcert of Hawaiian music on several ukuleles he´d collected on trips to the islands. His playing was clean and bouncy, his voice sounding like an exact duplicate of George Harrison. I could envision him sitting on a stool side by side with Don Ho, making us wonder how we´d missed the whole Don Ho experience that first time around.
Before we left, George showed us a copy of the new Beatles Anthology book and wrote an inscription to Jeff, deftly adding three perfect forgeries of the other Beatles´ signatures.
´Why don´t you come down and see the show tonight?´ We invited him, knowing there was little chance he´d stir from his chair by the fire. ´Maybe we will,´ he said. ´If not, thanks for coming by. I´ll see you soon, I hope.´
On the drive back to London, Kramer told me that George had felt awkward about not offering a copy of the book to me, but he was afraid I might not have great interest in owning one. I said I´d never asked for anyone´s autograph, but I was actually a little disappointed that he hadn´t made the offer. Two months later, the tour ended, I came home to find a copy of The Beatles Anthology sitting on my desk. ´To Paul and Edie,´ the inscription read, ´with lots of love from your pal, George Harrison.´