Interview: Ravi Shankar on his last conversations with George Harrison
[Ed note: A year ago on the tenth anniversary of George Harrison’s death we published this exclusive interview with Ravi Shankar about his last moments with the iconic Beatle. Shankar, an icon in his own right, died yesterday at the age of 92. Shankar brought Indian music to the west and left his own indelible mark on western pop culture through his influence on the Beatles. Today we’re re-publishing the interview to commemorate his life and celebrate one of music’s 20th century titans.]
Ten years after his death, something feels right in knowing the last communication George Harrison had with friend and mentor Ravi Shankar was without words.
Known early on as the quiet Beatle, Harrison was also the youngest of the four and arguably his group’s most musically mature force. For years he kept quiet when the others dismissed his songwriting, and only seemed to become outspoken following those stormy “Let It Be” sessions that forever fractured the band. Still, his contributions, though few when stacked against the long and winding Lennon/McCartney catalog, stand as some of the Beatles’ most revered work. There was “Something,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” But it was Harrison’s Indian influence by way of sitarist Shankar that served as a catalyst for the Beatles’ latter half — and another beginning for popular music. Harrison and Shankar let their music do much of the talking as Harrison’s health declined and eventually claimed him on November 29, 2001.
“We always had a very cheerful time, in the sense that we generally didn’t want to talk,” Shankar, 91, said in a recent phone interview with Death and Taxes from San Diego. “He was not well at that point. He used to come often, very privately — no one knew about it — and spend a week or ten days with me in my house.”
Though they never wrote or performed as an official duo, Harrison and Shankar expanded psychedelic music through the Indian improvisational style that was written off by many critics as “mystical,” a term Harrison detested. Together the pair also redefined the reach of global activism. August 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of the Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit that put social change center-stage when supporters stuffed Madison Square Garden soon after some 10 million refugees fled into India.
“Within twenty-four hours, the name Bangladesh became known to everyone,” Shankar said. “It was my conception, but I couldn’t have done it in this huge scale. Thanks to George it was such a wonderful event, first of its kind.”
Today Harrison would likely shrug off this credit, as an interview with him revealed in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” which aired on HBO last month.
“Ravi, really, it was him who helped me to get back into being a pop singer,” Harrison said in the undated clip.
Indeed it was Shankar’s influence that helped the quiet Beatle emerge with a voice that spoke of world peace at a time when John Lennon preferred to occupy his bed to protest the Vietnam war. (It’s worth noting both Lennon and McCartney declined Harrison’s invitation to play the Concert for Bangladesh years later).
Scorsese’s documentary also points out how Harrison was initially intimidated by the sitar; why, he contemplated, should he attempt an instrument already perfected by someone else? This soundbite acknowledges Shankar’s indirect responsibility for George Harrison the singer-songwriter. He’d always been one, stifled as he was in the Beatles — Harrison’s backlog of songs rejected by Lennon and McCartney would later comprise much of his first solo album — but the summer of 1966 appears to be the juncture where Indian instrumentation topped previous Beatles studio experiments. It was the summer when Harrison met Shankar.
It turns out this first encounter didn’t happen until a year after Harrison took his first crack at sitar on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” In August 1965, when he was 22, he first heard Shankar’s music during an acid-induced hangout with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds. Harrison, inspired, couldn’t wait to channel Shankar on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” during the “Rubber Soul” sessions two months later.
Recording the song must have been especially daunting for Harrison, considering his initial reluctance to taking up the foreign instrument. He’d only just heard Shankar’s music by that point, after all, and wouldn’t meet the man until the following year. The sonic difference, however, between this track and Harrison’s sitar-soaked “Within You Without You” from “Sgt. Pepper’s” in 1967 confirms the seismic impact of Shankar’s one-on-one instruction between the recordings. In 1974, long after the Beatles disbanded, Harrison returned the favor when he produced his friend’s “Musical Festival of India” album, a project featuring 17 Indian musicians.
“It is the understanding and appreciation of Indian music that I have really been lucky enough to achieve, which was not there before,” Shankar reflected. “That was really something which I tried my best to make reticent people aware of, thanks to people like George Harrison.
“His vision was very altruistic, and that’s what really interested me very, very much, and which I loved in him.”