The following article was published in the August 2011 issue of Beatlefan Magazine(see my Links section for the magazine's website). Thank you to editor Bill King for allowing me to list the article here.
Concert For Bangladesh--40thAnniversary--August 1, 1971
Marc A. Catone
There was a large void in my life when The Beatles called it quits in 1970. During the next year, I tried to fill the emptiness with bootleg recordings of Beatles concerts. By the summer of 1971, not only had The Beatles been gone for over a year, but Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were dead. It seemed like the Sixties were over...prematurely. I was spending most of my days and nights in a marijuana haze, but my senses became focused when a story began circulating in the New York City media in late July...George Harrison was organizing a benefit concert for the people of Bangladesh at the request of his friend, Ravi Shankar.
The original name of the concert was “Harrison and Friends”, but was changed to the “Concert for Bangladesh”. At first, this musical event was scheduled for the evening of Saturday, July 31st, but based on anticipated ticket sales it became two performances on the afternoon and evening of Sunday, August 1st. There was much speculation on who the performers would be.
Not seeing the Concert for Bangladesh wasn’t an option for me. I had to see it. However, in the days before Ticketron and Ticketmaster, when one had to line up in front of the ticket office window at the concert venue, I was at a severe disadvantage. The concert was in a few days at Madison Square Garden in New York, and I was stuck in Danbury Connecticut without a ticket. My good friend, Gilberte Najamy, who went with my sister Sara and me to see The Beatles at Shea Stadium, found a ticket agency in Stamford CT that still had a few remaining tickets. We were supposed to get two tickets for the both of us, but Gilberte remembered that she had a work commitment the same day. Still, she accompanied me on the hour drive to the ticket agency in Stamford where I became acquainted with the term, “scalping”. What I paid for my ticket to the Concert for Bangladesh was cheap by today’s standards. However, the actual price was $7.50, and the ticket agency charged me $18.00...more than twice the cost. I didn’t have much money in those days, but I handed over my cash, grabbed the ticket, and waited for the big day to arrive.
My ticket, which had the original name of the concert and a date of July 31st printed on it, was for the first performance in the afternoon. Not owning a car in those days, I took a bus from Danbury to the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan, and got a cab to Madison Square. By then, I knew who some of the performers would be...George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Leon Russell, and Billy Preston. Earlier in the week, there had been talk about all four Beatles appearing on stage, but that rumor ended quickly. Still, there was faint hope that John Lennon might show up.
I hadn’t been to many large concerts since seeing The Beatles in 1966. During my late high school and early college years, I saw the Doors, Grass Roots, Blues Magoos, and Rare Earth in Danbury, but the Concert for Bangladesh was the biggest concert I had attended in five years. Most of the people in the audience were close to my age of 21, with a few younger people, and many folks in their late 20s and early 30s. The gathering was a cross-section of the New York City area with nearly an equal number of males and females in attendance as well as people of color...though there were more white faces than black.
I had an aisle seat in the Loge section, stage right, with a good view. I wore my 1971 “uniform” which consisted of a blue denim work shirt, and bell-bottom jeans. I sat next to two girls around my age, both wore army jackets and jeans. We talked quite a bit in the beginning, but not much during the show. And then there was light, and it was shining down upon George Harrison as he introduced Ravi Shankar and his ensemble. Ravi knew the crowd had come to hear Harrison and his friends, but he asked us to listen to and absorb the more complex attributes of his Indian music. His portion of the show drew attention to the reason for the concert...to raise money for the ravaged people of Bangladesh. Although I listened respectfully to the Indian music, I was impatient for Rock ‘n’ Roll to take the stage.
After the Indian musicians finished, a crew set up microphones, and made their sound checks. The stage went dark for a few minutes. The lights came back on, and the band launched into “Wah-Wah”. I had never heard so many guitars and horns playing at once. The song sounded remarkably like it did on Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” album from the previous year...except much louder. It was a glorious introduction to the concert, and the crowd was on its feet for the entire number. George and Company did two more songs in a row from that album, “My Sweet Lord” and “Awaiting On You All”.
Harrison looked great in his white suit and orange shirt. His voice sounded strong, and the back-up singers, especially on “My Sweet Lord”, added quite a punch to the songs. Eric Clapton kept a low profile during the entire concert, sometimes standing with his back to the audience. Years later, we learned that he was in the midst of a heroin addiction, and had been very ill before the start of the performance.
One of the things that made the concert so great was the diversity of music...Rock, Folk, Gospel, Soul, R&B...it was all there. Billy Preston, who could arguably be called the 5th Beatle, had the crowd rocking with his soulful tune, “That’s The Way God Planned It”. Towards the end of the song, he walked away from the organ and did a wild stomping dance in front of George, running back to his chair just in time to play the ending.
Unlike the frenzied Beatles concerts, where one had to struggle to hear the band, this concert was different. Technology had taken a giant leap during the previous five years, improving the sound of vocals and instruments. Girls weren’t screaming non-stop. The crowd was noisy, but the band could be heard very well.
Then came Ringo’s turn. He was alternately all smiles, or seriously focused on his drumming, throughout the afternoon. The familiar guitar hook from “It Don’t Come Easy” was instantly recognizable. Again, the crowd rose to its feet. We were seeing two Beatles on stage together, and hearing a song in which both of them had played on record. That was one of two moments during the concert in which I almost had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Ringo’s voice was a little shaky, and he messed up the lyrics twice (during the line, “And this love of mine keeps growing all the time”). Was he nervous? Probably. Was he Ringo? Yes, and his fans appreciated him.
Slowing down the pace, George sang the last of the afternoon’s songs from “All Things Must Pass”. A somber tune...a cautionary tale...telling us not to let sadness take over our lives, George’s “Beware Of Darkness” again showed him in good voice, with Leon Russell singing one of the verses. I always liked the song, but found it a bit maudlin. It wasn’t until I saw the tribute “Concert for George”, and heard “Beware Of Darkness” performed by Eric Clapton, that I realized how much the song reminded me of George, and how much I missed him. He was often criticized for “preaching” in some of his songs, but all he was doing was sharing. Today, I can’t listen to that song without getting a lump in my throat...the words ring true.
There hadn’t been too many introductions to songs up until that point in the concert. Then George introduced the individual band members. I found this to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the show as George told us that people had “cancelled a few gigs” to be in the concert. Clapton, Voorman, and Russell received loud applause, but it was Ringo (the first one to be introduced) who received a sustained ovation...ending with an impromptu organ snippet from “Yellow Submarine” played by Leon Russell. Anyone who has ever seen the concert film remembers George turning to the band and inquiring if he had forgotten to introduce anyone. After a few seconds, he announces, “We’ve forgotten Billy Preston”. Next time you watch the movie, listen carefully after George asks “have we forgotten anyone?”, and you will hear a female voice answer loudly, “You”. I am now email buddies with the woman who yelled that out. Years after the Concert for Bangladesh, she became friends with George’s sister, Louise, who got a real kick out of that story.
Shortly after the intros, without any announcement or fanfare, the assembled band played the beginning notes to a song which the audience knew right away, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. This was the first of three Harrison songs performed during the course of the concert that George recorded with The Beatles. For me, it was a very emotional moment, the only time I envisioned what the concert would have been like had John Lennon and Paul McCartney been on stage. George, Ringo, and Eric had been on the original White Album recording of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Therefore, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine all four of The Beatles on stage. I was only 21 years old, and not given to public displays of emotion, but my eyes were wet during that number. I was not alone...people all around me had tears on their faces during the song. George sang the lines of one verse out of order, but no one cared. His voice sounded like it did when he sang the song on “The Beatles”.
As if to knock us out of our nostalgic stupor, George said into the microphone, “Here’s another number from Leon”, which heralded the hardest rocking songs of the concert. Leon Russell performed a medley of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and the oft-covered 50s rocker, “Young Blood” (originally done by the Coasters). What I remember most is the incessant tom-tom beat by Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner. The audience kept time with their stomping feet. The entire Loge rocked in rhythm with the drums. I could feel the pulse-like pounding throughout my body. Leon’s woeful sing-song tale of leaving his lover for a younger girl was the connection between the two songs. When he returned to“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” at the end of the set, the vibration in the floor was even stronger than the first time. Many concert attendees cite Russell’s performance as the best of that day.
I don’t know how the set list for the concert was planned, but the acoustic version of “Here Comes The Sun”, which Harrison and Pete Ham of Badfinger performed, was quite a counterpoint to Leon’s raucous medley. Note for note, it was a perfect rendition of one of George’s most acclaimed Beatles’ tunes.
There was a lot of movement on stage, and a brief period of silence, as George leaned into his microphone and said, matter-of-factly, “Here’s a friend of all of us, Bob Dylan”. I couldn’t make out what he said it first, then I began hearing people near me say, “Oh my God, it’s Bob Dylan”. Just when I thought the concert couldn’t get any better...it did. When Dylan walked up to the microphone, it was a total surprise...the second time I thought about pinching myself. Was it real or was I dreaming?
Dylan sang “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, and “Just Like A Woman”. I was not that familiar with “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, despite owning the “Highway 61 Revisited” album from which it came, but I knew the other three songs quite well. I was quite impressed by the familiar antiwar favorite, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. I knew “Blowin’ In The Wind” by heart, learning it first in a Junior High music class. It was the only song during the concert in which I heard people singing along. However, my favorite from the Dylan set was “Just Like A Woman”.
Standing side by side on “Just Like A Woman” was Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan. There are times when one knows they are seeing history in the making. I told myself, “don’t forget this moment...two of The Beatles and Dylan are on stage together...this might not ever happen again.” And there it is still in my mind’s eye...Ringo with tambourine in hand, George Harrison playing guitar and singing back-up vocals to Bob Dylan’s lead. As quickly as he entered, Dylan walked off the stage and was gone.
My memory of the next song, “Something” is a bit hazy. Although I can’t state this with absolute certainty, “Something” may have been my “bathroom song” out of necessity. The concert had been going on for almost 3 hours, and I had a bus to catch back to Danbury. For the first time all day, I became a clock watcher. Fortunately, the encore song was next, the recently penned George Harrison song, “Bangladesh”, in which he tells us why he decided to put on the concert for the poverty-stricken people of that war-torn nation.
I said a quick good-bye to the people sitting next to me, ran down the stairs, and made a hasty retreat to the streets outside. It was raining on that early Sunday evening, and yet I was able to get a taxi right away. The driver asked me, “So, what’s going on at the Garden today?” As I told him about the concert, he kept repeating, “Wow, you’re kidding me.”
Although I wished for a Beatles reunion that day, I realize now that the Concert for Bangladesh was better off without their competitive egos, and the legal rancor that existed among them at the time. What made the Concert for Bangladesh unique was the humanitarian purpose of the concert, the many artists who participated, the diversity of music performed, and a very loving audience who appreciated it all.
Copyright: Marc Catone, 2011
Click below to see photo of my Concert for Bangladesh ticket: