Saturday, January 31, 2015

George Harrison in St. Louis, Missouri, 1974

(A lady in St. Louis, Missouri, is writing a book about the Beatles in that city.  She tells me she is having some difficulty tracking down people who attended George Harrison's concert in St. Louis in 1974.  I was there and wrote these recollections for her.)

George Harrison was always my favorite Beatle.  Most young people had a favorite and it always impressed me that George seemed to occupy the space between the gigantic personalities of John Lennon & Paul McCartney.  George was usually relegated one song per LP side, if that much, on the Beatles records and it was his songs that were always a welcome change of pace from one masterpiece after another by John & Paul.

As the Beatles breakup was becoming a real thing, many were surprised to see George be the first to establish a solo career. "All Things Must Pass", "The Concert For Bangla Desh", and "Living In the Material World" all proved George's ability as a rock/pop singer, songwriter, and guitar player, both in the studio and onstage.  So it was that George Harrison would be the first member of the now-disbanded Beatles to schedule an American concert tour, in November 1974.

It must be stressed how much slower information traveled in the era before the internet.  Bill Graham, the rock concert promoter at the highly successful Fillmore West ballroom in San Francisco and Fillmore East theater in New York was the promoter for George's concert tour.  A press conference would be held.  Likely the same day press releases were delivered to news organizations.  Rolling Stone magazine, at the time, had become a crucial outlet for news of this sort.  By the mid-1970s, mainstream media organizations like the television and radio networks, the newspaper wire services, nationally distributed news magazines and major newspapers had accepted the Beatles (and rock music in general) as a force to be reckoned with, so the announcement of a nationwide concert by George Harrison was met with urgency and respect.  No time would be wasted disseminating this news.

Honestly, I no longer remember how I learned of the itinerary of George's tour.  But I did know that St. Louis, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, would be the two closest cities to my hometown of Topeka, Kansas, where George would play.  Tulsa was pretty quickly dismissed for two reasons:  1.) There was, and still is, no four-lane highway between Topeka and Tulsa.  US 75 highway runs directly South to Tulsa and was two lanes running through every small town along the way, which would take forever. 2.) To this day I have never been to the city of Tulsa.  I don't know a soul there and have never had a reason to visit.  St. Louis, on the other hand, was much more inviting.  Interstate 70 runs straight East to St. Louis.  I had been in St. Louis many times and had a decent idea where things are located.

Again, it needs to be stressed how differently thing were done in the decades before the internet.  eCommerce hadn't been created yet.  Even Ticketmaster didn't exist yet, but would start two years later in 1976. Even though rock concerts had become a gigantic business by now and municipalities were starting to build new stadiums with the express intention of luring concert revenues into city coffers, the manner of selling tickets had not changed for decades. Concert promoters would get tickets printed, then drive around town to record stores, and by the late 1960s to head shops, and give the manager a stack of tickets with a rubber band around them.  They would be tossed carelessly into the cash register.  Then when someone would ask for tickets they would be pulled off the stack and sold for cash, which would be collected later by the promoter.  This antiquated system resulted in certain stores getting preferential treatment from the promoter by being given reserve seat tickets for the best seats, while other stores got back-of-the-venue tickets that might not sell until closer to the show date.  Whole stacks of tickets would get swiped from cash registers while employees were distracted by various methods.

So, how did I manage to get tickets to see George Harrison and Friends and the Ravi Shankar Music Festival From India orchestra?

I did not have any like-minded friends in St. Louis who would get tickets, take me to the show, and put me up for the night.  That would have been nice.  But, on trips through St. Louis I loved listening to KSHE, which in those days a great progressive rock radio station that played numerous selections from LPs, not just the hit singles like on Top 40 radio stations.  KSHE was every bit as good as the progressive rock stations in Kansas City at the time.  So, I phoned KSHE from work weeks in advance of George's concert to get information about ticket sales.  As luck would have it, I got a DJ who said he had just finished his shift on the air.  He said tickets would be on sale in a few days.  He offered to buy tickets for me and mail them to me if I would send him cash and a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  I figured KSHE was probably staffed with honest people, seeing as how these were the waning days of peace, love, and giving a hand to your fellow man, so I agreed and had the cash in the mail that day for three tickets.

The tickets arrived by return mail very quickly and I was set to go.  One buddy of mine I had known since grade school was anxious to go.  He had been out of town in college for a couple years and I saw a lot more of him upon his return to town.  A buddy from high school who had planned to go dropped out leaving me with a spare ticket. No one else I knew was willing to go, so I called a local Top 40 radio station and told the DJ I was offering the ticket and a ride to anyone with cash. The DJ was very willing to share my offer on the air.  Within minutes I got a call from a guy who sounded OK and I invited him to go with us.

Knowing it would take six hours to drive to St. Louis we left Topeka around 11:00am to give us time to find The Arena, the 18,000 seat hockey stadium across the street from Forest Park and get something to eat.  The drive was uneventful. The weather was typical Autumn with some clouds.  So, on the night of Wednesday, November 20, 1974, with an old friend and a new one, and 18,000 other stylish-looking young people from the Midwest I saw in the flesh for the first time ever, a member of the Beatles, Mr. George (no middle name) Harrison!

First on stage was the legendary sitar player from India, Ravi Shankar.  I have loved India classical music ever since I first started seeing Ravi on TV in the 1960s.  I had seen Ravi Shankar with his trio in 1972 at Cowtown Ballroom in Kansas City so I knew what to expect.  What was different here was Ravi leading a full orchestra of about twenty musicians showcasing many instruments including the sarod, the veena, the santoor, male & female singers, and a huge assortment of percussion instruments, every shape imaginable, led by Ravi's trusty tabla drum player, Alla Rakha.  Ravi's own showcase on the sitar was short as the idea for this orchestra was to allow as many instruments as possible to solo.  I, for one, was delighted to see and hear this orchestra.  Others there maybe not so much.  In spite of George being an advocate for Indian music for most of a decade at that point, the more casual observers there seemed to express some discomfort. In his introduction, George asked everyone to settle down, get quiet and contemplative, and allow this different kind of music to reach inside.

After the break came George and his group.  As on all shows on this tour, George sang his own songs and a few Beatle songs, like "Something" and even "In My Life".. But it wasn't all George.  Billy Preston was the keyboard player on this tour, much like on George's records.  But Billy was really hot in the 1970s. At the time of this concert "Nothin' From Nothin'" was a huge hit, Billy's fifth hit in the 1970s, so he got to play his own songs on the show.  Robben Ford, a memorable blues guitarist, was also in the band and played a few selections. (I have a Charlie Musselwhite LP with Robben Ford on guitar.)  So with George playing the likes of "Living In the Material World", "Bangla Desh"', "All Things Must Pass", "Isn't It a Pity", and "Here Comes the Sun", the set ended with "My Sweet Lord", which was extended by repeated calling-out of the names of the Prophet-Founders of the world's great Faiths, to supplement the names of Hindu deities sprinkled through out the lyrics "My Sweet Lord". ("Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Moses, Moses, Moses, Moses, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha", etc.)   Above the stage were two giant illuminated "Om" symbols in Sanskrit surrounded in yellow circles to graphically display the ultimate form of invocation in Hinduism.

So, this was the George Harrison of 1974.  So much different than the George Harrison from 1964. Gone were the hollow body Rickenbacker guitars, replace by the solid body Fender.  Gone were the ringing tones of first generation rock 'n' roll guitar George copied from records featuring Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, and Chet Atkins. Gone were the songs that spoke of George's alienation and need for solitude. Gone were the bangs of hair combed forward over the forehead.  Here was a slender but toned body, new lines in the face, shoulder length hair, four years separated from the Beatles, making ever effort to share with the world his love and fascination with the music, art, and spirituality of India and the varied forms of Hinduism. Never mind that his voice would be alarmingly hoarse throughout the tour and would be there for all to hear on the "Dark Horse" album which did not get released until AFTER the tour, so as not to warn fans to stay away from the concerts.  On stage that night in St. Louis, George Harrison proclaimed that early shows in the tour were met with tepid audience response and some empty seats, but the show this night was indeed one of the best so far and that the audience was the very best.  The way Billy Preston almost violently shook his head yes suggested to me that George hadn't said these words before. Hare Krishna!

As we filtered out of the hockey area there was a guy selling unauthorized posters of a picture of George onstage at the Concert For Bangla Desh.  I bought one.  It was cold enough to see my breath. The three of us piled into my Volkswagen Beetle and headed West back to Kansas.  It would be 4:30am by the time I arrived home.  Those last 50 miles I really couldn't keep my eyes open.