On the first bitterly cold night of New York City’s winter, director Martin Scorsese and his friend and one-time collaborator Olivia Harrison warmed a Sunday night’s crowd at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Together, they shared stories and reminiscences of George Harrison, days before the 21st anniversary of the Beatle’s passing, celebrating Genesis Publications’ release of her autobiographical writings on her late husband, “Came the Lightening: Twenty Poems for George.”
Famously, Scorsese – who turned 80 earlier this week – is rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest cinematic enthusiast, from his gig as one of the many editors of 1970’s “Woodstock” doc to directing docs about the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the New York Dolls’ David Johansen (who attended the 92nd Street Y event). That some of George Harrison’s finest songs appear in Scorsese’s work — “Here Comes the Sun” in “Vinyl,” and “What Is Life” in a heart-palpitating scene in “Goodfellas” — unite the Quiet Beatle and the cinematic auteur for posterity.
For Sunday’s purpose, Scorsese’s most relevant documentary was 2011’s “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” a film he co-produced with Olivia Harrison, a one-time A&M Records executive (and later, a leader of George’s Dark Horse Records) that the Beatle married in 1978. “Living in the Material World” set the stage for Scorsese and Olivia Harrison’s conversation at the Y.
Discussing her initial reluctance to work on a film of her late husband’s life, Harrison called the handing over of George’s private letters and tchotchkes to the director a form of catharsis, “a letting-go process,” that made sense in relation to the Beatle’s transference into another spiritual realm. Both joked about how the documentary took five-years-plus to put together, as the workaholic Scorsese was busy was a dozen projects at the time, as well as the concern paid to attempting an honest portrait of George Harrison, an artist with as many demons as he had saints.
“You can’t sanctify a man,” noted Olivia Harrison. She also told the audience how Scorsese sent her a stack of silent films before their collaboration on “Living in the Material World” commenced, so to break the cinematic ice.
As for how Olivia Harrison began work on “Came the Lightening: Twenty Poems for George” – a volume Scorsese titled “a poetic autobiography” – she recalled an accident that she had several years ago, with its wind-up being a “10-hour long amnesia, not an altogether unpleasant place to be,” one where reading poetry was the only real cure. Reading and remembering things anew was a slate-cleaner and an eye-opener for Harrison, one that allowed her to celebrate her late husband in a fresh way beyond mere memoir. As a joking aside, Scorsese commented that the act of remembering absolutely everything could be “bad,” this from a man who throughout the night’s conversation had instantaneous recollection of film scenes from Luis Buñuel to “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.”
From there, Scorsese and Harrison bantered back and forth on her writings within “Came the Lightening: Twenty Poems for George,” like how a piece such as “Another Spring” touched on the desire for more time in which to finish one’s life goals. Scorsese laughed here as his main quest – at age 80 – seems to be that of creating every film he ever had in his head.
Along with poems that touch on Friar Park, the Harrisons’ home in Henley-on-Thames, where the cover of the solo Beatle’s 1970 classic, “All Things Must Pass” was photographed, Olivia mentioned how George gardened feverishly at the end of his life, thirsty to see new life blossomed before his time on earth ended. “I’m from downtown New York, so I’m allergic to everything green, but I know that’s how it’s supposed to be,” quipped Scorsese, about creating life that will go on beyond us.
Olivia Harrison then brought up meeting John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Eric Clapton (who told her that life with George would be an adventure, saying “you’re in for a ride, so pull up your socks”), and how her husband and Clapton “exchanged licks like they did women,” in a line that “summed up the entirety of the 1960s in just two verses.” Olivia talked of George comparing the shape and tone of women to guitars, which permitted Scorsese to recall how B.B. King called his guitar “Lucille.”
Rock fan that he is, Scorsese looked delighted to be soaking up all of Harrison’s stories, recounted in poetic verse.
There was shock and sadness in Olivia Harrison’s recounting of the attempt on their lives in their home in 1999 – how she thwarted the attacker, and how her husband knew that that moment was not his time to die – with George being deeply pained that John Lennon wasn’t allowed to choose his own death. (“We pulled the blankets over our heads” she remembered, in poetic verse, regarding George’s reaction to Lennon’s 1980 murder.)
Olivia also had gentler, funnier reminiscences of her husband – how he once took a punch for Ringo Starr, how his goofy sense of humor inspired her, how poignant Harrison’s song “Run of the Mill” was, and how his lyrics to songs such as “Be Here Now,” influenced her and generations to come on the topic of mindfulness, before it was ever a pop cultural goal for the 21st Century.
“Martin Scorsese wrote the foreword to Olivia’s new book and he sums up the collection perfectly, describing it as ‘a work of poetic autobiography’,” noted Nick Roylance, Genesis Publishing’s co-publisher with his sister, Catherine, before the event. “It is wonderful that Scorsese is now able to speak to Olivia onstage and explore the story and emotion behind the book’s writing with her.”
Catherine Roylance, whose Genesis imprint was George Harrison’s publisher for over 20 years for tomes such as “Concert for George,” “The Traveling Wilburys” and “I, Me, Mine – The Extended Edition,” noted that “having Martin Scorsese and Olivia Harrison together at this event is testimony to their deep friendship. They share many common interests, not least their deep love and respect for George’s spiritual philosophy and music.”
The limited edition of “Came the Lightening: Twenty Poems for George” will be available Dec. 6 at Olivia Harrison’s website here.