I know I said I’d stay more on the positive side, but this excerpt from Eric Idle’s Greedy Bastard Diary is too beautiful not to share. I just want to warn you it’s heartbreaking and makes me cry every time I read it:
Today was a bad day for me. The anniversary of George’s death two years ago is on my mind all day. I know I will have to write something about him, and that is a painful thing even to think about. That man, so alive with those amazing eyes, lying so still as I scattered rose petals on him, my shoulders shaking, weeping. Sitting with him. Seeing him so thin, hearing that terrible merciless cough – no, it’s too damn painful.
Even when we first met I felt like I’d known him forever. Not the Beatle George, he never seemed like that to me, nor the bearded garden gnome George, but the man, the real man with the deep dark eyes and the crooked grin and the loud laugh. I felt I knew him already. I felt I’d met him as a child. In fact, I was convinced we’d met in Wallasey when I was about seven, in New Brighton playing in the sand hills at the Red Noses. There’s no way to prove this, of course, but it was a very strong feeling I have, and still have. I would meet kids and play, as kids do, and have no idea who they were. So who knows, sometime in the summer of 1950, might we really have met on the other side of the Mersey?
I never knew a man like him. It was as if we fell in love. His attention, his concern, his loving friendship was so strong and powerful that it encompassed your entire life. You felt comfortable and secure. We would stay up all night and talk for hours about our lives, about the hurts and pains, about the groups we had been in and the trying emotional strains and problems that being in such groups entails. He was always full of spiritual comfort, counsel, and advice. He saw everything from the cosmic point of view. Our deaths were natural and unavoidable, and he viewed everything from that perspective, even then in the midseventies. He had come off a tour of America, where things had been unpleasant for him. The ‘Dark Hoarse Tour,’ he called it. His pseudonym – for hotels, security (and guitar picks) – had been Jack Lumber. (He was always a raving certified Python fanatic, as, of course, I was always a raving certified Beatle fan.) Drugs and brandy had ruined his voice on that tour, and I think he had set out to challenge the expectations of his North American audiences, presenting Ravi Shankar and the Indian music and then doing jokey versions of various of his songs. The good news was that he met Olivia, the love of his life, and retired to Friar Park, where he felt safe and from where he would only rarely emerge. Here he would discover the other great love of his life, gardening, which became a living example of his concern to create beauty on the planet wherever he could.
His enthusiasm was contagious. He played the jukebox to inform and instruct. He revelled in sharing his delight in all kinds of music. He would go through periods of furious passions, often lasting for months or even years at a time, when he would insist you shared his joy of Smokey Robinson or the songs of Hoagy Carmichael or the Hawaiian music of Gaby Pahinui or even the ukulele nonsenses of George Formby. During this latter stage everyone had to learn the uke, even Liv he taught to strum away. His taste was, like him, catholic. He embraced all forms of life. It was to be savoured and enjoyed. But music was at the heart of it. It could speak more truly to the soul. And the soul was what George was about. The clear-eyed gurus gazed down in the hall from their photographs, looking straight at us. As we talked and grew to know each other I opened my heart to him as I have to no other man before or since. Indeed, only my wife and my shrink have heard me speak so nearly (and at such length) of my existence and experiences. It was, and I can only say this simply, like the beginning of a love affair, and I suppose in a way it was exactly that, because he won my heart and I fell in love with him and am filled with that love to this day. When he died, I could not believe it. I knelt at his feet and put my hand on him, and my whole body was wracked and shaken with sorrow. They had given us rose petals and finally my shoulders could stop shaking long enough for me to sprinkle them on him, and I could back away to the sympathetic embraces of the living. He lay now deathly still in his saffron and purple robes, his face painted white with the red dot on his forehead. We sat shivah, a small group of his friends and family in the room, now weeping, now laughing. Some reminiscence would start, something inappropriate he would want to share and then the realisation that he would not be sharing it, that he was indeed gone, and sorrow would flood over us.
“Come on, everybody, Dad wouldn’t want this”, Dhani would remind us, and we would play music, the chants he loved, recorded in Friar Park, or a few of the last tracks that would constitute the basis of his final album. And, oh, the pangs as I remember our last phone conversation, me in France, he in Switzerland, sometime in August. His voice seemed weak as we chatted for about twenty minutes.
“What are you working on?” I asked him.
“I’m doing the sleeve notes for my album. If I can ever finish them in time. And if not, then you will”
My heart felt like it was stabbed as he told me clearly he was dying. Even then I refused to believe it. Not him. Not George. George couldn’t die. I needed him too much. He was my cornerstone. A Friar Park visit always an option. George didn’t die. It wasn’t possible.
On this day last year I was in the Royal Albert Hall at the amazing memorial concert for George organised by Liv and Dhani and Eric Clapton, one minute laughing with Mike Palin and the Terrys and the next losing it as Joe Brown played “Here Comes The Sun” and having to hide in the bathroom backstage, sobbing. I wasn’t the only one with red eyes that night. Was ever a man so loved? So many friends. So many strong men in tears. I almost lost it again onstage at the end when Joe played the ukulele so beautifully and sang “I’ll See You In My Dreams” as thousands of rose petals fell from the ceiling. Everyone left the stage quietly, avoiding one another’s eyes, here a friendly arm, there a hand on a shoulder. Too sad for words.