"Did you see any today?"
George Harrison fixed me with soft, far-away eyes. He said nothing for a minute or two. Olivia, his girl friend, came into the room, carrying a glass of ice water. We are in Bombay, India.
"Did you see any today?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I didn't see any."
"Me either," George said.
"Well," he continued, "we're going up to Benares. It's either now or twenty years from now, and I'm not sure if I'm going to be around twenty years from now. We're targets for assassination, you know."
"Oh, George, stop that," Olivia said. "Just stop that!"
"Well, we're still going to Benares. You ought to come, Gil," George said. "Living gods guaranteed to line the road, on either side. Take your pick. Some of them live in caves and haven't eaten any solid food in years. You'll see them there, for sure"
"I don't know," I said. "I've got some things to attend to back home. Business things. I've got this whole other business scene happening. I think I'm screwing up enough already, without going to Benares with George Harrison for the Kumbla Mela!
Can you imagine? They'd have my ass for sure. Nancy, too."
"I don't know what you mean." George said.
Not going to the Kumbla Mela in 1976 with George Harrison and his bride to be, Olivia, was the worst mistake I made all that year, unless you count our subsequent involvement with Ray the Parrot, who had us make a funky black jazz album at Long View Farm called Stuff, nearly for free, as I remember it. I also made some mistakes with my student travel company, ALSG, which was at that time growing more quickly than any of us could calculate.
But this is taking us away from a recounting of events which occurred in India, in 1976, when I was still somewhat new to student travel and show business alike.
I can remember the marriage of Ravi Shankar's niece. That's why George Harrison was in India, basically: to attend this marriage. I can remember the ride we took well outside city limits, George Harrison, his perky friend Olivia, and me.
It's late afternoon: we find ourselves in a spacious suburban home, about an hour's drive outside of Bombay. George Harrison is carrying a leather briefcase containing a dozen or so crisp, new copies of Paramahansa Yogananda's book Autobiography of a Yogi.1 George will give you one of these books, personally autographed, if you like.
There are many people in this home, which is airy, wooden, and polished. There are people talking in small groups; all are colorfully dressed. There is the smell of Madras Curry powder wafting through the air, driven by slow moving, overhead, World War II-vintage, three-bladed electric fans. We are at a wedding feast.
We find ourselves seated on the floor — forty of us more or less — in the lotus position, in two long rows, facing each other over a bed of luxurious, wide palm leafs which function as a sort of vegetable place setting. Humps of delectable mixtures, for eating, are on the leaves, and are picked away at by the wedding guests, using their left and only their left hands. I understand the significance of this practice, and follow suit.
George is sitting next to Ravi Shankar, who is not playing the Sitar.
Another Indian gentleman is playing the Sitar, instead, behind us and largely out of sight. He bows and smiles as his eyes meet mine. My interest was just knowing who was playing the Sitar, not much more than that. I am embarrassed by this man's kind smiles. People seem very kind in this house.
Ravi Shankar leans over to George; takes his face in his hands, and kisses it. George acknowledges the gesture wiith a gentle smile, then turns his face forward again, his eyes falling down upon the mantle of green on the polished mahogany floor, which he appears to study, soberly.
Olivia, a lovely young woman and obviously dedicated to her husband-to-be, follows his gaze with her own.
For their part, today's bride and the bridegroom are on the other end of the row of green leaves, smiling to the left and to the right, pecking each other lovingly, and only so slightly aware that a demi-God of the Western world is in their midst, as a guest, sitting next to the uncle of the bride, Ravi Shankar.2
The fans circulate silently overhead, spreading the warm, musk-like smells of living India throughout the wedding party, and out the wide, plant-wreathed windows and into the night.
A song is sung, in a dialect I cannot understand. I see middle-aged aunts mopping their eyes in the doorways to this anointed room. I see a white bird swoop in through one of these doorways, circle around the assembled group, and disappear out a hatchway in the ceiling. I wonder if this is all real.
Later, that same evening, I find myself with George and Olivia in a taxi heading back to the swarm of humanity which is downtown Bombay, and to our hotel.
"Don't worry, he's cool." George said, gesturing to our driver, whose black eyes were riveted on the road ahead, and on the crazy stream of yellow, half-shrouded automobile headlights coming at us, each of them threatening a wild, your-life-is-over collision in the bowels of India.
George applied a match stick to a large, paper-wrapped mixture of London cigarette tobacco and crumpled black hashish. He smoked it alone for several minutes. Olivia would have none of it, when offered. Instead, it was passed to me. I knew joints like this. This was naughty sixties-London. "Can you, will you, smoke this thing? Do so and we will talk about the rest... about peace in our time... about a world which none of us understands, about..."
"George," I said, "you talked to Gary recently?" Gary Wright was then and is still now a childhood friend of mine hailing from northern New Jersey, who emigrated to England in the late sixties for the purpose of avoiding any additional time in medical school, for which he was qualified but manifestly ill-suited, and for the purpose of creating the wildly successful rock 'n' roll band, Spooky Tooth, which had been named, believe it or not, by my Yale comarade-in-arms and ALSG co-founder, Theodore S. Voelkel.
Ted would smoke dope and hallucinate spectacularly mis-matched nouns and adjectives, out of which many rock 'n' roll groups came to be named during that period in time. Spooky Toothwas just one of them.
Ted, a Bill Buckley Conservative in those days, and these, has never received the credit he deserves for these contributions, which made mock and intellectual garbage of then-current (and still current) political dividing lines. Ted Voelkel was a spokesman; no, a spokesperson, for those energy-filled, confused days in the late nineteen-sixties.
"No," George Harrison said. "Haven't talked to Gary in months. You talked to him?"
"Yeah, he doing great." Gary Wright would shortly record the song Dream Weaver, which now presents itself as a selection on any 1990's Karaoke Saturday night bar room offering in the United States.
"Gary is doing fine," I said.
"And so what about Benares?" George Harrison continued.
"No." I said. "I guess I'm not going to Benares..."
"The next time is 1997," George reminded me. "You may be sorry."
"I know," I said.
Although I would deny it many years later, my visit to India, and George Harrison's to the extent that I was given to understand it, had to do with the discovery and interrogation of living gods.
To date, we had each come up empty-handed. 3
1 Yogananda was a well-known proselytizer of Krya Yoga, both in India and in the Western world. My mother was a devotée of this man, and communicated to me reports of his god-like qualities when I was still a child, living in Tenafly, New Jersey.
2 For a fuller discussion of the nature of rock 'n' roll demigods, as they may or may not exist in another important band, The Rolling Stones, see The Publicist's Handbook.
3 George Harrison died 25 years later. A tribute to him was written at that time.
Shiva the Cave Dweller I met Shiva the cave dweller 27 years after the proposed trip to Benares, two years and a few months after George Harrison died in Los Angeles. This is the kind of guy we were looking for. The Calcutta Sandlewood carvings appearing in this clip are thanks to GH.
2004. Streaming broadband only. Stereo. 11:41. Shiva8
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.