July-August 2013

The Concert for Bangladesh

By Ross Altman

Box-office sign for Concert for BangladeshAugust 1, 1971, George Harrison brought together an all-star cast at New York City’s largest venue, Madison Square Garden, for two shows that raised a quarter of a million dollars for the impoverished people of Bangladesh. It was the first major rock benefit concert and paved the way for Live Aid, Farm Aid, Hands Across America, Rock the Vote and a host of others. Harrison tried to reassemble the recently divorced Beatles for the show, but could only get Ringo Starr.

John Lennon begged off because he was living in the Virgin Islands at the time and did not want to commute; also he wasn’t pleased that Harrison did not invite Yoko to participate—only John.

Paul McCartney begged off because he was still bitter about the feuding that led to the split and did not want to leave London.

George Harrison also tried to get Mick Jagger, but he begged off because he and the Stones were ensconced in Ireland to dodge Great Britain’s tax obligations and were afraid that if they stepped foot in England on their way to the States they would be arrested; so much for noblesse oblige and rock’s royalty’s willingness to help the least fortunate among us.

Then George Harrison had an inspiration: he invited Bob Dylan, who had not performed in public since his motorcycle accident the same year the Beatles broke up—1966, to join the show. Amazingly, Dylan said yes and the show was made.

Harrison insisted that Dylan sing Blowing In The Wind, which he had not performed in public since 1963, and for Harrison, Dylan agreed.

The show (and Harrison’s subsequent song Bangla Desh) was born out of a request for help by his friend Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. Shankar was moved to reach out by the intractable poverty of his neighbors. He knew that to make a benefit on a scale that would really make a difference he needed a former Beatle to organize it.

The effort started in earnest in April, while they were all working on other projects, which eventually coalesced around this larger purpose. It was originally to have taken place on two subsequent nights, but scheduling conflicts intervened and they could only secure the venue for one day—so August 1 became the haloed choice for a venture that would change the history of rock.

Hosting the concert with an élan all his own, George Harrison began by introducing his Indian friend and telling the audience that he knew they were looking forward to hearing the pantheon of modern rock poets but it was important to listen to the music of the country for whom this concert was created. Ravi Shankar was brilliant at communicating his humor and humanity to the eager audience—when he and his accompanist on Sarod Ali Akbar Khan warmed up by fine-tuning their instruments and the audience gave them a huge response of applause he responded by letting them know that if they liked to hear them tuning this much, just wait—their performance was even better. And it was—a half-hour of sublime musical exploration that lifted them into a sphere of eastern harmony that proved the material impoverishment of his homeland underlay its spiritual riches.

Then Harrison entered as the torchbearer of a new idea—that music had a responsibility to the world beyond entertainment, beyond even the creation of beautiful sounds. It had to give something back to those who were at the bottom of the social scale—not just the “cheap seats” which Lennon had immortalized with an offhand comment, but those who were epitomized by the hollow-eyed child with an empty food bowl that became the sole image on the three-volume orange record album of the concert.

Call it the fusion of music and social responsibility; it accomplished something monumental even Woodstock had ignored—it put the greatest music of the modern era in service to humanity by highlighting its greatest need—hunger. The problem itself seemed so vast that solving it would be unimaginable. The “Quiet Beatle” raised his voice in the wilderness, and let those who had no voice be heard—and more important—seen for the first time.

The Rolling Stones just rolled out of Los Angeles with four shows that had ticket prices up to $600 each—putting their retirement plans into the upper reaches of the stratosphere. The Concert for Bangladesh—the proceeds for which were all donated to direct relief to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh—cost $7.50 per ticket. Makes you wonder, and if it doesn’t, it should.

What is music for—the amusement of the idle rich, or the enhancement of those who—in Thoreau’s memorable phrase, lead quiet lives of desperation? George Harrison voted with his guitar, and made his voice count.

Concert for Banladesh PosterAnd he added some other wonderful voices into the mix: Pianist Billy Preston did a powerful performance of his song That’s the Way God Planned It—not the usual fare for a rock/pop venue, but in keeping with the reverential tone established by Ravi Shankar, and the whole audience sang along.

White Texas blues singer Leon Russell wailed out on Jagger/Richards’ (Mick got in after all) Jumpin’ Jack Flash and then segued into a Lieber/Stoller classic (recorded by The Coasters) Youngblood, which brought down the house. Those used to seeing his long white hair of recent years will be taken aback by his youthful blond locks in the full-size, full-color album book of the original recording, but it’s worth looking for.

Eric Clapton was there under considerable personal duress from his wanderjahr with heavy drugs, including heroin. He was probably scheduled to do more songs than wound up on the album, but as it turned out barely managed to get to the arena on time. Nonetheless, his guitar-playing shimmers on Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and adds a coloratura of lead playing that revealed why he is Rolling Stone’s number two choice (after only Jimi Hendrix) of greatest guitarists of all time.

The audience was not in the know about the lineup for the concert; Harrison masterfully kept that a closely guarded secret so that it would have maximum impact at the theatre—the concert poster in front of the Garden saying simply “George Harrison and Friends.” But even that underplays the drama leading up to show time: To a considerable extent Harrison himself was not sure who would be there. Clapton was strung out on heroin in just days before and announced that he probably wouldn’t make it; Dylan—notoriously temperamental and five years off the road was dealing with his own personal demons and having left the arena of socially conscious music for his own muse in 1965 was not entirely comfortable about turning back the clock and looking like the troubadour of old. “This ain’t my scene, man,” he told Harrison the day before and looked like he was bailing just as the ship was about to sail. But Harrison was hard to say no to, and prevailed on Bob to get back in the saddle again. Luckily for the concert, for rock history, and for Dylan himself, just this once he decided not to go his own way and to do something for the greater good.

Dylan’s return to live performance was triumphant, and confirmed Harrison’s faith in his old friend. His classic songs from a decade earlier had in the interim become a part of America’s collective DNA, and when Harrison surprised the audience who were already on the edge of their seats with anticipation as to who the guest star would be by introducing “our old friend, Bob Dylan” Madison Square Garden erupted with applause, shouts and screams. You’d have almost thought the Beatles had been introduced.

George Harrison and Bob Dylan Concert for BangladeshDylan, dressed in his old Levi jacket with acoustic guitar and harmonica from his pre-1965 Newport Folk Festival days didn’t waste a New York minute in coming to the point: A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall spoke eloquently of those for whom “black was the color and none was the number…Where the people are many and their hands are all empty…Where hunger is ugly and where souls are forgotten…I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’…” In his very first song he underscored the urgency of the moment, and the reason they had filled the largest concert venue in Manhattan.

My old mentor literary critic Kenneth Burke defined literature as “a strategy to encompass a situation,” and Dylan’s old protest songs perfectly encompassed the situation in Bangladesh in 1971. Going into the concert he had no idea what his songs had come to mean to the folks who had gathered there. They had transcended the folk era, outlived the rock era, and now defined a new expectation of what music could mean and why it mattered. He was just as excited to discover this as his audience, throwing his arms in the air after his performance, becoming uncharacteristically carried away with spontaneous pure emotion. It was the most thrilling moment in a concert filled with them.

But the concert wasn’t over; its orchestrator and inspiration George Harrison closed the show with his classic masterpiece Something and then topped it off with his brand new song Bangla Desh, which at the time was still spelled as two words rather than one.

The concert, which they had dared hope would raise $25,000 wound up raising ten times that amount, allowing Harrison to start a new fund for Bangladesh relief administered through the UN which is still functioning today. In the intervening years the funds raised for direct relief for what author Franz Fanon once called The Wretched of the Earth—based on the concert, the recording, the movie and the DVD—has surpassed $25,000,000—an amazing legacy for a guitar player from Liverpool.

One may have thought that the problems of that ill-fated country had therefore been solved, but one would be sadly mistaken, for in the intervening years human greed has not taken a holiday, and here we now are, forty-years later, and Bangladesh is back on the front page. Last November 24, 2012 Tazreen Fashion Factory on the outskirts of capital city Dhaka burned to the ground killing 112 mostly young women garment workers, in an eerie reminder of the Triangle Factory Fire in NYC on March 25, 1911, in which 146 mostly young immigrant women garment workers lost their lives.

And just five months later, on April 24, 2013, an eight-story building housing five garment factories in Rana Plaza in Dhaka collapsed, killing 1,127 garment workers. It may seem half a world away, and of little immediate concern, except for the fact that most of our clothes are now made in Bangladesh, where the race to the bottom of the wage scale of garment workers has now landed in these factories, and household names like WalMart, J.C. Penney’s, The Gap, Benneton, Disney and even the US Marines had labels sewn into clothes found in the burnt out rubble. It’s déjà vu all over again.

Perhaps it’s time to not only remember George Harrison’s landmark concert, but to pay tribute to it and try—albeit on a tiny scale—to emulate its stark challenge. Concert for Bangladesh is therefore scheduled for this upcoming August 1, on the forty-second anniversary of the show that proved music can make a difference. All proceeds from the concert will be donated to a relief agency to benefit families of the victims of these two unnatural disasters. Hope to see you there. I guess that’s the way God planned it.

Ross will host Concert for Bangladesh at The Talking Stick, 1411 Lincoln Blvd in Venice on Thursday evening, August 1, 7:00 to 10:00pm. It will include highlights from the original concert. Suggested donation is $10 plus one drink or food item to support the venue.

On Saturday afternoon at 2:00pm, August 31, 2013 Ross will present Musical Legacy of the Great March for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (August 28, 1963) at the Allendale Branch of the Pasadena Public Library 1130 S. Marengo Ave. 626-744-7260 (free and open to the public).It will also include songs leading up to the March from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

On Sunday morning at 10:15am, September 1, Ross will present his 33rd annual labor program at The Church in Ocean Park, at 2nd and Hill in Ocean Park 310-399-1631 (free and open to the public).

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com


All Columns by Ross Altman