Saturday, December 03, 2005

Rebirth of a Legend

By the end of 1970, the hardscrabble nation-to-be of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) had been brought further to its knees by floods, famine and a civil war that left 10 million people homeless – most of them women and children.

I was living in Tokyo, where I was a reporter, editor and sometime foreign correspondent, and tried to get into Bangladesh with a photographer to report first-hand on the ongoing disaster. But the Indian government was denying news media access to Bangladesh, which for all intents and purposes could only be reached by first flying into Calcutta.

My interest in the plight of Bangladesh was further piqued when George Harrison and Ravi Shankar organized the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971.

The concert came at an especially opportune time for this rock music-starved expat. The Beatles, as well as the so-called Woodstock Nation, were goners. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were dead. Bob Dylan was in seclusion following a crippling motorcycle accident.

I coughed up 2000 yen or so and purchased the rusty orange-colored three-record boxed album of the concert at a store in the Ginza the morning it went on sale, brought it back to my tiny apartment and played it endlessly on my Garrard turntable, which was plugged into a puny 50-watt Fisher amp, which in turn powered a pair of Acoustic Research bookshelf speakers. (An aside: I think AR may still be around, while Garrard and Fisher -- once consumer electronic standardbearers -- are but distant memories.)

Anyhow, I was back in the states when a movie of the concert was released. The performances of former Beatles Harrison and Ringo Starr, sitar master Shankar, Billy Preston and Leon Russell, as well as surprise guest Dylan, were even more stunning on the big screen. Only Eric Clapton disappointed, and it wasn’t until years later that he acknowledged that he was strung out on heroin at the time.

But the big downer of the movie was the quality of the 70mm film, which was quite grainy in an era when high-quality video recording in darkened venues was still a dream.

All that is now history with a newly released two DVD box set of (most of) the Concert for Bangladesh, as well as complimentary documentary footage, which includes interviews and a pre-concert press conference. The original film obviously has been remastered, or whatever film engineering geniuses do these days, and the improvement is just stunning. The same goes for the sound.

The concert raised $15 million for UNICEF, a staggering amount in those days, and a portion of the sales of the spinoff CDs and now DVDs goes to the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.

But the biggest legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh is that it was “rock reaching for its manhood,” as Rolling Stone perfectly put it in the magazine’s five-star review of the original album.

The concert probably would have been spectacular in any event, but what set it apart was that Harrison and Shankar recognized that musicians have responsibilities beyond performing and selling albums, and they acted on those responsibilities. Without the Concert for Bangladesh, would there have been Band Aid, Farm Aid and Live Aid, to name but a few of the superstar fundraisers that followed?

It may seem a little corny, but the worthy cause that Harrison, Shankar and friends embraced that night nearly 35 years ago made the music even better -- then and now -- and to my ears imparted even deeper meaning to the already mystical lyrics of the songs performed from Harrison’s seminal “All Things Must Pass” album.

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