Lighting a candle wasn’t enough. Olivia Harrison, 74, marks the 20th anniversary of husband George Harrison’s death with bittersweet passion and graceful, bracing verse in Came the Lightening: Twenty Poems for George, a collection of 20 intimate poems about the couple’s life.
The book also contains previously unpublished photos and artwork, with a foreword by longtime friend Martin Scorsese, director of the documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011), who writes: “This is a work that celebrates love but sees its transitory nature with clarity.”
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Theirs began like many modern love stories: at work. But nothing else about the romance was routine. The former Beatle first encountered the sharp, 26-year-old brunette working in marketing at Los Angeles’ A&M Records, distributor of his Dark Horse label. They wed in 1978, a month after the birth of their son, Dhani.
They shared interests in spirituality and reveled in the privacy and serenity of Friar Park, the circa-1889 30-room mansion on 62 acres in Oxfordshire, England. George bought it in 1970 and became a gardening fanatic.
In Came the Lightening, Olivia addresses their bond with nature, their similar childhoods, her adjustment to his celebrity world and his near murder in 1999, when a delusional man broke into their home and stabbed George. (Olivia fought back with a fireplace poker and table lamp.) She deals candidly with George’s 2001 death from lung cancer and the grief that gutted her.
After mourning in seclusion, Olivia assumed her husband’s role as one of five directors of Apple Corps, controlling the Beatles empire. She wrote a book to accompany the Scorsese documentary, produced the Concert for George all-star tribute, oversaw his recording catalog and reissue campaigns, and produced films, documentaries and box sets. She remains a tireless philanthropist and now, to her surprise she says, she’s a poet. She talks with AARP about falling in love with George, competing in a Beatles-crazy world and finding solace in the garden in the face of enormous grief.
Why did you choose to express your memories of George in verse?
I didn’t really choose it. It chose me. Around 2018, I had some emotional turmoil, and a neurologist friend said, “You should read poetry for three days. That’s what I prescribe.” That triggered my brain. I started writing, and things came out in the form of poetry. I felt terrified because I didn’t really know rules or cadence. Then I thought I could do an autobiography, but everyone around me has done it. This is much deeper, much more personal.
Had you always planned to write about George?
I hadn’t ever planned to. I sometimes thought, All us [Beatles] girls have so many stories, wouldn’t it be fun if we all wrote chapters? I’ve been doing a lot of archiving and research, and I thought, Dude, I'm next. What would I see on my last trip down that Friar Park drive? In 2018, I was sitting up late, thinking about a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Here Is a Wound That Never Will Heal, I Know.” That kicked it off.
You confront your grief in “Another Spring” and “Death Is Good for the Garden,” which also reveals how nature helped you heal. You rage against the garden, then turn to it for solace.
George died in November. We thought at least we would have another spring. We worked on the garden a lot. What I was trying to say when I wrote about falling to the lawn and ripping out the grass is: You’re angry, you’re in pain. As the time passed, I felt remorse. I really got into the garden, and all that energy went out into nature.
George was the most private Beatle. What do you hope readers will learn about him?
His life is somewhat documented. People know about Hamburg and Liverpool. But I wanted people to hear it from me. I wrote “Tuum Corpus” (“your body” in Latin) because I wanted people to know what he looked like, about how he got the scars on his fingers, his lessons in life. He said, “I speared a fish. It was so little. It looked so big through the mask. I threw it back, and it slashed my fingers. I had to squeeze lemon on my fingers.” He called the scars instant karma.
You were credited with softening his sharp edges.
There was a bit of dusting to do, a bit of clearance. I was, like: “Look, if we’re going to have a family, we’re going to have a relationship.” He had a bit of a cloud over his head. He had a furrowed brow we used to call “the mark of the beast.” Getting completely outside of the music business was refreshing for him. It allowed him to do normal things, go to normal places. And having a child shifts your life’s view.
“Her or Me” is a sensual poem about George’s love for his guitar. Did you feel overshadowed by his massive devotion to music?
“It’s not a competition,” George would always say. I have so much respect for artists and the creative process. That gift is all-consuming and holds a place that floats above. You know it’s coming from somewhere they don’t even know. I experienced that myself when I was writing this book. If we were on holiday and George started to write a song, I would immediately hand him a pencil or paper. I was never jealous of it. I was in awe of it.
You pack a lot into “My Arrival,” a dense chronicle about your difficult adaptation to George’s lifestyle and social circle.
People probably thought I wouldn’t be there that long. You can understand that. I didn’t have any history with anyone, so I had no grudges. I write about coming into his house and putting flowers on his mantel and people saying, “No, no, no. He doesn’t like flowers there.” Being an outsider, it was fascinating.
The poem “She” examines your modest upbringing and its parallels to George’s.
We came from similar beginnings. “She” is about me growing up in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles. It was a sundown town, which I didn’t know until recently. We were this big Mexican family in a white neighborhood. George was born at home during the war in a two-up, two-down: two rooms up, two rooms down. I once said to one of his peers, “You guys were so skinny.” And he said, “We didn’t have any meat or protein. We didn’t have enough to eat.” Rationing in England took place until 1953. George’s father, after driving a bus all day, took people downtown to air raid shelters.
The companion poem “He (Never Hurt No One)” is a sweet biography.
George was a kind, forgiving, compassionate, nonviolent man, in every sense. He defended his family and was bold to the point of danger when threatened. George was loved and admired. He took criticism, blame and violence he did not deserve, and in all his life, he never hurt no one. He often wrote grammatically incorrect things, and I would try to correct him: “You can’t say that.” “Yes I can,” he’d say. So yes, he never hurt no one.
You met while working together. At what point did you know you were meant for each other?
A couple months. I kept trying to go to work! There were 10 people at the office waiting. I think he needed a friend. It developed like that. He was a bit untethered when I met him.
Is death the absolute end, or do you think it’s possible you will see George again?
I don’t know. I don’t think there is an end. I think our elements disintegrate. Our fire is going out, our air is going out, but the energy doesn’t end. It just changes form.
You’ve taken on huge responsibilities as a philanthropist and with the legacies of George and the Beatles. Why haven’t you slowed down?
Maybe there’s a need to feel like you’re going to finish everything before you kick the bucket. How do I balance it? Not very well. I find it hard to focus on things because I want to be in the garden. But writing this book was a real revelation. I really could not stop. I wanted to express that grief. It’s not that I blocked it for 20 years. I certainly went through it and faced it soberly for a couple of years after George died. I thought, What does it mean for me? Same with Dhani. George died for a reason. What is the lesson for us? We better find out, or it’s just a big waste. First Eric [Clapton] called me to do Concert for George. Then we did a movie, we did a book, and then the music. Then some of George’s unreleased music. I have an overdeveloped sense of duty. There are still all these 24-track tapes sitting in the vault.
What potentially could be released?
In 1974, during the “Dark Horse” tour rehearsals, they taped nine concerts in the evenings at Occidental College. And these are with the finest exponents of Indian classical music. Shivkumar Sharma just passed away. They’ve never been released. So I think no one else is going to do it. I better do it. Or the tapes will just rot.
Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.