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Music

George Harrison once gave Paul Simon the ultimate Beatles gift

@jackwhatley89

There aren’t many artists who dwarf the huge legacy of Paul Simon. One of the finest songwriters of his generation, straddling folk and pop music with ease, Simon has crafted a run of hits and a booming back catalogue that can rarely be topped. However, there’s one man who would have made ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ singer let a complete novice — The Beatles’ own, George Harrison.

Known as ‘the Quiet Beatle’, Harrison cultivated an image that let other artists know they were in safe hands whenever they met each other. Be it in later life, when he would often gift ukuleles and guitar straps to his friends or even back at the height of his solo fame and popularity where he would endlessly take potshots at himself and his rather famous band, The Beatles. There was one particularly notable incident of the latter during a rare recording of Saturday Night Live.

Having spent previous weeks providing a recurring gag of trying to reunite The Beatles for $3,000, ultimately nearly succeeding, the show’s producer Lorne Michaels snagged one of the band members for his show. George Harrison would travel to 30 Rock and play along with the charade, providing some much-needed laughs. However, he had another reason for being at studio 8H that day. That was to play a beautiful duet of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ with Paul Simon, then reciprocating the affection by sharing ‘Homeward Bound’. While the two men took equal billing during the performance that evening, the truth is, Simon was in awe of the Beatle and took tremendous pride in sharing the stage with him.

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When Harrison passed away in 2001, a flood of tributes hit the presses, with Rolling Stone dedicating an entire issue to the icon’s passing. Within it were countless tributes to the wholesome genius of Harrison with one special one from Paul Simon. “The roots of my friendship with George Harrison go back to 1976, when we performed together on Saturday Night Live,” Simon wrote to Rolling Stone. “Sitting on stools side by side with acoustic guitars, we sang ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ and ‘Homeward Bound.’ Though we’re in the same generation and weaned on Buddy Holly, Elvis and the Everly Brothers, it must have seemed as strange to him to be harmonising with someone other than Lennon or McCartney as it was for me to blend with someone other than Art Garfunkel.

“Nevertheless, it was an effortless collaboration. The mesh of his guitar and voice with my playing and singing gave our duet an ease and musicality that made me realise how intrinsic and subtle his contribution was to the Beatles’ brilliant creative weave. He made musicians sound good without calling attention to himself.” The duo shared a distant yet candid friendship that ensured they would always visit one another if they could.

The folk singer described meeting Harrison shortly after a deranged fan had attacked the ‘Something’ composer in his home. Simon expressed the anxiety and relief he felt before and after meeting Harrison in his tribute to the star: “‘I’m really happy to see you,’ he said as we shook hands and embraced, ‘and these days, when I say I’m really happy to see someone, I mean I’m really happy.’ He looked healthy, and his mood was up as we approached a wooden bridge over a pond of waterlilies.

“I’d never been to Friar Park before,” Simon wrote, “but the rhythm of the wind in the leaves and the cluster chords of autumn’s orange, gold and evergreen made it easy to understand why he’d chosen to spend the last thirty years gradually planting, pruning, editing and reshaping the land while at the time recasting himself from pop-culture icon to master gardener.”

The two men came across large and imposing stones delicately placed within the grounds. Simon was keen to know how or why they were put there and Harrison delivered a dead-pan retort that only he could muster: “In fact, when Ringo came round for a visit last summer, he asked about them as well,” George told Simon. “I told him that Paul’s record company had sent them as a promo for his new album, ‘Standing Stone.’ Ringo was really miffed that he hadn’t gotten his standing stones, but I said they’d probably only posted them to A-list people.”

After sharing a laugh then “tea” and “chocolate” while Harrison played the ukulele for his guests, a special gift was lined up. “Before we left, George showed us a copy of the new ‘Beatles Anthology’ book and wrote an inscription to Jeff, deftly adding three perfect forgeries of the other Beatles’ signatures. Simon, a huge Beatles fan, felt more than a little perturbed that Jeff Kramer had been given the sacred book.

“On the drive back to London,” Simon continued, “Kramer told me that George had felt awkward about not offering a copy of the book to me, but he was afraid I might not have great interest in owning one. I said I’d never asked for anyone’s autograph, but I was actually a little disappointed that he hadn’t made the offer. Two months later, the tour ended, I came home to find a copy of ‘The Beatles Anthology’ sitting on my desk. ‘To Paul and Edie,’ the inscription read, ‘with lots of love from your pal, George Harrison.'”

For Simon, the ultimate gift was bestowed upon him, and it is likely a present he will cherish for the rest of his days. Not only because it’s a Beatles book signed by one of the band’s songwriters but because it reminds him of the humanity and humbleness that Harrison always embodied.