The tenth anniversary of the death of George Harrison came and went recently, topped off with a four-hour HBO documentary, and the occasion stirred in me a memory that was suppressed for many years, the kind that surfaces in the middle of a sleepless night and forces you to pull the pillow over your face and hum loudly and tunelessly until it passes.
It began one mellow autumn afternoon in the 1970s, as I sat in my freshman French class at a liberal arts “multiversity” in Los Angeles. Waiting for the professor—she was always late, she was French—a classmate and I made small talk. Mike mentioned that he worked part time at the Pasadena Star-News, covering pop music. In fact, he said, he had to be at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel the next morning for a press conference given by George Harrison.
He must have noticed the look on my face.
“That’s how I feel,” he said. “My first Beatle! I’ve never seen one before.”
He glanced away, then back at me, to see if I was still looking at him.
“So you’re a big fan.”
I probably nodded.
“Me too,” he said. His only problem was that none of the Star-News photographers were available.
“I take pictures!”
What I hoped he heard was: I can help you out, man, no problem.
What I really meant was: My parents gave me a Minolta for high school graduation and I spent last summer trying to photograph my dog in funny hats.
The next morning Mike got us into the Beverly Wilshire with a flash of his press card. A flack arranged us cameramen in front of a long table, behind which, presumably, a flesh and blood ex-Beatle would soon appear. The flack said he’d give us exactly two minutes to shoot our pictures.
I took my place in the pack. My solitary Minolta looked puny next to the telescoped Nikons and wide-angle Canons that swung on straps from the shoulders of the pros. I stood waiting, deep in thought, staring at the space in front of me that George Harrison was soon supposed to fill.
For all I knew the Beatles were a phantasm. The vastness of their fame, the sheer greatness of their art, made them oddly unreal to me. Perhaps Ed Sullivan had perpetrated a hoax back in 1964. Objectively, I thought, I had no reason even to believe the Beatles had ever assumed corporeal form.
A side door opened. George Harrison emerged into a meteor shower of exploding flash bulbs. He stood dressed in a richly colored silk jacket adorned with Hindu symbols. It turned out that Beatles not only had bodies, they really did wear clothes like that. I remained lost in reflection. Reluctantly I began to persuade myself that, yes, George Harrison was a material being, for here he stood, right before my . . .
“Take the f—g pictures!” Mike had moved through the pack and was shoving me from behind. Startled, I brought the Minolta to my brow and began tapping the shutter button. I tapped and tapped before the tug of the rewind lever told me I had reached the end of the roll: 36 pictures in perhaps 40 seconds. I hadn’t thought to bring a second roll. The other shooters clicked maniacally. I kept the Minolta to my brow, pretending to tap the shutter button, until the flack shooed us away and the press conference began.
The Star-News was an afternoon paper, with a noon deadline. We got to the newsroom about 11. Mike hustled me to the photo editor and looked puzzled when I handed over only one roll of film. He went off to file his story, which was big enough, he said, to make the front page on this slow news day. The editor disappeared into the dark room.
Five minutes later he emerged with the “contact sheet” showing thumbnail versions of my 36 pictures. He stared at me across the newsroom as he walked to Mike’s desk. Mike took the sheet, stood bolt upright as if snakebit, turned, and flew toward me.
This is the moment when I usually start humming into my pillow. I don’t remember what Mike said. Several of the thumbnails were simply black, I’m not sure why. The others were mere smudges—Beatle blurs. There was a single image in which, if you squinted hard, George Harrison’s features were faintly discernible.
It made the front page anyway, next to Mike’s story, which ran despite the bitter reprimand he’d got from the editor for hiring an idiot. Though we continued to see each other on campus and in class, Mike and I seldom spoke.
I watched the HBO documentary last month, of course. The third hour showed a clip of George Harrison at a press conference, ringed by jostling cameramen. I saw, in the midst of them, a young man with a Minolta pressed to his brow, trembling as if he’d just seen a phantasm.