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new Olivia article
« on: June 18, 2009, 04:57:41 PM »


It's no picnic being a Beatle wife. For many, Yoko Ono will forever be the dastardly interloper who fractured The Beatles and turned John Lennon into first a hopelessly self-absorbed conceptualist and later a sentimental house-husband. It's easy, too, to forget the degree of scorn and mockery Linda McCartney once attracted, and let's not even get started on Heather Mills.

Olivia Harrison, on the other hand, has somehow managed to keep her life private and her dignity intact, quietly dedicating herself to her work with Unicef, the Romanian Angel orphans appeal, and guarding her husband's rich legacy.

Recently she's been a little more high profile than usual. In April there was an unveiling of George Harrison's star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, attended by their son Dhani and what she terms the "usual suspects": Paul McCartney, Tom Hanks, Eric Idle and Tom Petty, good friends who "it just so happened were in town". Earlier this month she also helped launch the Beatles' Rock Band video game.

All that, however, was a mere appetiser to the main event, the release of Let it Roll, the first-ever career-spanning overview of Harrison's solo work, including live versions of his Beatles classics Here Comes The Sun, Something and While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

"The only other compilation was done in 1976 and George did not instigate that," she says, speaking in the offices of Harrisongs Ltd in London's Knightsbridge. "I instigated this one, and I consulted lots of friends and family until it was just the problem of diversity. Everyone had a different list, and at some point I just had to draw the line."

It was not an easy process. Since her husband's death from cancer in 2001 at the age of 58, Olivia admits that "it's difficult for me sometimes even to listen to his music. I don't want to use the word burden, the music is really joyful and important, but sometimes it feels like a big responsibility".

Then there were the practicalities. Although she describes the compilation as "comprehensive", she's regretful that the single CD collection doesn't run deeper and wider. "It should have been twice this," she sighs. "To me it's missing huge chunks. It had started out as a larger collection, but for now this is the right thing to do. It's a great way for people to get reacquainted with George's music and a place to start for those who don't know it. It goes through all the phases of his life."

Olivia Trinidad Arias first encountered Harrison when the most tumultuous phase of his life was already over. They met in 1974, four years after the Beatles had officially split. She was a 26-year-old Mexican-born secretary working in the A&M offices in Los Angeles; he was 31 and had recently divorced from his first wife, model Patty Boyd.

She was no wallflower. When Harrison was stabbed several times in 1999 at Friar Park, his neo-Gothic estate in Henley-on-Thames, by the mentally-ill intruder Michael Abram, it was Olivia who saved his life by fighting off Abram with a fire poker. Tom Petty later faxed Harrison: Aren't you glad you married a Mexican girl?' "I never even thought about the fact he was a Beatle," she says, recalling their courtship 35 years ago. "George was so humble, that honestly when I met him it was just like meeting any other person. He wasn't a Beatle at that time, and so I never saw that. I only ever saw the person, George. I don't think we'd have been together so long if it had been any other way."

They married in 1978, yet the shadow of the Fab Four inevitably loomed large over their lives. Harrison always remained deeply ambivalent about fame and the toll it took on his privacy and his nervous system.

"The Beatles was a big pressure," says Olivia. "There's only a small group of people who have ever had that experience, and theirs was probably the most intense. They had a fantastic time that really only the four of them could ever talk about, but it was odd for him. He'd look at old photos of himself and say, That's Beatle George', like it was someone else."

Later, Harrison became the veteran of another supergroup. The Travelling Wilburys, featuring Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, formed almost by accident when Lynne was producing Orbison's new album at Dylan's studio in Malibu in 1988. Harrison rallied the troops, suggesting they make an album together. It was fun, but it was also work.

"Oh, it was serious!" says Olivia. "They wanted it to be good, it was something really special. George was the kingpin, the driving force, but I didn't see any ego. I think all of them had transcended that. If you can't be satisfied at that point in your life then you've got a problem, so nobody was there to try to prove anything."

The first album, Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1, was reissued in 2007 and went to No 1 in the UK. "It had the most amazing response," says Olivia. "George would have been really happy about that."

Despite her obvious pride in his music, Olivia is at pains to point out that her husband was much more than simply the sum of his songs. His film production company, Handmade Films, has produced some of the best British movies of the past three decades, including Withnail And I, The Long Good Friday and Monty Python's Life Of Brian, in which Harrison popped up in a brief cameo.

"He made people laugh as much as any comedian, that's for sure," says Olivia. "There always seemed to be parallels between Python and The Beatles, it was just a different means of expression."

Although his love of sitar music and subsequent immersion in Indian spiritualism - "It was like a bell went off in his head," says Olivia - was often derided, Harrison's patronage did much to popularise eastern culture in the west and further the career of artists like Ravi Shankar.

It also prompted him to organise the fund-raising Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, the world's first superstar charity gig which - through the proceeds of the re-released DVD - is still raising substantial sums for Unicef.

"It took up a few years of his life, organising the concert, doing the music and the film," she says. "It was a big undertaking for a young man, a very courageous thing to do."

Overall, Harrison's extracurricular passions always seemed more deeply-felt than those of many other rock stars. Between the films (there's a documentary due next year, which will include unseen footage and new music), the charity projects and maintaining the spectacular gardens at Friar Park, Olivia admits dealing with Harrison's legacy is a full-time job.

Although she still feels his absence keenly, you sense she wouldn't have it any other way. "He always had this great energy happening around him," she says. "He was such a natural, warm and kind person."

Let it Roll: Songs by George Harrison (EMI/Capitol) is out now

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