Olivia Harrison, the widow of George Harrison, called me at home in June 2007 from her digs in Friar Park to discuss the reissue of the two Traveling Wilburys albums along with video and bonus track extras.
George was the nominal leader of the supergroup, and Olivia oversaw the reissue program. I had already spoken to Wilburys alumni Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne (Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison were unavailable for various reasons), and was rather surprised when my interview request with Olivia was granted because I’d never seen anything much written about her. We had a great 30-minute chat.
Two years later I got to see Olivia close up in person when she returned to her hometown for a ceremony honoring George with a Hollywood star outside the Capitol Records building. There was a small VIP party in the famed Capitol studios afterwards, and I went up to introduce myself but one of her security guards stepped between us to prevent any interaction. Nice one.
A condensed and edited version of our phone conversation follows:
I’D ALWAYS THOUGHT IT WAS COOL THAT THE TRAVELING WILBURYS CDS WERE UNAVAILABLE. WHY WERE THEY OUT OF PRINT FOR SO LONG?
It wasn’t intentional, at all. It’s just that time seemed to go really fast and the distribution deal ran out with Warner Bros. I think we were probably in Australia a lot, and traveling around as Wilburys do. Then in 1997, George got sick. Then he was just busy doing lots of other things and somehow it never got done. But clearly it was something he was trying to do, all the time. He reissued All Things Must Pass in 2000, and then he started to remaster all his albums, just really when everybody was starting to do that, remastering. He just never got around to it.
HE WAS DOING THE REMASTERING IN THE KNOWLEDGE THAT TIME WAS RUNNING OUT?
No, no. It’s just something that he’d been doing. To be honest, that didn’t really cross his mind. He was always working and once he got back into the studio and started remastering All Things Must Pass, he did Dark Horse, (Living in the) Material World. He was working on Brainwashed. So there were just so many projects to be working on, and the Wilburys just didn’t get done.
WHO OWNS THE TRAVELING WILBURYS MASTERS? IS IT A PARTNERSHIP?
That’s right. But all the material was with George, and the tapes and the photographs. The other guys are busy, and they have busy lives, so I went tracking down all the artwork and the photographs, and as much as I could find — it was here — and put everything together. In the end, there was really so much material. I had a really good time putting the package together.
THIS IS BASICALLY YOUR CREATION?
Well, it was their creation. I just put it together in the best way I could. George’s movies were around. He had his videocamera during those sessions, and so I just tried to cut a piece that I thought told a story. George really filmed it in a way that told the story itself. All I had to do was piece it together … In a way, this project was more difficult than working on just one of George’s. With George, I know his sensitivities and what he might not have liked. As you hear him say in the end of that documentary, he says his contribution was really trying to protect their friendship: to make sure that everyone who was being filmed and recorded didn’t feel they were being taken advantage of. That really was in the forefront of my mind the whole time. In a way that made it a little more difficult because I didn’t want anything to be there that someone didn’t want to see. People tend to put in every little twitch that everybody does, every little nod and every little wink, do you know? I didn’t want to do that.
I INTERVIEWED TOM AND HE SAID THEY SPENT AN AWFUL LOT OF TIME SMOKING POT AND DRINKING BEERS
Did he say that?! Neverrrr! Is that why they had so much fun?
YEAH, IT SEEMS EVERYONE HAD SUCH A GREAT TIME
They did. George had a great time because he was relaxed. He didn’t feel any pressure, and there was no obligation and no contract, no reason for it, and no motive. That is why he enjoyed it. Of course, he had a lot of fun in his life, and he had some amazing experiences. It was a buzz because there were no demands. He so enjoyed just playing with real players.
ARE THERE PARTICULAR SONGS THAT YOU REMEMBER SEEING COME TO LIFE BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES?
I remember hearing “Congratulations” the first time. I’d gone out to dinner and came back with, I think, Jeff’s wife, at the time. We came back down, and one of them said, “Hey you wanna hear what we did today?” And they played “Congratulations.” It just seemed such a serious song! And it was all so quiet, and when it finished I didn’t know whether to be happy, or what. But they all just started laughing. And then, Volume 3, there was a period of time I was in the house, and I was staying upstairs trying to just stay out of the way. But it was great just hearing the music just wafting up the stairs.
IT MUST BE GREAT TO BE YOU!
Yep! I know. And also Roy Orbison was recording here at Friar Park after the first recording session in Los Angeles. Tom was working on Full Moon Fever, George had done Cloud Nine, Jeff was working on Armchair Theatre, because George had played slide on “September Song” during those sessions. And then Roy was doing Mystery Girl, and they were doing the Wilburys. Bob was going on tour. It was just a very intensely creative time for all of them. I think Armchair Theatre is just a fantastically under-rated album. So Roy was here. I think he recorded “A Love So Beautiful” during that time they were mixing the Wilburys. It was a really prolific time for all of them.
SO GEORGE WAS BASICALLY THE FIRST AMONG EQUALS, THE MANAGER AT THE VERY LEAST, DO YOU THINK HE REVELED IN NOT HAVING TO DEAL WITH CONTROL ISSUES THAT DOGGED HIM WITH HIS PREVIOUS BAND?
I don’t think so. I don’t think there was really any comparison on that level.
AT LEAST HE DIDN’T HAVE TO FIGHT TO GET HIS SONGS ON THE ALBUM. IT WASN’T LIKE HE WAS BEING OVERSHADOWED. THE WILBURYS TRULY WAS A GATHERING OF EQUALS.
Well, I think the first band was a gathering of equals, some people might say! I know George would! The thing is, he was 23 when he was in the Beatles. He was 26 when they split up. He was 40 when he was with the Wilburys. It’s just a whole different time. They were all just right there. It kinda seemed obvious. If you’re with people you like and admire, you wanna hang out with them. He definitely liked to hang out with those guys. The fact that they came together over that single that he was trying to do: “OK, you’re it.” That was the sort of moment. The fact that they came together for something that he was trying to do.
DO YOU THINK HE FELT MORE COMFORTABLE IN A BAND ENVIRONMENT WHERE HE WAS ABLE TO SHARE THE SPOTLIGHT WITH HIS COLLEAGUES?
Totally. That was part of the fun, because he didn’t have to think of everything, to write everything, to figure everything out. I think it was just a time in his life, he wanted to collaborate, and it was fun. He had worked with Jeff, and he know Tom and he knew Bob. He liked to collaborate. He had a lot of years solo, and he didn’t always enjoy that.
I REMEMBER TURNING 26 AND BEING DEPRESSED BECAUSE I REALIZED GEORGE HARRISON HAD ACCOMPLISHED A HELLUVA LOT MORE THAN I HAD AT THAT STAGE.
That’s true. I often walk around here, say to Dhani, “Your Dad bought this place (Friar Park, below) when he was 27.” Who would do that? I wouldn’t even buy it now.
DID PAUL AND RINGO EVER COMMENT ON THE WILBURYS?
You know, I never talked to Paul about the Wilburys so I’m going to send him one, of course. I’m sure George must have talked to him about it. I never have personally. I know Ringo and Jim Keltner are great friends. I’m sure George must have talked to Ringo about it. I haven’t personally.
IS IT FAIR TO SAY THE WILBURYS WERE THE MOST SUCCESSFUL POST-BEATLES PROJECT BY ANY OF THE FOUR BEATLES?
I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for making that statement. George did All Things Must Pass, which was a No. 1 album. Cloud Nine was No. 1. That was the thing about the Wilburys. It didn’t really matter. It was successful, people liked it. George didn’t even want his name on it, really, because he didn’t want to burden the whole thing with that. It was just about making music, having some fun, not getting caught in the trap, the pressure that goes along with a project like that.
WAS GEORGE THE MAIN OBSTACLE TO TAKING THE WILBURYS ON THE ROAD? OR WAS IT JUST LOGISTICALLY DIFFICULT?
It just never happened. It was just one of those things where Bob was touring a lot. Roy, of course, died (on Dec. 6, 1988). I know they talked about it for years. “We could do one show … We could tape a show… We could do a satellite thing.” Every sorta five years the subject came up, and for some reason it just never happened. But I know he would have done it to his dying day, if he didn’t have to organize it. Sometimes he would start to organize something, and he’d just go off and do something else, or go in the studio.
HE DID TOUR JAPAN WITH ERIC (CLAPTON) IN 1991. MAYBE THAT DRAINED HIM A BIT?
I don’t know, but you see that was easy. Eric had the band, and Eric suggested it to George, that tour. He (Eric) said, “Every time I’m out there, people always ask me about you. They’re always saying, ‘When is George going to tour?’ Why don’t you tour?” He (George) said, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t even have a band.” He (Eric) said, “You know, you can have my band. I’ll go with you.” That was just so easy for George. He did it. If somebody had just organized the Wilburys, got everyone’s schedule, talked to them, and said, “Right, rehearsals. start in two weeks,” I’m sure he would have done it. In a minute.
TOM SAID THEY WERE ALL DRUNK ONE NIGHT AND GEORGE HAD AN IDEA OF HIRING AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER AND TAKING IT AROUND THE WORLD, AND PLAYING IN EXOTIC SOUTH SEAS LOCALES, LIKE FIJI?!
OK, so Tom told you all that? It wasn’t such a drunken idea, actually. He had this idea about the Sponsor Ship. And so you’d just be able to go on holiday. George said, “How can we go on tour and make it fun, and just have a great time? I know. We very much like the South Pacific. We’ll have this boat, and we’ll all get on it, and we’ll just pull up into the harbor.” It just sounded like such a great idea. Somebody was trying to organize it. And then we’d go off again somewhere else.
DO YOU SHED A TEAR WHEN YOU SEE THE “END OF THE LINE” VIDEO WITH ROY’S EMPTY ROCKING CHAIR?
I think I shed the tear before that. I see Barbara Orbison a lot, and Roy and George loom pretty large in our lives. They were just such great guys. I just have the utmost respect for both of them and everything that they did in their lives.
TOM SAID HIS DAUGHTERS HANG OUT AT YOUR PLACE, RIGHT?
Yeah, I’ve known Adria and Kim since they were little girls.
I’VE GOT TO GET SOME GOOD FRIENDS LIKE THAT SO THAT I CAN HANG OUT AT ROCK STARS’ HOMES
Well, you know, it’s a whole other generation, Jeff Lynne’s girls. Everyone’s sort of pally … They’re really like family.
Copyright © 2007, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING