In 1997, George Harrison sat down with John Fugelsang, then of VH1, to talk about a new musical project. What was intended to be a quick appearance ended up being the legendary Beatle’s final public interview and performance.
While interning at CNN, I had the chance interview Fugelsang, now a prominent political analyst and comedian, to talk about his unintentional but important role in musical history.
CHUCK: How did you get your start in show business?
JOHN: Well, I began doing regional theatre as a teenager, then after graduating from New York University Film School, I actually was doing a lot of experimental theatre, and then I being doing stand-up. Stand-up led to me doing solo shows, which led to me being offered my first broadcasting job, being a VJ. Although my first TV appearance was on Roger Ailes’ old “America’s Talking” network, doing political humor about filibusters. That was the first time I ever went on TV, to do filibuster material. Like most young comics.
CHUCK: You wound up on VH1. I feel like VH1 ten years ago was totally different than VH1 today.
JOHN: I was doing a show in Greenwich Village where I really trashed VH1. This was during the Michael Bolton/Kenny G era. And they came to me and said that they were changing the channel and trying to make it more of an adult music channel for MTV graduates, and would I like to come and be their comedian. I later became their de facto classic rock guy. And wound up doing interviews and live specials with Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks, and I did a special with George Harrison that proved to be his last public performance.
And along the way, I learned how to be a broadcaster or an interviewer by meeting people like Pete Townsend, and Robbie Robertson, and Tony Bennett, and Willie Nelson. And so in the context of meeting all these idols, which for me was just fun, that’s how I developed my skills and kind of served as a sort of graduate school for television for me. Which is what VH1 promised when they first offered me the job. But you’re right. The problem is that people love music and they love television, but people don’t love music on TV. And we would do the most incredible all-star concerts that nobody would watch.
Eric Clapton did a duet special with Dr. John that nobody watched. But they’d put on a five-year-old Gallagher re-run, and the ratings would go through the roof. So it’s very sad, but it’s the reality of commercial media.
CHUCK: You had mentioned that the George Harrison piece was originally just a small bit, but after he passed away, they re-edited it.
JOHN: It was really very rich for me. I was about to go to London to interview McCartney for a live special, and they asked me to stay in New York an extra day. They said, ‘George Harrison and Ravi Shankar are coming in.’ George had just produced Chants of India, and they were going to come and give us a little 10-minute sound byte and then take off. I was the biggest George Harrison fanatic in the world. He was raised Catholic; my parents are both ex-clergy, so I was raised Catholic, and I admired how he used his faith. A lot of Catholics I knew had kind of dumped the faith and became atheists. George used it as a springboard to explore his faith even deeper and in broader ways.
So, I wanted to talk about God, and meditation, and what happens when you die, and the soul. And the whole time, the producer’s in my ear saying, “Get him to talk about John Lennon!” Which, you know, George, he doesn’t really like talking about the Beatles all that much. So we talked about all this stuff that was frustrating my producers, but he did take a guitar in hand, and he played four songs that he’d never played live before, and it wound up being the last time he ever played in public.
Later, when he got sick, I was in Montreal at the Comedy Festival. VH1 asked me to fly down to help re-do the interview as a special. And when he died, they re-aired it, and put back all the religious content that had been cut out. Now, I was a terrible interviewer. I was very young, I was meeting my idol, I was making inappropriate jokes, I was cutting him off, I was stammering, I couldn’t shut up. And he was a good sport, he put up with me. I think it was my lack of polish that made him enjoy the experience, actually. And the fact that I was into the stuff he was into talking about. And I went through many years of being ashamed of myself for finally meeting my idol and being a twit, and it wasn’t until many years later that, when the show aired, they put all the footage back in. So the day George died, VH1 aired all day long, an interview with George and some 25-year-old kid talking about God and the soul, and what happens when you die.
It helped me realize, oh, I’m not that same young person anymore. And it helped me grow, spiritually — the experience of meeting George and doing that. And to this day, I’ll have like, big, heterosexual guys in airports come up to me and hug me because that interview meant so much to them. I think there is a spiritual hunger, and I think that people are really tired of getting kind of a two-dimensional take on religion in most of the media. So I’m proud to have been a small part in contributing to a dialogue that was in a very popular medium but about very deep, heavy subjects.
CHUCK: In some ways, George was so enlightened.
JOHN: Yeah. And, like, you listen to the live version of “My Sweet Lord,” which he put out in ’91, when he toured Japan with Clapton –
CHUCK: The Live in Japan album.
JOHN: Listen to the extra lyrics he puts in. He goes through Hallelujah, Hare Krishna, he goes through so many different faiths, and he begins throwing in different Vedic chants, in the middle of it. And like Jesus said, “In my father’s house, there are many mansions.” I always took that to be a real endorsement of diversity.
So is planet Earth I mean, but I think that there are many paths to spiritual awareness, and George was a guy who wasn’t afraid to explore those paths, rather than just trying to prove his own one was the only way, his whole life, which is the essence of fundamentalism.
CHUCK: He performed “Any Road” — I’m sure you’ve heard his final album?
JOHN: I have, yeah. I love the album. George famously admonished Jeff Lynne to not make it sound too posh, and I think Jeff Lynne feels it does sound a bit posh. I’d love if Olivia [Harrison, George’s widow] would give the tapes to [producer] Rick Rubin someday, and release a stripped-down version. Rick Rubin was there, at this special weekend.
CHUCK: Oh, really?
JOHN: Yeah. I’d always wished that George would have recorded with him; I still dream of McCartney recording with Rick Rubin. If he can get a cool-sounding album out of Neil Diamond in this century, he can do it with McCartney too.
JOHN: But yeah, “Any Road” was a song that George performed for the first and only time live, in our studio. He didn’t even have all the words down yet. And it’s a wonderful song, very spiritually upbeat. And I’m proud to say that my knee appears in the official music video.
JOHN: Yeah, because they had to show some footage of him playing and singing along. It was the only performance footage they had of him, so they used a couple of our shots to make it more special.
Martin Scorsese also used some shots in his special for George Harrison on HBO, so I can finally say, as an out of work actor, that I’ve been in a Scorsese movie.
CHUCK: With the George special, there were only around 30 people on hand?
JOHN: When we first started taping it, there was nobody in the studio. And he wound up staying for four hours, which shocked everyone. No one knew why he stuck around for so long, and by the time we wrapped, Rick Rubin was there, Timothy White from Billboard Magazine was there, some of the record company executives were there. It’s like, everyone picked up their phones and called each other, and by the end of the taping, I had no idea who all these guys in suits were in the studio. When it began, it was just me, George, Ravi, and Ravi’s wife. So it certainly became more interesting as the day went on.
CHUCK: What are some highlights that never made it to air?
JOHN: Oh, well, I’m trying to remember now. I’ve looked at all the tapes, so it’s hard for me to remember what made it to the final special. Because there were two TV specials. To me the big thing was that originally, VH1 put out a half-hour, a rather cursory half-hour special called, “George Harrison and Ravi Shankar: Yin and Yang.” Which, when you think about it, is insulting to at least one of those guys. That didn’t have much of a spiritual content. Some of the stuff they left out was some of the more pointed humor that George had.
At one point I said, “You know, George, I read in Beatle Fan Magazine how you were in Monte Carlo at a club, and you went to a piano and announced, ‘This is my new single.’ and played a song. Are you going to be releasing an album soon?” ‘Cause it had been ten years since his last solo album. And he just said, “Oh, I was probably drunk at the time.” And at another point towards the very end of the interview, I’d been waiting because, you know, things were tense with him and Paul, so I was asking my last few questions. One of the last questions I threw in was “How do you feel about Jeff Lynne, who produced the Wilburys and who produced George’s records. I said “How do you feel about Jeff Lynne producing some tracks for Paul McCartney?” And George just went, “Who? What? Who? Who?” And the whole room exploded in laughter.
Two two days later, I was in London working with McCartney, and I was telling his manager about this. And he responded, “Oh, he won’t work with us, but he’ll go do four hours with you.” So it was a rather curious state of being for those four days.
CHUCK: It was an interesting kinship that they had.
JOHN: I think they loved each other, and I think that George had a lot of resentment, and you can watch Let It Be, if you can find a copy of it, still. I don’t think it will ever be released on DVD. But you can understand why Paul felt the need to try extra hard to control the band, and why George resented Paul’s taking control of the band.
CHUCK: Did you talk to George about the “new” John Lennon demo songs that the remaining Beatles finished for Anthology?
JOHN: Not too much. George wanted to get his own anthology released, and his estate is beginning to do that with this new album that Olivia’s releasing called Early Takes: Volume 1. There were three songs that Yoko had given Paul that were John’s demos. And two of them were released, “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird.” Both of which are, in my opinion, terrific recordings. I think “Free as a Bird” is just really beautiful and deserves to be considered a real Beatles song, and in many ways is. I think it’s aged really well.
The third song was not released because, George refused. He blocked it. And now that he’s gone, there have been a lot of reports that McCartney and Ringo are planning to have it released at some point. Which I have mixed feelings about.
CHUCK: Those two songs are special to me because they’re the only Beatles songs that were released in my lifetime.
JOHN: Me too.
CHUCK: I wonder if the third will ever see the light of day.
JOHN: I wonder if it will, too. Of course I’d be curious to hear it, but I’d be more worried about it too. Jeff Lynne really gets to be like the fifth Beatle, and I think he did a great job. “Free as a Bird” is still astonishing and it is beautiful to see all the different Beatles references that are throughout it. I was one of those who felt that the “Real Love” was a little posh-sounding, but still kind of winning, and I’d like to see Yoko release John’s original demos sometime, that’d be really nice to hear. They’re heavily bootlegged but it’d be pretty cool to hear it and see what they could do with it.
By the way, it also terrifies me because someday you’ll hear Courtney Love using old Kurt Cobain answering machine messages, and making songs out of those.
CHUCK: How did Paul differ personally from George during your interactions?
JOHN: Oh, I mean, he’s just a very different personality type. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him a couple of times. I don’t think that the TV cameras capture one-tenth of how interesting he really is in person. I have never seen an interview that even came close to showing how really sophisticated and clever and well read and knowledgeable he is.
CHUCK: Sometimes I think he gets the short end of the stick, but he is — by definition — the most successful songwriter in the history of music.
JOHN: Absolutely, and, you know, I think with McCartney, what’s really interesting is that he’s been held hostage for so long by expectations of him, by comparisons to John and George, by a lot of people who think that he was a musical lightweight compared to John, when in reality, you could argue that Paul invented metal when he wrote “Helter Skelter.” And Paul, for a long time, has tried to counter that, and he’s done some very avant-garde work. Liverpool Sound Collage is just, you know, the most uncommercial thing a major star has ever, ever released.
And what’s inspiring for me about Paul is that since the Memory Almost Full album, he’s really given up trying to get commercial radio airplay. His last two records have been two of the best and least commercial records of his career. The Fireman album, Electric Arguments, is just terrific, there’s so many songs in there he couldn’t play live in stadiums, and that was just him and [the producer] Youth clowning around in the studio and making up a song a day. And then the jazz record he just released with Diana Krall’s band [Kisses on the Bottom] is gorgeous, and it’s the first time where Paul’s released a record where he doesn’t play any instruments. And the first time he’s released a record where he’s really sung everything in his higher register. Which makes him sound very old, which makes him sound very vulnerable. And in that sense, they’re two of his most edgy and daring works, because he’s not trying to get radio airplay anymore, and it’s just the best thing ever.
CHUCK: I heard him do “Highway” from Electric Arguments live.
JOHN: I’ll come out and say that I think “Highway” is a wretched song. I just can’t stand it, and I don’t like the lyrics or the melody. But I think “Dance Till We’re High” is a song he could use as an encore. I think he could replace “My Love” with “Dance Till We’re High.” I think he could replace “Live and Let Die” with “Dance Till We’re High” and use fireworks in that, it’s just an incredibly romantic, melodic love ballad, and I choose to believe he’s singing it to Linda.
CHUCK: Did you ever meet Linda?
JOHN: No, I didn’t. I first worked with Paul was when she was pretty sick. I did meet Miss Mills. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Nancy Shevell.
CHUCK: What was Heather like?
JOHN: Oh, I didn’t spend enough time with her to get a clear read. I briefly met her at the Concert for George at the Albert Hall, and then I was at one of the land mine benefits at Cameron Crowe’s table once, and she came right over and I had to hang out with her for a bit. Seemed pleasant enough to me.
CHUCK: At The Concert For George, Paul started playing “Something” on a ukulele as a tribute to George. It’s very powerful.
JOHN: Well, Paul had been playing “Something” before that concert, but he’d been playing it just on ukulele. It was in that concert, which was nominated for a Grammy, that he did it as a duet with Clapton. He began it on uke; halfway through, the entire band kicked in, and Clapton took over the second verse. And after that show, Paul did it that way in his concerts. If you listen to Back in the U.S., Paul’s live album, its just Paul, a simple three-minute version on ukulele. If you listen the Good Evening New York City album, you’ll hear that he goes from a ukulele intro to a much more lush orchestration.
CHUCK: I love Back in the U.S.
JOHN: It’s a pretty good record. That was one of my favorite tours, because that was where Paul really did take a break in the middle and do sort of a solo acoustic set. He picked up the guitar and did a few songs just on his own. Which, you know, Bob Dylan hasn’t played a song with just acoustic guitar by himself since ’92. But Paul did it and played “You Never Give Me Your Money” on solo keyboard.
CHUCK: He messed up the words.
JOHN: Every night he messed up the words, yeah. That got a little crazy after the first hundred times he did it. But yeah, it’s a great recording. Everyone should listen to it.
CHUCK: How do your latest projects — like political humor — go with music or religion? And what other projects have you worked on where these have intersected?
JOHN: It all goes with religion. My dad was a former Franciscan Brother; my mom’s an ex-nun. When I was a little kid, my dad pulled me out of bed late one night to watch Jimmy Carter sign the Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt. Whatever you think of Jimmy Carter, you know, my father couldn’t believe an American president helped bring peace to one corner of the Middle East, and wanted his kid to witness a Christian and Jew and Muslim embracing in fellowship. To him, that was everything that Christianity and America could and should be.
I didn’t know who these guys were. I had no idea what this was about. I knew who Jimmy Carter was, but I didn’t know Menachem Begin or Anwar El Sadat. I thought Menachem Begin was cool because he had an eye patch. But I saw the impact it had on my father, who was a really spiritual guy and a really political guy. So that was really a guidepost for me to want to learn more, and it awakened my curiosity in politics. I wasn’t any good at sports, but I could name all the presidents by the time I was six. I’ve always been very interested in politics and in religion, but I’ve always had a lot of other interests. I love acting, and I love doing Shakespeare, and I love doing stand-up, and I love rock and roll. I just always felt like I wanted to have as diverse a career as possible and do lots of different things. I like doing lots of different kinds of jobs.
I hosted America’s Funniest Home Videos for two seasons, and that was not the sort of gig I ever thought I would do but I enjoyed the experience, and I learned a lot. And, yeah, I do political stand-up, I do Off-Broadway plays, I’ve acted in films, I’ve gone and talked politics on shows like Starting Point and I’ve been a regular on FOX NEWS or MSNBC. To me, I enjoy growth; I enjoy having a lot of different experiences. And I don’t think I am the kind of guy who’d like to do the same thing every day for 40 years.
Check out John Fugelsang’s interview with the legendary George Harrison here.