“I remember, when George died, wanting the clock to stop right then and there, because I thought, ‘One day I’m going to look back, and it’ll be five years.’ And now it’s 20 years,” Olivia Harrison muses, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom from England.
The widow of George Harrison is now looking back in the poetry collection Came the Lightening: Twenty Poems for George, about her life with the legendary Beatles guitarist, who died of lung cancer on Nov. 29, 2001. She explains, “I think this is much more personal and intimate than any autobiography I could have written in the traditional form.”
The poetic love story of Olivia Trinidad Arias and George Harrison began in 1974, when they met while Olivia was working as a marketing executive at A&M Records. At the time, George was separating from his first wife, model Pattie Boyd, and as Olivia words it, “He was having a bit of a little bit too much fun.” She admits that she “definitely had some trepidations” about getting romantically involved with a Beatle — “I thought, ‘Hang on, hang on. Do I really want to get into this?’” — and even recalls George’s good friend Eric Clapton warning her. “Eric said, ‘If you’re going to be with George, you better pull your socks up.’ Which meant, get ready for the ride,” she chuckles. “I don’t think he meant it in a negative way. He just meant that there’s a lot goes on in this world, you know? And he was right about that. … But George was just a real person.”
On paper, Olivia and George might not have seemed like a match. She was the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and the daughter of a dry cleaner and a seamstress, growing up in the “city of Hawthorne that nobody knows” in suburban Los Angeles; he was a wildly famous British rock star. But the two shared an almost instant spiritual connection. And on the paper pages of Came the Lightening, it all makes sense. Two specific poems, “He” and “She,” go into detail about their respective childhoods and George’s especially “humble beginnings” in post-war Liverpool.
“I tried to tell how I grew up and how he grew up — that although they were miles apart, they weren’t that different,” Olivia explains. Olivia recalls initially being embarrassed to take George home to Hawthorne, to her parents’ “tiny little track house in a little neighborhood,” but chuckles, “He came there and said, ‘Oh, you’re kidding! This is like a mansion compared to where I’m from! At least you had a bathroom indoors!’ So, my trepidations were more or less quelled by knowing that we had the same values, the same upbringing.” (Adorably, during one of the couple’s early visits to the Arias family home, Olivia took George, a massive Beach Boys fan, on a sightseeing trip to her old alma mater, Hawthorne High School, which she had attended with Dennis Wilson.)
“I always say I wasn’t a ‘Beatle wife.’ You might say an ex-Beatle wife,” Olivia notes. “The thing is, when I met George, we sort of changed lanes. We went off and had a more normal, quiet life. It wasn’t too quiet — we had fun! — but we were pretty private, and family really made him happy. … He always said, ‘I gave my nervous system for the Beatles.’ I suppose anybody would be a bit tired of all that screeching in their ears and stuff. He had a good time, no doubt about it, but then, you know, with [the murder of] John [Lennon]… enough is enough.”
Came the Lightening chronicles the Harrisons’ international romance in a non-linear fashion, chillingly opening with the poem that “sort of triggered” the project, “Another Spring,” which is dated December 2001. (“All I wanted was another spring/Was that so much to ask?” is that entry’s gut-punching opener.) There’s “My Arrival,” about Olivia moving in to George’s famous, very un-Hawthorne-like Friar Park estate in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, rolling up in “John and Yoko’s long white car.” The book’s 20th and final poem, “Tree Time (Ode to Friar Park),” imagines the day when Olivia eventually “kicks the bucket” (“What if you were taking your last trip out the door of your garden?”), which Olivia laughingly admits “sounds a little depressing!” But Came the Lightening’s most harrowing poem is “Heroic Couple,” which revisits the terrifying night when — almost exactly 19 years after John Lennon was shot dead outside his home by a crazed “fan” — a knife-wielding intruder broke into Friar Park through a window and attacked the sleeping Harrisons, leaving George with five stab wounds and a punctured lung.
“It was hard to distill it into however many words are there, because it’s a big story. I could write an essay on that and every movement that happened,” Olivia says reflectively. “The statistics for those sort of attacks, at 4:30 in the morning, when your body and your adrenaline and everything is at its lowest point… the statistics on your side are not good. Usually you don’t survive unless you shoot somebody. But I’m not going to do that.”
Instead, Olivia instinctively sprang into warrior mode and fought off the attacker with a fireplace poker that night. “That’s a test you don’t want to have. I don’t think you ever know what kind of person you are until you’re in that situation,” she says. “But I am sort of an action person. And it was a moment when just something took over me. I couldn’t let George just be on his own out there. And believe me, he fought for me too. There was a moment when I was under attack and poor George had been hurt quite badly… and he jumped on his back and the guy was on top of me and we all fell in a big pile. And then I got out from underneath because I’m quick and wily; I got out and then it started all over again! It was quite dramatic! However many minutes it was, it was longer than a couple of rounds in a boxing match. … It’s just one of those unfortunate things from a very troubled person.”
This wasn’t the first time that the Harrisons had experienced this sort of scare; in 1989, Olivia had been the target of hate mail and death threats at their home. But even then, she had empathy. “Some people used to write crazy things, and some people were really disturbed. On a couple of occasions, I called people who were really obsessed with George and just talked to them,” she reveals. “I’d just say, ‘You know, life is really intense, and it’s very easy to be confused. Maybe you should go talk to somebody, because these imaginations you’re having, they’re not real. You’re not in touch with him. But it’s OK.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, thank you.’ You just think, ‘Oh, man, somebody help this person! Don’t they have any friends or somebody to help them?’”
As for George — whom Olivia describes as always being “very sweet and very kind” and “not into drama” — he kept his sense of humor even after going through his horrific near-death experience in 1999. “Right after [the Friar Park attack] happened, he looked at me — I think we were in the ambulance — and he said, ‘Peckinpah,’” Olivia chuckles, recalling that her husband was understandably impressed by her action-movie-worthy dueling skills that night. “That’s how we communicated, even in those times, you know? … And he said, ‘Where was my video camera when I needed it? Gosh, we should have filmed it!’” George died two years after the stabbing incident, under much more peaceful circumstances… and that’s really the core story of “Heroic Couple.”
“The point of writing that poem, and I didn’t really know the point of it until I got to the end, was that it wasn’t long afterwards that death proper — not imposter — happened,” Olivia explains. “You know, if [the home invasion] would’ve been his actual death, that would’ve been just the worst thing. The fact is, when George did die, he did it on his own terms. He was very much in control and in charge of that day. And he felt that John Lennon was really cheated. I mean, it’s one thing to have your life stolen from you, but to also have stolen the opportunity to leave your body in a way that would be beneficial? If you believe that the way you die is important — and I do, and George did — then to be robbed of the chance to leave how you want to leave is just the worst. And that’s why it was almost like George earned the death that he had. Had he died that night [during the knife attack], I don’t know how I would recovered from that. It just would’ve been awful. It came close. But the point of writing that poem was really to say that George didn’t die that way.”
And that brings us to the significance of the book title Came the Lightening, which refers to George’s tranquil final moments when he died at age 58. “In a Buddhist sense, there is a process that may happen, if we’re lucky, where you let you have the letting go of everything. I saw George at [the end], and he was so incredibly beautiful and so light, because the lightening is really the lightening of the load — of the angst, of the desire, of the past, of the future, of everything — and just being in the now,” Olivia recalls. “And it was like, ‘Whoa. Wow. Oh, wow.’
“Then our son Dhani walked in the room, and George went, ‘Dhani!’ — as if he hadn’t seen him in a hundred years. It was the most beautiful moment, just pure and utter joy: ‘Dhani!’ I thought, ‘OK, there’s nothing impeding him. There’s nothing in the way of that essence of who he is anymore. All the attachment is gone,’” Olivia continues. “It was something almost like birth, so pure and so beautiful. And it was really something that taught me a big lesson. It really showed me a beautiful possibility. I hope we can all come to that point and not be freaked out when we’re dying.”
George passed away just two months after 9/11 — Olivia and her mother were actually both flying to the U.K. that day, and they landed at Heathrow to a flurry of panicked phone calls from George and Dhani — and one has to wonder what a spiritual and activism-minded man like George would think if he were around to witness the even greater political, social, and environmental chaos that has transpired in the two decades since. “He would be mortified. Dhani and I talk about that a lot: ‘Oh, boy, if Dad was here, he’d just be outraged!’” says Olivia. “But I think now he just might have just decided, ‘You know what? Let’s not give it energy. Let’s just try and be the positive energy.’ He’d be writing songs about it — just trying to be a part of the solution by being his higher self, as opposed to getting down in the hole.”
And as for whether Olivia ever speculates that she and George will be peacefully reunited someday, in some sort of afterlife, when her “tree time” finally arrives, she muses: “I don’t know. I think in the Buddhist way: that your elements dissolve, but you’re OK. It’s like, this [body] will fall away, but energy never dies; it just changes form. So, whatever happens, it’d be nice to think you could bump into someone somewhere along the line.”
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