When Indian music maestro Ravi Shankar died last week, I thought back to the first time I ever saw him.
It was in the film version of the George Harrison (“and Friends”) benefit Concert for Bangladesh, which I saw in a downtown theater while I was stationed in Central America.
Shankar was among the “friends” in the concert to raise money for the starving people of Bangladesh. That first rock benefit’s legacy continued last week with the 12-12-12 concert for the Superstorm Sandy victims.
In the 1971 concert in New York, Shankar played sitar on the same stage as Harrison, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Leon Russell. It became a record and then a 1972 film.
Before the film began that night, the curtains parted to reveal a man in Indian garb – for all I knew, it could have been Shankar himself – seated on the floor with a sitar. He played a tune as beautiful as the onscreen songs that followed.
Accompanying me to the movie was a naval barracks-mate, Bob, whose fiery red hair and beard were a disguise: He was a well-mannered, clean-cut guy, and we often hung out together.
That changed considerably when Bob met a pretty, perky blonde, the daughter of a Navy officer. Suddenly, he was a man in love. When they announced wedding plans, no one was surprised.
There was a problem, though. We didn’t want to wear our uniforms to his wedding, but, living in the tropics, we had nothing that resembled formal wear.
Others made do, but a sailor named Mike and I solved our problem one night as we sat listening to the album version of the concert. In a booklet accompanying the record, photos showed former Beatle Harrison wearing what appeared to be a shining white, sharply tailored linen suit.
“That could be us,” Mike said, so the next day we took the booklet to a tailor downtown. It was a one-man, hole-in-the-wall operation – but the price was right.
In our pathetic Spanish, we told the tailor we each wanted a suit like Harrison’s. Mike’s was to be cream, and mine, brown.
The tailor nodded eagerly, took our measurements and told us, “No problema.” He had them cut and sewn in the nick of time.
The wedding was elegant. The women wore stunning gowns, the men their uniforms or tuxedos. And there, seated on the groom’s side of the church, were two guys sweating in ill-fitting suits made of something halfway between rubber and asbestos.
That was, remember, the early 1970s. The age of disco, of double-knit polyester, of suits that should have been lawsuits. Our garb had some three-dimensional, zigzag pattern popping up like welts. We looked thick and puffy, like the chamois used for drying a car. The colors were hideous.
Something had been lost in translation.
Bob survived our suits, though, so I’m sure he’s still married today.