From a dirty old couch deep within the bowels of London’s Wembley Arena, I watched the usual parade of familiar faces file into the Foo Fighters dressing room as I happily nursed my well- deserved post-show beer, still sweating from another exhausting night onstage. As would happen most evenings, our small, curtained off area would soon erupt into a celebration of joyous reunions amongst lifelong friends and extended family, each greeted with a cocktail, a smile, and a long embrace. This was our routine. Another show, another gathering of the loving, gypsy-like tribe that we’ve gathered over the years, all reminiscing about the past and reeling in the present over gallons and gallons of drink. Everyone grateful for life, music, and the people we love.
As the clamor of the crowded room grew to an excited roar, our guitarist Chris Shifflett approached with a guest and said, “Hey Dave, someone wants to meet you…” I stood up to say hello, and with extended hand, the handsome young man introduced himself with a broad smile.
“Hi, I’m Dhani.”
In all of our years traveling and touring, playing concerts and festivals from Mississippi to Melbourne, I can honestly say that there aren’t too many strangers in the world of Foo, but as familiar as Dhani’s face seemed, I couldn’t place where I had seen this young man before. But, with a nagging sense of Deja vu, I felt I knew this person somehow, almost as if we had grown up together. After casually chatting for a few minutes over cocktails, Dhani kindly handed me a CD that he said he had worked on with “his father.” Curious, I took one look at the colorful cover, an image of five mannequins holding a television set with the word Brainwashed across the top in bold, black letters, and thought “Wow. Good title….” I smiled, gave the disc a quick but polite inspection, and was about to stuff it into my back pocket when I noticed something handwritten in the lower, right corner…
By George Harrison.
Confused, I looked up at Dhani and immediately realized why he looked so familiar. As the son of the late, great George Harrison, he is the spitting image of his father. I took in his features: The unmistakable brow, the cheekbones, the shaggy, dark hair. I suddenly felt as if I were face to face with the “quiet Beatle” himself. And in that moment it all made sense….little did Dhani know, I had grown up with him.
It was November 22, 2002, only a week before the one year anniversary of George’s death, and Dhani explained that he was in London preparing a tribute concert for his father at the legendary Royal Albert Hall. As he read down the list of performers, my jaw dropped and dragged on the dirty carpet: Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ravi Shankar, Jeff Lynne of ELO, Billy Preston, Jim Keltner. And of course, the two remaining Beatles: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The line-up was a virtual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dream come true. And all under the same roof to pay tribute to my favorite Beatle! These musical giants were not only the soundtrack of my life, but many of the gods that I had bowed to ever since I picked up a guitar. In my mind, this was Valhalla.
“Would you like to come? I’ll put you on the list if you’re in town!” Dhani offered. Speechless, I turned to the Foo Fighters trusty tour manger, Gus Brandt and he enthusiastically nodded. It just so happened that was a day off and we could indeed attend. If there was ever an instance where a human being actually levitated, I do believe that my feet literally lifted off the ground in bewildered excitement in this unimaginable moment. I’m sure that Dhani had no idea how momentous this gesture was to me. But it felt like I was being granted a lifelong wish. We exchanged info, hugged, and happily exclaimed, “See you in a week!”
The next six days passed in slow motion. Continuing on our tour for a few more UK arena shows, I counted the hours until I would finally set foot within the hallowed walls of Royal Albert Hall, a name I learned singing along to the Beatles song “A Day in the Life” when I was a kid. To be included in such a monumental affair felt like my life’s greatest reward up until that point, so every waking moment was spent awaiting its arrival. Of all the places my crooked musical path had taken me up until this point, this would undoubtedly prove to be a memory I would cherish forever.
One week later, standing before the illuminated columns and archways of the century old building, my stomach was in knots with anticipation. A relatively formal affair, I squirmed in my collared shirt and nerdy sweater as we waited in line at the box office, praying that Dhani hadn’t forgotten our chance meeting. After a few nail-biting minutes, we finally approached the ticket window, gave our names, and were thankfully handed a thick envelope bulging with tickets. My Sweet Lord! We tore into it like excited children on Christmas morning, and to our surprise found not only tickets, but backstage passes as well! Eat your heart out, Willy Wonka! I was expecting nosebleed section. Oh no. Handing our tickets to the usher as we entered, I was prepared to start scaling stairwell after stairwell, but instead we were quickly escorted to a box positioned dead center on the first level. We looked at each other in absolute astonishment. This could not be happening, I thought. We quickly took our seats, before someone changed their mind.
Above the stage hung a huge a portrait of George Harrison, which upon first sight, immediately brought me to tears. His influence and relevance in my life suddenly poured out in raw emotion, and I wept. I sat and stared at his image, quietly thanking him for the gifts he had not only given me over the years but those he had given us all. Before long, the house lights dimmed, and the show opened with a beautiful Sanskrit chant, while George’s widow Olivia lit incense on the stage, creating a sense of serenity and connectivity that I had never before experienced in a musical setting. This was no longer a concert hall this was a temple. Eric Clapton appeared next, offering a few kind words, and then introduced the master himself, Ravi Shankar. The room was in awe as Ravi appeared on stage, welcoming the audience by saying “I strongly feel that George is here tonight” before introducing his daughter, Anoushka who proceeded to sit and play the sitar in what can only be described as a truly transcendent performance. Dhani, dressed in a long, white Kurta shirt, then joined with Jeff Lynne for a beautiful rendition of “The Inner Light,” a song George wrote that was the B-side to the Beatles “Lady Madonna” single. That was followed by a 23 minute long original composition by Ravi Shankar called “Arpan” (to give), performed with an Indian orchestra that put me into some kind of trance, with tears streaming down my face once again. It was clear that this night was more than a concert. This was a spiritual experience.
After a brief intermission (and another box of Kleenex) the Rock and Roll began. Well…not before the infamous cast of Monty Python had their way with us for a few hilarious numbers, but the guitars came out and we buckled in for the ride of our lives. Waves of joy and sadness swept over me. It was as if my life was flashing before my eyes with song, each note a formative memory. Clapton, Petty, Lynne, Preston, one giant after another, performing the soundtrack of my youth, within such proximity that I could see their fingers dancing up and down their fretboards. I could not imagine an evening more magical.
And then…Ringo Starr appeared. Waving his trademark peace signs high to a standing ovation, he greeted the audience and launched into his classic song, “Photograph.”
Every time I see your face
It reminds me of the places we used to go
All I’ve got is a photograph
And I realize you’re not coming back anymore
As if the previous hour hadn’t already been the most life affirming jolt to my soul, Ringo’s presence and this song in particular struck an unpredicted chord within me. Here was a man, generously withholding his own grief of losing a dear friend and bandmate, spreading love and joy by sharing the most healing force in time of mourning: Music.
I realized that I had been trying to do the exact same thing since that cold, cloudy morning of April 5th, 1994. The day that Kurt Cobain died.
I sang along at the top of my lungs.
By the time Paul McCartney came to the stage, I was officially in a state of shock. I had run a marathon of emotions, witnessed once in a lifetime performances by a cavalcade of legends in the flesh, and experienced a sort of transcendental meditation from Ravi Shankar’s otherworldly Indian orchestra. I was practically numb, yet so very much in the moment, feeling a deep connectivity brought upon by the overwhelming amount of love that was on display. If George was indeed in the room, so was every person I had ever loved.
When Paul began strumming the chords to “Something” on the ukulele, I closed my eyes and drowned in the vivid memory of learning that song as a child, sitting on my bedroom floor with my 1964 Sears Silvertone guitar, playing along to George’s voice as it crackled from the tiny speakers of an old turntable. And when the band kicked in to the guitar solo, I hummed along to every note, as it was the first and only guitar solo I had ever learned. To me, it seemed that the circle was finally complete.
As the concert drew to a close and the confetti fell from the rafters, I wiped a final tears from my face. Then, I checked my back pocket to make sure that I hadn’t lost the pass Dhani had left me. I’ve never been to a party that I couldn’t have missed. Except this one.
We were soon led to a stairwell filled with people, all descending to the downstairs backstage area, each person undoubtedly as nervous and honored as I was to be there. I noticed a security guard checking passes at the bottom of the stairs, and I watched in horror as some people were directed to a room on the left, others directed to a room on the right. I knew what that meant. That meant that there was the VIP room, and then the actual VIP party. To be honest, we were guilty of this cruel, but common game ourselves, only allowing our closest friends and family into the sanctity of our most sacred space. Wherever we ended up, I couldn’t complain. I had already experienced the greatest night of my musical life.
“This way, please” the guard said as he checked our passes and pointed to a doorway beside the stairs. We entered, and my heart sank a little at the sight of the completely empty room. I knew it. This was not their inner sanctum or sacred space. We’d been sent to the holding pen with a bar. This was not the Valhalla I had wished for. This was the end of the line. I was at peace.
Our little group stood alone at a table and recounted the evening’s magical moments over a few drinks, still reeling from the spectacular show we had just witnessed and beyond grateful for being included. Turns out I wasn’t the only person in our little group that was seemingly transformed by the performance. Each of us shared specific memories from our lives, recalling instances when the Beatles music became more than just verses and choruses, it became essential code in our DNA.
“Wait….is that George Martin?” someone whispered. I quickly looked up as a tall, older gentleman with white hair walked across the empty, fluorescent lit room. “Holy shit!” I thought. But I decided it couldn’t be him. Why on earth would the “fifth Beatle” himself be slumming along with us in this desolate, concrete after-show lounge when he could surely be rubbing elbows with the evening’s musical elite in the actual VIP gathering? Then, something else caught my eye: Ravi Shankar quietly sitting in the corner eating a plate of Indian food all by himself. “Oh my god!” I exclaimed. “This is it!!” This was rock and roll ground zero. We had arrived.
One by one, they all appeared. Each of the evening’s legendary performers were now present, casually rubbing elbows and celebrating a triumphant performance in the name of their dear friend, but as much as I wanted to feel a part of this sacred fraternity, I felt a stubborn disconnect, a refusal to consider myself worthy of sharing the same air as these icons. My entire life had been spent imagining them as more than human. And yet, here they were. It was almost too much to fathom.
Thankfully, there were a few familiar faces in the crowd to anchor my gripping anxiety. Dhani, of course eventually appeared, and we all thanked him profusely for such an amazing opportunity, congratulating him on his beautiful performance. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, my old friends and a band that I nearly joined soon after Nirvana’s demise, were wandering around with their usual vibe as the epitome of Americana cool. But, for the most part, I felt like a fish out of water, a feeling I couldn’t shake.
I noticed Paul McCartney out of the corner of my eye, chatting away with friends, and I couldn’t help but stare. There. He. Was. I don’t know what it feels like to see a UFO. I don’t know what it feels like to see a ghost. I don’t know what it feels like to see Bigfoot, but I know what it feels like to see Paul McCartney, and if that’s not a supernatural event, then I don’t know what is. I tried to avert my eyes, but it was no use. I was mesmerized.
A man approached and asked, “Hey Dave, are you going to stick around for a bit? I’m sure that Paul would like to say hello.” I froze and choked on my complimentary samosa. Wait…what? Paul? Me? My heart doubled its tempo, the lights seemed to dim in a bizarre, twilight tunnel fashion, but doing my damndest to stay cool, I managed to muster a nonchalant “Uhhhh, yeah! Sure! I’ll be right here.”
What happened next will forever remain a blur. I don’t recall exactly how Paul and I were introduced, what was said, or how long we talked, but I do remember putting on my best “this is not the most incredible thing ever to happen to me” face while trying to keep from making a fool of myself. I think I may have tried the “So, are you guys on tour at the moment?” line, but who knows. I was beside myself, having an out of body experience, living a moment that will surely be revisited in my final hours. I would not be standing there that night, much less writing this today, if it weren’t for this man. Like so many who have made lives as musicians, his music had been a teacher when I needed instruction. A friend when I felt alone. A father when I needed love. A therapist when I needed guidance, and a partner when I needed to belong.
Of course, I thought of my mother. She would surely understand what I felt in that moment. Upon returning to the hotel, I immediately picked up the phone and called her at home in Virginia, the same tiny house where I had spent my childhood listening to George Harrison and Paul McCartney. From the desk where she would grade her papers every night after making my sister Lisa and me dinner, she cried tears of joy, knowing that all my years of struggle and faith had led to this profound, life changing night. After all, it was her who bought me my first electric guitar and Beatles songbook when I was 11 years old, changing my life forever. Every day, she watched me strain my little fingers to form the chords within those pages while sitting in front of the public school record player she brought home from work. And now, here I was, immersed in THEIR world, surrounded by THEIR lifelong friends and extended family, reminiscing about THEIR past and reeling in the present. Everyone grateful for life, music, and love.
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