Monday, September 5, 2011

The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll): The Closest We Ever Got to George Harrison. And the Story of One Fan Who Got Too Close.

Craig and I embarked for England on August 5, 1996, two days after we got married. The plane tickets were a gift from his parents, thereby fulfilling one of my life-long Anglophile dreams. After our arrival, Craig asked me what the first thing was that I wanted to do. I said, "We're going to Henley."

Henley-on-Thames is an affluent little town in Oxfordshire, along the river, about 35 miles outside of London and easily accessible by train. We arrived a couple of weeks before the annual Henley Royal Regatta, a celebration along the river.

After exiting the train, we flagged down a friendly cabbie. "Take us to the Row Barge," we said. The Row Barge was a tiny pub just down the hill from Paradise Rd, aptly named, on which stood the grounds of Friar Park, George Harrison's mammoth 120-room Neo-Gothic castle estate, in the Gravel Hill neighborhood. "Ah, Beatle fans, are ya?" the cabbie asked us. "Oh, my, yes!" George was the town's most famous resident. The Row Barge was his local pub. We walked into the empty pub (apparently, most Brits don't actually start drinking at 10 am)and asked the owner about the chances of us spotting George at Friar Park. He said that George really hadn't come into the pub in quite a long time, that his "Mrs." didn't let him much anymore. If memory serves, the pub owner fixed Craig something to snack on and I drank a beer (naturally). "Security's pretty heavy," he warned us. "Pfft," I replied. Nevermind the 2-story tall brick walls and deadly barbed wire, I desperately wanted to catch a glimpse of my Beatle.

(It's too bad that the majority of my honeymoon pictures, including those of our trip to Henley, are in my storage unit, but I found some of my pictures over on my defunct myspace.)

Leaving the Row Barge, we trekked uphill to the imposing gates of the main entrance to Friar Park. Up the hill, before you get to the main entrance, there is a sign covered in barbed wire that says "Get the fuck outta here." Never a slave to imposition, and despite Craig's skittish "Are you sure..??" we ventured closer to the main gate. (Photo by Craig Bechtel)

There was a set of 3 doorbells. I forget what the other two said, but one said "Main House." No, I didn't have the balls to ring it. What you can see from the main gates is adjacent guest house (as seen in the picture), miles of gardens and greenery, and a glimpse of the castle, that was enhanced by our telephoto lens, where we could see several Mercedes parked outside.

Friar Park was built in the early 1800's and was owned by British eccentric Sir Francis Crisp, who decorated the grounds of the mansion with tongue-in-cheek religious mockery (i.e. a statue of a monk holding two frying pans shot with holes in them, underneath saying "Two Holy Friars.") Sir Frank also installed a myriad of extensive gardens, brooding caves, man-made ponds with stones which you could cross that looked as if you were walking on water, numerous gargoyles, and other humorous yet beautiful, if not entirely offbeat decorations. Ironically, after Sir Frank's death, the estate was purchased by the Catholic church and subsequently the estate was a school run by nuns, until it was run down and abandoned, purchased by George and Pattie Harrison in 1970 and meticulously restored to it's original splendor.

Harrison had a passion for gardening, which was his hobby, and when he wasn't chanting Krishna, or hell, WHILE he was chanting Krishna, he restored the gardens, which we COULD see a lot of from the entrance, and they were magnificent during the summertime. (Aerial shot of Friar Park, not credited to us, obviously)

(Photo by Craig Bechtel)

Gargoyles (Photo by me):

Frustrated, Craig and I began walking alongside the enormous brick walls surrounding the estate, not knowing what or who we were going to see. We heard the quiet but determined rustling of someone in the garden. Could it be? We called out, "George? Is that you, George? We came all the way from America!" to no avail. To this day, we'll never know if it was The Quiet One, who just couldn't be bothered with two dorky superfans from the States, or a random groundskeeper, or frankly, a gaggle of squirrels gettin' busy. We spent at least another hour loitering around the grounds, snapping photographs, before giving up and heading back to London, unrequited.

(After George passed away in 2001, Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis, my former boss from Q101's "Sound Opinions," which I assisted in producing, asked fans to write in with their memories of Harrison. I regaled the aforementioned story which DeRogatis published in the Sun-Times, a story the reporter found warm and endearing.)

Security couldn't have been THAT tight around Friar Park, for whilst leaving the main gates open for delivery trucks that were preparing the estate for a grand New Year's Eve bash for the advent of the new decade in December of 1999, a CRAZED superfan (who was a mentally ill heroin addict with a dangerous obsession with The Beatles) gained access to the interior of Friar Park, breaking into a window in the kitchen during the night of December 30th, nearly fatally-wounding Harrison. Michael Abrams, who was armed with a knife and part of a stone sword broken from a statue of St. George and the Dragon, punctured George's lung (which he later told the court he could hear deflating, tasting blood in his mouth), plunged the knife into Harrison no fewer than four times, narrowly missing his vital organs by millimeters. Somehow, George had the strength to subdue the nutjob, who began going after his wife. Harrison's (2nd) wife, Olivia, fought off the attacker with a huge brass lamp and a fireplace poker, knocking the intruder unconscious. (She fucking rocks.) The couple's 22-year old son, Dhani, kept George awake and talking (chanting Hare Krishna) until the paramedics and police arrived to transport the Harrisons to the hospital, where each was treated for contusions, abrasions, and George's chest wounds. The family survived, but from then on, security at Friar Park was heightened to Fort Knox-like levels, wisely so.

Naturally, Abrams pleaded insanity. I believe he was convicted of attempted murder anyway. Just like Mark David Chapman, I hope Abrams rots in Hell. That being said, if someone attempted to murder Fergie, I'd probably have no problem with that.

When Craig and I went to Friar Park, we certainly meant Harrison no harm, as most fans who travel to Henley. We gained no access to the Harrisons or their home, which bummed us out, and we were admittedly superfans, but I just wanted to thank him for his inspiration and the beautiful music that had made me so happy for my entire life.

I remember being 8 1/2 months pregnant with Luke, driving to New Year's Eve dinner on the 31st of December, 1999, with my husband, crying on the way to the restaurant in disbelief after hearing the frightening story of his near-murder. I remember crying on my couch on November 30, 2001, with my toddler by my side, asking me why I was sad, upon hearing that Harrison had died of cancer. All of my other memories of George Harrison are surrounded by love and fondness. And I still wonder if that mysterious figure in the garden was him. It's a downright shame that such a beautiful place, such a serene and mystical place, perfect for a guy like George, was intruded by a madman who nearly took the musician's life.

I like this particular picture of Harrison from the early 70's, sitting in one of the caves of Friar Park, with a statue of Jesus in the backdrop:

George wrote a song about Friar Park and Sir Frank on his epic 1970 album "All Things Must Pass." This is "The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)":

Hare Krishna.

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