In 1966, while returning from a tour in Manila to London, The Beatles made a three-day layover in Delhi. Kabir Bedi, a 20-year-old-freelance reporter with All India Radio at the time, managed to get an exclusive interview with the Fab Four. In his memoir Stories I Must Tell (Westland Books), Bedi wrote that he spoke to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr for 30 minutes by bluffing to their manager, Brian Epstein, that the government had asked for the interview.
When Bedi later learnt that AIR had taped other programmes over the interview, he was outraged and left the national broadcaster. He headed to Mumbai, where he worked in advertising companies and later became a model and an actor. Here are edited excerpts of Bedi’s encounter with the Beatles.
By 1966, the year I interviewed them, The Beatles had become one of the most successful groups in the history of pop music. “Beatlemania” was raging around the world. And here I was, a crazy fan just out of college, interviewing them in their hotel room, the only Indian reporter to get through to them.
I’d been a fan since 1963, the year I joined college, after they blew me away with I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You. In 1964, I loved their Hard Day’s Night. But Yesterday, on their 1965 album Help, converted me into a hardcore fan. Their latest album was Rubber Soul. I asked Paul about it.
“Is it true that Rubber Soul sold over a million copies in its first ten days?”
“That’s what I heard too,” he smiled through crinkling eyes.
“I just loved Michelle!” I gushed. “It’s such a tender song, almost like an English ballad. What made you give it a French name? Was it a girl you knew?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” Paul shook his head. “I’d composed it a long time ago. It’s a love song … Michelle sounded romantic …”
“Do you see the softer tones of Rubber Soul as a new direction in your music?”
“We’ve been trying a lot of new sounds,” he said earnestly. “Our next album might push a couple of boundaries.”
He was talking of Revolver, one of their most innovative albums, which came out a month later. It had more radical and path-breaking music with Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and the playful Yellow Submarine.
“Can you tell me what to expect?” I asked, hoping for a scoop of some sort.
“Not really,” Paul shook his head affably. “You’ll just have to wait. But it’s good.”
‘I’m a bit of an Indian’
George Harrison waved me towards him as he plucked on a sitar. His love of the sitar had made him “the Indian” among The Beatles. I wanted to probe his relationship with India and Indian spiritualism.
“You thrilled us all by playing the sitar in Norwegian Wood,” I began. He accepted my compliment with a nod and a smile. “Is that the first time a sitar has been played in a Western song?”
“Can’t think of any other,” he replied with the hint of a smile. “I’d like to use it more.” Later, he used the sitar far more creatively in Love You To and Tomorrow Never Knows, both in the Revolver album. For the sitar-like sounds of Strawberry Fields he actually used a swarmandal, known as “the Indian harp”. As lead guitarist of The Beatles, he was always in search of new sounds.
“Do you always carry your sitar with you?”
“No,” he said simply. “I’m buying one here.”
“Here in Delhi?” He nodded as he put it down gently. “It’s a good one.”
That was a mini-scoop. I could picture myself saying, “And guess what? George Harrison buys his sitars in Delhi!”
“Are you influenced by Ravi Shankar?”
“He’s a great musician. I’m very impressed by him. I met him just recently.” “Do you plan to spend more time with him?”
“I’ve got a lot to learn from him.”
“I’ve read that you’re very interested in Indian philosophy …”
“Hinduism is like an ocean … I’ve read Vivekananda.”
“Swami Vivekananda?” I asked in surprise.
Vivekananda had been famous in the West ever since he had spoken of Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. “Is that why they call you the Indian among The Beatles?”
He smiled softly. “I’m no Indian … If you seek a way, all religions have it. You can say I’m bit of a Hindu. I hope to come back with the boys one day.”
A message for Pete Best?
I moved on to Ringo Starr, one of the best drummers in the world. He’d been engrossed in his newspapers, yet he turned to me with friendliness. There was a beguiling warmth in his eyes that made me like him. I connected with him on a human level. He seemed an innately decent man. But he only had a one liner, or one word, for every question I asked.
Had he always wanted to be a drummer? “Yep.”
Did he have a favourite song? “Ballads.”
What did he know of India? “Not much.”
Did he have a message for Peter Best, whom he replaced as the drummer of The Beatles? “Nope.”
He looked at me quizzically and asked, “How did you get here?” I told him how hard it had been to get around Epstein, but not how I did it. It still amused him. Then, I complimented his drumming in Day Tripper. He waved me off with a smile of thanks.
‘Have you ever tried LSD?’
I moved on to John Lennon. But he wasn’t quite ready for me. “I’m still not done with this gentleman,” John said, gesturing to the man in the dark suit. “He’s the manager of BOAC (known as British Airways today).” I nodded pleasantly and waited impatiently.
“I can’t believe I’m talking to John Lennon,” I said nervously.
John smiled, and I melted. “How old are you?” he asked.
“Twenty-one. I’m just out of college. Working for All India Radio.”
“It’s a good age. We formed The Beatles around then.”
“Really?” I didn’t realise he was so young at the time. “Did you ever imagine you’d be so famous?”
“Every musician wants to be famous.”
“What does ‘Day Tripper’ mean?” He looked at me with some surprise. It was a song they released as a single around the time of Rubber Soul.
“Well …” he began hesitantly, “sort of … like a weekend philosopher.”
“You know … people who don’t do things regularly.”
Time for the big push. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“If you must,” he said, guarded.
“Do you smoke hash or grass?”
John’s eyes narrowed in his round glasses. “Are you trying to get me into trouble, fella? I don’t know the laws around here. Some musicians smoke, some don’t. Judge them by their music.”
“Judging by your music, you do,” I said, hoping for a confirmation.
He shook his head, but warmly. “Next?” he said, wanting to end the topic.
I persisted. “What about LSD?” I hadn’t tried it, though I was curious.
“What about it?” He now looked defensive, all his warmth gone.
“Have you ever tried LSD?” I asked softly.
“No, I haven’t.” John said sharply. “And let’s be clear about one thing, shall we? I don’t like people spreading stories like that. It can be dangerous.”
Seeing my disappointment, he leaned forward and spoke softly. “I know you want a scoop, lad. I don’t blame you. But I can’t help you here.”
“Can I give you a hug?” He evaded it gracefully. He put his arm around me and guided me to the door. Paul waved a goodbye from afar. George was still focused on his sitar. Ringo was reading his papers. I was walking on clouds as I left their room. I’d met my gods, The Beatles.
Excerpted with permission from Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of An Actor, Kabir Bedi, Westland Books.