“Dylan… was really into the whole idea of it for the refugees.…” says George Harrison over the restored footage above from 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh. The quiet Beatle’s scouser lilt will surely tug at your heartstrings, as will Harrison and Dylan’s careful rehearsal take of “If Not for You,” a song they did not end up playing together during the concert. It’s a significant shared moment nonetheless. As fans know, “If Not for You” became a keystone song for both artists at the turn of the 70s.
Dylan wrote the song the year previous as the first track on his 1970 New Morning, a record critics heralded as a return to form after the panned double album, Self Portrait. Harrison himself sat in on a session for the song and recorded a “languid early version,” notes Beatles Bible, “at Columbia’s Studio B in New York.”
The track is “thought to be Harrison’s first recorded instance of slide guitar,” a technique that would characterize the sound of his double debut, All Things Must Pass. His presence arguably helped shape the direction of Dylan’s recording, which Dylan himself would later describe as “sort of Tex-Mex.”
Harrison’s album, released in the same year as New Morning, features his — perhaps better known — version of “If Not for You,” a song that has been covered dozens of times since. (All Things Must Pass also features a 1968 collaboration between Harrison and Dylan: namely, the opening track, “I’d Have You Anytime.”) It’s a song that seems to sum up the two musicians’ contentment with their marriages and lives at the time. The performance, though only a soundcheck, provides “an intimate glimpse,” critic Simon Leng comments, “of the warm friendship between two major cultural figures at a point when both were emotionally vulnerable.”
On one hand, the Concert for Bangladesh was a world-historical event, providing inspiration for Live Aid and other stadium-sized benefit shows. “In one day,” as Ravi Shankar put it, “the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh.” NME called it “The Greatest Rock Spectacle of the Decade” and Rolling Stone’s editors described “a brief incandescent revival of all that was best about the Sixties.”
But on the other hand, in moments like these, we can see the concert as a turn into a more mature, sensitive seventies. “Instead of crying ‘I want you so bad,” wrote Ed Ward in his 1970 New Morning review, Dylan is “celebrating the fact that not only has he found her, but they know each other well, and get strength from each other, depend on each other.” In the take at the top, Jack Whatley observes, Harrison and Dylan “spend the entire song looking at each other, as if they’re singing about their own relationship.”