George Harrison: The not-so-quiet Beatle
Lambert Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - March 17, 2014 - 12:00am

A tribute to George Harrison who would have turned 71 last February 

Now the darkness only stays the night-time

In the morning it will fade away

Daylight is good at arriving at the right time

It’s not always going to be this grey

—George Harrison, All Things Must Pass


MANILA, Philippines - What is common among these  Formula One, Something, gardening, Eastern philosophy, Here Comes The Sun, charity concert, slide guitar, What Is Life, Friar Park, Monty Python, My Sweet Lord, Travelling Wilburys, Handmade Films, Shanghai Surprise, sitar, All Things Must Pass? Not hard to tell: George Harrison, a Beatle who would have turned 71 last month had he not died of cancer 13 years ago. Not without legacy though. Just like the other Beatles, George touched on many things and made a dent in each of them.

Besides his music, George put to the fore a couple of things with high impact on popular culture. If John Lennon had his peace and love campaign with his avant-garde antics with Yoko Ono, and Paul McCartney had his animal rights advocacy and environmentalism, and Ringo Starr dabbled in films and carried on John’s campaign for peace and love to date, George’s greatest impact probably would be his adult-life devotion to Eastern philosophy. 

George paved the way for the apprenticeship of the four Beatles in transcendental meditation under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, generously supported a number of centers for followers of the belief located in London or other Western cities, popularized this religious philosophy in his songs to the point of sounding preachy, and lived most of his life accordingly.

He may not have admitted it, but he was instrumental in introducing Indian music to the popular world, a proof of which is the classic debut of Ravi Shankar playing sitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. It will not be surprising if the birth of world music as a genre is attributed to this event, and George’s integrative embrace of Indian instruments in his songs with The Beatles and subsequent solo albums helped in this respect.

But of course, George’s songs and musical inventiveness remain his most important contribution to popular music.  At first eclipsed by the writing genius of John and Paul, George emerged as a co-equal in terms of writing abilities when the group’s tight relationship started to disintegrate. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Something and Here Comes the Sun readily serve as examples. Even the title song of his first solo album All Things Must Pass demoed to the other Beatles, and, while it did not catch their fancy, proved to be a strong track as a solo effort. In fact, his solo career was the most successful immediately after the breakup with his first two albums selling more than John’s, Paul’s and Ringo’s.

Out of his love for his friend, sitar-teacher and guru Ravi, George unintentionally invented the concept of charity concert with the Concert for Bangladesh, which became a model and a source of learning for many subsequent similar efforts. When his musical career and marriage started to collapse, George showed interest in car races and invested in films primarily to lend a hand to the Monty Python, being an avid follower himself.

He would make a long pause in his musical career in the early ’80s but would return to it with renewed vitality towards the end of the decade with two successful efforts. His Cloud Nine album in 1987 topped the charts and collaboration with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison as the Travelling Wilburys produced two commercially successful and critically-acclaimed albums.

He would tour Japan upon the prodding of his friend Eric Clapton in 1991 and would receive the Billboard Century Award in recognition of his musical prowess. And, for the first time in more than 20 years, he would work again with Paul and Ringo on two songs written by John for the Beatles Anthology project. All this time, he was working on and off on an album that he was not able to complete in his lifetime. His son Dhani and Jeff Lynne did it for him posthumously.

George was described inaptly as the quiet Beatle. But this is more an initial-impression sort of typecasting of The Beatles in their early days of fame, which is absolutely false. John Fugelsang, in whose TV show George last performed publicly with All Things Must Pass, said, “When he opened up he was just one of the smartest, most interesting and funniest people I had an honor to meet.”  In fact, just listening to this TV show makes one think George was more disquieting with his provocative views, which are based on personal experiences and keen observation.

He was a fan of the emerging hippie, flower-power culture, but the first one to become its critic when he saw something awry and wrong with it.  “I went there (Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco) expecting it to be a brilliant place, with groovy gypsy people making works of art and paintings and carvings in little workshops.  But it was full of horrible spotty drop-out kids on drugs, and it turned me right off the whole scene,” he then said.

He wanted to be known more than simply being a quarter part of The Beatles.  “I’m not really ‘Beatle George,’” he told the British rock magazine Q in 1995. “For me, ‘Beatle George’ was a suit or a shirt that I once wore, and the only problem is, for the rest of my life, people are going to look at that shirt and mistake it for me.”

One interesting relationship George had was with Eric Clapton — a long-time friend he had. Comparing the two, Phil Spector observes, “I don’t think George would say he was as meticulous and fluent as Eric.  He always bowed to Eric as far as a technician.  But for versatility and ideas, George was far superior.  George was more creative, more melodic… George asked Eric to play a lot of the solos on the All Things Must Pass album… But on the commercial recordings like My Sweet Lord, George played those, and worked on them for endless hours getting the harmonies right, because that’s what made The Beatles’ records, those solos. They were so commercially and technically perfect. That was George’s gift.”

The Harrison-Clapton friendship lasted until George died.  But Eric learned the hard way that, around George, he should not let his guard down.  George, as is now common knowledge, invited Eric to play lead solo in While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Happy as he was with the turnout, George dropped by later Eric’s place to give him the acetates of the double White Album. Eric then went on tour in the US and brought along with him this gift and played some songs from it around. When word about this got back to George, he immediately phoned Eric.  “He was furious and gave me a huge bollocking… It brought me down to earth with a bang, and it was a good lesson to learn about boundaries, and not making assumptions, but it stung like hell,” Eric offers in his autobiography.

When George was not on the news, critics speculated he had turned recluse. But George was quick to dispel this: “I don’t go discothequing and things like that where people hang out with their cameras… I go out a lot of the time, see friends, have dinner, go to parties. I’m even more normal than, you know, normal people.”

In many ways, his spirituality goes hand-in–hand with the way he managed Friar Park — his sprawling mansion. Terry Gilliam of the Python speaks of this: “I’ve always been intrigued with his spirituality, which is absolutely essential to him. But he was living in the material world. So he was caught in these two worlds, a very spiritual world and a very material world. And they’re related in the sense that it’s about finding the beauty in the real world to create, to make the real world as beautiful as it can be. That’s, I think, what he was doing in Friar Park. He created such exquisite beauty there… He chose where the stones went. He chose the trees and put them there.”

His son Dhani offers further insight. “He’d garden night-time until midnight,” Dhani said. “He’d be out there squinting because he could see, at midnight, the moonlight and the shadows, and that was his way of not seeing the weeds or imperfections that would plague him during the day, so he could imagine what it would look like when it is done. He missed nearly every dinner because he was in the garden.”

But most importantly, George remained unattached to material things or fame. Ravi observes, “George had something which we call in our language tyagi, which means the feeling of unattachment. He had everything — all the wealth, all the fame, whatever he wanted. But he was not attached to it. It didn’t seem to matter much to him, because he was searching much higher, much deeper.”

Until his death, he was preoccupied with his basic questions: “Why am I here?,” “What am I doing?” and “Where am I going?” He may or may not have received the answers to these, but for him this quest continues. He understood this life is a fleeting phase in one’s evolution. This is probably why there was no suffering in the end and he found peace in death looking forward to his next lifetime.

George Harrison was, indeed, an artist with a cause mirrored in both his music and life.

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