George Harrison during the height of Beatlemania
Psychedelic era Harrison
Older and wiser
Harrison with his wife Olivia
One of the unfortunate byproducts of the Boy Band Scourge visited upon the global mediascape is the disturbing realization that slowly but surely, children of all nationalities are being helped through their fragile maturation processes by sweet-faced adults posing as teenagers, female pop icons that bought breast implants at an early age, and entertainers who have about as much relation to their own musical products as their svengalis have to do with their protege’s dance routines. And this is nothing too new pop music has always been full of more air and airheads than weight and weighty matters.
And the Beatles were no exception. Their early appearance on the American cultural landscape was a serendipitous collision of optimism, catharsis and craftsmanship; lifting a nation out of McCarthyist binarism, cold wars, and sexual repression. But it wasn’t until they released Rubber Soul and Revolver that they began to slowly strip away the veneer of conventional songcraft and stretch its possibilities. By the time the group fragmented amongst bickering over roles and relationships, they had revolutionized the way bands not only create music but they way they create themselves. Which is why I count myself endlessly lucky that I was smothered in the Fab Four by my parents while I was growing up.
Sure, there were bright-eyed simple pleasures like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” songs whose melodies and lyrics stuck in your head like pop music is supposed to. But there were other songs, like those of the late George Harrison, that unsettled you. Those songs dropped you into another world and asked you to consider the connection between the sounds you heard and the feelings running through you.
Like Sgt. Pepper’s “Within You Without You”, a song you will not hear being played on the steady loops of CNN or Fox that are currently debating Harrison’s status as “the quiet one”, “the Beatles’ best musician”, etc. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was my first musical purchase at a very young age, mostly because I wanted to own “A Day in the Life”, which was at the time being played faithfully by radio stations that would only later be painted into the “classic rock” corner before they settled into endless replays of ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. But when the first tinkling sitar notes of “Within You Without You” trickled through my crappy tape recorder, the immediately comfortable aura of the Fab Four which basically hinged upon the Lennon/McCartney partnership as both a textual reality and as a creative archetype disappeared, and I felt transported into a foreign territory smack in the middle of that which I had otherwise considered most familiar. This sensation was unsettling and exhilarating at the same time, because while it was easy to ignore Harrison and go straight for John and Paul, it was rewarding to enter the strange worlds that George constructed in the relative quiet corner that his bandmates’ overshadowing weight created for him.
Although most will point to Abbey Road‘s twin polished masterpieces, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something”, as evidence of George’s “real” contributions, it is kind of disturbing to watch news programs of all stripes try to retroactively legitimize Harrison’s Beatles authorship, as if anyone but those who never listened to the Fab Four needed to be schooled. It is the White Album, what I would consider to be the best example of the band’s stunning capabilities, that contains Harrison’s rougher, more compelling works, such as “Long, Long, Long”, a disintegrating, fractured composition whose title mirrors the longing and weariness found within both the song’s lyrics and its guitars’ alternate swells and silence. The fact that “Long, Long, Long” is one of the quietest songs on the White Album not to mention that it’s followed by Lennon’s “Revolution” is one of its greatest attributes: in the midst of the noise and madness of that masterpiece is a hushed call to love that characterized the man more than any other song ever would.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, possibly the most emotional song the Beatles ever created, was a sober reminder that yes, the Beatles could still just rock, even if they had to recruit outside help in the form of Eric Clapton to do it. Locked between Paul’s tongue-in-cheek “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and John’s more harshly ironic “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was Harrison’s warm but fearsome reminder of the soul’s endless search for companionship and comfort. Its bottom-heavy sonic accompaniment stood out on the White Album‘s treble-infused palette like a sore thumb. Which is something no one associated with George, the so-called “quiet Beatle”. He just wanted to be left peacefully alone to pursue his search for God, love and harmony even after Eric Clapton stole his wife.
“What was it like to be a Beatle?” Harrison once responded, before answering the question with another question. “What was it like not to be a Beatle?” That question might seem alien to a culture in love with the camera, that considers reality television more compelling ritual than the pledge of allegiance, but Harrison’s retort still contains a lesson that could stand to be learned in this age of rampant cynicism, hype, and lens addiction. Sometimes not being part of the relentless desire to be seen and heard can allow you the solitude to create beautiful music.
And beautiful movements. Harrison’s spiritual search led him all the way to Eastern yogis, to Bangladesh and philanthropy, and even to Monty Python’s historical revisionist stab at the life of global culture’s most memorable martyr/mullah, Jesus Christ, in the form of their sharpest movie Life of Brian. But just like Graham Chaplin’s deer-in-the-headlights Brian, Harrison was locked inside a massive messiah apparatus just as intent on commodifying him as it was on sanctifying him, and he knew that a life apart from the madness was the finest reward of being a silent partner.
So I propose honoring Harrison by straying from that desire to posthumously immortalize a man who spent his life in search of the immortal, mostly because he knew it wasn’t within him but without him. That is, all around him; in the earth, in the oppressed, in the poor, and in the life that goes on when death has claimed its own. For George, let’s remember that it is sometimes within silence that we can make ourselves best heard.