Music

My Friend, George Harrison: Reflections on the Cool Beatle

Christopher Guerin

The minute I saw George in those blue jeans, work shirt, and those sand-colored boots, I had to have them, and that was exactly what I wore for the months that followed.

George Harrison was my friend. I never met him face-to-face, but that doesn’t matter. From the mid-60s until his death on November 29, 2001, I truly thought of him as my friend, in a way that I haven’t ever felt about any other musician or celebrity.

New Year’s Eve 1999, when it was reported that he’d been stabbed by an intruder but luckily survived, it was that -- his survival -- that I celebrated at midnight. And when I read about his courage, drawing the attacker to himself and away from his wife, I thought, “Well, what else would you expect of George?”

George may have been “the quiet Beatle”, but he was also the “cool” Beatle, at least I always thought so. When I saw the (still un-rereleased!) movie Let It Be when it first came out in 1970, it was George who came across as staying above the fray. During the famous argument with Paul over how to play a certain part, it was George who kept his cool. “I don’t mind. I’ll play whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it,” he said, ever the gentleman, and though he meant what he said, he still stood up to Paul in his own gentle way. That bowled me over when I was 17.

* * *

George had style, too. Take the cover of Abbey Road. The minute I saw George in those blue jeans, work shirt, and those sand-colored boots, I had to have them, and that was exactly what I wore for the months that followed. (I still wear a pair of those boots now and then.) And I grew my first beard (or tried to), because of the poster that came with All Things Must Pass, where the heavily bearded George stands backlit in front of a beveled glass window, a poster that I framed above my bed.

And though we don’t think of any of the Beatles as sophisticated or suave, George was indisputably glamorous. Take this cameo on the Smothers Brothers show from 1968:

A holiday ritual each winter season for more than two decades, driving my family to the home of my parents for Christmas, I would play All Things Must Pass during the last 90 miles of the trip. (I still play it every Christmas day.) Justifiably, that landmark album is considered by many as the best of the Beatles’ solo recordings. Songs like “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Beware of Darkness,” and “All Things Must Pass” are not only beautiful melodic structures, but they each convey the heart and soul of the man himself, his spiritual nature, and the depths of the philosophy by which he lived as well. He sings these words not as a preacher, but as an older brother:

Watch out now, take care

Beware of the thoughts that linger

Winding up inside your head

The hopelessness around you

In the dead of night

Beware of sadness

It can hit you

It can hurt you

Make you sore and what is more

That is not what you are here for

That last line always made me shiver, just like the line “... forgetting to give back” in the song “Isn’t It a Pity”:

Isn't it a pity

Now, isn't it a shame

How we break each other's hearts

And cause each other pain

How we take each other's love

Without thinking anymore

Forgetting to give back

Isn't it a pity

* * *

One of George’s greatest songs, “My Sweet Lord,” would cause him the greatest anguish when he was sued by the publisher of Chiffons “He’s So Fine,” a moderately successful song in England, reaching Number 12 on the charts for a few weeks. Unaccountably, the judge pronounced against George in 1971, calling it unconscious plagiarism. (Today, I play the two songs side-by-side and only the slimmest similarity is evident. And besides, this kind of vague plagiarism is not at all unusual these days in popular music, but nobody thinks twice about it.) It was all typical of the kind of backlash the members of the Beatles often suffered, from John and the furor his “Bigger than Jesus Christ” comment caused, to, more recently, all the tabloid gossip surrounding Paul’s recent divorce.

But George never took such outrages lying down. Unlike John and Paul nastily dissing each other in song, he wrote great songs of gentle revenge. In response to all the legal wrangling that followed the breakup of the Beatles, George wrote and sang “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” and for the judge who found against him in 1971, he wrote the hilarious “This Song”:

This song has nothing tricky about it

This song ain't black or white and as far as I know

Don't infringe on anyone's copyright, so ...

This song we'll let be

This song is in E

This song is for you and ...

This tune has nothing Bright about it

This tune ain't bad or good and come ever what may

My expert tells me it's okay

As this song came to me

Quite unknowingly

This song could be you could be ...

This riff ain't trying to win gold medals

This riff ain't hip or square

Well done or rare

May end up one more weight to bear

But this song could well be

A reason to see - that

Without you there's no point to ... this song

George also wrote some of the finest tributes to his former band mates. His song to John, “All Those Years Ago,” and to the whole group, “When We Was Fab,” from his last great album, Cloud Nine, are both memorable tributes as well as great pop songs.

* * *

George was the last person to take himself too seriously. Just check out his music videos if you need some convincing. “Crackerbox Palace,” “This Song,” “When We Was Fab,” and “I Got My Mind Set On You” in particular (oh, I’d love to think George actually did that back flip himself!).

I often think about John Lennon’s comment to George Martin during the recording of the Let It Be album, that he didn’t want any more of the producer’s “jiggery pokery,” meaning that he’d had enough of all the studio gimmicks and wanted something genuine and simple. George, on the other hand, filled his videos with plenty of visual jiggery pokery, as if to say, “This is for fun, folks. Take me too seriously, and then the joke’s on you.”

George had a broad impact on musical culture as well, perhaps more than any other Beatle. The Concert for Bangladesh was one of the first attempts (if not the first attempt) that used rock music in order to raise significant funds for charitable causes, decades in advance of “We Are the World,” Live Aid, and the institution known as Bono.

George’s using of the sitar as early as the Rubber Soul album and forging a lasting friendship with the great Ravi Shankar, undoubtedly helped raise awareness of World Music, and was one of the seminal events leading to the globalization of culture.

(I happen also to be a Shankar fanatic, thanks to George. I’ve seen Ravi perform twice and I’ve never heard greater genius or technical facility on a concert stage. His “Raga Jogeshwari” never fails to rock and stun me.)

* * *

And all this from a self-proclaimed gardener, who was happiest with his flowers and gardens in his home, Friar’s Park, and spending time with his family, and who went out to play music now and then because, he once said, “Sometimes, you just need to boogie.”

In his interviews, George talked unashamedly about his religious beliefs. Similarly, his post-Beatles music is often religious, from “My Sweet Lord” and other songs on All Things Must Pass, to the joyous “This is Love” on Cloud Nine, to several lovely songs on his final album, Brainwashed. Though I’ve never followed Hinduism as George himself did, his interest in religions other than Christianity was very much an influence on my own spiritual development. I’m more of a seeker than a believer -- George was a staunch believer in reincarnation, for example -- and Zen has always been more compelling to me than other religions. But there’s no doubt that I would have never even begun to explore such things if it hadn’t been for George.

George Harrison believed in the right things: the simplicity and power of great music, flowers, human connection, charity toward others, love, and spiritual seeking. Not a bad combination. And while I don’t emulate George in pursuing every one of these things as rigorously as he did, they are all a part of my psyche. I miss him.

(One final note: recently a new George Harrison “Best of” collection was released. Titled Let It Roll, it’s a great introduction to his music. Highly recommended.)

Christopher Guerin was President of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic from 1985 to 2005 and is currently the Director of Program Development for Sweetwater Sound. He recently launched Zealotry, a blog featuring his fiction and poetry, and he is currently a writer and columnist for the group blog When Falls the Coliseum, where his column “Now Read This!” concentrates on a great work of fiction or poetry every week.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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