Realizing George Harrison
I’ve had my mind set on George Harrison lately.
I recently got back into the Beatles a few months ago, thanks in part to the mashup masterpiece that is Love. Love, for the uninformed, is a remixed compilation of Beatles songs used in the the Cirque de Soleil show that came out in 2006.
I had a copy of it for nearly as long, but hadn’t really given it much more than a cursory listen. One morning during my commute, Love seemed like it would hit the spot. And it hit the spot all week — all the way in and also on the way home.
It was as if I was hearing many of these songs for the first time. Partly because they were all remixes or demo versions, but also because I was finally hearing things with a little more perspective. When I was a kid, I always skipped the “George” songs — the sitar-y overly transcendental ones in favor for the poppy Lennon/McCartney tunes. I just wasn’t ready for ol’ Georgie boy.
So I went back through all my Beatles albums, focusing on the “George” songs, listening closely for his guitar parts and vocal contributions. During this research, I got way into the White Album and Abbey Road — this was when Harrison’s songwriting really began to blossom. Then I started digging through YouTube videos of old Beatles concerts, interviews and jam sessions. Finally, I got my hands on Harrison’s solo stuff.
Finding his music was like running into an old friend that I hadn’t seen in awhile. I had some catching up to do.
“Let me in here, I know I’ve been here,
Let me into your heart.”
-George Harrison, “I’d Have You Anytime”
Slight genius or dark horse
I read a piece once that described George Harrison as a “lesser genius,” which seems like a pretty shitty thing to say, but really, Harrison was more genius than most of us will ever be. I mean, his first solo album, All Things Must Pass has got to be up there with the best rock albums of all time. A triple-LP worth of genius there.
And while he may have been overshadowed by the songwriting powerhouse of John Lennon and Paul McCartney at one point, his solo stuff is deep and authentic. It gives me the feels. All Things Must Pass is enough proof of his incredible prowess as a musician, and is by far my favorite solo album by any ex-Beatle.
And while I don’t love all of Harrison’s solo endeavors (especially some of the 80s stuff), I do love the fact that he wrote of his authentic self.
Harrison’s music resonates of his life, his feelings and of his moments in time. It’s honest. He sings about not wanting to be defined only as a Beatle. He sings about his effort to be a better person. He sings about his frustration with interpersonal relationships. He makes fun of himself and his copyright lawsuits. He even takes a little dig at Frank Sinatra (Possibly because Sinatra once said “Something” was one of the best love songs ever written — but attributed it to Lennon/McCartney).
He was always a Skiffle man at heart.
“To write a song is, to me, more a case of being the vehicle
to get over that feeling of that moment, of that time.”
Be here now
I can scarcely believe that All Things Must Pass was made almost 50 years ago. Strip down Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production, and a lot of the songs sound pretty fresh. Songs like “I’d Have You Anytime,” “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp,” or “Beware of Darkness” could have been written by bands like Grizzly Bear or Arcade Fire. I hear Harrison’s guitar style echo in the likes of Wilco, Beck and even Sufjan Stevens.
My current George Harrison must-listen list:
- “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” | The guitar solo — ‘nuff said. And thechugga chugga bass line that characterized so many later rock songs. I challenge you to listen to his live performance of it at on the Concert for Bangladesh album and not smile every time he croons, “I don’t know why-ayyy.”
- “Here Comes the Sun” | This song all but literally melts my heart. Sometimes I secretly listen to it over and over so that I’ll be able to get the words just right for when I sing it to my future children. I like listening to Harrison perform it live because it has a more folksy feel, but the Beatles version is good too. For live versions, listen closely for some excellent acoustic guitar work.
- “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” and “My Sweet Lord” | Though religious, these songs show an honest approach to connecting with something greater than ourselves. No matter what you believe in, you can respect that. The calm, yet uplifting melodies serve as a perfect vessel for sharing Harrison’s search for truth. Respect.
- “Dark Horse” | It seems like just about everyone hated Harrison’s 1974Dark Horse. His tour was mocked, his album got scathing reviews — I actually really like it. Particularly the title track. I got the 2014 remastered album, which includes an amazing acoustic version. But even the original with Harrison’s rough, gritty voice is good. It’s good because it just exudes the pain and frustration he was going through at that time — dealing with a failed marriage, substance abuse, and living up to the expectations that everyone had for him. What can I say? I dig brutal honesty.
- “Any Road” | Harrison’s last album, Brainwashed, is very mellow, very thoughtful. Finished with the help of his son Dhani and producer Jeff Lynne, after his death in 2001, Brainwashed seems to be an album of life lessons. The song, “Any Road” is a folksy tune full of all kinds of lyrical truth bombs. I like it because it gives me hope for a life well-lived and well-traveled. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
- “Beware of Darkness” (Acoustic) and “Be Here Now” | Both of these songs have an amazing ability to ground me. Sage advice, wrapped in simple melodies. It became pretty clear that George Harrison’s interest in spirituality was not a fad or passing fancy, and both of these songs beautifully demonstrate Harrison’s quest for truth and a higher meaning in life.
There were so many honorable mentions, that I decided to summarize them in a few words:
- “Simply Shady” and “Maya Love” | Full of soul and edge.
- “Let it Down” (Acoustic) and “I’d Have You Anytime” | Music to make out to. Like whoa.
- “Living in the Material World” | The lyrical cadence is a bit quirky in some parts, but I like it all the same.
- “Ding Dong Ding Dong” | I like to listen to this while I wash dishes.
- “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” | Fools illusions everywhere.
- “Got My Mind Set on You” | Catchy, cute and a childhood favorite (especially the music video).
- “Crackerbox Palace” | Hated it at first, but the chorus is damn catchy.
- “All Things Must Pass” | Because the sunrise doesn't last all morning and neither do these lists.
Listen and let it roll
In a video about the making of his last album, Brainwashed, Harrison said that “the problem with talking is, the more you say the more you bury yourself. It is very difficult to express what you feel in your heart. In a song though, because you have music and the value of sound, it touches places that other things don’t touch, it can stir you from a much deeper, subtle level.”
I could go on and on about why George Harrison’s music has had such a profound impact on my life, but I don’t think I’d ever be able to find the right words.
All I can say is: listen to it for yourself.
Listen to it carefully. Listen to the good songs over and over again. And give the not-so-good ones another chance. Seriously. Listen for the jokes and playful jabs. He trolled a lot in his music. Listen for the beautiful and meditative moments. Listen for the hot guitar licks.
But more than anything, listen for the truth.