observations and opinion
George Harrison, the practical mystic
Isn’t it a pity, how we take each other’s love
Without thinking anymore
Forgetting to give back
They gave you meat for a coupon, weighing the skimpy morsels carefully; sugar too. Tea gradually returned. But there was no shortage of coal, blackening the skies above the endless row houses in the cold rain. The war was over, but life was hard.
Britons shocked the world (and themselves) in 1945 when they rewarded Churchill’s wartime victory by replacing him with Clement Atlee’s socialist Labour Party. But it made sense: the battle was behind them and it was time to build the New Jerusalem. Brilliant in rhetoric, dreary in reality, the era witnessed the nationalization of many industries, including medicine. But it was a hard, tired slog up the hill from war to peace. Labour lasted seven years. The National Health Service, of course, was so popular and necessary that it endures to this day, after all the nationalized industries have been shuttered or returned to private ownership.
It was there, in the strained days of post-war Austerity Britain, that the Beatles grew up. Life was plain, a plate of boring boiled potatoes. Drama came too often from drunkenness, divorce or death. That was true, in one way or another, for three of the the four Liverpool boys who would become the most famous men in the world. But one of them – George Harrison – lived a secure and loving childhood. The Harrisons had their act together and their boy, ‘though slight and quiet, grew up with more stability, support and serenity than his band mates. It was perhaps this rock solid emotional foundation – a home life that became a second home of sorts for John and Paul – that imbued in George the strength to be different, and the discipline to succeed.
The word “different” applied to Harrison from the moment the Beatles burst into mass consciousness. George was calm. He was observant. He was the Quiet One. He was sarcastic, but in a sweet way. George understood the juggernaut he was riding – in particular the awesome power of the Lennon-McCartney song writing machine – and he stayed in the saddle. He worshipped Lennon, an “older brother” and heroic figure to him and he tolerated Paul (who could be, apparently, a pain in the ass). George slowly built up his abilities and his confidence, emerging from the John-Paul shadow late in the game and then exploding into the pop universe with his own unique, powerful sound.
At the same time, he was centred and confident enough to see that there was more to life than the booze, the girls, the drugs, the money, the fame, the fun, the craziness of it all. Early-on, George started looking for meaning. Like many truly religious people – and in particular the British variant, for whom organized religion was (and is) weirdly, comically alien – George Harrison could feel the presence of a spiritual reality. Trusting his senses, he searched for a key, a language, a map to understand that reality.
And so, oddly enough, it was a pop star – George Harrison – who more than any other person in the history of the Western world, shone a light upon and drew attention to the religions of the east. And as others tried it out and quit (for example, John Paul and Ringo) it was George who remained a devoted student. Not a saint – he got too deeply into drugs for a while and apparently was something of a cold-hearted bastard to his first wife, who quit him for Eric Clapton – but a serious man.
Which is how many remember George: as a serious man, with a sense of humour. Dry, shifting, quiet but sharp. But of course, he was more than that, in a real way the Renaissance Man among the Fab Four. He was eclectic: we may remember George for the lovely “Something” or the hypnotic “Within You Without You” or even the trance-like “Blue Jay Way” (does anyone remember him for that? I love that song). Or we can associate him with his brilliant, overwhelming first solo album (“All Things Must Pass”), his weird 70’s jaunty pop songs (“Crackerbox Palace”) or the amazing success of his late 80s superband The Traveling Wilburys. Outside of music, you might even know George best through Handmade Films, the vastly profitable company that brought us, among other things, the Monty Python films and A Fish Called Wanda.
When I say that George was “different” from the other Beatles, it is in part because of the guts it took for him to become and be himself, in the pop universe. While today it is commonplace (far too commonplace) for the famous and infamous to credit God with his success – we are almost drowning in religion now – forty or fifty years ago, particularly in Britain, religion was weird. In particular, for a young man in his 20s who was famous for playing a guitar. Harrison hung in there, living most of his life with the sneering hostility and derision that a religious person experiences in a very, very material world.
He wrote about it, in particular on his record “Living in the Material World.” But of deeper interest than surviving the pressures of the world around him, is Harrison’s effort to balance the pressures within him. After all, how do you square being a super-famous, funny English rock star with solemn eastern mysticism? In particular, when you’ve got all the money in the world and you LIKE money?
This was the thing about Harrison: although sincerely disturbed by our obsession with material things and genuinely capable of sensing the spiritual self, the guy loved stuff. Among all the Beatles, George in fact had the firmest grip on “the material world.” He loved expensive sports cars (watch him drive up to meet Paul and Ringo for the 1994 Anthology recording sessions and you’ll see just how expensive) and, after the Beatles, became a pathological gardener (his autobiography is dedicated to gardeners everywhere). Mr. Harrison spent almost his entire career exploring and expressing eastern religious mysticism, but he died with a hundred million bucks in the bank. And that was no accident.
George Harrison didn’t just like to spend money. He liked to make it, and he liked to keep it. A point he made, with no equivocation, in one the least likely anthems of the rock n’ roll era. In one of the best tracks on the best album the band ever put out (the song is “Taxman” and the LP “Revolver”), George Harrison makes the case for lower taxes on rich people. Decrying the insanely punitive levels of income tax extracted by the government of Great Britain, he sang this:
Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don’t take it all, ‘cause I’m the Taxman, yeah I’m the Taxman
And you’re working for no-one but me
George, indeed, was different: living in Mod Britain under Wilson’s Labour Government, what did he write about? High taxes. Swimming in fame, money and girls, what did he turn his mind to? God. Able to sell almost any record to anybody, what did he do? He held a fundraiser for the hungry of Bangladesh. In the 70’s era of disco, self-indulgence and pre-AIDS bacchanalia, how did he live? He married, raised a son and pruned his rose bushes. All the while, investing in and profiting from a variety of businesses, in particular films. But not crap – always films with some wit, or at least that made an effort. Constantly mindful of the dangers of materialism, George Harrison admired and bought beautiful, expensive things – cars, in particular.
That might strike you as hypocrisy, and it would be, if the man professed to be any better than he actually was, pretended to be pure when he was, in truth, just human. And unafraid to be human, too.
Because it takes insight to be oneself yet want to be more. It takes optimism to try and to fail, and it takes courage to try again tomorrow. It takes wisdom to see what is beautiful in this material world, while trying to see the beauty beneath. It takes commitment not to be seduced by that beauty, not to be distracted by what appears to be real. It takes work to remember that the wine glass in our hand contains not only wine, but is made up of atoms, invisible particles clustered together in a frenzied dance, bound by forces we believe in yet cannot see.
So often we only see the world through a window, watching the trees sway in the wind yet hearing not a sound. Peering through the pane of glass and thinking that what we witness is all there is to see. But if we step outside, turn off the noise and take out our ear buds, we bear another kind of witness: we hear the breeze itself. No, not the breeze, but the movement of the world as it is shaken by the invisible power swirling through it. If we quiet ourselves, and listen.
George was listening for it. Because George, indeed, was different.