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Vol. LXV, No. 41
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
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Record Review

George Harrison’s Rising Sun: “He’s Still Around. Just Listen.”

Stuart Mitchner

There wasn’t a real divide between life and death for George.

— Olivia Harrison

Many people fear the words “Lord” and “God” — makes them angry for some strange reason ….

— George Harrison (1943-2001)

Once upon a time a long time ago in an unquiet little city called New Brunswick there was a little frame house and living inside it was a quiet little old woman. On the second floor of her house lived a young married couple, graduate students at Rutgers, who had been recommended to the little woman as nice, quiet, polite, reliable people. No squabbles, no barking dogs, no creaking floors, no loud parties, no coming in and out at odd hours of the night.

Then one day the husband brought home a new KLH stereo. Not to worry: the speakers weren’t very big and, being a quiet couple, they kept the volume at a reasonable level.

It was around this time that George Harrison, the “Quiet Beatle,” released his first solo album. The little woman who lived down below could hear the music and while it did have its raucous moments, much of it sounded, well, you might almost say sadly symphonic. And the couple upstairs did their best to keep the volume down. Until the day they turned it up all the way for the big big song, oh the first time, oh the size of the sound, as if a hundred drums and trumpets were blaring and violins see-sawing like a hundred orchestras playing, and a hundred big string basses pounding and pounding until the walls shook. But the loudest noise of all wasn’t in the music. It was the sound of the quiet young couple dancing. Or rather, jumping up and down. Yes. And singing. She could hear the words somewhere behind that wall of sound.

“What is my life without your love? Who am I without you by my side?”

Later, in the course of assuring her they would never do it again, explaining that it was their anniversary, the young couple promised that from now on they would sing and jump up and down only when they knew she was not at home.

Ten Years Ago

“He’s still around. Just listen.” Interviewed in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Tom Petty is recalling what Harrison told him in December 1988 after the death of Roy Orbison, their bandmate in the Traveling Wilburys.

The upcoming tenth anniversary of Harrison’s November 29 death signaled by last week’s HBO premiere of the documentary (co-produced with Olivia Harrison) has me re-listening to his music, re-reading his patchwork autobiography, I Me Mine (1980), and watching him on YouTube having the time of his life performing with his Wilbury brothers, Orbison, Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Jim Keltner. When “Handle With Care” first came charging over the car radio 23 years ago, driven by one of Lynne’s most infectious bass lines, it took a few seconds to realize that the voice belting it out was George Harrison’s. The gutsy lyrics and singing were a departure from his uneven, post-All Things Must Pass solo work:

Been beat up and battered around

Been sent up and I’ve been shot down

You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found ….

It’s as if he’s been reborn in his creative prime and brought back into action by the Wilbury chemistry. Clearly inspired and exhilarated by the company he’s keeping, he does some of his strongest ever singing and playing, alive with the joy of making music. He was 45.

Another Level

John Lennon had been dead almost 15 years when the three remaining Beatles got together to make “Free As a Bird,” their first release since the 1970 break-up. Using a demo Lennon had recorded three years before his death, Paul McCart-ney wrote words for a middle section that movingly complemented and fleshed out John’s uncompleted song. The vocal on the first bridge is by McCartney; the second shorter version sung by Harrison builds from the word “free” (“Whatever happened to the life that we once knew, always made me feel so free”) into a searing slide guitar solo that lifts the music and the message to another level.

Five years later, on December 30,1999, George Harrison was stabbed seven times in the chest by a mentally disturbed intruder, an attack given a vivid, firsthand account by his widow Olivia in Scorsese’s documentary. The effects of the attack, and his battles with cancer before and after it, can be felt in the power and depth of the last music of his life, most of it made when he knew he was dying. In his posthumous album, Brainwashed (2002), which was wrapped up by his son Dhani and Jeff Lynne, two of the most stirring performances are the instrumental “Marwar Blues,” and “Rising Sun,” where the poignant spirit of the playing seems to take him across the divide between life and death. Whether you call it “the other side” or simply the world of art that transcends life and death, he’s there.

All through Brainwashed, Harrison’s guitar work lilts and shines, every note a gem. His solos are like haikus or poems composed of a single impeccable stanza compared to the prosy dissertations of virtuoso guitarists generally considered to be his superiors.

“Any Road,” the opening track, echoes the Wilburys’ jubilant “End of the Line,” where the message is “It’s all right,” except that, as with most of the lyrics on Brainwashed, the movement is in a terminal direction, with lines like “But oh Lord we pay the price with the spin of the wheel, with the roll of the dice.”

In “Looking for My Life,” you are with a mortally wounded man staring into the abyss (“I had no idea that things exploded, I only found it out when I was down upon my knees looking for my life”), but the jaunty music crowds sorrow and self-pity out of the picture.

“Stuck Inside a Cloud” is more personal (he compares songwriting to going to confession in I Me Mine), with its first lines, “Never slept so little, never smoked so much,” and there’s nothing muted about the emotion in the couplet:

Just talking to myself

Crying as we part

Knowing as you leave me

I also lose my heart.

There’s no morbidity in Brainwashed. If anything, Harrison makes a muse of death.

The album ends with father and son chanting “Namah Parvarti,” a Hindu prayer hailing Shiva as the destroyer of all Karma.

Happy Just to Live

Out of all the musical wealth of George Harrison — including the three strong songs he gave to Revolver (“Taxman,” “Love You To,” and “I Want to Tell You”); “Within You, Without You” on Sgt Pepper; “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the White Album; “Here Comes the Sun” on Abbey Road, not to mention his great triple LP coup, All Things Must Pass there’s a little song that John Lennon wrote and tossed his way. “I couldn’t have sung it myself,” John said of “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You.” Meaning not so much that it was beneath him, just that it wasn’t his sort of song. No attitude, no edge. Too nice, too polite. George didn’t get many chances to sing lead, so when John threw him “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” he made the most of it. In A Hard Day’s Night, a film teeming with fast, funny, joyful moments, the song has a quiet charm.

Then the little song goes out in the world with the Beatles name on it to where someone who has seen the film six times finds himself deathly ill in a strange land on the other side of the world on Christmas morning. He imagines he may not make it. He hasn’t eaten anything for ten days but a packet of digestive biscuits. He’s alone and nobody knows where he is. His refuge is a dirt-floored room in a fleabag hotel in Katmandu. After a week he figures if he doesn’t eat something soon he really may die. So he drags himself out of bed and limps on wobbly legs to the Indira Café down the street. It’s the first day of a new year. He opens the door and walks inside. The place is warm, full of people, and over the chaos of voices, the Beatles are singing. George is singing, the song is “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You.”

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