George Harrison 20 Years After: Going His Own Way
By Stuart Michner
I’m a dark horse
Running on a dark race course…
—George Harrison (1943-2001)
According to Glyn Johns, engineer and producer of the Beatles’ famously fraught Get Back sessions, “If I was ever going to write a book about George, I would print out every lyric he ever wrote, and I guarantee you would find out exactly who he was. Beginning with ‘Don’t Bother Me,’ it’s all there, as plain as plain can be.”
In George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door (Overlook 2015), Graeme Thomson notes that “Don’t Bother Me” was “written out of sheer necessity” at a time when “the insatiable appetite of Beatlemania” was “really beginning to bite.” As someone who “would never be much inclined to float off and write about ‘newspaper taxis’ or ‘Maxwell’s silver hammer,’ “ and who was already “adept at writing about himself,” Harrison was “the first Beatle to write songs about being a Beatle.”
So there he was, at 20, the youngest member of a band dominated by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, a compositional dynamo producing hit songs with titles like “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “Thank You Girl,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” and “From Me to You.” Laid up with a head cold while the Beatles were playing “a summer season in Bournemouth,” as he recounts in I Me Mine (Chronicle Books 1980, 2002), Harrison gamely sets about writing the first chapter of his own narrative, a subtext in song with a distinct point of view. While “Don’t Bother Me” is plotted around the standard she-left-me-on-my-own plotline, it comes across as a dispatch from the combat zone of Beatlemania by a singer with no interest in holding hands or making nice: “So go away, leave me alone, don’t bother me … don’t come near, just stay away.”
Before “Rubber Soul”
In 1964, George’s second song, “You Know What to Do,” was, in Thomson’s words, “swiftly recorded and equally as swiftly rejected.” Although it’s sung with jubilant energy and has a more positive, loving message (“I’ll stay with you every day … make you love me more in every way”), it wasn’t deemed good enough for a place on Beatles for Sale (1964) and doesn’t surface in the repertoire until the first volume of The Beatles Anthology some 30 years later.
During this period (call it BRS for Before Rubber Soul), there was “never any suggestion that either Lennon or McCartney would,” as Thomson puts it, “deign to write with him.” Beatles producer George Martin saw him “as a kind of loner …. John and Paul had each other to play against, their collaboration was more of a competition. George was the sole guy, he had no one to work with.” Which proved to be a good thing, given the two strong, absolutely necessary songs George contributed to the universally acclaimed breakthrough album Rubber Soul (the original U.K. version, that is, not the truncated American issue).
Thinking for Himself
In the summer of 1965, Harrison had discovered — and been discovered by — the music of virtuoso sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar. Come October the Beatles were in the studio and George was playing the sitar on “Norwegian Wood.” While the unlikely appearance of the sitar was the most noticed innovation among many on an album praised by music critics like Chris Smith for reaching “beyond the confines of acceptable rock and roll techniques,” what stands out in the context of Harrison’s progress as a songwriter is “Think for Yourself,” with the title’s implicit reference to his emergence as a compositional force. He’s in charge from the first line (“I’ve got a word or two to say about the things that you do”), giving his version of the Beatles adventure in lines like “all those lies about the good things we can have if we close our eyes.” There’s a hint of future games in the next verse’s “do what you want to do and go where you’re going to … cause I won’t be there with you.” Four years later he makes a dramatic exit from the Get Back sessions streaming this week in Peter Jackson’s three-part documentary. Here he’s singing, “I left you far behind” even as the band is brilliantly backing him, with harmonies from John and Paul, and Paul blasting away on fuzz bass.
His second contribution, “If I Needed Someone,” is as much a statement as a love song (“If I had some more time to spend, then I guess I’d be with you my friend”). The playful reference to the D chord in I Me Mine (“If you move your finger around you get various little melodies … and various little maladies”) goes along with the ambiguity of a lyric structured on a telltale “If.” He was about to commit to marriage with Patty Boyd, but as Jonathan Gould observes in Can’t Buy Me Love, it seems “a rueful rain check of a love song” directed “to the right person at the wrong time.”
Losing and Finding Him
Until a few years ago when it went missing, I had the 1980 hardcover edition of I Me Mine, which contains a patchwork memoir along with 80 lyrics, both in facsimile as written and typeset, with his comments about each, some short and some long and surprisingly open, eloquent, and moving, particularly the prefaces to “I Me Mine,” from the Beatles’ ill-fated Let It Be, and “The Art of Dying” and “My Sweet Lord” from Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, the most acclaimed of all Beatles solo works. Although he composed these musings back in the late ’70s, they could have been written weeks before his death on November 29, 2001. But, as his wife Olivia has said, “There wasn’t a real divide between life and death for George.”
“Handle With Care”
I did my best to keep up with George’s solo work in the 1970s into 1980s, but after the wonder of All Things Must Pass, nothing really got my attention until “Handle With Care” came charging over the car radio in 1988. It took a few seconds to realize that the voice belting the opening lines was George Harrison’s.
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….
Just now I’ve been watching him on YouTube performing with his Traveling Wilbury brothers — Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Jim Keltner. 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.
Next week, on December 8, it will be 41 years since the murder of John Lennon. He’d 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 McCartney 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. It’s a rich, savage, emotionally explosive piece of playing, delivered fervently, relentless in its intensity. In the memorial anthology, Harrison (Rolling Stone 2002), Greg Kot sees the “aching eloquence” of George’s playing as the song’s “crowning moment.”
Five years later, on December 30,1999, 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 Martin Scorsese’s documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. 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.” All through Brainwashed, Harrison’s guitar work lilts and shines, every note a gem. His solos are like haikus or poems of a single impeccable stanza compared to the prosy dissertations of guitarists generally considered to be his superiors.
“Any Road,” the album’s opening track, echoes the Wilburys’ “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:
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.
For all the changes George would go through in his career with and without the Beatles, the Indian connection, spiritually and musically, is the one he sustained until the moment his ashes were scattered at the holy site, Sangam.
Portions of this column are taken from my piece on the 10th anniversary of George Harrison’s death, which began with his comment on the writing of “My Sweet Lord”: “Many people fear the words ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ – makes them angry for some strange reason.” With that in mind, I won’t spell out my mantra of eternal thanks for the Princeton Public Library (TGPPL), which once again came through, providing me with a revised 2002 edition of I Me Mine, as well as Graeme Thomson’s biography.