December 6, 2023

Let It Roll: The Ballad of George Harrison

By Stuart Mitchner

I love this time of day, 1:30 to 3 a.m., kitchen to myself, cleaning up to music from the Bose Wave. I turn on WWFM in time to hear the first two movements of Haydn’s string quartet No. 23 in F minor, which creates a nice slow weaving motion that goes surprisingly well with sweeping the floor.

According to his biographer Albert Christoph Dies, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) once claimed that musical ideas were pursuing him: “If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier…. I am really just a living clavier.”

Basie the Piano

Pondering the idea of a composer or a player becoming the embodiment of their instrument, my thoughts turn first to Red Bank’s favorite son Count Basie. If anyone this side of Glenn Gould or Duke Ellington qualified as “a living piano” it was Basie playing one or two incandescent notes between the heaves of big band storm. Listening to the 1975 RCA session with Basie and tenor man Zoot Sims while sweeping the tile dance floor in my night club kitchen at 3 a.m., the number I keep coming back to is a medium slow blues Basie calls “Captain Bligh.” After much looking online I’ve given up trying to find out why he named a blues after the deposed commander of HMS Bounty. In my search of the Net, however, what I found was a smile: of course, Basie’s big band recorded two albums of Beatles songs in the 1960s, one of them with liner notes by Ringo Starr.

A New Biography

In Beatles World the period between late November and late December could be called Time of the Assassin. George Harrison died of cancer on November 29, 2001, after barely surviving a murderous attack a day before the millennium, on December 30, 1999, and John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980, 43 years ago this Friday.

This fall, along with “Now and Then,” the so-called last Beatles song, there’s a newly released biography of George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle (Scribner $35) by Philip Norman, author of Shout, the Beatles in Their Generation (1996), plus biographies of Paul McCartney (2016) and John Lennon (2008). In the acknowledgments, Norman explains why it’s taken him until 2023 to deliver his life of Harrison and why he was denied interviews with George’s wife Olivia and son Dhani. The culprit, he says, is his long London Sunday Times obituary for Harrison, which was “unremittingly negative, in places crudely insulting.” If you have the stomach for it, you can read the obit online (“a troubling blot on my record given seemingly everlasting life,” Norman admits). His hope is that, with this book, he has redeemed himself.


Still, I have my doubts about the value of a redemptive biography by someone who could write a “crudely insulting” obituary about any true hero of the culture, let alone George Harrison, especially after labeling him the “reluctant” Beatle. This is St. George, knight of the slide guitar, and “a living guitar” if ever there ever was one. Not only the lead guitarist of the most celebrated rock group in history, he delivered the prodigious 3-LP epic, All Things Must Pass, generally rated the most impressive Beatles solo album. I have to admit I’m subject to the aftereffects of experiencing, at top-volume, the guitar-driven, reverb-nirvana  juggernaut of Phil Spector’s production of “Wah-Wah,” Harrison’s magnificent retort to Lennon and McCartney after their snide dismissal of his songs during the Get Back sessions captured in Peter Jackson’s recent documentary.

“Wah-Wah” was composed the very day “reluctant” George abruptly announced “I’m leaving the band” and went home to make this scathing declaration, in effect, “I am the guitar!” The way George plays and sings it, as if he had a whole multitracked army of guitarists at his command, he’s liberated, defiant, joyous, his message, hastily summarized; “Wah-wah, you’ve given me a wah-wah … You made me such a big star … Being there at the right time … Cheaper than a dime … Wah-wah, wah-wah, you’ve given me your wah-wah, wah-wah … Oh, you don’t see me crying Oh, you don’t hear me sighing … Wah-wah … I don’t need no wah-wah … And I know how sweet life can be … So I’ll keep myself free of wah-wah wah-wah wah-wah.”

“Let It Roll”

Norman’s last chapter is indelicately titled with a quote from George’s ordeal: “I’m being murdered in my own home.” Actually, he could have said “in my own song,” since one of the glories of All Things Must Pass is “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll),” a celebration of George’s residence Friar Park, the Victorian Gothic mansion built in 1898 by the eccentric Sir Frankie (described by George as a cross between Lewis Carroll and Walt Disney). Powered by Spector’s most brilliant arrangement, with the power of reverb used to haunting effect, the song rolls mysteriously “across the floor, through the hall and out the door” and ends with “Fools illusions everywhere” as “Joan and Molly sweep the stairs.”

All the elements are in play in Norman’s summation of the horror: George and his second wife, Olivia, soon to be the heroine of the evening, are asleep when she hears the sound of breaking glass “which at first she thought was a falling chandelier” (only the Lady of the Manor would assume a chandelier). It turns out that “a wing from the St. George and the Dragon statue” was used to smash the glass patio door. After George spots the stone wing, he’s on his way back “along the gallery” to the master bedroom when he sees a man below in “the great hall, holding the stone sword from the statue in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other.” The man shouts “Get down here!” to which George shouts “Hare Krishna!” When the intruder starts running up the stairs (swept by Joan and Molly in the song), the biographer gets into the spirit of the moment, transforming “reluctant” George into “St. George” rushing the dragon and trying to grab the knife. When the two fall battling onto “a heap of meditation cushions,” it begins to seem that George’s Monty Python buddy Michael Palin is putting his Pythonesque sense of humor and horror into play. It’s at that moment, with the assailant on top of him, stabbing him repeatedly, that George thinks “I’m being murdered in my own home.”

Now here comes Olivia, “woman of action” (“Good thing you married a Mexican girl,” Tom Petty told George), who first hacks the attacker with a brass-handled Agatha Christie poker and then bludgeons him with the heavy base of a lamp. By then, thanks to Olivia calling the Henley-on-Thames police as soon as she hears the breaking glass, the constables arrive, as does George’s 22-year-old son Dhani, who finds his mother lying at the bottom of the staircase “with a nasty head wound.” Norman’s description of the attack is based on interviews with George’s first wife Pattie Boyd, Michael Palin, and “Kingsize Taylor,” a name not found in the index. The last paragraph of the account is at once grim and gracious: “In the minutes before the paramedics arrived and took over, George nearly died four times and was pulled back from the brink by the sound of his son’s voice.”

“Looking for my life

After reading the last chapter of Norman’s biography, I listened with special attention to certain songs on Harrison’s posthumous album Brainwashed, struck by the raw, verge-of-death lyrics: “I never knew that things exploded / I only found it out when I was down upon my knees, looking for my life” and “I was almost a statistic inside a doctor’s case / when I heard a messenger from inner space.” There’s a poignant truth in the notion that Harrison is his instrument when you hear the music he makes with the slide guitar in “Rising Sun” and “Marwan Blues.” The idea of being haunted by “a living guitar” may sound like a contradiction in terms, except that George’s characteristic genius is to play with such focused melodic intensity that the music both holds and haunts even as it’s happening, in the moment, not just as it follows you around in your memory or when you hear his distinctive sound still being echoed by others in the 21st century.

This Friday

My son is fixated on December 8, which is this Friday. Although he was only 4 when John Lennon was murdered, he still remembers the 10 minutes of worldwide silence when the radiators in our garage apartment all began coincidentally banging, stopping only when the vigil was over.

When John was musically resurrected by the living Beatles in “Free As a Bird,” what brought him most spectacularly into the moment was the melodic intensity of George Harrison’s slide guitar solo toward the end, John given fiery life, the living John by the living George.