Friday, August 19, 2005

Guitars Weep, the Sun Dims
Saying goodbye to George Harrison – honorary Indian

Fifty-eight has been the retirement age in India for a long time. Maybe, it is more than mere coincidence that George Harrison was this age when he retired from the world.

When the Beatles were recording their last album Abbey Road in 1969, they all knew it was the last one. There was sadness, but there was relief too; individual ambitions had left the collective dream behind. After years of being under the colossus of Lennon-McCartney, George Harrison contributed his two greatest songs to this album (“Something” and “Here Comes The Sun”). He was 26, and at his creative peak. He hadn’t lived even half his life, but as one fourth of the most significant cultural entity of the twentieth century, he probably knew the high notes of his life had been struck.

Despite being the youngest, he was also the quietest and the most serious, with more than a passing interest in matters of the spirit. He already had a deep-rooted connection with India – Ravi Shankar and the sitar, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Rishikesh, Krishna consciousness…his musical sensibility had shown overt evidence of all these influences but now, divested of the cumulative band sensibility, these influences (getting stronger by the day) would permeate everything he did.

It took a little time though. His first post-Beatles album All Things Must Pass (1971)– an amazingly consistent triple album was rightly recognized as a masterwork. But thereafter, gradually, critics and fans almost unanimously pronounced his musical journey as a downhill trip. It’s a simplistic view, and deserves closer examination.

The most significant thing about rock and roll music (indeed was true for the Beatles too) has always been - vitality. The music always celebrated youth, sensually, with verve and passion. Even the darker music (from bands like Velvet Underground, The Doors, etc) came from youthful expressions (Lou Reed and Jim Morrison were in their twenties after all). Post-Beatles, George Harrison was perhaps the first major rock and roll artist who let his changing worldview and his sensibility suffuse all his output.

His spiritual concerns made him eschew the vitality of rock and roll totally. For a man who had always preferred being a facilitator with the Beatles, who had sacrificed guitar virtuosity for the overall cause of the song (despite being a great guitar player), this was a natural progression. This vitality was replaced by a clear-eyed examination.

The weight that anyone delving into one of the oldest human civilizations must carry, transformed his sensibility, which became quintessentially Indian, in the purist Classical sense. The manifestation of this in the rock and roll format sounded weary and passionless. And this was the antithesis of rock and roll music.

Not surprisingly, the West shunned his music. Sadly, the East, that follows the West in its prescriptions of what should be heard in this art form (it originated in the West, after all) never really got to hear his best solo work. Pity, because the temperament of most of his solo work is essentially Eastern; more specifically, Indian.

This is ironic because the more obviously Indian – inspired music Harrison did was when he was with the Beatles (“Love You Too”, “Within You, Without You”, “The Inner Light”, the sitar embellishment of Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, etc). In most of his post-Beatles work, Harrison hardly used the sitar, but actually it is this music that is even more Indian in spirit.

While quite a few of these songs are repetitive and perhaps overly self-absorbed, there are some wonderful ones too - of quiet, elegant beauty. Songs like “Lay His Head”, “You Are The One”, “That’s The Way It Goes”, “Love Comes To Everyone” have a fatalism, a sense of gentle tolerance and a world-weariness that characterizes the Indian essence, for better or for worse. “My Sweet Lord”, and “Give Me Love” (among the many beautiful ambiguous God-love songs he wrote) do too, but they also have a catchiness that masterful rock and roll musicians often achieve. Both these huge hits happened early on in Harrison’s solo career. “All Those Years Ago”, his other hit (in 1981) was an uncharacteristically jaunty song (by his then standards) in tribute to John Lennon who had just died. Cloud Nine, his last solo album (1987) had a lot of that jauntiness too (like the obscure Rudy Clarke cover “Got My Mind Set On You” that he made into a hit, his last one) but also had songs in his characteristic vein (like the breathtakingly beautiful “Someplace Else”). Cloud Nine was a collaboration, with ELO frontman Jeff Lynne as producer, which explained the overall tone of the album. Shortly thereafter came another collaboration (though unobtrusively led by Jeff Lynne again) – the Traveling Wilburys, through which another band sensibility emerged (it appeared to do even Bob Dylan some good). Unfortunately, they just did two albums’ worth. Harrison never released anything else, solo.

Harrison’s vocals bear an interesting footnote to his music. He was conscious of his inadequate singing voice and its limited range. Therefore, interestingly, the songs he wrote are invariably the easiest to sing for that very reason (with the Beatles and thereafter). Yet, despite the obvious limitations, his expressive fragile vocals brought out a vulnerability that represents the emphatic integrity he always stood for as an artist. It is curious that when the legendary American band The Byrds married Dylan’s words with Beatles harmonies and changed rock and roll forever, the lead singer Roger McGuinn sounded more like George Harrison than anyone else. Since then, even Tom Petty has sometimes sounded like Harrison, Jeff Lynne – often, Gerry Rafferty too. Inexplicably, Harrison might have been the most influential vocalist within the Beatles!

Harrison was also the bridge between Dylan and The Beatles. He is the only Beatle to have co-written songs with Dylan (in All Things Must Pass and with the Traveling Wilburys; his work with the latter was interestingly different from his solo work). There was a promise of greater things to come.

Finally, and I have to get personal here, it saddens me greatly that George Harrison died without getting the rightful recognition for a truly unique musical sensibility. It would have come in the future, as rock and roll grows older and marches into the unchartered territory of old age, wisdom and its attendant concerns. Harrison had already mined a lot of that territory. Some of my all-time favourite songs are Harrison’s, quite a few of them from his solo output, and nobody I know loves those songs even half as much. Maybe I hear more in them than what is actually there, but I know they touch a chord in me like nothing else does. Maybe, someday, the world will catch on too. Maybe not.

My very favourite George Harrison track is the Anthology 3 demo version of “All Things Must Pass”, without the ersatz Phil Spector embellishments (released only in 1996). There’s a gently strumming electric guitar in the foreground, with a slight reverb. His thoughtful, quiet voice appears to be trying to make sense of the chaos of life that he must go through, with grace and dignity. It’s the most harmonious struggle you can hear. For me, this is the quintessential George Harrison.

Jaideep Varma
November 2001


Anonymous tv narayan said...

always loved harrison
you brought out the right depth


6:08 PM  

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