George Harrison's lesson on cynicism



In the wayward days of bands and fledging musical projects that sort of came and went while I was in college, the first band I was in that could truly be considered a “band” — myself on harmonica and vocals, two friends on guitar, and various characters rotating in and out on drums, bass, vocals, etc. — made a special effort to get out to all the open mics in and around the campus at UMass Dartmouth. When a band doesn’t have a gig and needs places to play, this is what happens.

We took pride in trying to put a stamp on cover songs that were slightly out-of-the-box or obscure, and in having new songs to play every week, both for our own entertainment and to keep the 14 or so people who saw us engaged. We also tried to be timely, and following the death of George Harrison on Nov. 29, 2001, our guitarist quickly suggested that we should learn “Isn’t It a Pity,” one of his many triumphs from All Things Must Pass, for an upcoming coffeehouse event that we were playing.

In practice the day or two before, we were encouraged by how quickly it came together. For three guys who weren’t used to playing with other people, never mind in front of people, this was a pivotal moment, a song that sounded like something north of competent. It felt good to not sound awful, and it had almost everything to do with the greatness of Harrison’s song. “Isn’t It a Pity” is a beautiful piece of work, with a message calling for the better parts of life to be appreciated in the face of pessimism.

We typically had three or four songs whenever we played these things, and that night we slotted it in at no. 2. Our guitarist set it up with an introduction, something along the lines of, “George Harrison died last week, and he was someone who meant a lot to all of us, so we wanted to—”

And it was at this point that I noticed a guy in the front row, rolling his eyes and muttering, “Oh, God,” under a hipster smirk, looking back at his friends for reinforcement, topped with a black fedora for good measure. And with that condescending expression went my enthusiasm for the moment, swapped for a slow-boiling rage.

I got over it quickly enough to play my dinky little harmonica part I’d worked up, and it went off as well as could be expected. But that little display of dismissive arrogance has never left me, an example of too-cool-to-care snark that poisons so much of what passes for discussion in music and art.

I flashed back to that last night, watching the Oscars and having to fight to pay attention to the show while the folks sitting around me spent four hours reminding the world that the host, the movies, the winners and the stage were terrible.

If you’re on any kind of social media platform, it was likely the same story. It didn’t take too much digging to find any number of people, famous and otherwise, who took to Twitter to let the world know how little they cared for what was happening, how unfunny everyone was, how much they hated the movie that just won.

Everything is the worst ever. Everything is terrible. Everything is embarrassing. Everything sucks.

Twitter and the like haven’t created this attitude, but merely provided a forum where it can be shared openly and competitively, each bad joke vying for more eyes than the last. And that’s a shame, because, like any platform for communication, Twitter isn’t lacking for great, creative minds sharing thoughts and ideas, but it’s easy for all that to be swallowed up by the garbage vortex. It’s not that the whiners are the majority; they’re simply the loudest.

It’s an attitude I well may have had at one point, and may fall into in weaker moments, but is usually snapped away when I realize what a turn-off that constant stream of negativity can be. Criticism and condemnation have their place and are important, but it’s marginalized and lost when it’s lumped in with a sea of whining from the attention-starved.

Today, George Harrison would have been 70 years old. He was not above a well-timed sarcastic remark or cutting a situation in half with a killer joke; his sense of humor was as legendary as it was biting. But at the end of the day, the things that mattered most, whether it was music, gardening or family, didn’t receive or deserve such a cheap, cowardly approach. He put all of himself into his art, and he was unapologetic for it.

I’m sure it’s nothing new, the idea of being so cynical that everything is suspect and nothing is worthy, but that attitude seems so exhausting and counter-productive. Today, on Harrison’s birthday, I’ll think about the effort he put into “Isn’t It a Pity” and the message I took from it, and not the derisive sneer some sadder listeners might bring to the table.

Feb. 25, 2013

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