Slipping back into George Harrison's material world



On the surface, it’s just a boring, uneventful Saturday night. The day had been fun — I buzzed my hair nice and short, hung out with friends at a birthday party and then came home with the lady for drinks and a low-key dinner. But finding a movie would be nice addition, and my first choice — Dave Grohl’s Sound City — had apparently been taken off Netflix.

So it was time to scrounge around our other various digital options. Scanning through other music documentaries — I was in the mood for something like that, obviously — and there were some good choices. Films on the likes of Jimi Hendrix and even Bill Hicks were on the table when I realized that there was a glaring hole in my viewing that needed to be rectified immediately. Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World was available, and this was long overdue.

George Harrison is one of those titans who live above the approachable aspects of music, a mystical being who seemed to exist in the crevices of the most enduringly successful band of all time. He’s at once one of the more famous musicians of the past 100 years and still a mystery. So, yes, I should have watched Scorsese’s documentary of him at this point. Few have been more important than him, both in the realm of rock and roll and pop culture, and in my own development.

Think about those pivotal moments that forever change how you listen to music. They usually come early, but they can obviously occur at any point. One which I’ve detailed in the past was a revelation in my car in the fall of 2009 after picking up the remastered Abbey Road and listening to it on my car stereo as I made my way back to work that afternoon. “Come Together” sounded full and alive, of course, but it was Harrison’s “Something” that had me close to tears, listening to Paul McCartney’s loping bass line underneath perhaps the most beautiful song the Beatles crafted in their furious seven years as a recording unit.

Harrison life was seemingly one designed to make the most of the time he was given. During the Beatles, he typically had one or two songwriting slots per record to make his mark. Afterwards, he unleashed a tidal wave in the form of his audacious triple-LP debut, the masterwork All Things Must Pass, an album loaded with classics like “My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and “Beware of Darkness” that helped to shape my taste and attitudes from then on.

When George Harrison died, I was upset, for sure. The Beatles were the first important creative piece of my life and he was already appreciated on some level. Shortly after he died, I went down to Philadelphia with friends for a weekend and my only musical companion was a discman, a set of headphones and the All Things Must Pass double-CD set that had been re-released the year before. He was gone and I wanted to pay my respects by spending some more time with his music.

But on no level did I yet appreciate how much he had done for music, in and out of the Beatles, and I definitely didn’t understand just how young 58 years old was — at 19, he was just another old musician. Now, at 32, I realize he was then younger than either of my parents now, and a number of his peers — McCartney (72 years old), Ringo Starr (73), Eric Clapton (69), Bob Dylan (73) — have not just outlived him by more than a decade, but have continued to be productive. How much more did he have to give?

There’s a clue in his final album Brainwashed, completed posthumously by producer Jeff Lynne and his son Dhani Harrison in 2002. That album was a songwriter’s dream, full of shimmering pop pieces with clever lyrics hugging well-crafted riffs and hooks, and it all felt so personal, like a glimpse into his life, strumming a ukulele in the garden for friends. It was his first proper album since 1987’s Cloud Nine, and those two albums stand as two exceptionally strong pieces to cap a career. He might not have been prolific, but when he had something to say, he made every last note count.

The first half of Scorsese’s film says as much. He began his life in the Beatles punctuating Lennon and McCartney’s three-minute compositions with biting leads and riffs on his guitars, gradually growing into a songwriting personality and a soul in search of more meaning from the world than simply being told what to do and when to do it. He was a funny, sardonic and thoughtful, and he wasn’t satisfied with simply going along with the crowd. There had to be more, and he seemed like the type that wanted to find as much of it as possible.

Late on that same Saturday night, I pulled Abbey Road out of the Beatles’ stereo box set and set it on the turntable, and it was “Something” that finally spurred me back to the keyboard, prodding me into putting my thoughts down in an attempt to create something out of the ridiculous flurry of creativity I had just been reminded of through the previous ninety minutes.

I still have to see part two, which will likely detail his ascendence during the making of Abbey Road and into the solo career that began with such a majestic introduction. I can’t wait to see it; I’ve certainly waited long enough.

June 29, 2014

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