By John W. Whitehead
October 3, 2011
“Sometimes I feel like I’m actually on the wrong planet, and it’s great when I’m in my garden, but the minute I go out the gate I think: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”–George Harrison
By the time he was 21 years old, George Harrison–along with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr–had conquered the pop world. Within a few years, when the so-called “Summer of Love” swept over the world, the Beatles had invaded Western consciousness to a degree unmatched before or since. In June 1967, the Beatles released their legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to worldwide acclaim. As author Langdon Winner remarked: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released.”
However, while the world was captivated with the Beatles, the foursome was less enchanted with life in the fishbowl. George, the so-called “quiet one,” was so bothered by the trappings of fame that he began to disentangle himself from the group. In fact, in later years George seemed determined to leave his Beatle past in the past. As his son Dhani remarked:
My earliest memory of my dad is probably of him somewhere in a garden covered in dirt, somewhere hot, a tropical garden, in jeans, khakis covered in dirt just continuously planting trees. I think that’s what I thought he did for the first seven years of my life. I was completely unaware that he had anything to do with music. I came home one day from school after being chased by kids singing “Yellow Submarine”, and I didn’t understand why. It just seemed surreal: why are they singing that song to me? I came home and I freaked out on my dad: “Why didn’t you tell me you were in The Beatles?” And he said, “Oh, sorry. Probably should have told you that.”
George’s nonchalant attitude about his near-mythic experiences as a Beatle was indicative of his overall approach to life. “He had karma to work out,” his wife Olivia said of George. “[H]e wasn’t going to come back and be bad. He was going to be good and bad and loving and angry and everything all at once. You know, if someone said to you, ‘Okay, you can go through your life and you can have everything in five lifetimes, or you can have a really intense one and have it in one, and then you can go and be liberated,’ he would have said, ‘Give me the one, I’m not coming back.’”
Olivia Harrison’s fascinating book George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Abrams, 2011), published in conjunction with Martin Scorcese’s two-part HBO documentary, takes readers on a visual and archival journey of Harrison’s life pattern. Drawing from Harrison’s own photographs, letters, diaries, and memorabilia, Olivia traces George’s life arc from his boyhood in Liverpool through the Beatle years to his discovery of and eventual conversion to Hinduism, his later interest in film producing and as an independent musician, and finally his years as a recluse and avid gardener.
With quotes from Paul McCartney, Ravi Shankar, Eric Clapton and others, Harrison’s intriguing sojourn in the material world is laid bare before our eyes, revealing a complex character who confronted the reality of a world gone mad.
Harrison’s influence as a great musician is equaled only by his spiritual influence, which extended to his band members. It is difficult to imagine Lennon’s “Across the Universe” or “Instant Karma” or McCartney’s “Let It Be” without George Harrison. Even Ringo was impacted. “Over the years, I got to love the music myself and now I’m a Christian Hindu with Buddhist tendencies,” says Starr. “Thanks to George, who opened my eyes as much as anyone else’s.” And as Olivia Harrison recognizes in her book, George not only made great music but music with an amazing, uplifting spiritual message.
Nothing I can say about George speaks louder than his music. Knowing how reluctant he was to talk about himself led me to illustrate his years mostly in pictures. His life was fascinating not entirely by chance. He worked hard, was curious and energetic. He plunged into the heart of people, places and things he encountered, the good and bad. He claimed to be a sinner but never a saint.
Life to him was a quest for deeper meaning and everything was important to him but nothing really mattered. His particular way of embracing and dismissing life’s joys and disasters was completely disarming. He could let go as easily as I held on. ‘Be here now’ was repeated so often we actually did begin to live in the moment.
Besides writing such great songs as “Something” (which Frank Sinatra called the greatest love song ever written), Harrison wanted to teach his listeners about the truths of eastern spirituality. From “Within You Without You” (which forms the center of the Sgt. Pepper’s album) to “Rising Sun,” George knew something most of us didn’t and still don’t: there is a reality beyond the material world and what we do here and how we treat others affects us eternally. As Harrison explains, we can choose to do good or bad, but our present state of being in this world is controlled by such choices.
George Harrison was 58 when he died from cancer on November 29, 2001. While he blamed his life-long cigarette addiction for his early demise, he was obviously traumatized by a knife attack in late 1999 from an intruder in his home who believed he was on a “mission from God” to kill George. Although Olivia fended off the assailant by striking him repeatedly with a fireplace poker and a lamp, Harrison suffered seven stab wounds and a punctured lung.
Against all odds, George Harrison survived long enough to give us hope and preach love and peace on Earth. Harrison, the Liverpool kid who survived Hitler’s blitzkrieg and the pressures of celebrity as a Beatle and found comfort in spirituality, left an amazing legacy. In the end, Harrison knew that a life lived well and with purpose can overcome the pain and travails of this world.
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