I’ve been watching bits of “The Concert for George,” as well as playing “All Things Must Pass,” both magnificent. And for me, full circle. Who is George Harrison to me? I ask that question because he has been part of my life since my earliest memories, a powerful force in my growing up and getting through the heartbreaks of high school and college, and his music still fills me with a sense of the sublime and sacred… and now more than ever.
When I was a kid the very first music I remember hearing was Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, and George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” Of course I still love Cash, and have written at length about my relationship to Simon and Garfunkel’s music, but I haven’t yet touched George. His music was forming and shaping me from the moment I could walk and wonder. My old man, a self-proclaimed hippie-hater from his days in Vietnam, came home and had what, sorry dad, I could only describe as hippie parties. I don’t remember any pot, my old man would not have allowed that (too bad, that asshole could have used some), but I do remember a very heavy sixties feel in the air, especially when “All Things Must Pass” fueled the parties. My old man was a parks and recreation director in Akron Ohio, he loved table tennis and making little movies, and I am convinced that had he been able to listen quietly to himself and hear the truth over all the dogma he held in his throat, he would have made one hell of a hippie. But it wasn’t to be, he was far too attached to his obsessive desire to be “normal.” “Normal” was a very important word to my old man, it was what he aspired to be, regardless of the depths of his potential. And I saw that potential most clearly in those days when I would stand up on tiptoes and stare out the window, “All Things Must Pass” blaring from behind me on enormous speakers, out through the open windows to bathe the party below in gold and God. It seemed like every weekend he had a swarm of kids from the park over for sloppy Joe’s and blackberry pig (both specialties of my doting mother), and of course the backyard parties, which I would oversee from the window, Harrison’s music enveloping me as I dreamed of joining those kids, those much much bigger kids. I know “All Things Must Pass” was playing the day they took a queen-size sheet, one to a corner, and held it over the fire, they did this a lot, letting it fill with hot air, then let it go. It would float like a ghost, and I remember the day it caught fire and caught the tree on fire as it passed, but no harm was done.
I often wonder what effect it had, “All Things Must Pass” flooding through my toddler consciousness. I know this, it set the bar very high regarding what I feel music and art should be. The impact of growing up under the shroud of that album and its monolithic mysticism runs deep. How could I have become anything other than what I am? Those moments, that music, gave me no choice. It was formative. At a very young age I learned that art and music are sacred and should be treated with the utmost respect by both the artists and the audience. Art and music were things worthy of sacrifice and devotion.
As a child, growing up and away from the promises made by the tail end of the hippie era, I have to admit that as the world moved on I wasn’t thinking all that much about George Harrison, I didn’t even know who the Beatles were, dad didn’t play rock in the house, only rarely, it was mostly Country and Western (as they called it then), Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. But as happens in adolescence… I was wandering from my father’s identity and finding my own, finding bits of myself, and I knew I had found a very large bit of myself when I finally realized who the Beatles were–and as it turned out, unbeknownst to me, they were the creators of the greatest songs I had ever heard. Rifling through a piano bench full of 45’s, playing one after another, I came across the Beatles, I Am the Walrus. I remember that swooshy gold and orange label, and I remember how the hair on the back of my neck stood up as I felt the magic of the Beatles enter my being forever. I was hooked, and nothing less than the Beatles were ever going to do. There were several dozen sides in that pile… I don’t remember any of them, just the Beatles.
It just so happened that George Harrison was a Beatle. It was a powerful connection, going from my toddler connection to “All Things Must Pass” to innocently discovering I Am the Walrus as a preteen, without yet knowing a thing about how all that connected. of course, as a Hindu now I realize that this was not a coincidence, this was consciousness connecting to consciousness, this was Godhead to Godhead.
I leaned on my Beatles to get me through the dreadful drudgery of high school and college, a hopeless misfit, no less so today, but I had the Beatles to go home to. I never felt that they understood me, this was love, not delusion after all, but I most definitely understood them–or so I thought. I realized as I grew that they and their music grew as well. I did not grow out of it, but my relationship to them, their music and how I understand them has changed time and again. Just as my relationship to George Harrison’s music changed from my staring out through the window at the very sixties-like goings-on to the profound disappointment I felt when listening to contemporary music in the new world of my teens. That world, was NOT the one I had so longed to enter–though I already wrote about that in my piece on Simon and Garfunkel.
Of course I got older, and so did George Harrison. I followed every one of his solo albums, sometimes being disappointed in them, as they never lived up to my juvenile expectations. It took years for me to meet Harrison’s later solo work halfway and realize that, just as McCartney had done, Harrison had gone on ahead of me. Perhaps that is why I never went astray, perhaps that is why I still find them fascinating… they were always ahead of me! They were a challenge. It’s easy to love the Beatles, it is much more challenging to love the solo stuff, it’s all just as inspired… but nothing could bear the weight of the people’s expectations, especially where the Beatles and their solo work were concerned; it has to be what it is. Sex is like that, too. I recall reading Colin Wilson relaying in his book “The Misfits” how real sex with an object of desire is always a disappointment, as the real sex can never live up to the imagined sex. Reality cannot always compete with our fantasies, and that goes for music as well as for sex. Let sex be sex and music be music without letting our fictions come between us and them. Harrison’s music mellowed significantly in tone. Certainly the lyrics were as profound and intimidating as ever, but the sound did not please my young ears… the sounds most definitely please my ears now. I accept them for what they are independently of the fictions, expectations and bull I’d had wadded in my ears for so many years.
When George released “Cloud 9” in the eighties, my enthusiasm for him as a solo artist bloomed anew, an enthusiasm that remained in place all through the delightful adventures of the Traveling Wilburys. I started to realize what a gifted poet Harrison was.
Grand as all this is, the impact Harrison had on me was nothing compared to what he had done for me without my knowing.
I was raised going to a fundamentalist church… complete with a right-wing agenda. At one point in my teens, one of the youth ministers gave me the choice between the Beatles and Christ. The choice was easy, what was hard was filling that hole–NOT the hole God had filled in my heart, that version of God never filled my heart (and was not meant to), no, what I was missing was a sense of purpose. Suddenly death was the end, and no more. It was a terrifying place to be. I did not believe in Hell, but I did believe in absolute death now that I was no longer a Christian. I sought, I wandered, I tried on Taoism, Zen, wandered Ireland in search of ancient preCeltic tombs and monuments–felt the presence of the fey–journeyed into shamanism, paganism, and even had dinner with Buddhist monks in the mountains of Korea. But none of it stuck, I was left agnostic. For many years I had simply quit looking and accepted that I was not religious or an atheist… I simply had no idea at all. It was not comfortable to me.
Hinduism never once crossed my mind as a possibility, it was too close to taking the Beatle thing too far. In fact, I knew NOTHING about Hinduism beyond what was in Harrison’s lyrics, I didn’t know one God from another. Quite honestly, I wasn’t even avoiding Hinduism, I was simply not even allowing it to cross my radar. Of course, many unexpected things happened, too profound to go into here, but I had to go where I was being led, and I was being led to Hinduism.
George Harrison in no way converted me to Hinduism, he did something much more important, what he had done was far more elegantly profound. When I finally realized where I had to go, and that I needed to follow Shiva’s call, the world of Hinduism was not foreign to me. Thanks to George Harrison… Indian music, food, and spirituality were already warm and comfortable to me. George Harrison had made Hinduism home before I ever knew I had a home. This was God at work, just as it was God at work when that youth minister let me know I was ultimately going to have to choose between Christ and the Beatles–God knew the Beatles were going to help me get where I needed to go more than Christianity. Christianity–full of meaning as it is for many–never fit me, Hinduism has fit me like a glove, and I was being called, and thanks to Harrison, I knew how to answer that call.
One of the multitude of signs that India was calling was the first time I saw “The Concert For George,” and heard Ravi Shankar’s composition in honor of George, “Arpan.” It reduced me to the warmest tears I had ever cried! I have never tasted tears so warm and sweet, they came over me like chai! The whole concert touched me, the love that projected from the stage was thicker than honey. There are so many sublime moments in that concert, so many emotions shared and experienced through the music. Watch carefully during Arpan… watch the interaction between the musicians, Anoushka Shankar and her father. Beautiful. Warm air like a balloon inflating in my chest fills me every time I see those musicians connect.
Today I watched some of the bonus features and was moved by the lack of show-biz tributes coming from Harrison’s circle. When they came to pay their respects to Harrison a curious thing happened, every single person who took that stage forgot they were famous, forgot the tribute routines, and simply became people, became musicians, became friends of George Harrison’s.
It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
The wonder of it all is not knowing what George Harrison is going to mean to me in the future. I won’t even try and predict it, but I am smiling, warm, and welcoming whatever’s next.
All that… and he’s always been pretty damn sexy, don’t you think?