Friday, August 6, 2010

Beware of Darkness, George Harrison (1970)

I was very jazzed to hear that Martin Scorsese has directed a documentary, due out next year, on the one Beatle about whom I know the least and want to know the most.  Living in the Material World will be sort of a co-production with George Harrison, in that it will contain footage that George himself shot for a documentary that he intended to make someday.

Watching Paul McCartney receive his Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress recently, I couldn't help but wonder what George's legacy would have been had he lived longer.  Because, of the four of them, George's body of post-Beatles work is more pleasing to me - by many orders of magnitude - than that of any of the others.  Paul's mostly goofy, saccharine songs ... John's mostly heavy-handed, take-no-prisoners songs ... Ringo's mostly, well, fluff songs - on the whole they've left me cold.  Not so with George's work, both as a solo artist and with his pals the Traveling Wilburys.  Marginalized though he was while a Beatle, I am convinced their sound would have been far less memorable without his particular touch, and that his musicianship was every bit as evolved, if not more so.

Beware of Darkness is just one of many examples of George's gift; I've already written about his masterpiece, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. His unusual nasal singing voice - pervasively Liverpudlian - and the breadth of the licks he charmed out of his guitars over the years were entrancing to me. A YouTube commenter called the song George's "musical instruction manual for living life." I never thought of him as preachy, but his songs always seemed to emanate from a deeper place, where he could transcend the madness of life as a Beatle, something he would always be to the rest of his days. 

The longer he was on his own, the more George seemed to become supremely comfortable in his own skin, whereas as a Beatle he always seemed quite the opposite. The others always projected an essential sameness - what they were like as Beatles, just more so.  Beatle George was "the quiet one," almost morose, he rarely smiled; he was the youngest, and he seemed no match in the charisma department for Lennon and McCartney. He looked like he didn't even want to try. It was always obvious that he was a guitarist of considerable talent, and his guitar leads were distinctive, to say the least, but it was a mystery why he was treated as a bit player by the two alpha dogs. (I'm sure I answered my own question there, but at the time ...)

So when the Beatles finally parted the ways amid tremendous acrimony, George went solo before the year was out. Talk about your pent-up demand!  He had a backlog of material that couldn't find an outlet as a Beatle, and the floodgates opened with a 3-album release in All Things Must Pass, a title probably chosen for its many potential meanings. Beatles fans didn't think the Beatles could break up; they were supposed to be permanent. Weren't they?

Sadly, no, and even sadder, George shuffled off this mortal coil in at the peak of his powers as an artist. It affected me badly - it was not long after my father died, so I was already predisposed to mourn, but I felt then and still do that we'd lost someone we hadn't known well enough. Those people he counted as friends - and there were many - did him proud when they joined Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall the next year for the memorial Concert for George, one of the most moving tributes to a musician I've ever seen. And left me feeling even more than this was someone we needed to know better than we did. 
Maybe that will be rectified with the Scorsese doc. According to his wife Olivia, George didn't throw much out, so we should be treated to things we've never seen or heard before from all stages of his career. All things must pass, but sometimes what people have held on to give us a pathway to get back to where we once belonged.


Chuck Johnston said...

Thanks, Wendy. Yes, George was always underestimated and under appreciated, at least until the later years. I remember when my kids were little, dancing around the room to "Got My Mind Set On You." Universal appeal!
Here's a link to a live version of the song.

wade said...

Good on you for giving George some love. "Here Comes the Sun" is unsurpassable, the quintessential pop song, far away ahead of anything Lennon wrote. Paul's still my favorite Beatle, but one "Something" is worth at least three or four "Martha My Dear"s and a grossweight of Lennon's pompous stuff.