Thursday, November 24, 2011

I Live For You, George Harrison (1970)

This past month I was stricken with bacterial pneumonia and landed in the hospital for 10 days so my plan to comment on the long-awaited documentary on George Harrison by Martin Scorsese, Living in the Material World, went by the wayside. I am now recuperating at home and thinking about George is back on the agenda.

Note: I Live For You is not a cut on Let It Roll shown above. I just love the beauty of his likeness here.  The song isn't in the documentary either, but to me it exquisitely sums up what George's life came to be about.

Every Scorsese music doc I've ever seen suffers from content that zigs and zags and leaves me hanging. This one is no exception. Fortunately, it does settle down in enough places to further my education about George and for that I am supremely thankful.  

My primary interest was understanding his spiritual journey and getting some sort of bead on the entirety of the life that the Beatles' only true outsider had led.  I remain sorry that he left us too soon and so painfully but have no doubt that George made the most of the life he had, in spades.

The man had so many friends, and they are liberally featured in the film. One of the most intriguing aspects of his personality was how many he had despite having such a devotion to solitude and cultivation of his inner life.  And of all of them, there was an uber-friend - Ravi Shankar.  I am clear that we have Shankar to thank for George's liberation as a solo artist committed to putting the material world in its proper perspective after a life where all of his worldly needs had been met very early on but brought little happiness. He states unequivocally that Shankar ("my blessing") was the first person in his life to ever impress him who wasn't trying to impress him. He showed him how his beloved music had the power to take him directly to God, George's paramount objective.

Nothing about his Catholic upbringing, which exhorted him to simply believe, resonated. His ongoing exposure after a certain point to holy men, swamis and mystics helped him to arrive at one major epiphany: you must see God, you must perceive the soul, otherwise it's better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite. His life became a quest for direct spiritual experience and meaning, while doing the things he loved with the people he loved. As much time as is spent on this topic in the film, I would have been open to seeing more.   

As we all do, George had a dark side. Eric Idle and others point out the bitterness and anger that he always struggled with. Sources of those emotions varied, and aren't fully explored here, but certain things can be deduced and at the very least revolve around the Beatles - and taxes. 

On the Beatles years, not much is new, but the doc distills it well - how marginalized he was despite his obvious and prodigious talent as a musician and deep knowledge of so many genres, and how ready he was to fly the coop of the oppressive group politic. A lowlight: too many of the comments excerpted from McCartney interviews here were maddening in their condescending tone. Put a sock in it, Macca. What a massive ego that man has.

Yet I would argue that George's quiet personal influence and competence as a band member probably kept John and Paul from destroying each other sooner - as George Martin points out, they were far more competitive than they were collaborative. George does acknowledge, though, that the four of them depended on each other every overwhelming step of the success ladder they ascended. ("How many Beatles does it take to change a lightbulb? Four!") 

The composer of Taxman truly loathed the punitive British tax system, although that's not given any major emphasis either beyond one early interview where he and John were asked if they were millionaires yet. No, they said. Where does your money go, then?  "A lot of it goes to Her Majesty," John says. "She's a millionaire," George says.  While he was dying he bought a house in Switzerland so that he wouldn't have to pay exorbitant taxes. 

In one of the final moments of the film Ringo relates going to that house to visit George in what turned out to be the last weeks of his life.  Ringo's daughter Lee was battling a brain tumor in Boston and he had to immediately depart for the U.S. following the visit. With tears in his eyes, Ringo, who in every interview excerpt clearly communicates his love for his bandmate, says the last words George spoke to him were, "Do you want me to go with you?" 

George believed that leading a spiritual life was a choice and was available to anyone who was willing to work to find what was already present but hidden.  It does seem he was more evolved than the rest of us for having put forth the effort with such dedication. And when he finally died, "he just lit the room," according to his wife Olivia.