View post (George Harrison: Living in the Material World)

View thread

Full Access
Joined: 11/17/08
Posts: 303
Full Access
Joined: 11/17/08
Posts: 303
09/21/2011 9:40 pm

Like so many millions of people, I first came to know George Harrison through his work with The Beatles. As the band’s lead guitarist and one of its singer-songwriters, “the quiet Beatle,” as he was often called, penned some of the group’s most beloved songs, including “Within You Without You,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “Something.” But for George, being part of one of the best and most important bands in rock history, someone who was adored the world over, wasn't enough. George Harrison yearned for something far more challenging and worthwhile than fame.

The deeply spiritual musician spent much of his life on an existential quest, searching for a way to live truthfully and compassionately. At the height of Beatlemania, when Harrison came to the realization that material success didn’t necessarily equal personal fulfillment, he set out in pursuit of simplicity, down a winding path on which The Beatles were but a mere signpost.

Born in Liverpool, England, on February 25, 1943, George was the youngest of Harold and Louise French Harrison’s four children. Louise was largely a stay-at-home mom while Harold drove a school bus for the Liverpool Institute, an all-boys grammar school where both George and Paul McCartney attended.

By his own admission, Harrison was a mediocre student. Growing up in dreary post-war Liverpool, he had little interest in his studies and would scribble pictures of motorcycles and guitars in his notebook as his teacher lectured. George became obsessed with the instrument, and with American rock ‘n’ roll, after hearing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” coming from a nearby house while riding a bike around his neighborhood. By age 14, Harrison—whose early rock heroes included Carl Perkins, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly—had purchased his first guitar and taught himself a few chords. Soon enough, he was filling notebooks with lyrics and chord charts.

Harrison and McCartney had grown close while attending the Liverpool Institute. When Paul was looking for a guitar player for a new band he’d joined, he introduced George to John Lennon, who thought Harrison was far too young for the gig. Nonetheless Harrison, who idolized Lennon, played the guitar instrumental “Raunchy” for him on the top half of a double-decker bus one night and passed the audition. George initially just hung out with the band, filling in as needed, but was eventually accepted into the group in 1958, at age 15, first as a Quarreyman, and then, a Beatle.

Although George initially embraced his success—the fame, the money, the girls—he was not well-suited to the madness that was Beatlemania in the early to mid-’60s. Harrison dropped acid in 1965 and suddenly realized that The Beatles weren’t the answer for him. “It’s all well and good being popular and being in demand, but, you know, it’s ridiculous,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “I realized this is serious stuff, this is my life being affected by all these people shouting. With what was going on, with presidents getting assassinated, the whole magnitude of our fame made me nervous.”

While on the set of the group's second movie, Help!, Harrison was introduced to Indian classical music. Based principally on melody and rhythm, not on the harmony, chords and other basics of Western classical music, it lit the spark that led him to attempt to master the sitar, which in turn led him to yoga, meditation, and the Eastern spirituality that would help define his life. Harrison’s mentor and friend, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, explained to Rolling Stone that, “[Harrison] was searching for something much higher, much deeper. It does seem like he already had some Indian background in him. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain how he got so attracted to a particular type of life and philosophy, even religion. It seems very strange, really. Unless you believe in reincarnation.” The Beatles made a controversial pilgrimage to an ashram in Bangor, Wales, to attend a retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom they'd met in London in 1967. Immersed in the study of Transcendental Meditation under the tutelage of the Maharishi, the band were weaned off LSD and entered an intensely creative period where they were inspired to write almost all of the songs that would appear on both the White Album and Abbey Road.

With the cessation of touring, the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, while the group were off with the Maharishi, and individual members losing interest in the band, however, The Beatles imploded in 1970, leaving Harrison free to pursue a solo career. That same year, he released the critically acclaimed triple album All Things Must Pass, a storehouse of songs he'd written that never saw the light of day in the Lennon-McCartney driven Beatles. The record, the first triple album by a solo artist, reached #1 in both the US and the UK and was certified 6X platinum by the RIAA.

The following year, at Shankar’s request, Harrison enlisted the help of his friends Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Ringo Starr, among others, and organized a benefit concert to help fund relief efforts for refugees from East Pakistan following the 1970 Bhola cyclone and alleged atrocities during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Concert for Bangladesh, as it was called, played to a total of 40,000 people at New York’s Madison Square Garden in August 1971, and was the prototype for every all-star rock benefit to come for the next 40 years.

Harrison released seven more solo albums, but he became progressively less interested in any conventional career arc. He married for a second time, had a child, and became intent on restoring the gardens of Friar Park, the 120-room, 35-acre mansion in the English countryside he purchased in 1970, which had fallen into disrepair. Harrison would put in 12-hour days as he pursued his vision for the property, planting trees and flowers.

After a five-year gap between albums, George enlisted producer Jeff Lynne for 1987’s Cloud Nine, which won him a #1 hit with “Got My Mind Set on You.” A session to record a B-side for the song led to a casual collaboration with Lynne, Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison, which led him to the supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys. The collaborative Wilburys recorded two albums together but never managed a live show. A third album was always a possibility, but time simply ran out.

In 1997, Harrison was diagnosed with throat cancer, which subsequently led to lung cancer. The disease spread to his brain, and after a long fight, George Harrison died on November 29, 2001.

In October, HBO will debut the two-part documentary film George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Produced and directed by preeminent filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who also made No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones’ concert film Shine a Light, the film was co-produced by George’s widow Olivia Harrison and Scottish producer Nigel Sinclair (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Wedding Planner). The documentary includes rare and unseen footage as well as new interviews with McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, George Martin, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton (who recalls watching Harrison write “Here Comes the Sun”), Phil Spector, and Eric Idle, among others. Scorsese and his team relied heavily on archival material accumulated over 30 years by Harrison himself: footage of The Beatles on vacation; a recording of Harrison’s first sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar; home movies of Harrison fooling around in his recording studio with his and Olivia’s son, Dhani.

Scorsese approached Living in the Material World from George’s perspective, making it a more first-person narrative than any previous film on The Beatles. And he didn’t shy away from Harrison’s darker side either, hinting at challenges in his marriage to first wife, Pattie Boyd, she of the infamous Harrison/Boyd/Clapton love triangle, and showing footage of a ravaged performance from his 1974 solo tour, where George, who was suffering from strained vocal chords, refused to play familiar Beatles songs and opted instead to perform lengthy Shankar sets.

The post-Beatles section of the film has the most surprises, from intimate footage of the Traveling Wilburys jamming to Olivia’s harrowing account of a 1999 home invasion by a violent, deranged fan. It also gives equal weight to Harrison’s non-musical ventures: his work as a movie producer (Monty Python’s Life of Brian); his fascination with motor racing; and his loving efforts to restore his country estate.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World debuts on HBO on October 5 and 6. The film will be released on DVD in the UK on October 10.

As a companion piece to the documentary, Olivia has compiled a book of her late husband’s personal photographs, letters, diaries, and memorabilia that reveal the arc of his life—from his guitar-obsessed boyhood in Liverpool, to the astonishment of The Beatles years, to his days as an independent musician and bohemian squire. The book, which bears the same title as the film, is set for a September 27 release.

The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles is also honoring the late Beatle with a major exhibition beginning October 11. The museum is working closely with Olivia in putting together what’s being described as the first major look focusing exclusively on Harrison, both during his years with The Beatles and his post-Fab Four solo career that includes his stint with the Traveling Wilburys. The exhibit, which goes by the same name as the documentary film and book, will feature several of George’s guitars, stage clothing, handwritten lyrics, personal journals, sketches, and photographs taken by him.

Harrison had no casual pursuits, says Scorsese. When something sparked his interest, be it the ukulele, car racing, gardening, producing movies, or meditation and Eastern religion, he wanted to know everything there was to know. According to Olivia, “George had a really curious mind.”

Pattie Boyd describes him as having no middle ground. She recounts how Harrison would veer between periods of intense meditation and heavy partying. According to Olivia, “George didn’t see black and white, up and down, as different things. He didn’t compartmentalize his moods or his life. People think, oh, he was really this or that, or really extreme. But those extremes are all within one circle.”