Friday, November 18, 2011

Remembering George Harrison

A piece of advice for liberals: hold Andrew Ferguson’s conservatism against him if you must, but don’t let it keep you from reading him. If you do, you’ve been missing the best copy to appear this year about the field of Republican presidential aspirants. Take a look, for instance, at the remains of Newt Gingrich’s reputation as an intellectual after Ferguson finished operating on him.

It testifies to Ferguson's range that he has a lovely piece up on the Weekly Standard website on George Harrison. It’s mostly about how our memories of him are a function of our quasi-religious reverence for the Beatles. Nothing else, Ferguson suggests, can explain why we not only tolerated, but admired Harrison for, his own tiresome religiosity. You can test Ferguson’s thesis by asking yourself this: would you have changed the station when “My Sweet Lord” came up on the car radio if the record had been made by anyone else?

We didn’t tolerate Harrison’s lecturing us from his grand estate about the degradation of living in the material world because of his magnetic personality or his overflowing reservoir of talent. Truth be told, he wasn’t much of a singer and, although he certainly had his moments as a songwriter, his contribution to the Beatles catalogue was miniscule in comparison to Lennon and McCartney’s. We boomers over-rated his guitar playing when we first heard it because we were too young to remember the people he’d stolen his rockabilly licks from. There's no denying that Harrison gave us some memorable licks of his own (think of “I Feel Fine,” “Day Tripper” or “Paperback Writer”), but the cutting edge of rock guitar-playing had passed him by years before the Beatles broke up in 1970. As for his post-Beatles career, I’ll bet that you can’t name more than three songs he put out in the next thirty years off the top of your head.

Yet say this for Harrison’s ostentatious spirituality: it has worn a lot better than Lennon’s strident peace-mongering or McCartney's serial marital bliss. I'd now rather listen to “My Sweet Lord” than “Give Peace a Chance” or "A Silly Love Song." And aren’t you still a little grateful to George for never imagining that he was so formidable a musician that he could afford to share the stage with a tone-deaf wife?

Ferguson reminds us that George had something going for him that John and Paul sorely lacked, viz., humility born of self-awareness, and religiosity probably had something to do with it:
“One of George Harrison’s most appealing traits was self-awareness. He would have seen (and said) how absurd such talk [about his musical prowess] was. ‘I was never a real guitarist,’ he once told his friend Klaus Voormann. And he wasn’t; he couldn’t launch the fireworks like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, and the disciplined technique of Andrés Segovia or Julian Bream never interested him. About his songwriting, he told an interviewer: ‘There’s no comparison between me and someone who sits and writes music. What I do is really simple.’ Right again. He compared himself to a pastry chef, able to combine musical ingredients nicked from others to make a pleasing presentation of songcraft. He made many marvelous records, but as a source of fresh musical ideas, he said, ‘I’m not really that good.’ . . .

“Whether his religion led him to his clear-eyed modesty, or it worked the other way around, the two were connected. Along with the humility, his unapologetic religious faith made him the most unlikely rock star in history.”
Amen to that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great point on whether I'd reach for my dial if anyone else was singing "My Sweet Lord" -- There were a lot of harmonies on the first couple of Beatles albums, like on "This Boy" and George's voice blended really well -- they achieved near Beach Boys standards on the early harmonies. Not sure Lennon was very strident -- contrast "Give Peace a Chance" with Country Joe& the Fish's "Vietnam Song." The "problem" if that's what it is, was that he got introduced to some pretty hi-hi-highfalutin' cultural influences, and didn't give damn if teenage girls and boys were perplexed by Plastic Ono Band .... whereas a song like "Silly Love Songs" wouldn't have made a Beatles album, yet McCartney released it to huge world-wide air play and sales.

“My Sweet Lord” is also about the gentlest “religious” song: it is absolutely free of any hint of proselytizing, indeed it can be read as expressing doubt since he posits an invisible god, who it “takes so long” to commune with --- i.e. where the heck are you? As to the similarity to “He's so Fine,” I've never bought it. I love both songs – the phrasing I believe proves he never could have intentionally stolen the rift which anyways doesn't exactly sound exactly the same … Ben Currie