Living in the Material World
November 23, 2011 - 11:30 am
By the early 1970s, the myth of the Beatles lay in ruins. Paul and Ringo escaped into the world of light pop, but John and George decamped in polar opposite directions. John’s first two major solo albums each had songs declaring his atheism, with his first declaring ”God is a Concept by which we measure our pain…I don’t believe in Bible…I don’t believe in Jesus,” on his Plastic Ono Band album, recorded during his “Primal Scream” phase, and then with his now legendary anti-hymn to nihilism, “Imagine.”
As Andrew Ferguson writes in the Weekly Standard, George Harrison was exploring a very different route during this period, which ultimately led to All Things Must Pass, his magnum opus three record box set, arguably the best of all of the Beatles’ solo albums:
“He had two personalities,” Ringo says. “One was this bag of [prayer] beads, the other was this big bag of anger.” Yoko Ono seconds that emotion: “He had two aspects,” she says. “Sometimes he was very nice. Sometimes he was [long pause] too honest.” Paul McCartney, coy as ever, says, “He was my mate, so I can’t say too much. But he was a guy, a red-blooded guy, and he liked what guys like.”
Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Say no more.
You have to read the tell-alls, such as the memoir of his first wife Pattie, to get the details about Bad George and his heroic capacity for cocaine, brandy, and adultery. The combination resulted in, among other things, the spectacularly gruesome scene he made in 1973 at a dinner party at Ringo’s house. The party went sour when George stood up to announce that he was sleeping with Ringo’s wife and planned to run away with her. (In the event, he quickly moved on from Mrs. Starr.) Just another potluck with the Starrs and the Harrisons.
Paul Theroux, the travel writer, has for some reason been enlisted to write an introduction to the picture book, and he beats the theme of two Georges like a Ludwig tom-tom: “It is no wonder he was so passionate: he was himself his own wicked twin,” Theroux writes. “He was himself the dark and the light, the flames and the ashes.” If you think that’s overwritten, wait till you watch him wade into the hallucinatory exaggeration we have learned to expect when Baby Boomers write about rock music:
To say that he was one of the great musicians of his time—one of the most innovative guitarists ever, one of the most imaginative songwriters—is to give only part of the story.
Yes, and not even the true part!
One of George Harrison’s most appealing traits was self-awareness. He would have seen (and said) how absurd such talk 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.”
You could say the same for pretty much anyone who ever wrote a rock song, which is an extremely forgiving art form, but you can’t imagine anyone else who ever wrote a rock song admitting it.
The Beatles were clearly greater than the sum of their parts, but George Martin must be included as one of the most important components of their success. As solo artists, they very rarely — arguably never — lived up to their greatest moments as a group. And the enormous hero worship by those fans who believed that they personified the zeitgeist of the ’60s didn’t help. Perhaps Paul and Ringo had it right in the first place: escape into “Silly Love Songs” and don’t carry the world upon your shoulder.