Last night I looked at the calendar and realized that it’s almost February 25, George Harrison’s birthday. Two years ago today I wrote an essay in Russian – as a way of thanking one of my biggest heroes for everything I have learned from him – and now, I think, I want to say it in George’s language.
Several years ago, in time of need, I came across The Beatles Anthology (1995) – for some reason, I missed this series when it just came out (even though I have been a Beatles fan since I was 10). It was a great joy to revisit my first musical love and to learn their history from their own unique perspectives. For me, Anthology is one of the best documentaries I have even seen – it combines the global vision of a historical epoch with the microcosm of four guys from Liverpool. But the most important outcome of this film for me was George; I was enchanted with his wonderful sense of dignity, his humor, and his wisdom. I never thought of him as such a great narrator – how unforgettable he is when reminiscing on his youth, especially on his last encounter with Elvis!
And so I delved into George’s solo albums and concert records, most of which I have not heard before. I realized that his last albums, Cloud 9 and Brainwashed are probably my favorites; I regretted that there are so few records of his solo performances, and learned about an abundance of things he managed to do in his life that was cut short so early. Even though in post-Beatles epoch George was mostly quiet, had long gaps in his recordings, and rarely toured, he was extremely active, especially when his help was needed. Once Ravi Shankar told him about a terrible situation in Bangladesh, George organized the benefit concert for the first time in the history of rock music (as he said, “I was on the phone for four weeks”); as a result, roughly 12 million dollars were raised.
Or take, for example, George’s friendship and partnership with Monty Python. Being their big fan, he went to meet Eric Idle after one of their shows; later they became closest friends. When George heard about the financial troubles that the Pythons were facing he mortgaged his house to found HandMade FIlms (this company produced a number of Monty Python and Terry Gilliam’s films, starting from Life of Brian). In addition, they participated in each other’s projects – for example, Eric directed one of George’s music videos, adding a surreal and cheeky Python touch to this song.
In 1978, George was actively involved in the development of All You Need Is Cash, a loving pastiche based on a Beatles history, produced and directed by Eric Idle. George consulted him about the band’s past and even appeared in a hilarious scene as a news reporter.
I think that anyone’s personality shines through the words of their friends; and indeed, when watching interviews recorded before and during Concert For George (2002) or Scorsese’s wonderful film Living in the Material World (2011), I was overwhelmed by the intensity of love that emanated from the stories George’s loved ones told about him.
Even when we first met I felt like I’d known him forever. Not the Beatle George, he never seemed like that to me, nor the bearded garden gnome George, but the man, the real man with the deep dark eyes and the crooked grin and the loud laugh. I felt I knew him already. I felt I’d met him as a child <…>
I never knew a man like him. It was as if we fell in love. His attention, his concern, his loving friendship was so strong and powerful that it encompassed your entire life. You felt comfortable and secure. We would stay up all night and talk for hours about our lives, about the hurts and pains, about the groups we had been in and the trying emotional strains and problems that being in such groups entails. He was always full of spiritual comfort, counsel, and advice. (Eric Idle)
Despite his busy schedule George remained a private person till the end of his life. He loved working in his garden and held playing ukuleles among his most favorite activities. According to Dhani Harrison, when packing for a trip, his father would always take at least a couple of ukes, just in case someone else would need it. Tom Petty said that while working on their first Traveling Wilburys album, they would often stay up late, put kids to bed and play ukuleles till dawn. “There was so much music and friendship in the air.”
George was not keen on being constantly associated with his Beatles past, and in the 1970s was mostly avoiding playing their hits for his live shows. His work on Anthology was a crucial step in reconciling with the tumultuous history of the 1960s. But in fact this process started in the 1980s when George was more willing to talk about his young years, and he even recorded a tongue-in-cheek song and video that contained many references to the Beatles history.
And yet, back in 1976, when looking at his younger self, George is smiling, singing along, and making jokes, without any bitterness or regret.
And yet, during his last live concert, George adds a stunning guitar solo into the intro of “Something,” and this way completely reinvents his old song. Every time I watch this video I think that the artistic creations tend to evolve along with their creators.
Happy Birthday, and may your memory be blessed.
Katya Neklyudova, 2018 / 2020