Saturday, 30 August 2014

All Things Must Pass

I'd almost forgotten George Harrison's All Things Must Pass.  Years ago I had a pirate tape of it which I listened to so much it died.  I never got around to replacing it until about a month ago when I found the album posted in its entirety on Youtube while I was looking for something else.  I surrendered to the impulse, partly out of pure nostalgia, but more so because my recently acquired love for the 'Jesus is my Boyfriend' song and my admiration for the subtle Sufi devotion of Richard and Linda Thompson's best work made me want to listen once again to Harrison's songs of spiritual awakening.

Harrison was the first of the Beatles to launch his solo career, with All Things Must Pass hitting the stores in November 1970, a mere six months after the Beatles announced their split.  He didn't do it by halves, either.  The original release was a three LP set, with two LPs' worth of original songs and a third containing a series of bluesy jams with his musical mates, including some of the luminaries of late 60's and early 70's British rock'n'roll.  This third record is an interesting historical artefact but actually a bit boring.  No artist would get away with this sort of stuff now, but it was 1970 and he was George Harrison of the Beatles.  If he had presented them with a set of dance-hall numbers sung in chipmunk voices his record label would probably have released it.  The first two records are where the action is.

One of the reasons he was able to get his work done so quickly was that it had, in a sense, been under way for the previous three years.  In 1966 the Beatles stopped touring, and the quartet found themselves with time on their hands and out of one another's company for the first time in years.  Harrison blossomed.  He was 15 when he joined the Beatles and barely 20 when Beatlemania broke out.  His transition from child to adult took place in the pressure cooker of constant touring and public scrutiny, and in the shadow of his older bandmates, particularly John Lennon and Paul McCartney whose duelling egos drove the Beatles.

At the age of 23 he finally found himself with room to breathe and be himself, and with the time and resources to do whatever he wanted.  He used the time well.  He travelled to the US and made friends with Bob Dylan and the Band.  He hung out with Eric Clapton and Cream.  In both situations he found himself treated as a musical equal for the first time in his life.  More importantly, he met Ravi Shankar and started learn the sitar, spending the last two months of 1966 with Shankar in his Himalayan retreat studying Indian music and spirituality.

It changed his life.  Over the next couple of years he gave up drugs, studied Hindu mysticism and practiced meditation and self-discipline.  With his new-found faith his songwriting blossomed and he began to develop his own distinctive musical style and vision.

Some of this found its way onto the later Beatles albums.  He penned some of their best-known songs from this era - 'Something', 'Here Comes the Sun', 'Taxman' and 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' are all his, the last featuring his new best mate Clapton on guitar.  His Indian instruments also found their way onto various songs, both his and Lennon and McCartney's.  Yet he found that while his other musical friends treated him as an equal, with John and Paul he was always the little brother, the young one, the sidekick to their main act.  He never managed more than two songs on any Beatles album.

The result was that by early 1970 he had a substantial stock of demos unwanted by his bandmates and ready for his solo project.  He also had a wide network of musicians itching to work with him, including Clapton and the musicians who were soon to become Clapton's band Derek and the Dominoes.

Interestingly he didn't bring his Indian instruments to the recording sessions.  Instead he brought Phil Spector and the two of them created a classic Spector 'wall of sound' recording.  Harrison's simple pop songs were given the full Spector treatment, with multiple guitars, percussion, horns, strings and backing singers in intricate interlocking parts, giving listeners an auditory feast.  In his notes on the 2000 CD release of the album Harrison professed some dissatisfaction with the production and I can see his point.  Some of the arrangements are so over the top they're like the musical equivalent of phone-box cramming.  Yet it also gives the music a vibrancy and energy which suits the excitement Harrison feels at his new-found spiritual awakening.

This album is, more than anything, a spiritual 'coming out', drenched in Hindu mysticism and devotion to Krishna.  In terms of overt theological content it sits somewhere between the 'hidden' mysticism of Richard Thompson's sufi songs and the overt evangelism of the likes of Yusuf Islam and Keith Green.  A number of songs are overtly Hindu, like the backing vocals on 'My Sweet Lord' in which the singers chant the various names of Vishnu/Krishna, making abundantly clear who the Sweet Lord is for Harrison.  The final verse of 'Art of Dying' provides a simple summary of the Hindu view of death and reincarnation.

There'll come a time when most of us return here
Brought back by our desire to be a perfect entity
Living through a million years of crying
Until you realise the art of dying.

Yet even these most overt songs express truths that are universal to humanity.  I have heard 'My Sweet Lord' sung in a Christian context.  It works fine if you leave the backing vocals out, or substitute your own Sweet Lord for Harrison's.  And the first two verses of 'Art of Dying' apply to us all.

There'll come a time when all of us must leave here
And nothing sister Mary can do will keep me here with you
Nothing in this life that I've been trying
Can equal or surpass the art of dying.

There'll come a time when all your hopes are fading
When things that seemed so very plain become an awful pain
Searching for the truth among the lying
And answered when you learn the art of dying.

It was as if his confrontation with the fact of his own death opened his eyes and he was able, for the first time in his life, to see what was important.  He expresses it well in 'Awaiting on You All'.

You don't need no love in
You don't need no bed pan
You don't need a horoscope or a microscope
The see the mess that you're in
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean
We've been polluted so long
Now here's a way for you to get clean

You don't need no passport
And you don't need no visas
You don't need to designate or to emigrate
Before you can see Jesus
If you open up your heart
You'll see he's right there
Always was and will be
He'll relieve you of your cares

You don't need no church house
And you don't need no temple
You don't need no rosary beads or them books to read
To see that you have fallen
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean
We've been kept down so long
Someone's thinking that we're all green

By chanting the names of the lord and you'll be free
The lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see

This sense that God is close to us, just waiting for us to open our eyes and notice him, pops up all through the record.  The reference to Jesus is interesting, too.  Harrison's Hinduism is very much an inclusive religion, and if it is Jesus who opens your eyes then that is just fine by him as long as you wake up.

Elsewhere, though, you get less of this peaceful certainty and more of the longing of exile and separation. My personal favourite is 'Hear Me Lord', Harrison's voice soaring and pleading on a simple, heartfelt prayer which could be addressed to any god, known or unknown.

Forgive me lord
Please, those years when I ignored you
Forgive them lord
Those that feel they can't afford you

Help me lord, please
To rise above this dealing
Help me lord, please
To love you with more feeling

At both ends of the road
To the left and the right
Above and below us
Out and in, there's no place that you're not in
Oh, won't you hear me lord.

These overtly religious songs provide a framework for a number of others which, like Thompson's songs or Keith Green's 'Your Love Broke Through', could be read as songs to an earthly lover, but are also capable of a more spiritual interpretation.  For instance, Bob Dylan has two credits on the album, co-authoring the opener 'I'd Have You Any Time' and providing the sole cover, 'If Not For You'.  Dylan was many years off his own spiritual awakening, but when these two songs appear here you can sense Harrison singing 'If Not For You" to his Sweet Lord, and imagining that same lord replying in the words of 'I'd Have You Any Time'.

All I have is yours
All you see is mine
And I'm glad to hold you in my arms
I'd have you anytime.

We Christians are very insecure about our theology, especially in this age of science and skepticism.  This makes it hard for us to free ourselves to sing with this kind of simple, heartfelt longing.  We freight our songs down with theology so that they become dense intellectual exercises, pieces of religious code that only initiates can understand.  The more intellectual content we try to shove in, the more we shove out the emotional core which music is designed to express.  Christian songwriters could learn a lot from Harrison, breaking through his fear and illusion and calling on his God for peace and enlightenment.

Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001.  Wherever he is now, whatever god he met on the other side, his gift keeps on giving.  May his soul rest in peace.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Excellent! I have never heard his solo stuff, but I will look it up.