George Harrison’s recent death was a time for reflection, and not just for aging boomers; an early childhood memory of mine is interlaced with hearing “Here Comes the Sun” on my parents’ hi-fi. His death called forth questions about “his” generation’s propensity for greatness as well as pretense. These competing thoughts were filtered through my recent discovery of Harrison’s 1970 album, All Things Must Pass.
Late one night in New Orleans, I was with a friend in her one-bedroom basement apartment, drunk on cheap red wine and conversation, when “Isn’t It A Pity,” Harrison’s chiming anthem of suffering and the essential greed of human relations broke through the haze. “What the hell is this?” I groggily questioned. “George Harrison,” she replied.
In many ways an anti-”Hey Jude,” “Isn’t it a Pity” shrank back from the affected vocals of McCartney or the at-times condescending tone of the Beatles’ late work. Instead, Harrison’s cathedral-like oration, caught between Eastern religious traditions and Western pop music, acknowledged the hurt of material existence without closing off deliverance through popular song, the most immaterial thing in the world.
Like Carole King’s Tapestry or James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Harrison’s All Things Must Pass assuaged the frustration and disgust of a generation that actually thought a revolution (or an apocalypse) was occurring. Like Israelites caught in Babylon, these artists, though talented, set a tradition of tepid blamelessness in the ’70s that would continue to plague boomer music for the next 30-plus years. Perhaps fearing the truth of their own complicity, boomer cultural producers such as these have provided the reified lullabies for a generation more and more wedded to a world that it was supposed to be overthrowing.
But on ATMP, Harrison is betrayed by his own “subconscious” choice of musical influences. With all the power of modern production behind him, including the ultimate cynic-genius Phil Spector, Harrison’s pie-in-the-sky lyrics (“You’ve been polluted so long/But here’s a way for you to get clean/By chanting the names of the Lord/and you’ll be free”) are destroyed by a wash of guitars and wall-shaking drums.
Though George Harrison’s work after All Things Must Pass is, for the most part, god-awful (Jeff Lynne plus “Got My Mind Set on You” equals irrelevance), ATMP’s triumph can only be betrayed if it is not truly heard. Like Lennon, at his best, Harrison wasn’t simply a Beatle.Carleton S. Gholz writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org