The ‘quiet Beatle’ who played rock and roll with a sitar: remembering George Harrison on his 74th birthdaySanjana Ray
“All the world is birthday cake, so take a piece, but not too much.”
George Harrison didn’t exhibit the moody genius of John Lennon. Neither did he possess the charming boyish delight of Paul McCartney or the brilliant dry humour of Ringo Starr. But the ‘quiet Beatle’ owned a personality that went far higher and beyond that of his fellow bandmates. With strikingly good dark looks, an inherent musical tendency, and the soul of an Indian sage, George Harrison’s extraordinary life as a leading but humble musician of the greatest age of rock is perhaps the most interesting one to speculate, possibly because of his incessant urge to keep it behind closed doors.
Born into a working class family in Liverpool, Harrison claimed that he received his musical affinity from his mother, who while expecting him would tune into the mystical tunes of the sitar and tablas from Radio India every Sunday. A backbencher in school, Harrison would spend class-time doodling pictures of the greatest guitars. On a bicycle-ride back home, enlightenment hit him in the form of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, strumming its way out of a neighbour’s window. Determined to harbour this new kindling, Harrison recruited his brother Peter and friend Arthur Kelly to this sudden passion and the trio formed their first band, naturally called the ‘Rebels’.
Their rising popularity among the school circles piqued the interest of Paul McCartney, a year senior and studying at the same campus. McCartney then invited him to join his then band led by John Lennon, the Quarrymen. This would later, with the addition of Ringo Starr, become one of the greatest bands in music history, the Beatles.
The Beatles dominated the records through the ‘60s and their music had men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds swinging along to their intricate melodies. “The world used us as an excuse to go mad,” Harrison famously stated once. And so they did. The fandom around the Beatles that began in the 1960s, managed to trickle down the subsequent decades and remains unadulterated in all its glory even today. “The Beatles will exist without us,” Harrison had added.
Despite the infinite fame and the many perks that came with it, Harrison was never one to be blinded by the spotlight. While he certainly reaped the benefits of it, there was a part of him which always looked for something greater, for a different kind of peace. While his charisma wowed the crowds regardless of his reluctance to step into the same limelight enjoyed by Lennon and McCartney, many still wonder at the life and opinions of the man who produced crowd-pullers like Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Within You Without You.
While his itinerary packed with year-round tours and concerts didn’t allow Harrison with much breathing space, the musician always sought comfort for a more spiritual life from his bandmates, his family, and most importantly, his music, and later, religion.
According to his second wife Olivia Harrison, who met him in 1974, married him in 1978, and remained with him till his end, Harrison was always evading the throes of stardom.
“He didn't want to have any obligations,” said Olivia, as stated by The Week. In his post-Beatles career, Harrison continued writing and recording songs in his home studio, but turned down offers to appear on awards shows, or to do almost anything. “I've just let go of all of that,” he said. “I don't care about records, about films, about being on television, or all that stuff.”
Before meeting Olivia, Harrison was married to actress and author Pattie Boyd, who reportedly encouraged his quest for achieving ‘peace’ through religion. Having always harboured a keen interest in Indian music, Harrison decided to turn his attention towards Indian spirituality. The two met with several influential sages, such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Swami Prabhupada, both of whom inspired him to imbibe the teachings of Hinduism.
The later years of the Beatles were fraught with tension and ego-clashes, eventually leading to the band’s breakup in 1970, after almost a decade of success. Harrison’s indulgence in decadence throughout much of the ‘70s eventually cost him his marriage with Boyd and several months of absence from the spotlight. Following this tumultuous period, he decided to seek absolution through his music and his newly discovered faith in Hinduism.
“Through Hinduism, I feel a better person. I just get happier and happier. I now feel that I am unlimited, and I am more in control,” he said.
Harrison’s keen interest in Indian classical music is well documented, and he is even credited with helping introduce Indian music to the mainstream West. The song Norwegian Wood, on the Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul, was the first Western pop song to feature a sitar. Keen to learn more, Harrison travelled to India to meet the musical maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1966, who trained him in the instrument. Spending several months at Shankar’s house and virtually becoming another member in his family, Harrison continued his foray into Hindu spirituality and met with gurus to understand his nascent need to answer a ‘greater calling’.
ISKCON leader Mukunda Goswami, who was a close friend of Harrison’s, called him a ‘closet Krishna’. Indeed, Harrison imbibed the Hindu spiritual culture and even encouraged his family and friends to chant the Hare Krishna mantra for greater peace. In an interview, Goswami spoke spoke about the life-changing impact that Hinduism had on Harrison. Harrison had confessed that chanting allowed him to be closer to God and that if he stopped, he would feel like the lights would go out.
“God's all happiness, all bliss, and by chanting His names we connect with Him. So it's really a process of actually having a realisation of God, which all becomes clear with the expanded state of consciousness that develops when you chant,” he said.
A majority of his later songs, such as All Things Must Pass, Living In The Material World, and That Which I Have Lost, have been greatly inspired by the Hare Krishna philosophy and from the Bhagavad Gita. In 1970, he released My Sweet Lord as an ode to Lord Krishna, which soon became the biggest bestselling number the following year.
In his later years, Harrison took to gardening and spending time recording for himself in his family home at Friar Park, where he lived with Olivia and son Dhani, whose name incidentally makes up the sixth and seventh note of the Indian music scale.
After several years of battling throat and lung cancer, the musical maestro who combined the classical beauty of the East with the rock and roll of the West, passed away at a friend’s home on a wintry November day in 2001, marking a day of mourning for the rest of the heartbroken world.
Were he alive, George Harrison would have turned 74 today, and no doubt he would have looked forward to a day of meditation, playing the sitar, cherishing his family, and just getting by with a little help from his friends.