91. 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'
Recorded: September 5 and 6, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single
The lyrics for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," George Harrison's first truly great Beatles song, began as an accident — but a deliberate one. Harrison composed most of the music during the Beatles' February-April 1968 trip to Rishikesh, India, but wrote its words after the band returned to England. Inspired by the relativism principle of the I Ching, Harrison pulled a book off a shelf in his parents' house, opened it to an arbitrary page and wrote a lyric around the first words he saw, which turned out to be the phrase "gently weeps." (Its source might have been Coates Kinney's much-anthologized 1849 poem "Rain on the Roof," which includes the lines "And the melancholy darkness/Gently weeps in rainy tears.")
Even though the band had recorded Harrison songs on six previous albums, the guitarist still had trouble getting John Lennon and Paul McCartney to take his contributions seriously. Lennon, for his part, later noted that "there was an embarrassing period where [George's] songs weren't that good and nobody wanted to say anything, but we all worked on them."
The initial studio recording of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," from July 25th, 1968 (later included on Anthology 3), was a subdued, nearly solo acoustic piece with an extra verse at the end, very much along the lines of Harrison's original demo. A second version, with the full band (Lennon playing organ), was recorded on August 16th and September 3rd and 5th; it eventually incorporated tape-speed trickery, maracas and a backward guitar solo that never quite yielded the "weeping" sound Harrison was looking for.
Producer George Martin had left for a monthlong vacation before the band began working on a third, electric version on September 5th, with Lennon on lead guitar and Ringo Starr contributing a heavy, lurching rhythm. That arrangement didn't quite come together, either. "They weren't taking it seriously," Harrison later remembered. "I went home that night thinking, 'Well, that's a shame,' because I knew the song was pretty good."
The next day, Harrison was giving Eric Clapton a ride from Surrey into London, when Harrison figured out how to make his bandmates focus on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps": He asked the Cream guitarist to play on it. Clapton initially declined. "'Nobody [else] ever plays on Beatles records,'" Harrison recalled Clapton arguing. But Harrison replied, "Look, it's my song. I want you to play on it." (A few months earlier, Clapton had joined Harrison, McCartney and Starr to record Jackie Lomax's version of the Harrison composition "Sour Milk Sea.")
With the famous guest in the studio, the other Beatles got down to business — McCartney's harmonies sound particularly inspired. As Harrison put it, "It's interesting to see how nicely people behave when you bring a guest in, because they don't really want everybody to know that they're so bitchy." Clapton's flickering filigrees and spectacular, lyrical solo brought the whole thing together, and it was finished that night. "It's lovely, plaintive," Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone in 2002. "Only a guitar player could write that. I love that song."
Clapton became one of Harrison's closest friends — as well as his potential replacement. When Harrison briefly quit the Beatles during the Let It Be sessions, Lennon's response was to snap, "If he doesn't come back by Tuesday, we'll just get Clapton."
Appears On: The Beatles
• The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
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