In defense of his tour and new album, George Harrison has argued that “If you don’t expect anything, life is one big bonus. But when you expect anything, then you can be let down.” So expect nothing — is that the moral of a shriveled career?
Given Harrison’s appearance at his recent concerts, the audience could be forgiven its expectations. Here was the first major American tour by an ex-Beatle; and here was Harrison himself, with his shag-blown hair and bell bottoms billowing, looking like a picture-perfect Beatle. It was only natural to imagine the guitarist ten years younger, bobbing with John, Paul and Ringo, smiling at the crowds and drinking in their adoration.
But Harrison himself wants to be taken as a no-time Beatle, sometime rock star, and full-time guru — to an audience too often ungrateful for the wisdom he finds hard won. A creature of the material world, he lectures us to aim our sights beyond it. He has cast himself in the role of selfless minister, using the media to spread a gospel of good will and universal love.
The hardening of his religious attitudes has made it harder for him to accept his own past. While he tries to transcend his association with the Beatles, he finds himself hampered by his own limitations. It just may be that George Harrison was never cut out to be a solo artist.
He was, after all, only a member of the most illustrious group in rock history. The Beatles represented, among many other things, individual limitations overcome, the perfection of interaction. Onstage and in the studio together, they were always something more than particular musicians playing their particular songs. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr fashioned something infinitely more complex and provocative than that: a total sound, a style, an image, a fashion, ultimately a scene, a myth, a way of life. And they did it collectively, each member contributing, quite literally, his own allotted part.
In that setting, George Harrison performed brilliantly. He had a knack for fills, riffs, even writing Beatles tunes. Harrison’s early songs for the group — “Don’t Bother Me,” “You Like Me Too Much,” “I Need You,” “Think for Yourself,” “If I Needed Someone”—not only compare favorably with Lennon/McCartney’s best: They also sound like Lennon/McCartney’s best.
Harrison grew within and through the Beatles, becoming the transcendental connection to the biggest thing since Jesus Christ. But while Harrison, unlike the other Beatles, never abandoned his interest in mysticism, his religiosity always held a singular significance within the group. As a Beatle, Harrison’s devoutness represented the possibility of transcendent enlightenment — but not to the exclusion of other forms of experience.
Yet, as Harrison pointedly titled his first post-Beatles LP, all things must pass, even the charm of innocence. When the Beatles finally disbanded, Harrison was left alone with Krishna, his share in a memory, a repertoire of songs (including “Something,” one of the finest — and most popular — Beatles ballads), and last but not least, considerable support and good will to build a solo career upon.
Harrison of course was not without his own character, even within the Beatles. By the time of the collapse, he could trade on two distinguishing marks: his slide-guitar technique, which added a glistening sheen to his playing, and his interest in Indian culture, which supplied him with a ready-made and, for a rock star, quite distinctive personality. Thanks to the Beatles’ prestige, he could pose as pop’s elder avatar; by staging such affaires as the Concert for Bangladesh, he soon established himself as a conscience for the “youth culture.”
Stripped of the Beatles’ company, however, Harrison’s weaknesses as a musician have gradually surfaced. His voice has always been dogged by a limited range and poor intonation, just as his guitar playing, adequate for fills within precise arrangements, has always been rudimentary and even graceless in an affecting sort of way. Harrison’s tunes are often formulaic, his melodic talent brittle. Under the pressure of composing enough new material to sustain a solo career, his songs have become as predictable as his spiritual preoccupations.
And those preoccupations, untempered by other concerns, have become insufferable. No longer primarily a private avocation, Harrison’s quest for illumination populates his lyrics with sermons and awkward mea culpas: “Since I stepped out of the womb/I’ve been a cool jerk/Looking for the source/I’m a dark horse.” His religiosity, once a spacey bauble within the Beatles’ panoply, has come to resemble the obsessiveness of a zealot
At first, Harrison carefully spotted his solo talent, securing the best producers and bands a pop musician could hope to attract. With Phil Spector’s considerable help, he produced All Things Must Pass, filled with songs whose kinetic veneer spoke volumes more about rock transcendence than all of Harrison’s earnest lyrics combined. “My Sweet Lord,” potentially a mind-numbing din of the first order, became instead a hypnotic chant lofted by Spector’s gossamer mix, sheets of acoustic guitars, a massed chorus and Harrison’s own signature, his slide guitar.
While Living in the Material World parceled out more of the same, the formula already showed strains. Harrison continued to snake his guitar through inspirational verse, but his conceits, despite airtight musical support, were beginning to ring hollow: In rock & roll, a little piety goes a long way.
Yet it is only in the wake of his disastrous tour and Dark Horse, his disastrous album, that George Harrison finally stands naked. For his new record, Harrison hired a band of merely competent studio pros, saddled himself with a passel of preachy lyrics and then cut the album hoarse, his voice whining offensively, turning each idiot phrase into a prickly barb. Harrison’s modest skills suddenly dwindle, overshadowed by the misplaced pride that permitted him to release such a shoddy piece of work.
But then Harrison’s life, so he claimed on his recent tour, is out of his control: “I believe in God and He is the supreme controller even down to the rehearsals … I mean, if it’s going this well, as I feel, with no voice, I can’t wait to have a voice!” If Dark Horse sounds hoarse, “It’s more like I am right at this minute.” And that makes it okay.
The nadir of the album is reached when Patti Harrison, George’s estranged wife, joins her current lover, Eric Clapton, for a spirited trio rendition of the Everly Brothers’ old “Bye Bye Love.” It seems a sick man’s idea of a joke. Yet “So Sad,” one of the album’s few resonant moments, probably tells the truth:
Of the dream we once held
Now it’s got to be shelved
It’s too late to make a new start
And he feels so alone
With no love of his own
So sad, so bad, so sad, so bad.
On Dark Horse, such self-pity is eventually resolved in hosannas to Maya Love, (which, honestly now, makes a pretty poor substitute for the mortal thing). The album is fleshed out with a banal instrumental, “Hari’s on Tour (Express),” a raspy stab at “Auld Lang Syne” ’74 (“Ding Dong; Ding Dong /Ring out the false/ Ring in the true”) and the title track which, thanks to Harrison’s no-voice and stilted lyrics, quite fails to evoke the self-confident master of “My Sweet Lord” or even “Living in the Material World.”
But Dark Horse is ultimately something more than an embarrassingly bad record. It is also the chronicle of a performer out of his element, working to deadline, enfeebling his overtaxed talents by a rush to deliver new “LP product,” rehearse a band and assemble a cross-country tour, all within three weeks.
How long will his fans continue to tolerate such mediocrity? Harrison himself, affecting the stance of the misunderstood artist, claims not to care: “I don’t give a shit, it doesn’t matter to me, but I’m going to do what I feel within myself.” His belligerence, however, reveals a fundamental insecurity. In plain point of fact, George Harrison has never been a great artist, as he himself must know. Given his current mood, the question becomes whether he will ever again be a competent entertainer.