George Harrison: Living in the Material World, a rather overlong documentary by Martin Scorsese that airs in two parts on HBO, is a look at the so-called “quiet” Beatle, with rarely seen footage and wide-ranging personal recollections by his widow, Olivia, and surviving band members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, among many others.
It may seem heresy to say in light of this adoring examination of Harrison’s life, but I never thought he was a particularly inventive songwriter. Lyrics like “My sweet lord, hm, my lord, hm, my lord” and “Give me love, give me love, give me peace on earth” bordered on the banal. When compared with the talents of McCartney, and especially Lennon, you kinda see why not too many Harrison songs made the final cut on those Beatle albums.
As a person, however, Harrison was far deeper. The documentary reminds that it was he, then only in his twenties, who offered to share a remarkable spiritual journey with his fellow Beatles, in an effort to find something beyond the unprecedented fame and attention that he found so meaningless and empty. And it wasn’t some flaky endeavor. Despite derision about his association with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Harrison’s immersion in the roots of the Hindu/Indian cultural and musical experience (slavish in his devotion to the art of Ravi Shankar), was real and life-altering.
Material world: Harrison’s palatial Friar Park
One of the more interesting segments dwells on Harrison’s 1970 acquisition of Friar Park, the 120-room Neo-Gothic mansion at Henley-on-Thames. Built in 1875 by English eccentric Sir Frank Crisp, Friar Park was to become the center of Harrison’s universe, where he reveled in recording (his studio rivaled the one at Abbey Road), as well as gardening, his refuge from the storm. He was fond of a quote that Crisp had etched on a wall in one of the outer halls of the estate:
Scan not a friend with microscopic glass;
You know his faults, then let his foibles pass.
And by all accounts, a wonderful friend Harrison was. Even to legendary fellow rocker Eric Clapton, who eventually absconded with his then-wife Pattie Boyd. When asked about the betrayal, Harrison answered, ”I’d rather she be with him than some dope.” Ringo Starr’s emotional memory of his last visit with Harrison also recalls his kindness and innate sense of generosity.
By the time Harrison died in 2001, his career had gone on to encompass film production (including Monty Python’s Life of Brian); in his personal life, son Dhani was born in 1978. (Dhani’s resemblance to his father is almost otherworldly, a fitting legacy.) Wife Olivia sums up the moment of Harrison’s passing by saying that her husband’s spirit “just lit the room.”
Here comes the sun, indeed.