Living in the Material World

I can distinctly remember the day I read that George Harrison had died of cancer. Losing a Beatle was considered pretty terrible news, even forty years after they first emerged as a cheeky Scouse rock ‘n’ roll band, but there was also a sense of something heavier. I was barely music-literate at the time but it seemed somehow more unfair and more unfortunate that it was George, the quiet one who could write a great song but would never get the recognition that John and Paul had had from the start. As I wrote previously, George is my favourite Beatle for the unfussy and meaningful way he went about his music career – as well as for writing one of the greatest songs of all time in Something.

The fact that Martin Scorsese has now made a film about Harrison is therefore great news. George’s well-earned place in The Beatles is now pretty much assured. But much more than that, Scorsese has crafted a documentary that is a work of brilliance in itself – better than his Dylan film or the Rolling Stones concert film he made a few years back – and a fine testament to a unique personality very much deserving of immortalisation.

Granted, for an hour and a half the film trundles along; there is Beatlemania and all that, little we don’t know and only an Italian American could set the scene as subtly as the Luftwaffe flying over English fields. Fortunately, there is Eric Clapton’s perceptiveness and George’s sense of humour (not to mention a shot of John Lennon’s Rolls Royce). There is also the good fortune that, with Astrid Kirchner and Linda McCartney, The Beatles were the most (and best photographed) band in history, making up for the lack of live footage once they had given up touring.

Then the second half opens with the breaking up of The Beatles and the real George Harrison emerges, as if from a chrysalis. All the influences – the songwriting, the meditation and the impact of Liverpool, of the band and of his family – suddenly become the man whom practically no one can say a bad word against.

The list of achievements post-Beatles is incredible; a triple album; the Concert for Bangladesh when he had hardly uttered a word on stage for ten years; getting Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison round the kitchen table for a jamming session that became The Travelling Wilburys. He remained friends with Clapton after the latter ran off with his wife and remortgaged his house to fund The Life of Brian (and later The Long Good Friday and Withnail & I, amongst others). Most importantly, he kicked drugs and scorned the material wherever the spiritual could take precedence.

It is easy to regard Ravi Shankar and the Hare Krishna as an eccentricity in George Harrison, especially as they were never a ‘phase’ or a passing interest as they were for the other Beatles. Indeed, for all his pleading for people not to fear what they misunderstand, there is an off-putting intenseness that most of his close friends would recognise.

Yet within that spirituality, there was also a reserve of the sort of things that make life worth living and inspired an affection in those closest to him, without any of the arrogance that comes with charisma or superficiality. In the final judgement, George was just too good a person (there are no other words) to eschew the material world, either for drugs or for Indian religion. That made him flawed in one sense, but it also preserved a good nature.

For this, Scorsese is to be praised; had the film been about a fictional character, it might have been unbelievable but it would still have been insightful. In George Harrison, the bloated and largely self-serving direction in which musicians tend to go was partly checked. One day, perhaps even footballers will be similarly rehabilitated.

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