May 1, 2012

George Harrison's Quiet Legacy

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

"Who's George Harrison?" my daughter asked me this morning.

"Oh, that's easy," I answered. "My favorite Beatle."

"What's a Beatle?" Obviously, this conversation went on for a bit. How and why did it start? My daughter, being far more visual than I, had apparently noticed something on the news crawl that I hadn't.

I'm going to assume that what piqued her interest was coverage of a Scorcese documentary on the life of George Harrison that just released on DVD. At least that's what topped my news search. So now, of course, I will have to see that.

When I was my daughter's age, 10, I had a very solid grounding in The Beatles. It was an education that had started when I was much younger. When I was 3 and 4, Magical Mystery Tour was my favorite album and I played it over and over on my little record player. Now, if you'd asked me at 10 who my favorite Beatle was, I would have said Paul -- the cute one. But with age and wisdom has come a deeper appreciation for George -- the thinky one.

George Harrison is the Beatle to whom I can most easily relate. In part because of his well-known spiritual quest, which led him, amongst other things, to learn sitar and to study with the deeply sublime Ravi Shankar.

But also because -- and this is a less well-known aspect of his personality -- he would apparently do anything for a laugh. Anyone who knows me well knows of the depths I will sink to to crack myself up.

I only lately learned of Harrison's long relationship with members of Monty Python and his involvement with Rutland Weekend Television -- the show that was the genesis of the brilliantly funny Beatles parody The Rutles: All You Need is Cash. His appearance on the BBC series shows what an incredible sense of humor Harrison had about himself.

One of the revelations in Scorcese's documentary -- at least it was news to me -- is that Harrison mortgaged his house to help finance Monty Python's Life of Brian. Risky move, although I'm assuming it ultimately paid off. It was very controversial.

The film contains themes of religious satire that were controversial at the time of its release, drawing accusations of blasphemy and protests from some religious groups. Thirty-nine local authorities in the UK either imposed an outright ban, or imposed an X (18 years) certificate (effectively preventing the film from being shown, as the distributors said the film could not be shown unless it was unedited and carried the original AA (14) certificate). Some countries, including Ireland and Norway, banned its showing, with a few of these bans lasting decades. The film makers used such notoriety to benefit their marketing campaign, with posters stating "So funny it was banned in Norway!".

The film was a box-office success, grossing fourth-highest of any film in the UK in 1979 and highest of any British film in the United States that year. It has remained popular since then, receiving positive reviews and being named "greatest comedy film of all time" by several magazines and television networks. The film is the first Monty Python film to receive an R rating[3] in the United States.

Life of Brian is one of my all-time favorite movies but it was definitely provocative, raising hard questions about the origins of Christianity and about the nature of religion itself. One of the more insightful sequences demonstrates the sheeple effect when the growing mobs of Brian's followers remove a sandal simply because he's lost one. George Harrison was clearly one who was looking for a deeper experience of the divine than can be achieved by accepting dogmatic, rote teaching at face value.

I think the cultural legacy left by George Harrison is only beginning to be understood and appreciated. He was the "quiet" Beatle, seemingly content to live in the shadow of the power dyad that was Lennon and McCartney. But his was also a contemplative quiet. He explored the inner space and embraced the mysteries. It was evident in his music -- a surprising blend of pop sensibility and meditative resonance. His influence on both the Beatles and the culture was subtle but pervasive. But by following his own passions he helped to shape the psychedelic revolution and the proliferation of Eastern thought in the West. He may well have been the most complex of the fab four. The Beatles were a marvelous synergy and none of them approached as solo artists the same kind of musical alchemy. So it's hard to say how much his vision shaped their sound. But he deserves ample credit for their transformation from pop musicians to weavers of unforgettable sound tapestries.

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