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George’s God

The faith of the Quiet Beatle.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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You have to read the tell-alls, such as the memoir of his first wife Pattie, to get the details about Bad George and his heroic capacity for cocaine, brandy, and adultery. The combination resulted in, among other things, the spectacularly gruesome scene he made in 1973 at a dinner party at Ringo’s house. The party went sour when George stood up to announce that he was sleeping with Ringo’s wife and planned to run away with her. (In the event, he quickly moved on from Mrs. Starr.) Just another potluck with the Starrs and the Harrisons.

Paul Theroux, the travel writer, has for some reason been enlisted to write an introduction to the picture book, and he beats the theme of two Georges like a Ludwig tom-tom: “It is no wonder he was so passionate: he was himself his own wicked twin,” Theroux writes. “He was himself the dark and the light, the flames and the ashes.” If you think that’s overwritten, wait till you watch him wade into the hallucinatory exaggeration we have learned to expect when Baby Boomers write about rock music:

To say that he was one of the great musicians of his time—one of the most innovative guitarists ever, one of the most imaginative songwriters—is to give only part of the story.

Yes, and not even the true part!

One of George Harrison’s most appealing traits was self-awareness. He would have seen (and said) how absurd such talk was. “I was never a real guitarist,” he once told his friend Klaus Voormann. And he wasn’t; he couldn’t launch the fireworks like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, and the disciplined technique of Andrés Segovia or Julian Bream never interested him. About his songwriting, he told an interviewer: “There’s no comparison between me and someone who sits and writes music. What I do is really simple.” Right again. He compared himself to a pastry chef, able to combine musical ingredients nicked from others to make a pleasing presentation of songcraft. He made many marvelous records, but as a source of fresh musical ideas, he said, “I’m not really that good.”

You could say the same for pretty much anyone who ever wrote a rock song, which is an extremely forgiving art form, but you can’t imagine anyone else who ever wrote a rock song admitting it.

Whether his religion led him to his clear-eyed modesty, or it worked the other way around, the two were connected. Along with the humility, his unapologetic religious faith made him the most unlikely rock star in history. It wasn’t the faith of his fathers, of course. His mother dragged him to Mass as a boy. “They tried to raise me a Catholic,” he says in Living in the Material World, but he stopped going to church before he was a teenager. Whatever chance he had to become an orthodox believer was snuffed out by the drab and airless Catholicism on offer in the decades leading up to Vatican II. He preferred to lose himself in the teeming pantheism and exotic mysticism of India. He first traveled there with the other Beatles, to sit at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the old fox who had the spiritual insight to trademark the phrase “transcendental meditation.”

 The West itself came to represent the decadence that the Bad George fell into and the Good George struggled to escape.

I was in the West, and I was into rock ’n’ roll, getting crazy, staying up all night and doing whatever was supposed to be the wrong things. That’s in conflict with all the right things, which is what I learned through India—like getting up early, going to bed early, taking care of yourself and having some sort of spiritual quality to your life.

It helps that Hinduism lets a believer off the hook more easily than Christianity. Harrison became a particular devotee of the god Krishna, a blue-skinned, flute-tooting playboy who, unlike Jesus Christ, rotates his way through a harem of thousands of nubile maidens. Compared with them, Ringo’s wife must have seemed like a trifle.

Still, his mother may have succeeded more than he knew. When he went off with Maharishi, he wrote her a letter of reassurance. His Hindu practice, he told her, wasn’t taking him “off from any devotion to the Sacred Heart in any way. It only strengthens it!” Religious devotion of the most intimate sort preoccupied him, and his oscillation between guilt and redemption had a Catholic look to it—though his insistence on the split between spirit and body could have landed him squarely with the Manicheans. Not long after his discovery of India he went on David Frost’s chat show to announce the Beatles’ new religious phase. He could have been quoting a homily from any priest at St. Sylvester’s back in Liverpool—banal by the standards of sociology, simply bizarre by the standards of rock ’n’ roll: 

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