The faith of the Quiet Beatle.
Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
To David Frost he couldn’t bring himself to say “God” with a capital G, preferring the less dangerous word “religion,” but it was only a matter of time—and when it came he wouldn’t shut up about it, or Him. Critics called Harrison “preachy,” and with some cause. I remember attending a concert in the only American solo tour he ever did, in 1974, in Long Beach, California. His voice was shot from infection and over-rehearsal, but none of us in the audience of 40,000 seemed to mind. A croaking Beatle was still a Beatle. Every song was greeted warmly, especially when he played the opening figure of the Beatles standard “In My Life,” grandly arranged and slowed to the pace of a dirge, in an effort to draw meaning out of each phrase: In my life, I love you more.
It was an odd song to do. “In My Life” was written by John Lennon, but Harrison put his own stamp on it, and how. He worked his way to the last line of the last verse: “In my life”—then came a rest of four beats, anticipatory cheers welling up from the crowd, the band prepared to come in like an avalanche—“I’ve loved God more.” And 40,000 people were caught in screamus interruptus. In my section of the cheap seats, there was a half-gulp while we all looked at each other: “Did he just say what I think he said?”
I still marvel at the nerve it must have taken, singing about God, of all things, in front of kids thumping for rock ’n’ roll, not to mention the wised-up musicians and the cynics and pedants of the concert-reviewing press. But you got used to it if you were a George fan, and in time came to expect it, as when, for example, in an acoustic blues called “Deep Blue,” he suddenly popped off with When I think of the life I’m living / I pray God help me; give me your light / So I can love you and understand . . . (You were expecting maybe the Hoochie Coochie Man?) And because George insisted, some of us felt obliged, for the first time in our lives, to take the idea (at least) of God seriously.
That Krishna, he works in mysterious ways.
Well into his forties he kept swinging between the poles of his double life as only a true Manichean can, a rock star buried in a pile of cocaine one minute and a sadhu renunciant fingering his beads the next. But by his fifties he had abandoned the pretensions of stardom altogether. He had married a formidable but endlessly forgiving woman. (“People sometimes say to me, ‘What’s the secret of a long marriage?’ ” Olivia says in the movie. “And I’m like, ‘You don’t get divorced!’ ”) He became a devoted father and accomplished gardener.
“I don’t listen to much of today’s music,” he said. “Most of it leaves me shell-shocked.” He immersed himself in the standards of the American songbook. “I would rather listen to ‘Lady Be Good’ by Grappelli [and Django Reinhardt] right now than almost anything,” he wrote in a brief autobiography. Hoagy Carmichael became a hero. His last albums each contained at least one old pop standard: Cole Porter’s “True Love,” Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues.”
When the cancer finally carried him off, his family’s formal statement insisted that he had never feared his own death, and even welcomed it, so sure was his faith in an afterlife and in God. The claim is repeated emphatically in the documentary. But this has the feel of a white lie—another bit of Beatle mythmaking. His last months were, in truth, a frantic scramble around Europe and North America in search of experimental cures that might keep his spirit housed in his body a few months longer. None of them worked.
I don’t suppose any Beatles fan will begrudge this last little bit of public relations touch-up. Even after reading the tell-alls, most of us think the authorized story of the Fab Four is fine the way it is, and anything else is finally irrelevant—a point which George Harrison himself sweetly made:
And don’t bug him when he’s meditating.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U.