Beware of Darkness

29 Nov

Nearly a year after it premiered on HBO I finally watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s expansive documentary. For two weeks I’ve had an amalgam of “My Sweet Lord,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Here Comes the Sun” running through my head: sadness and bliss.

There’s not a lot I can say about Harrison or Scorsese that hasn’t already been said, other than to share my utter awe. When you have one of the world’s foremost music documentarians chronicling one of the most obscenely famous and talented musicians/spiritual seekers of the 20th century, it’s going to be good.

Before watching this I didn’t know much about George Harrison apart from the basics: regarded as one of the most influential rock guitarists ever; left the Beatles to explore Indian music and transcendental meditation; had a huge, semi-controversial hit praising Krishna; invented the megastar charity rock show with The Concert for Bangladesh (and strengthened its fundraising success by insisting on creating a film and double album); became a Traveling Wilbury; died way too soon and too young.

The secret of this telling of an almost too familiar story was how many surprises there were, some delightful and some dark:

  • He was a huge fan of Formula One car racing and became a good friend of Jackie Stewart.
  • His doppelganger son Dhani rebelled against his parents by going to military school.
  • He financed all of Life of Brian when the original producers backed out fearing the controversial content
  • When a mentally unstable man attacked George in his own home, stabbing him severely, his wife Olivia fended off the intruder by beating him with a poker and lamp. George later told his wife that during the attack, he had the awful realization that he was in the process of being murdered.

(Olivia is someone I’d love to have dinner with. She comes off as a grounded, intelligent and deeply compassionate woman who was well suited for the task of being married to George: an otherworldly man who, for all his pursuit of perfection, also committed all too common sins like infidelity. She also got the best line of the film: “What’s the secret to a long marriage? Don’t get divorced!”)

It would be wrong to say the best thing about watching this documentary is learning more trivia. George Harrison: Living in the Material World connects you musically and viscerally to his passionate world view, which he deftly made part of our own. That was made clear in one of the extra scenes available on the DVD, in which Dhani sits at a mixing board with Beatles producer George Martin exploring the various vocal and instrumental tracks that were used or discarded in the production of “Here Comes the Sun.” As George Harrison’s acoustic guitar offered the indelible final notes, Dhani points out that his father used an Indian rhythmic structure throughout the song.

If you transcribe that rhythm using Western time signatures, it’s hard to wrap your head around it. It traipses through 11/8, 4/4 and 7/8. It’s irregular and alien, so difficult to grasp that Ringo Starr said he had to plow through it because if he thought too much he just couldn’t play it. Yet Dhani points out it’s actually very simple. It’s  just : 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1. The beats resolve themselves from 3 to 2 to 1.

The One.

See you on the flip side …


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