George Harrison: Living in the Material World

I got born into the material world
Getting worn out in the material world
Use my body like a car,
Taking me both near and far
Met my friends all in the material world

Walk a mile or so from where I live, across the park that locals call the Mystery, and you will arrive outside 12 Arnold Grove, the small terraced house where George Harrison was born in 1943.  Here, for me, is another mystery: how did this boy from a family of working class Catholic  Liverpudlians come not only to be a member of a musical partnership that changed the world, but also to embrace the spiritualism of Hinduism, Indian philosophy, culture, and music.

Strangely, this is not a question that Martin Scorsese seeks to explore in his sympathetic , sprawling documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World which I watched at FACT the other evening.  There is next to nothing about Harrison’s early life in the film, except for a few shots of the blitz and wartime destruction in the opening minutes.  Instead, the closest Scorcese comes to pursuing the thread of a unifying idea is, as the title suggests, to tentatively explore how Harrison balanced his intense spirituality with his life in the ‘material world’ – the hedonistic lifestyle of a rock musician, property-owner, businessman and tax-payer; a sensualist deeply attractive to women, and a man who loved fast cars.

But Scorcese, though incorporating interviews with a great many who knew Harrison (including his wife and son, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and many other musicians) doesn’t probe too deeply.  Tricky issues are raised, but rather superficially. Beatles press chief Derek Taylor and his wife Joan talk about Harrison’s battles with addiction; Eric Clapton recalls the love triangle between Harrison, himself and Pattie Boyd; while McCartney speaks of the tensions between himself and Harrison as the Beatles began to drift apart.  But Living In The Material World pulls back from really delving into these aspects of Harrison’s life, instead building a sympathetic portrait of a gentle and quiet man, much-loved by family and friends, and one who constantly questioned the nature of his existence.

Watch out now, take care
Beware of falling swingers
Dropping all around you
The pain that often mingles
In your fingertips
Beware of darkness

This is an epic film – four hours with intermission at a cinema screening – and, like No Direction Home which dealt with Dylan, Scorcese’s aim seems to be to gather together the definitive document of the man’s career, incorporating interviews as well as beautifully restored archival footage.  It’s successful in that respect, skilfully edited to yield a strong narrative drive from the mass of material (although I did wonder, in the absence of any narration or very many captions,  how easy certain sections – such as Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann talking about the Hamburg days – would be to follow if you hadn’t lived through this stuff or were not au fait with all things Beatles).

There’ll come a time when all of us must leave here
Then nothing sister Mary can do
Will keep me here with you
As nothing in this life that I’ve been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying

Harrison is intriguing for the intensity of his spiritual yearnings, expressed in his music and his quest to absorb the principles of eastern thought. For a short period at least, he brought the Beatles under the influence of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and he came to accept their teaching that the material world is maya, an illusionary state that should not be the final goal in life, but an opportunity to prepare for a good death.  Scorcese explores this aspect of Harrison in some depth, and reveals how his spiritual values affected his attitude to the attack and stabbing by an intruder in his home and his final losing battle with cancer.

Martin Scorsese has spoken of hearing Harrison’s All Things Must Pass for the first time, of  ‘the overwhelming feeling of taking in that all glorious music for the first time. It was like walking into a cathedral. George was making spiritually awake music – we all heard and felt it – and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a very special place in our lives’.

There’s a crucial scene in the film which focusses on a letter Harrison, aged 22, wrote to his parents while in India in 1965 with the other Beatles studying meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  In the letter, George says the Beatles had been lucky to acquire early in their lives so many of the material goods that most people spend their entire lives yearning for – because as a consequence, they had learned relatively young how hollow material success can be:

I know that this isn’t it. I knew I was going to be famous, but now I know I can reach the real top of what man can achieve, which is self-realization.

The second half of the film explores Harrison’s solo career, his financial backing for the Python’s Life of Brian and the subsequent emergence of Handmade Films, and his involvement in the Travelling Wilburys, before  dealing with the struggle with cancer and his near-fatal stabbing in 1999.  The events of that dreadful night are remembered by Olivia Harrison, who tells in terrifying detail of the attack that left her husband with multiple knife wounds and a collapsed lung. She wielded a poker to subdue the assailant, and recalls how later at the hospital she and George were shaken by how fiercely they had fought, almost in defiance of their spiritual values.

There’s a strong sense in the film of the friendships that Harrison forged – with musicians, obviously, but with others in the fields of comedy, motor racing and film.  All speak of George with tremendous affection.  There’s Tom Petty remembering the day that George dropped by and left him a great many ukeleles; Ringo admitting his bafflement at  Harrison’s new love for eastern music and recalling the time while recording Abbey Road when Harrison brought in the  tune for ‘Here Comes the Sun’:

He infused Indian musical technique into songs where people normally wouldn’t recognize it. In ‘Here Comes the Sun’, there were seven beats, not the usual three or four beats for the drum’s rhythm. George comes in and says ‘Oh, I’ve got this song, it’s in 7 and a half time’.  He might as well have talked to me in Arabic.

It’s Ringo, too, who produces the most moving moment of the film.  He recalls how, when George’s cancer returned, he flew to Switzerland where George was being treated.  George was very ill, unable to lift himself from his bed.  Ringo sat with him for a while, but then had to explain to George that he must leave him to fly to New York where his daughter was facing an operation for a brain tumour.  With tears in his eyes, Ringo recalls George’s response – the last words he would hear from his lips – ‘Do you want me to come with you?’  Tears and sniffles throughout the cinema.

In 12 Arnold Grove, the only heating was from one coal fire, and the house was so cold in winter that George and his brothers dreaded getting up in the morning.  The toilet was outside  in the yard. The house had tiny rooms – ten feet square – and a small iron cooking stove in the back room, which was used as the kitchen. George  described the back yard as having ‘a one-foot wide flower bed, a toilet, a dustbin fitted to the back wall and a little hen house where we kept cockerels’.  George also said:

Try and imagine the soul entering the womb of a woman living at 12 Arnold Grove, Wavertree, Liverpool 15. There were all the barrage balloons, and the Germans bombing Liverpool. All that was going on. I sat outside the house a couple of years ago, imagining 1943, nipping through the spiritual world, the astral level, getting back into a body in that house. That really is strange when you consider the whole planet, all the planets there may be on a spiritual level. How do I come into that family, in that house at that time, and who am I anyway?

12 thoughts on “George Harrison: Living in the Material World

    1. Thanks for the link, Kevin. Good review by your mate. When I saw the film at FACT it was full, too, and also a lot of love and laughter in the audience. For some strange reason FACT at first only put the film on for one screening (in Liverpool!), but after yours sold out put one one more. But then I’m less enamoured of FACT than your mate. They’re unadventurous in their programming, ignore certain films or only screen them once at some weird time, usually in The Box (The Box!!). I half-expected this was going to be in the bloody Box as I made my there.

  1. Not wishing to rain on anyone’s parade. But one annoying detail. George was born on Feb 25, 1943. So his ‘soul’ would have entered his mother’s womb, as he puts it, sometime in late May 1942. No bombing raids had hit Liverpool since January 1942. In fact, that was the final occasion, albeit people at the time couldn’t have known that. Nevertheless he over-eggs it a bit.

    On the ‘absences’ in the Scorsese narrative: I wonder if that’s to politically detach George from his specific environment, and offer him up as an apolitical, deracinated, ‘spiritual’ entity

  2. I suspect Scorcese just isn’t especially political. In his defence, he does give time to the Bangladesh concert (how could he not?) but I would have liked to know how much money it actually raised, and how it was distributed. As for deracinated, I think the film shows that, though he aspired to a spiritual plane, he was very much of the ‘material world’ his time – the questing, but also the drugs, money, sex and rock n’roll (and an obsession with not letting the taxman get his dough – almost the first words we hear in the film are of Terry Gilliam recalling how he shifted the finances of Handmade Films to Switzerland to avoid the British public getting any benefit). I offered George’s musing outside Arnold Grove just to illustrate how he had a sense of the strange mysteriousness of his life’s trajectory. I suppose we all get confused about dates.

  3. What can I say? THANK YOU for sharing what must have been a spiritual experience in such a moving manner. I still have a strange sensation inside and the remnant of goose bumps outside. Netfilx (our online rental) does not have the film yet but I saved one entitled “George Harrison: The Quiet One” and the Dylan doc. George was underrated as a poet-composer. Indeed, many presume his songs to be Lennon-McCartney creations. I am part guilty in that respect and was awed by The Concert for George (oh to have been there!) and the diversity of his writing. While my Guitar Gently Weeps is one of my favourite all-time songs and I have several versions. I believe the number and quality of covers defines the artist and piece of music. Look at Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jackson C. Frank, Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (in particular).

    Gerry, I admire how you live life to the full and your generosity of spirit in preserving those experiences for our edification and for posterity.

  4. Great review Gerry, full of relevant depth that I cant bring to my review of the film.
    My blog is about the Beatles “group genius”, so it is good to see a film on George which necessarily starts with how they developed as a group with George being given heft. As you say RIngo has most of the best observations. Both necessarily and by choice much is left out, creating a particular narrative. I dont think Americans get the context of the Beatles, or much of the UK post-war experience, but they sure know how to do the music. In the end this is a music documentary and the first part is a reasonable fresh edit of that story.
    Thanks for your deeper reflections on that :-)

  5. Can I just add two things: it’s a privilege to know such ace people as Fred and Gerry who never cease in their energy, commitment and helpful analysis. Chapeaux! Both your blogs bring enormous pleasure and satisfaction.
    The second is… although a contemporary of the Beatles (Page Moss chapter) I never saw/met/slept with any of them. But, in the context of this film, what I want to know is what happened to the girl who went to Bellerive who used to collect George Harrison’s sweet wrappers discarded from various local stages, later became a nun but then allegedly jumped over the wall.

  6. PS Agree with Dave – George, like all tax dodgers, was not apolitical. The opposite; waging class war by any other name albeit innocently. Personally I can’t be doing with content-free spiritual insights, especially when associated with drug habits, but I enjoyed the film. I suffer from that local congenital problem of interconnected bladder and tear ducts so Ringo’s ending to the film had the required impact. Not a dry seat in the house.

  7. Thanks Kevin. I’ve been doing my Beatles stuff for a number of reasons. Firstly I was part of a group that built a Facebook for learning for the govt bak in 2002, which was rejected. We were furious and formed first lastfridaymob then the Learner-Generated Contexts Group who produced the Open Context Model of Learning for the OU. John Seeley Brown called it the ‘most exciting thing happening in England’ whereupon the OU rejected it from the conference proceedings (stay with me here). In 2009 it was accepted for publication in Aussie and I said, you know I’m gonna write the novelisation as more than 20 people will read it that way. So I wrote 63/68 A Visceral History about how music guided me away from school. Freely available both on Kindle (in Dropbox) and here.

    Secondly, in order to publicise that I set up a blog, 9 after 909, to highlight the Beatles stories and hook up to the 9/9/9 remasters. That took off as a Beatles blog, then a friend asked me to apply the Open Context Model of Learning, which is about everyday creativity, to the Beatles career. So I did a series of Blog Posts on A Beatles YouTube Album about their creativity explicitly structuring their career Outliers/Singles/Albums/Psychedelia/Atelier/
    Thirdly the thing that struck me (welcome back) is that American writers have taken our UK source material (I mean we invented the Beatles after all) and have produced better “scholarship” about them, like Kenneth Womack, but with contextual errors.

    So challenged first by Russell, and then by Kevin, I thought I could produce better British scholarship about these scouse chappies than prissy US academics (where I have previous). Currently my plan is to do a TV series called Sixties Six (in 7 episodes) about working class creativity in the sixties using Levitin’s ‘The World in Six Songs’ as a framing device. I’ve even lined up Wayne Rooney’s cousin to help (she’s Kevin’s smarter sister)…

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