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?