Near the end of The Beatles Anthology, a television retrospective of the group’s history first broadcast in 1995, the band members were given the chance at a last word. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the Beatles least conflicted about the group’s career, closed with statements of pride and nostalgia. The late John Lennon, from an earlier interview, was characteristically irreverent and disingenuous: “It’s just a pop group that split up. It’s nothing important. You have the old records if you want to reminisce.” And George Harrison, in the understated way he had throughout the group’s career, poured some cold water on the whole enterprise: “They gave their money and their screams. But we gave our nervous systems, which is a more difficult thing to give.”
At the end of the long and adulatory documentary, Harrison’s words were a bracing dissent from the celebration. From the very beginning, when he was tagged the Quiet Beatle, Harrison stood apart from Lennon and McCartney and the comedic Starr, who was beloved by fans for his cheery, uncomplicated embrace of fame and fortune. Harrison’s first song for the group was called “Don’t Bother Me,” and it stands virtually alone within an early Beatles catalog that otherwise revels in romance and youth. Later additions to his canon of ambivalence included “Think for Yourself,” “If I Needed Someone,” and “You Like Me Too Much.” Near the end of the Beatles’ career, he wrote “I Me Mine,” which he described as the “the ‘ego’ problem” in song. It was also a concise expression of the self-involvement and distrust among the Beatles that was tearing the group apart.
In 1980, ten years after the group disbanded, Harrison published I Me Mine, an autobiography of sorts (Chronicle Books, 399 pages $24.95). It offers barely 60 pages of Harrison’s musings, which come from transcriptions of conversations with Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ longtime press agent. The remainder of the book, nearly 300 pages, consists of song lyrics from Harrison’s Beatles and solo careers, and his notes on the songs. The book has been reissued with a new introduction by Harrison’s widow, Olivia.
Given his long devotion to the Hindu religion and its instructions to release oneself from the Ego, I Me Mine is “a sly paradox of a title,” as Taylor notes, “chosen by a man concerned for many years and for many reasons to send his ego packing.” Yet as Harrison himself admits in the book, getting free of the ego is a constant struggle, and one might opine that including 300 pages of song lyrics is hardly an ego-less act. (The songs only go up to 1980, and were not updated for the new edition.)
In a sense, I Me Mine is the perfect complement for Harrison’s solo albums, which usually contained items of interest but were ultimately either half-hearted or impenetrable. But Harrison’s restless intelligence is never far from the surface. The autobiographical section of I Me Mine contains compelling glimpses into his past that waft away almost as soon as they come into view. Harrison’s description of the dreariness of schooling in Liverpool — “That’s where the darkness began…You would punch people just to get it out of your system” — makes the reader hungry for more. At one point the headmaster of Harrison’s school writes his father, “I cannot tell you what his work is like because he has not done any.”
Harrison’s recollections, as brief as they are, do not come uninterrupted. Derek Taylor frequently editorializes between sections, and though this is sometimes necessary to set up the next narrative fragment, it is also intrusive. Still, it’s worth hearing what little Harrison is willing to say. His telling of the group’s nightmare tour of the Philippines in 1966, when they ran afoul of Ferdinand Marcos and actually feared for their lives, has the unmistakable immediacy of one who was there. It’s a shame that Harrison did not have a chance to expand on the hodgepodge biography of I Me Mine; the book clearly demonstrates his ability as a storyteller, and his austere, pleasingly sour take on celebrity culture is timely and satisfying.
Harrison’s notes on his songs are generally more interesting than reading the lyrics themselves. To an extent, this is unavoidable, since no rock lyrics are particularly compelling on a page, divorced from their musical context. But Harrison saves his most expansive comments for his most forgettable songs. He is pithy when remembering some of his best work, but writes small dissertations on “The Lord Loves the One That Loves the Lord” and “It Is ‘He’ (Jai Sri Krishna).” The paradox is why more of his songs weren’t as interesting as he was.
The book’s catalog of songs does serve a useful purpose, however: it is a reminder that the Beatles were not just Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Anyone stuck in a group with talents like those would find it difficult to gain acclaim, and Harrison’s contributions were all the more impressive for their invisibility. He was the group’s lead guitarist and a much superior musician to Lennon. His celebrated inclusion of the sitar on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” made a good song otherworldly, and in a figurative sense made him its co-author. “It just needed something,” he said years later, and indeed he had an instinctive sense of what Beatles songs “needed” musically. His playing was devoid of excess and embodied a concept mostly alien to rock: taste. He was not a “guitar hero,” he was a guitar player.
Though Harrison’s embrace of Indian mysticism and its subsequent appearance in Beatles music had a huge impact on countercultural trends — the Woodstock generation’s pursuit of all things Eastern, the rise of New Age philosophies and lifestyles — he never fit the role of hippie guru. Coexisting with his desire for spiritual insight were a passion for privacy and a crotchety willingness to complain, even within a pop culture that generally expects its celebrities to be grateful for their fame. The best example on record is Harrison’s immortal “Taxman,” a song that has since become something of a libertarian anthem:p> em>If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street br> If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat br> If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat br> If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet… /em>
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?