Consider the following words, from the final verse of the final song of George Harrison’s final album:
Won’t you lead us through this mess / From the places of concrete / Nothing’s worse than ignorance / I just won’t accept defeat
Now consider the choral refrain, “God, God, God!” flying out between each line, bright and punchy, somewhere between Queen and musical theater, if that in-between space exists. Which maybe it doesn’t.
Now consider that this literal, on the nose invocation of George’s lifelong spiritual focus does not fall flat or corny. Consider instead that it rules. Hard.
More on that later.
If you have been following this blog, you know that when we discuss The Beatles, we tend to get into the heart and soul, the muscle and the bone of things.
Why? I don’t know.
That’s what The Beatles do to people. That’s especially what The Beatles do to Beatles fans. They point to the bigger picture, get you thinking cosmically.
Is that the inherent power of their work, or are we prejudiced by the grandiosity of it all, the mythological sweep of the story? Which came first, the Beatle or the mania?
When I seek the answers to these questions, I often find myself in dialogue with George.
If John was the group’s cynic, George was perhaps its skeptic. Skeptical of fame, skeptical of Beatlemania, intermittently skeptical of the Beatles as an entity, skeptical (if that’s the word) of Paul, skeptical of the material world and often, dear listener, skeptical of you.
In this sense, he can easily play the average fan’s surrogate–if not a mere mortal, a demigod perhaps, stuck between pop music’s mightiest deities, one whose only sin was being the third best songwriter in The Beatles.
He’s The Quiet One (or, as I sometimes call him, the Permed One, The Most British Looking One and The Most Finely-Mulleted One), forever observing, keeping score, tossing off underappreciated zingers and even more underappreciated tunes.
And of course, he’s also The Spiritual One, the guy who introduced Eastern spirituality to Western pop music and then proved himself to be capital-A About That Life, long after the dillettantes had sold out and given up. We don’t need to dive too deep into how George’s spirituality informed his songwriting–it’s all there, from his first big hit through to the last song on his last album.
He loves God, alot. Worries about never fully knowing Him (or Her!) (or They!).
Worries a good bit about the rest of us too, stumbling around as we are, in a world of illusions. He supplicates, beseeches and excoriates in more or less equal measure. These are the constants in his career.
The less constant, always evolving elements were his songwriting and his production. It’s my opinion that those three essentials–spirituality, songrwriting and production–found their finest balance in his last album, 2002’s posthumously-released Brainwashed.
Does this make Brainwashed Harrison’s best album? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. It’s possible that it shouldn’t even be compared with the other albums in his catalogue. As a final album, one made with the knowledge that he was dying of cancer and posthumously completed by Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison (following George’s instructions), it maybe achieves a level of profundity that an album made under different circumstances wouldn’t.
By the way, I wavered a little at the use of the word ‘achieved’ above–we’re talking about death after all, not exactly a reasonable price to pay for artistic ‘achievement.’ But if you know George, you know ‘death’ and ‘achievement’ were, in a sense, synonymous; this owing to his Hindu faith, which placed great emphasis on death as reunion with God and liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth (I don’t know enough about the specifics of the Hindu belief system or George’s particular take on it to speak intelligently about it, so I won’t try).
In this sense, Brainwashed is not only a final album, but a final statement, and a beautiful one as far as I’m concerned. There’s a relaxed quality to his spirituality here, less yearning and less scolding.
The opening track, “Any Road” finds him in jaunty Wilbury mode, running down a fun, uptempo folk-pop tune with an evocative, tongue-in-cheek lyric.
He recounts a set of journeys that run from the literal (“I’ve been travelling on a boat and a train, with a car and a bike and a bus and a train”) to the allegorical (“Travelling where the four winds blow, with the sun on my face in the ice and the snow”) to the metaphysical (“I keep travelling up around the bend, there’s no beginning, there is no end, it wasn’t born and never dies, there are no edges, there are no sides”) and–get this–manages to sound playful and happy the entire time! Go George!
It’s a fun song that doesn’t take itself too seriously. World weary in a good-humored vein, reminiscent of “Handle With Care.” It’s a perfect opener for this album, one of his best. Here, The Quiet One’s still waters are bright and clear and therefore we can see how deep they run.
To wit: “Oooh-wee, it’s a game, sometimes you’re cool, sometimes you’re lame.”
Does this line sound a little…I don’t know, lame?
Or–does it sound like a guy who’s travelled through the dirt and the grime, through the past through the future through the space and the time finally mellowing out? Letting you know:
Yeah, I was lame some of the time. Dark Horse was fairly lame. The Dark Horse tour was lame, what with me having no voice and all. Some of the shit I said about The Beatles? Okay–lame. All the constant God stuff? Yeah fine, kinda lame. The production on most of my albums? Lame-ish. You may even think this song, this very line, is lame, and maybe it is.
But you know what was cool? When I played the solo on “I Saw Her Standing There.” That was pretty fucking cool. When I hipped an entire generation to meditation? Cool. “Here Comes The Sun” was pretty cool. So was The Concert For Bangladesh. 33 1/3 was actually pretty cool, by the way. So was Handmade Films. But yeah, this line might be kinda lame. You tell me.
(And by way of discussing how things have aged, I can tell you from personal experience that there were so very, very many uncool, extraordinarily lame things happening musically in 2002 that by comparison this line was George Harrison’s “Imagine.” 20 years later, we’re not exactly plumbing the depths of Crazy Town’s catalogue, you follow?)
And then he rounds the whole thing out with a pull from Alice In Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” The Lewis Carroll allusion grounds us firmly in Beatledom, lets us know we’re hearing from a George who’s found a measure of peace with things.
This template–mature spirituality paired with effortless writing–holds steady for the next 6 songs, starting with “P2 Vatican Blues,” a great-sounding blues with a playful lyric that obliquely addresses Catholicism (but somehow in a fun way?) and by extension continues the theme of closure as we see George give a wink and a nod, rather than a scowl and fist-shake, to the religion in which he was raised.
“Picses Fish” is a pleasant bit of introspection, ditto “Looking For My Life,” one of my favorite songs on the album, and one that really shows the value of Harrison’s relationship with the Wilburys and Jeff Lynne (whose production imprint shows as clearly here as it did on the Wilburys’ records). “Looking” is a Petty-esque rocker, breezy and straightforward, illuminated and not weighed down by its spiritual components.
And it sounds great.
There are those who find Jeff Lynne’s production style off-putting, a little too shiny and hard. You can almost see the sharp corners and polished surfaces of his sonic landscapes (for context, Lynne also produced Harrison’s Cloud Nine and Paul McCartney’s Flaming Pie. For further context, these are good albums).
I for one think the value Lynne adds far, far outweighs whatever sense of sterility or superficial gloss results from his production style. Harrison’s production, in my opinion, often suffered during the ’70s. Already possessing a more delicate vocal instrument than many of his peers, his songs were often swallowed by murky production (imagine All Things Must Pass not given the Spector treatment. Go on, try it). Here, Lynne gives them the kick in the pants they deserve, shines them up and takes them out for a spin.
On that note, let’s talk about “Rising Sun.”
This is a cool song. Extremely Jeff Lynne, extremely George in “When We Was Fab” mode.
For some reason, people always feel the need to rank the individual Beatles, to battle them–even if only in imagination–against each other, to litigate and re-litigate their legacies. To that end, Paul was a better songwriter than George. Paul was–is–a better songwriter than everyone.
So, I’m not trying to hot take you when I say that George did shit that Paul was incapable of doing. Paul could not have written “Rising Sun.” He just couldn’t have. It’s a George song through and through. Cool and slightly off center. Dark, interesting harmonic choices. To use today’s parlance, a song that “zags.” George was very good at zagging.
One of the best zags on Brainwashed is “Stuck Inside A Cloud,” a bittersweet self-examination that sticks out on an album full of humor and acceptance: “Talking to myself / Crying out loud / Only I can hear me / I’m stuck inside a cloud.” It’s beautiful and regretful and its central imagery is whimsical but also torturous–stuck inside a cloud. Held prisoner by phantoms.
“Run So Far” and “Never Get Over You” stay on this melancholy note without being as effective, while “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” and “Rocking Chair In Hawaii” are serviceable old-timey covers/interpolations, in the vein of “Baltimore Oriole” or “I Really Love You.”
Which brings us back to the final, titular track, “Brainwashed.”
It is my belief that George sticks the landing super hard here. Tens across the board.
I don’t know for sure how it went down, but I imagine Dhani and Jeff Lynne were very overtly attempting to fashion a spectacular ending to George’s career and I believe there is great merit in fashioning spectacular endings. Leave it all out there. Take a big swing. Sometimes you’re cool, sometimes you’re lame.
“Brainwashed” is the perfect complement to “Any Road.” Here, George edges back into sourpuss territory, but it’s exactly what we need of him at exactly this moment.
We’re not saying goodnight on some mellow puff of self-actualized bliss. For God’s sake, there is still work to be done here! You–YOU–all of you–are still the dupes of malign cosmic forces! The hour is nigh upon us! Get your shit together!
I love George in this mode. I love a call to arms. And he really goes for it.
Like seriously goes for it.
First, the voice. He uses his Monty Python voice here, something akin to the voice he uses on “Crackerbox Palace.” It’s silly and cartoonishly British, pulling some shred of stuffy, old-timey Britishness into urgent union with the spiritual work of humanity’s advancement.
There’s an Indian raga break. An unidentified woman reads a quote from a hindu text, “How To Know God,” alternately known as “The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali.” I know because I went out, bought and read it. This shit is convincing, okay?
There’s the aformentioned “God, God, God!” refrain. Cool? Lame? At this point, does it matter? Yes. It does matter. It’s cool.
Now let’s go back to the verse I mentioned at the start of this whole thing:
Won’t you lead us through this mess / From the places of concrete / Nothing’s worse than ignorance / I just won’t accept defeat
This is my absolute favorite Harrison persona: George the inspirer, George the resilient.
See: “Wake Up My Love,” off Gone Troppo: “Well you know it’s me out here / Can’t give up now let us make that clear / All I’ve had’s the run around / Though I’m barking like some hound.”
Earnestness is so uncool, such anathema to rock music and to comedy (a discipline the Beatles were always skirting around). Maybe that’s why Harrison so insistently slagged off U2. Maybe he saw his own tendencies toward self-righteousness mirrored back at him.
But when you can deploy it in surgical doses, it’s magical.
“I just won’t accept defeat.” From a guy dying of cancer. Who had just been stabbed to pieces in his own living room at a point when he must surely have questioned his own relevance. Like–why me and not Bono?
“I just won’t accept defeat.” From a guy who had pretty much been winning non-stop since he was 17.
“I just won’t accept defeat.”
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and declare that that sentiment underpins the very spirit of Rock n’ Roll itself.
I’m gonna further out on that limb–I don’t care if it breaks!–and say it underpins the very spirit of all art!
It is, to Harrison, what “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” is to The Beatles. A final missive.
This is who I was.
Lights out. Curtain closed.