George Harrison wrote and recorded some of the most powerful and spiritually-illuminating songs in the history of popular music. He was also the lead guitarist in the world’s greatest, most celebrated, and commercially successful rock band, though in later years this became less interesting to him than seeking to know god.
George Harrison was rock royalty by the time he turned 21. Dubbed “the quiet Beatle” by a characteristically simplistic press, George was only “quiet” because, as he put it, reporters rarely asked him questions worth answering. As the world succumbed to Beatlemania, George’s dissatisfaction with fame and propensity to introspection gradually lent itself to an intense spiritual thirst that became a constant throughout his life.
George was mostly interested in the big questions in life — Who am I? Where am I going? Where can I find meaning? — and was relentless in his pursuit of answers. His encounter with Autobiography of a Yogi at 23 changed his life forever, and set him on a spiritual path that took precedence over fame, wealth, and women.
In 1970 George’s wife Pattie embarked on an affair with her husband’s best friend, Eric Clapton. Betrayed by two of the most important people in his life, George turned inward for solace. And although their relationship was strained for several years after, George would eventually resume a deep and close friendship with Eric. George even performed at Eric and Pattie’s wedding in 1979, and the pair toured Japan together in 1991.
George was no pushover. And the question of his reconciliation with Eric was less about forgiveness than it was about a lack of ego, and a visceral understanding of the permanence of change. Furthermore, it seems that George recognized the futility of trying to hold on to something that you never truly “had” to begin with. Too many men don’t know when to let go of something that was never theirs in the first place.
Wives, girlfriends, mistresses — we may borrow some of their time, and share some of our own with them, but they are never “ours.” Clinging on to something will never give us peace, and neediness is corrosive to self-esteem, growth, and happiness. George didn’t “need” Pattie — and he knew it. Pattie didn’t “complete” George as a person because George was already complete; whole; perfect. As are you and I.
When he was in the Beatles George was forced to contend with the greatest songwriting partnership in music — Lennon/McCartney — each time he wanted to get his own songs included on a Beatles album. George could have been bitter and spiteful in competing with his bandmates, but instead he was patient, honing his craft until the quality of his compositions were worthy of the Beatles name. “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” can easily compete with any Lennon/McCartney composition in terms of quality. Frank Sinatra once called “Something” his “favorite Lennon/McCartney composition,” but I’m sure George would have just laughed. The importance of what you do is in the doing, not in some temporary ego gratification you experience as a result.
For George, there were many things that were more interesting and fulfilling than being a Beatle. Exposed to the trappings of fame from a young age, George realized that no matter how much his wealth, power, and influence grew, his ego would never be satisfied; the ego’s appetite for recognition and gratification is ravenous, and it is only when we refuse to feed it that we can begin to find real peace. Freedom is in the dissolution of ego as a means for achieving peace and happiness. Ego-based satisfaction is always short lived. Rock royalty or not, George knew that “things” — money, women, recognition — would never make him truly happy, so he decided to go beyond.
George often seemed slightly insecure about his abilities as a songwriter, though this didn’t stop him from producing one of the most successful Beatle solo albums — the brilliant All Things Must Pass — and scoring a number one single with “My Sweet Lord” shortly following the Beatles’ breakup in 1970:[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kNGnIKUdMI]
I don’t mind telling you that “My Sweet Lord” is the most played song in my iTunes playlist. There is something almost otherworldly about it, and I have encountered no other pop song that offers comparable peace, inspiration, and motivation to achieve big things. George achieved big things with this song, and in life more generally.
There are many lessons that we can take away from George’s life; important lessons about priorities, change, purpose, and happiness. In closing, it is tempting to write that the world was robbed of a great man when George died, but I believe he is still with us, as are we with him. We are fortunate that he lived.
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For a more comprehensive portrait of George the man, check out Martin Scorsese’s excellent documentary “George Harrison: Living in the Material World:”