Today is the anniversary of the death of original Beatle George Harrison, who died in 2001, yet another bummer aspect of that year. Harrison’s final album, Brainwashed, was released posthumously the following year, and a fine final album it is. But for today I’m going back to his first major release—the landmark album All Things Must Pass, which was hugely successful even though it consisted of three vinyl LPs in its original incarnation. The fact that, in the year The Beatles were officially Quitsville, Harrison’s album boasted three disks was perceived as a telling fact of his tenure with the Fabs. Lennon/McCartney suppressed him in favor of their own compositions so that, when their stars began to fade in the early Seventies, it was time for George to come on strong. And he did.
All Things Must Pass created, with that lyrical slide that Harrison plays on many of its songs, a “George Harrison sound,” aided by maverick producer Phil Spector. I can’t hear tracks from the album without thinking about two things: how great the “wall of sound” approach suits Harrison at that time, and how great are some of the friends who are sitting in on the record, like Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Gary Brooker, Ringo Starr, Alan White, Ginger Baker, Phil Collins, and Dave Mason, to say nothing of the guys who joined with Clapton to become Derek and the Dominoes. It’s an album poised not only to announce how much talent Harrison has, but also to promote the idea of session men and great collaborators over the old tried-and-true factor—largely more perceived than actual—of a “band of brothers” recording album after album together. Harrison leads off the album with a collaboration with Bob Dylan, and that sets the tone for major guest stars. Lennon/McCartney? How about Harrison/Dylan? And along the way, the album establishes what might be called a late Beatles sound, since Let It Be was also produced, very controversially, by Spector, as was Lennon's “Instant Karma.”
There are a handful of songs on the album that vie for the spot of being the song chosen to represent the record as well as Harrison’s solo efforts, but rather than radio songs such as “What is Life” (I owned the 45 of that) and “My Sweet Lord,” I chose to go with the title track because, of course, it suits the notion of ending that was not only apropos at the time—it was impossible to hear that title and not think of the recently kaput band that had seemed to own the era—but is also apropos for a life’s end assessment, to say nothing of the various stages of one’s own life and activities. Whatever you’ve been up to, pilgrim, it ain’t gonna last forever.
And that’s pretty much the mood of Harrison’s song. Except that it’s also committed—as Harrison songs tended to be at the time—to philosophical reflection on how things change, whether bad or good. Nothing, either way, remains the same. “Sunrise doesn’t last all morning / A cloudburst doesn’t last all day / Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning / It’s not always going to be this gray.” The point, it seems, is that change is good, even if you’re the type who would rather live in perpetual sunrise. But that line about “my love”—getting up early and hitting the road unexpectedly—personalizes the Hallmark nature of these reflections. While you’re thinking about how impermanent conditions can be, here’s something else that might just up and go. Love. And life.
“Daylight is good at always arriving at the right time.” There’s another of those homilies that seems awfully pat when cited like that, but in Harrison’s delivery—this is the guy who brought you “the world goes on within you and without you” where “without” means both “outside” and “sans” you—keeps this almost tongue-in-cheek. Harrison could get a bit overstated with his Krishna-inspired truisms and so forth. Some critics pilloried some of Living in a Material World (1973)—the other one of his I’m partial to—for being a bit too self-congratulatory in that regard, and its true that album takes that line more seriously and self-purposively than All Things. But Harrison generally has a way of making his attempts to tap the font of wisdom seem rather humble and self-effacing. It’s all about trying to live within a positive perspective, first and foremost, with a belief that how you think affects what is. “Mind over matter” in a spiritual rather than material sense. And I’m generally able to listen to Harrison in that spirit. He also possessed a sense of humor that kept him from being smug or pompous or pretentious. Whatever he believed about his ultimate fate, he was able to see “George Harrison” as no big deal. And that’s refreshing.
His singing voice too is unmistakeable, particularly as it developed post-Beatles. It tended to be higher and occasionally almost ethereal. On All Things there’s a tone to the whole that veers between high spirits and spiritual highs, and that makes it a complex album and a relief from John and Paul who tended to make their respective mates—Yoko and Linda—the be-all and end-all of their seeking. And that could be much more vapid than even the most fortune cookie version of “Eastern mysticism.”
So here’s to George, the “quiet Beatle.” All things must pass / All things must pass away. But some remain longer than others.