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Like perhaps millions of folks around the world this past Monday, I did my minute of silent meditation in memory of George Harrison at the time his ashes were being scattered in India.
I meditate like a caffeinated poodle, with the old brain just yapping away at any passing dust mote. Are my chakras okay? What are the other meditators thinking? Is the minute up yet? George was a practical guy—couldn't he have been cremated in LA? Does India have an ash shortage or something?
I'd hate to think there was a cumulative effect from all these minds focused on placid thought around the world, a spiritual circuit of pure energy that would have radiated waves of peace and love over this troubled planet but was short-circuiting because I was sitting cross-legged in my back yard, picking my nose at the crucial moment.
I learned a lot from George Harrison and his fellow Beatles. One is that people are capable of tremendous, virtually magical things. Another is that despite the accomplishments, they're just people, as imperfect as the rest of us. That is something to celebrate, as it is one proof that we are all then capable of tremendous things if we try.
For those of us alive and of a certain age in 1964, the Beatles' advent on these shores was akin to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything shifted from black and white to color. America had been that drab: adulthood beckoned like a gray-flannel-lined coffin, JFK was snuffed, there was the constant threat of nuclear war, and there was Vietnam.
As an eight-year-old, these things mattered somewhat less to me than a Chicken Delight drumstick. I was already aware, though, that our music sucked, that rock had been usurped by cynical businessmen and their boilerplate teen idols, and that it all meant nothing.
The Beatles were literally the first thing in life that made sense to me. And they made sense by not making sense, by standing their influences and antecedents on their heads and coming up with something wholly their own. Their entire package was all so left-field: the Cuban heels, the Goon Show humor, the hair, the Aeolian cadences.
Where the hell was it coming from? Here was George Harrison, for example, a guy who pretty much fell out of school with a thud, whose first paying adult job was dusting light bulbs with a paintbrush, and he's suddenly coping quite well with being one of the most famous people in the world, a spokesperson, no less, who helped turn the world on in ways it had never imagined.
There's the obvious stuff, how he and his fellow Beatles wrested popular culture from its Frankie-and-Annette pre-consciousness and introduced avant-garde music styles, surrealism, social commentary and Eastern mysticism to the pop mainstream, with energy left over to toss in some Carl Perkins. Between 1964 and 1967, they spearheaded more change in music than there has been in the past 20 years.
Then there's love—not just their psychedelic "Love, love, love" lyrics, but the unspoken stuff that was there from the earliest "Yeah, yeah, yeah" rockers onward: an immediacy, passion and trust that infused their every note. The Beatles' music conjured a sort of consensual magic, a joy that spoke more deeply of what we might become than any slogan or politician could. And what they were promoting, by the very example of their honest, fearless, far-reaching music, was the prospect of a world ruled by love rather than fear.
There is a destination in the arts, and perhaps in sex, gardening and everything else, where what you're doing stops being about something and instead becomes it, full-press, real-time, flying naked. Bullshit, fear and distrust won't get you there. Nothing less than the openness of love will.
There are all sorts of people who get there in all sorts of ways. If you were to see Karl Denson's Tiny Universe at the Coach House on Friday, for instance, you'd likely hear torrents of love pouring out of Denson's saxophone bell. His funk-filled jazz is coming from another place and takes a different, improvisational route, but the destination is the same, and it's no fluke that Denson lists the Beatles among his influences. There's even the Fab Four—a Beatles cover band, in a field rife with musical mummies—about whom everyone I know is raving. (The Fab Four are at Laguna's Irvine Bowl on Sunday.)
Most artists now, shut out from corporate radio, might as well be shouting down a hole. The Beatles had the advantage of being heard, of seeing the love they put into their music ratified by 50,000 screaming people at a time, of having it inspire other artists, who then inspired them, and we all believed in an arc in which everything would keep getting smarter, hipper and more soulful.
Some conservatives warned that the Beatles were part of a communist conspiracy to rob our youth of its morals and initiative. Quite the reverse was true, both here and behind the Iron Curtain. Traveling in the Soviet Union during the first thaw of glasnost, I spoke with a great many people. It wasn't Ronald Reagan's missiles and hair dye they yearned for. It was Beatles music and Levi's that represented freedom to them.
Unlike earlier mumbling rockers, the Beatles had opinions and a disdain for bullshit. They spoke out about the war in Vietnam, moribund religions and their experimentation with psychedelics. Though dubbed the Quiet Beatle, Harrison was pretty damn outspoken: while John Lennon was apologizing for his 1966 remarks about waning Christianity, Harrison responded to the record burnings and death threats by saying that any religion that couldn't tolerate questioning deserved to fade.
Harrison had himself embraced meditation and Hinduism. He stuck with that throughout his life and truly became the Quiet Beatle: he claimed his post-'60s focus was on trying to quiet the karmic ripples that the Beatles' gigantic splash had made. (I write about this and Harrison's life aplenty in a piece you can find at www.msnbc.com, if you like.)
The spiritual themes of his solo albums, with titles like All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World, suggest Harrison wasn't concerned with how he charted. The success of those records regardless indicates just how deeply he and his fellow Beatles had changed the expectations and concerns of listeners. That some vestige of those deeper matters remains in music today—when CDs aren't so much made as marketed, and we are all dubbed "consumers"—is also part of Harrison's legacy.
He was among the first in the '60s to discern that the better world they sang of might be slow to arrive. Touring San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district in 1967's Summer of Love, he was stridently disgusted by the sloth and drug-addled attitudes he saw there.
The Beatles themselves dissolved in a fractious, litigious mess, while their idealistic business, Apple Corp., was a shambles. Harrison's 1971 concerts for Bangladesh raised $15 million for starving refugees, only to see the money locked up in a tax dispute.
It's no wonder that Harrison pursued a quieter life. He'd done his part, and a lot of people didn't get the message. Charles Manson interpreted Harrison's "Piggies" as the call to jump-start Armageddon; Lennon was spied on by the FBI and shot dead by a demented fan; Harrison was knifed two years ago by another fan. Who needs it?
And, it bears noting, the world remains ruled by fear rather than love. The killing of innocents begets the killing of more innocents. Leaders imagine ever-new weapons rather than a world without them. The gap between rich and poor grows wider than the one between Bush's teeth. Security has replaced trust. Much of our culture is dumbed- and dampened-down, shutting out anything too new, deep or questioning.
Despite the Beatles ruling the charts in the '60s and again in recent years, they are rarely played even on oldies radio. I suspect it's because programmers fear that Harrison and his fellow Beatles' music means too much, that it is too sad to hear it so many years later, still so far from the better world that beckoned in those songs.
How much remoter might we be, though, had Harrison and his partners' magic never been there? I've had many occasions when I've seen audiences of developmentally disabled or brain-damaged persons—many who can't tie their shoes or are barely cognizant of their surroundings—brighten with joy when they hear a Beatles song, singing along into their combs. They get it. That is a genuine and abiding part of Harrison's legacy, and it's still there for any of us willing to hear it.