Despite erring severely by not so much as alluding to his integral contributions to the Traveling Wilburys as catalyst and producer, Bill Wyman’s review of Martin Scorsese’s by all accounts hagiographic George Harrison: Living in the Material World is the best piece I’ve read about George Harrison. First, he dispenses with the conventional views:
There are two ways to look at George Harrison. The nicer one is that he was a top-line and underappreciated guitarist, good enough to have spent many years as a close friend and occasional collaborator of Eric Clapton’s; that he wrote at least two classic songs (“Something,” and “Here Comes the Sun,” two more than most songwriters write) and another half-dozen quite good ones; that he was one of the original rock humanitarians; and that, all in all, given a career he could never have dreamed of, he made his way through it with a great deal of dignity. Like John Lennon, he suffered a grievous assault for no other reason but that he was famous (a knife attack on the eve of the millennium, which nearly killed him); and he died too young, of lung cancer, in 2001, not yet 60.
The other and arguably more realistic appraisal might be that George Harrison’s contributions as a guitarist were pretty much limited to a few Beatles riffs and the fine and quite recognizable slide sound he developed in his solo years. That producing two great songs after 10 intimate years with two of the top songwriters of the 20th century isn’t awfully surprising, and that even if you throw in the other half-dozen, the total isn’t much for a recording career that spanned almost 40 years; that most of his Beatles songs are inferior; that his voice was weak; that he was more than a bit of a mope; that he thoroughly embarrassed himself on his only American tour; and that the greater share of his solo work was poor, and that some of it was dreadful.
You can imagine which side of this Scorsese takes. Now these are not Wyman’s own views, buried at the end of the essay: “I like more songs than Harrison’s six or seven good ones; The Concert for Bangladesh film alone is a great legacy, and I celebrate his quirks, like his lifelong, fruitless battle against Britain’s high tax rates.” But my own comprises a judicious amalgam of the three. It runs like this: in my youth George (one never refers to the Beatles by last name) was my favorite Beatle because he was stifled, unappreciated, whatever; I adored Cloud Nine and the Wilburys records, especially since they validate the claim made by Tom Petty and others that George was a riot to be around; that it took Paul and Beatle chatter to provoke the sour, rather nasty fellow (Cubans call this sort of person pesado) that even a person as sweet, forgiving, and benevolent as Mick Jagger avoided. Plenty of evidence shows how being the lead guitarist and occasional songwriter for the Beatles was an experience about which the word “nightmare” fails to measure up. There’s a telling moment in the “Real Love” video: some bright boy behind the camera thought it would be marvelous to film Paul, Ringo, and George mugging for an audience ready to walk on its knees to Liverpool for the privilege. What happens? Paul and Ringo make kissy faces, George hangs back at a distance that can only be called safe, with the kind of scowl an actor can’t fake. Apparently the same luminary said, “Smile, George, goddammit!” because in the next shot of the threesome he’s grinning like a kid with a lollipop. Ringo wasn’t the problem either.
As for the solo career — what career? As the Wilburys and other Jeff Lynne projects proved, George was a hack with a slide guitar sound without help and without the inspiration of the early seventies when he still had something to prove. All Things Must Pass boasts several nifty tunes like “What is Life” and a Dylan cover which toughens the original, but to venerate it, as Elton John does, as the best Beatles solo album is myth-making as grand as expecting Phil Spector to co-produce a record by an artist whose singing was lugubrious and third-rate. Have you heard Extra Texture (Read All About It) and Thirty-Three and a Third? Their gross titles say it all. Forced to think of record making as a career, he wilted, as one might when the resentment and sullenness that served as muses stopped rewarding your attention. When it came to collaborations, however, George deserves credit: as producer and enabler for Ringo’s best singles and Badfinger’s “Day By Day”; as player of solos as scabrous as his wit on John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep.” With the exception of his great friend Bob Dylan, the sixties never produced a less sentimental relic, whose acerbic qualities even Wyman appreciates (“in Beatles lore alone, he’s something of a relief”).
Finally, George Harrison: Living in the Material World is over three hours long. Really.