In the mind of the spiritual man, God and the Father are interchangeable. Questions of the nature and meaning of our existence are often posed to both the visible parent and the unseen creator; or, if the parent has passed, to both as one. These questions are what drive us to grow, to pursue, to create, even if we know, instinctively, that the answers will remain forever elusive. Questions are a great gift; the capacity to ask, to be curious, is the beginning of the journey to become greater than we are. All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s 1971 solo debut, is an album full of questions – questions, perhaps, that he had never felt comfortable asking in the company of John, Paul and Ringo. The songs contained within are not the boy George who complained about the government on “Taxman,” or who idolized Pattie Boyd in “Something.” These are the cries of a man deeply in tune with his spiritual nature, who is looking both above and within for the answer, and challenging the rest of us to do the same. George Harrison’s gift was the ability to blend the spiritual with the spirit of rock and roll, and as hard as the album rocks from track to track, even couched beneath producer Phil Spector’s reverb-drenched Wall of Sound, the thread of the pilgrim remains potent and strong – the road ahead clean and clear. Rarely has a journey inside a man’s soul ever sounded so good.
Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam, interviewed for the Concert for George film that documented a tribute put on by Harrison’s best friends one year after his death, described with glee the show’s juxtaposition of Indian ragas and the surviving Pythons’ rendition of “Sit On My Face,” calling it a perfect reflection of the heights and depths of George’s tastes. I’ve written about my fascination with the contradiction in the human heart, and George Harrison is another shining example – a retiring, quiet soul most at home working in the garden who nonetheless chose a career that made him one of the most famous men in the world. Gardens are a potent metaphor for George’s solo career; his songs can almost be thought of as seeds of thought he plants in your mind, that grow with care and attention each time you give them a listen. From the gorgeous “I’d Have You Anytime,” his collaboration with Bob Dylan that opens the album, the beseeching mantra of “My Sweet Lord,” the electronic wail of “Wah-Wah,” the gently cautionary “Beware of Darkness” and the lush title track to name but a few, the music here is deep, layered and elegant. “Stripped-down,” a favourite label among rock critics, does not apply here – some of the tracks even verge on operatic. But that is only because of the sheer substance in each. The album has been described elsewhere as an outpouring of material that George had been unable to showcase in his time with the Beatles because of the wattage of the Lennon-McCartney catalogue – an Old Faithful eruption of creativity, if you will. Yet the songs are polished and crafted with a great deal of care, George having recruited many good friends, the best in their game (including Eric Clapton) to assist him in preparing his long-gestating message to the world.
John Lennon asserted that all you need is love. George Harrison agrees, but he views love differently. To George, the love between a man and his god is just as important as the love between a man and his partner, while never suggesting that one should exceed the other. “Awaiting On You All,” while superficially a rocking celebration of the perceived power of mantra, dares the listener to break free of the ritualistic trappings of religion and experience the purity of untethered spiritual love. You come to realize as the album draws to a close that the questions George has been asking throughout are not necessarily directed at God, or a father – but at you. Of course he still has doubt – “My Sweet Lord” and “Hear Me Lord” are cries of faith in crisis – but George is forcing you to confront your own as well. In “Run of the Mill,” he sings that “With no one but yourself to be offended, it’s you that decides.” He can’t answer the question for you, all he knows for certain is that you should be asking it.
Paul McCartney once said that one of the things he was proudest of about the Beatles was that their music was positive; that it never called for anger or violence, but rather repeated, like a mantra, the need for and the power of love. George Harrison ran with the torch following the split of the Fab Four, singing of the essence of love on a much more philosophical plane. Throughout his life, George looked for answers in India, in the humor of the Pythons, and in the very fabric of creativity. Yet he was aware of the transitory nature of existence, that seasons are forever changing, that the world remains in motion, and for him, it was a source of optimism. “All Things Must Pass” says that “it’s not always gonna be this grey.” Indeed, we may not find all our answers in this life. The Greek philosopher Zeno postulated a theory of motion whereby one crosses a distance with each step exactly half the span of the step before, so that even though you never arrive at your destination, you are always moving forward towards it. That was the life and career of George Harrison, forever questioning and somehow being okay with not ever truly learning what it’s all about – the sort of ego-free humility before the wonders of the universe that marks the purest, the most transcendent of souls: the poets.