Following the Gospel of George

In talking about his new documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, director Martin Scorsese reflected on his personal encounter with George Harrison’s music:

“I will never forget the first time I heard ‘All Things Must Pass,’ the overwhelming feeling of taking in that all glorious music for the first time. It was like walking into a cathedral. George was making spiritually awake music—we all heard and felt it—and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a very special place in our lives.”

Watching the New York Film Festival‘s press screening, I found myself transported back to my childhood. While I am too young to recall when Beatlemania first hit U.S. shores, I can still recall echoes of The White Album playing in my parents’ living room as my father entertained a nightly cadre of more than a hundred of his closest college students.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, my father and his protégés, along with many others of that generation, chose to seek spirituality through LSD and Timothy Leary’s often self-destructive mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out.” But others, like George, went the way of Ram Dass and sought enlightenment and fulfillment through meditation.

Transported by the film to the 1960s and 70s, I could experience how George’s music guided him to explore other ways to exert his creativity as a filmmaker, philanthropist, and a gardener. People say George is the Beatle who changed the most, and the film illuminates how his experience evolved, in an admittedly imperfect quest to live a beautiful life.

During my childhood, I remained unaware of George’s ongoing spiritual journey. By the time he spearheaded The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, my parents had stopped listening to the sounds of peace and sought solace in the southern comfort of Jim Beam. Watching Living in the Material World, I found myself once again pondering a question that haunted me when I caught the Eddie Izzard documentary Believe. Why do people like George and Eddie channel their creativity into powerful forces for good, while so many others, like my parents, possessed the same potential early on, but at the beginning of their careers, only to drop out and die? Therein lies a mystery I cannot solve.

But although I didn’t know it at the time, I reconnected with George in my teenage years through Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), one of the seminal films which helped save me from a potential life of home-fried Christianity. I later learned that Harrison mortgaged his house to procure the necessary $4 million dollars to make the film, just because he wanted to see it, a move Eric Idle describes as “still the most money anybody has ever paid for a cinema ticket.”

So, yes, George saved me. Humming “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” and later delving into the gospel stirrings of “My Sweet Lord,” I began to connect with a spirituality that resonated with who I could be, not the structure some institution dictated that I follow. When George died on November 29, 2001, I was so immersed in volunteering at Ground Zero that I didn’t catch wind of the news until early 2002. But while I might have been out of touch with the latest news of my favorite Beatle, his music possessed the same collective spirit that infused many of us working during the early days of 9/11 recovery effort, before the personal grandstanding and commercialization began to take center stage.

Some may look at leaderless movements like #occupywallstreet and see only hippies and hipsters. But when I weave my way through Zucotti Park, I feel a bit of that same uniting force that drew us together right after the Twin Towers fell, before the talk of war ripped us asunder. It’s this spirit that George gave the world through his music, and it still inspires many of us to explore our shared humanity.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World is currently running in two parts on HBO during the month of October.

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).