People loved to label the members of the Beatles. Paul was “the cute one.” John was “the smart one.” Ringo was “the sad one.” George was always “the quiet one.” And just as Lennon eventually was viewed as “the political one,” Harrison became “the one who was into those strange Eastern religions.” Hopefully, Joshua Greene’s book, Here Comes the Sun, will contribute to that last label becoming “the spiritual one.”
The subtitle, The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison, is well-chosen. While Liverpool, the founding of the band, and Beatlemania are all there, that history largely serves to simply set the stage. The focus here is on Harrison’s spiritual interests. Here Comes the Sun demonstrates the Hindu religion was not a grace note but a major theme in Harrison’s life and music. And while Harrison’s death means Greene has a tendency to rehash much non-original material to show Harrison’s personal thoughts, his background provides some unique insight.
Greene was, like Harrison, a student of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Prabhupada was the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the largest part of the “Hare Krishna” movement. Harrison purchased an estate in London for use as a Krishna retreat that was named Bhaktivedanta Manor and recorded an album of Hare Krishna chants (on which Greene was one of the chanters and played harmonium) sung by members of a temple for which Harrison guaranteed the lease.
As such, Greene does not view or treat Harrison’s interest in Eastern religion as the dalliance of a wealthy but eccentric rock star. Instead, the book looks seriously at Harrison’s views and worship of Krishna and the role its tenets and practices played in Harrison’s day-to-day life. Greene takes us from Harrison’s first trip in India 1966 to his various return trips up to his death. He also discusses the philosophical and spiritual discussions Harrison had with Prabhupada and other teachers and devotees.
Moreover, it looks at how the philosophy found its way into Harrison’s music. Among other things, it introduced Harrison to and encouraged his study of the sitar, an instrument that would impact not only Harrison’s music but also that of the Beatles. Perhaps more important, Krishna and Hinduism directly impacted his songwriting. While Harrison’s blending of Hindu beliefs and concepts is seen from his first solo release, the stellar All Things Must Pass, Greene shows some of the subtler aspects of its influence. One example is “My Sweet Lord,” the song with an overt religious tone and a Hare Krishna chant that was the first Beatle solo effort to hit No. 1 on the charts. Harrison intentionally started the chant out with repeated use of the word “hallelujah” before transitioning into the mantra because it is more familiar and acceptable to westerners. As Harrison said, “I wanted to show that ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ are quite the same thing.”
A combination of the essential role of Krishna worship in Harrison’s life and his efforts to be subtle is seen in his appearance in the two shows of the charity concert for Bangladesh. Everyone could see Harrison in his pure white suit. Yet few probably realized that Harrison had a tailor stitch the Om symbol in the lapels of the suit and embroidered the Hare Krishna mantra on the collar and cuffs. Yet Harrison was later accused of wearing his religion on his sleeve in the more traditional figurative sense of the phrase. During Harrison’s North American tour in support of 1974’s Dark Horse album, critics lambasted Harrison for proselytizing. Harrison, though, was unabashed.
You know, I didn’t force you or anybody at gunpoint to come to see me. And I don’t care if nobody comes to see me; nobody ever buys another record of me. I don’t give a shit, it doesn’t matter to me, but I’m going to do what I feel within myself.
This statement reveals not only the ardor of Harrison’s desire to adhere to what he believed, but another aspect that Greene brings out but does not explore as analytically. Harrison was plainly conflicted in many ways. While he loved his Beatles bandmates like brothers, Harrison detested the inability to shed that past. He felt trapped by the never-ending mania over and fascination with the Beatles and the public’s seeming inability to regard him and the others as anything but Beatles.
Harrison initially embarked on his spiritual quest to find refuge and solace from the never-ending spotlight of Beatledom. Greene’s work leaves little doubt, though, that Eastern philosophy not only helped bring peace and inner well-being to Harrison’s life, it contributed to some excellent music in ours.