The Beatles’ George Harrison, the “quiet one,” was in truth a kaleidoscopic force of nature. His songs and musicianship — both with the fab four and beyond — have not just aged well, but have become straight-up classics enshrined in the firmament of the 20th century music canon.
Without “If I Needed Someone,” “I Me Mine,” “Something,” “Taxman,” “Here Comes the Sun,” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the four would have been unbearably less fabulous. The same goes for his myriad of envelope-exploding contributions, including his chiming 12-string Fireglo Rickenbacker used throughout Hard Day’s Night, his #wtf time-warped backward guitar on “I’m Only Sleeping” and his tamboura from the astral plane on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Harrison’s genius is best summed-up perhaps with yet another of his underrated brilliant album cuts: “It’s All Too Much.”
And it never stopped. Harrison’s 1970 magnum opus/dam burst following the Beatles’ dissolution, All Things Must Pass, is filled with sublime sounds. The raw harmonica-driven “Apple Scruffs” could have been a White Album classic, his prostration before the universe in “My Sweet Lord” somehow became a pop staple (despite frivolous litigation) and the loping sing-along of “What is Life” all stand up to anything he did before or since.
Some of these even became hits. Harrison would earn 13 top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Of those, five reached the top 10, including three No. 1s in “My Sweet Lord / Isn’t It a Pity” (1970), “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” (1973) and “Got My Mind Set on You” (1988) while “All Those Years Ago” hit No. 2 in 1981. Sure songs like “Mind Set On You,” “When We Was Fab,” “All Those Years Ago” and the Traveling Wilburys “Handle With Care” are still on the F.M., a trove of equally worthy deep solo album cuts like Dark Horse‘s funked-up title track or the soul pop of “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” from Extra Texture (Read All About It) awaits the intrepid.
Harrison’s success was in part derived from how hard he pushed himself both creatively and personally. As producers George Martin and Phil Spector have attested, the quiet one was a perfectionist in the studio meticulously crafting songs and parts until he got what he wanted. Much in a similarly focused way he immersed himself fully in a life-long exploration of the spiritual, ineffable and divine.
His creative output was most certainly enhanced by the brilliant company he kept. His wide-ranging coterie of besties and collaborators included everyone from Ravi Shankar and Eric Clapton to Billy Preston and Roy Orbison to race car drive Jackie Stewart and the Monty Python crew as well as Hamburg’s Klaus Voorman and journalist-turned Beatles-press-rep Derek Taylor among many others
All of this was reflected at the late Beatle’s recent 74th birthday party where Harrison’s wife Olivia and their son Dhani hosted a pop-up shop at Los Angeles’ Subliminal Gallery. Though the event ostensibly marked the launch of gorgeous new “extended edition” of the Harrison’s 1980 classic memoir I Me Mine (Genesis Publications) with new lyrics, writings, photos and a gorgeous cover by artist Shepard Fairey along with a new 13-album vinyl box set George Harrison-The Vinyl Collection (UMe) with all his remastered solo work —the evening felt like a throw-down.
Here, beneath vintage images of Harrison, his lyrics and enlightened words hanging on the gallery walls, free flowing libations and DJ sets by Fairey and Chris Holmes, of Yum-Yum and Sir Paul’s DJ, (played on limited edition Harrison-bedazzled wheels of steel by Pro-Ject Audio Systems) was a loose and rollicking scene. This was surely enhanced by cavalcade of stars/merry bandits who filled the room, including: Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach, Jim James, Joe Walsh, Eric Idle, Drew Carey, Jakob Dylan, Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson, the Strokes’ Nick Valensi and Nikolai Fraiture and, of course, Weird Al Yankovic… (See Photo Gallery Here)
Billboard met with the love of George Harrison’s life, Olivia, who graciously gave something of a revelatory interview that included the unexpected places George’s lyrics turned-up (Billy Preston’s piano stool!), her favorite George songs and the wonderful surprise Ringo received at the opening.
Billboard: How are you feeling about the new extended edition of I Me Mine?
Olivia Harrison: I love it. The book is as complete as we could make it. I’ve been trying to do it for three or four years. You look at that image and say, “Who is that?” Somebody at Universal said people keep stopping by and looking at the poster and saying “What’s the story with that?”
The cover image is stunning.
It’s gripping. And it’s not that easy to find an image like that. I like the graphic-ness of it. Shepard Fairey managed to capture something. It’s hard to take your eyes off of.
How are there 50 pages of new lyrics in the expanded edition?
Because there are lyrics that George had found earlier that I don’t know where he found and I certainly found a lot more later. The book was made in 1980 so you still had four or five more albums after that. I tried to find a lyric to match every song that was on the subsequent albums and in the first edition of I Me Mine and that was the basis of it. We found lyrics that went up to 2000.
Where did you find his lyrics and writings?
Some of George’s work was in furniture. You know, you’re sitting at your desk or your table writing lyrics and you’re going to put papers in it. You’re going to stuff them somewhere. George had a desk in the studio and tables downstairs, the kitchen cupboard, wherever. It’s not like you would sit at a desk nowadays with a laptop trying to write something. He’d be walking around and take a piece of paper out of his pocket and it would end up somewhere. Maybe he would stick it in a book or in a drawer or somewhere. We found some in Billy Preston’s piano bench.
Wait, really?! Billy Preston’s piano bench?
He used to play with George a lot in his studio at home in England and he had Billy’s [Hammond] B3. We just called it “Billy’s B3.” Billy would sit and dance on that seat and on the pedals of that organ. He really did. His seat would just dance across there, he was just amazing. Such a sweet man. So gentle and what a talent. He had absolute fluidity on that organ and on any keyboard really.
Where was this?
At Friar Park in Oxfordshire. George had a studio there
How did you find them?
No one had opened that bench in a long long time—years—and there were folders. So when I finally got around to opening the piano bench there were envelopes of depositions, lyrics and scores for strings going back to I don’t know when, probably All Things Must Pass. I used to just shut the lid on them because I didn’t want to take it out and disturb it. It’s like a time capsule. You don’t really want to disturb anything, but eventually I did find lyrics in there and lots of notes. The song “Wake Up My Love” was in there, that went into the book and it hadn’t been in there before this expanded edition.
I know he wasn’t very materialistic, but did he keep a lot of his papers?
You know, if you live in a house you end up just putting your things in your house. He lived there from 1970, so naturally everything was there. And there were earlier files, you know its just your stuff
When did you discover the lyrics in the bench?
Oh I had been in there, but it’s his studio. You don’t go rummaging through everything even if it is your house. I didn’t go rummaging through his papers he didn’t go rummaging through mine [laughs]. I know it was after he died, sometime in the last ten years. I’ve been archiving and trying to have a look at things, but there’s been quite a lot to do.
In 2002 we did the concert for George and then we did a book, then we put out his Dark Horse Years and the Apple Years. I did the documentary and the book. It’s been an ongoing work of just archiving what George left behind. It hasn’t really been about trying to come up with an idea of what to do, it’s sort of homework that he would have done and he had every intention to do. Like the vinyl that just came out. He would have done that, in fact he was in the process of remastering his albums. In 2000 he had All Things Must Pass, Material Wold and Dark Horse and was remastering them in chronological order.
Did you help out with the remastering and re-packaging of the vinyl as well?
Dhani and Paul Hicks really worked on that. Gavin Lurssen worked on the remastering. Paul was trusted and he worked with Giles Martin [George’s son] on the Beatles and the Love show. He worked for Paul [McCartney] and Yoko as well. But Paul and Dhani did most of it. I certainly didn’t want to be the final ears on those.
What’s your favorite George song?
Well, I always say “Run of the Mill,” but I have many more.
How is it to see lyrics to songs like “Dark Sweet Lady,” that’s about you, right?
It is. All those songs like say “Your Love is Forever,” which has that line “Sublime is the summertime warm and lazy/These are perfect days like heaven’s about here.” That is so personal to me because I think about somewhere we were and it was beautiful and warm and there was no pressure and no angst. Those times in your life when everything is just smooth and beautiful and you can really be your best self and who you want to be. Songs like that, the lyrics to those, they’re the ones that mean so much to me. They all do, but that one, “Sublime is the summertime…”
Do you read his lyrics often?
I don’t read them all so much because I know them so well. I’m just glad that we could find the ones we did and find comments that George made about them. We went back and found dialogue where he talked about each song. I think maybe we found only one or two where we didn’t find a comment.
Didn’t Leon Russell advise you to write down all the amusing things George said?
George wrote a lot of his thoughts down himself. Sometimes it was just one sentence that you just thought, “What does this mean? ‘Goats on my roof’ what does that mean?” Or ‘When you strip it all away, there is only love.'” Which is a very beautiful line he just wrote on a piece notepad from a hotel.
Some of his songs like “Here Comes the Moon,” are poetry.
I love that, it’s beautiful. It just happened to be one of those evening where the full moon was rising and it was over a beautiful bay. He was sort of reluctantly going, “Oh no, look, here comes the moon, they’ll kill me if I write that” because of “Here Comes the Sun,” of course. But it was pretty irresistible and I think it’s a really rich beautiful song. When he says “Looks like a little brother to the sun” [sings] to me his voice sounded so sexy and beautiful. It’s such a great image.
Reading the book I was struck by George’s humor. You said in your intro that he “Quoted the great wisdom of the Swamis, the Bhagavad Gita and the ancient Vedas as well as humor of Lord Buckley, The Goons, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Monty Python.”
They say everyone from Liverpool is a comedian and they certainly have a different sense of humor from the North and I think that was part of it as well.
He always said that you had to have a sense of humor and run really fast.
It seemed like he had a pretty tough time in school in Liverpool.
He didn’t get on at school and didn’t feel anyone ever encouraged him. In fact he felt the opposite and just like, “Wow, if that’s how they’re trying to help you get on in life well that’s not very good.” He always had a little bit of not resentment but always felt they could have been more supportive and really taught him something. But who knows, he just didn’t get on. He said the only teacher he really liked was the art teacher.
It sounds like jail.
Don’t forget, it was England. There was rationing until the 1950s. Liverpool had been bombed and it was pretty grim.
I saw something in the book in passing where he said something like “I watched it on open university” — was he enrolled in some kind of online class?
Oh no. In England you used have Open University on television on the BBC or something. And occasionally you would sit there and turn it on and you’d end up watching some science class. You’d think, “What is this? Oh, I’m watching Open University.”
You knew him before you went out because you worked at his Dark Horse label, right?
It was less than a year.
“All Those Years Ago is in the new edition and one of his more popular songs, what do you recall about that one?
Well George was writing that song right in the days when John died. He wanted it to say something about John but didn’t want it to be too sad. I mean it’s not a dirge but he certainly was clear about how he felt about John.
I read that he would go into an almost trance-like state when writing a song and sort of leave the world while figuring out chords and sometimes you would write down lyrics.
Sometimes I would. Sometimes if he was working on playing the guitar he’d say some lyrics and if he didn’t have a tape cassette I would try take the role of the amanuensis [laughs], you know, just copy down what he was saying so he wouldn’t forget. Most of the time he’d say go and grab the cassette recorder.
What was it like when he was in that state?
It wasn’t a trance. He was just like, “Oh, I just had an idea” and a light bulb would go off and then off he’d go. I’m not a songwriter so i can’t really explain it, but I’m sure anyone that with an idea like you as a writer, i’m sure you go, “ahhhhhh, I got to get that down.” It’s the same in every creative process.
Some say inspiration comes from above or maybe a muse or the people around you.
Sometimes he would play a couple of chords and he would go “Is that anything? Is that something.” I’d go, “Nah, I don’t think so.” I know a lot of songs going back to the 1950s. Sometimes I’d say that’s something and he’d just give me a look [laughs].
Was anything added in the book that’s from an earlier era?
There was a couple of lyrics that went back to the 60s like “Mother Divine” and maybe “Dehra Dun” — I think those were from earlier like 1966 when they went to India.
What’s your favorite new material in the book?
Some towards the end around Brainwashed there’s little diagrams and words and sentences where he’s trying to explain a little more about consciousness and what’s what, those sort of stand out to me. We’ve added over 50 lyrics and just tried to make it beginning to end. There are probably some bits of pages floating around that aren’t in there maybe they’ll see the light of day sometime.
Were there any revelations in what you discovered?
Well yeah, yes, like the song “Hey Ringo.” Ringo had never seen it until last Saturday [at the gallery/pop-up store]. He said, “Hey, I’ve never seen that before.” And I said I hadn’t either. I guess it was in the piano bench in an envelope. And there was this song called “Hey Ringo” that they think was from around 1970 or 1971. And it’s really sweet. I’m going to get it framed and give it to him because it’s really sweet. It’s like “Hey Ringo, or something, “That without you my guitar plays far too slow.” That was a big revelation and surprise. Ringo was totally surprised and really happy. What a gift to have all these years later.