Book review: Here Comes the Sun. The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison

Here Comes the Sun. The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison
By Joshua M. Greene
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006
Review copy provided by publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

Let me say right from the beginning: I loved this book! Despite the obvious proselytizing on behalf of the Hindu religion—what used to be known as Krishna Consciousness here in the States—Joshua M. Greene, writer and producer for PBS and the Disney Channel (he also wrote “Justice at Dachau” and “Witness: Voices from the Holocaust”, which was made into a PBS-TV documentary), has written a tender, loving account of the life of George Harrison, before and after the Beatles, and how his faith in Krishna helped him to overcome all the emotional and financial setbacks in his life, ultimately allowing him to die with grace after losing his battle with brain cancer.

From his birth on February 25, 1943 to his death on November 29, 2001, George’s journey through life is faithfully recounted by Joshua, who first met him in 1970 at EMI Studios in London, where George was producing an album of Sanskrit hymns with a group of Hindu devotees from the Radha Krishna Temple in London, which George founded with a generous donation. The author, who plays the organ, was invited to sit in on the recording session after he visited the temple and got to know the devotees. He also got to know George quite well, and was impressed by his sincere devotion to the faith they shared.

The youngest member of the Beatles, George stuck with them through the dark days of performing in cheap stripper clubs in postwar Berlin during the late 50’s, to the brighter days of the early 60’s, when they became the number one rock and roll band in England and America. Known as the Quiet Beatle for his modesty and his shy, retiring personality, he let himself be pushed into the background by the brilliant songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney, despite being as talented as they were. While they were writing popular ditties like “Love Me Do” and “Drive My Car”, he was writing deeper songs, like the India-inspired “Love You, Too” and the sitar instrumentation on the Lennon/McCartney track “Tomorrow Never Knows,” both on the “Revolver” album released in 1966—which, incidentally, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Being young and impressionable, George naturally went along with his mates when it came to partying, experimenting with drugs, making love and art, which created plenty of publicity. All he really wanted after he married his lovely girlfriend, model Pattie Boyd, was to live quietly, but the glamour of show business demanded that he live up to the image of a successful rock star in Swinging London during the late 60’s. As a Beatle, he toured the world, met famous people, performed before adoring crowds in packed clubs and stadiums, even received an MBE (Medal of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II along with his mates at the height of their fame. But it wasn’t enough for the Quiet Beatle; deep down inside, he was searching for something more tangible than wealth, more lasting than fame, something that would make sense of life on Earth and why we’re all here. And he found it when he discovered Krishna Consciousness.

He came to it slowly, first through the music of Ravi Shankar, already a famous sitar player in his native India, who longed to make Indian classical music known throughout the world. From Ravi he learned how to play the sitar, how to practice yoga and how to meditate, clearing his mind by chanting the names of God in Hindu. When he took up with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in an effort to learn more about his new faith, he convinced the other Beatles to follow him to the maharishi’s ashram, or retreat, in rural Rishikesh, India. That didn’t go well, at least as far as the others were concerned. John Lennon, in particular, was greatly disillusioned by the persistent rumors that the mararishi was a little too fond of his female followers, with whom he frequently had private prayer sessions, the kind that would get a Catholic priest defrocked if his superiors found out, and which inspired John’s song “Sexy Sadie”, in which he denounces the maharishi’s conduct, substituting “Sexy Sadie” for “maharishi”.

Surprisingly, Joshua Green downplays this sordid side of the maharishi’s nature. He makes George look naïve at best, and a fool at worse, for refusing to believe that his spiritual leader could be involved in anything scandalous. The brief review blurb by Mia Farrow on the book’s back cover gave me a clue about why Joshua chose to downplay this part of George’s past; after all, Mia and her sister Prudence were part of the group of Westerners who were staying at the ashram during that period, and Prudence was allegedly the object of the maharishi’s unwanted attentions, which made her so scared that she refused to come out of her little hut during the day. Joshua would have you believe that the reason she was such a recluse was that she was so heavily into meditation; once she started meditating in the morning, she wouldn’t come out all day. This inspired John to write “Dear Prudence”, in which he exhorts her to come out and play. Was Prudence Farrow really so fond of meditating or was she hiding from the maharishi? Is Joshua Green an honest writer or more interested in defending a clergyman of his faith? I would advise readers to read between the lines, as well as researching what happened behind the scenes at Rishikesh, before making up their own minds.

Another disturbing inconsistency occurs earlier in the book, before the Beatles’ go to Berlin. Joshua mentions that Stu Sutcliffe was George’s friend, when I know that Stu was best friends with John. They started the band, in fact. It made me wonder, if Joshua could get this simple fact wrong, just how accurate are the rest of the details in this book? I already knew about John’s Aunt Mimi’s hostility toward his band (she once remarked to her nephew that “the guitar is all very well, but you’ll never make a living at it!”), but had no idea that George’s mother Louise was so supportive, even showing up at the Cavern Club in Liverpool after the boys were discovered by Brian Epstein to cheer them on. Was Mrs. Harrison really so supportive of her son’s musical career, or is this merely Joshua Greene’s optimistic viewpoint? And am I being too obsessive-compulsive over these little minutiae of the Beatles’ lives?

The author also mentions the “My Sweet Lord” scandal of the 70’s, in which Bright Tunes Music Corporation sued George, claiming that his beautifully spiritual song was a rip off of “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons in 1963. Even the sympathetic judge in that case ruled in 1976 that George had “subconsciously” plagiarized the tune, awarding Bright Tunes a generous settlement. Shortly thereafter, the Chiffons recorded a cover version of “My Sweet Lord”. (And I hope it sank like a stone on the charts!) For the record, the lawsuit wasn’t brought by the Chiffons, but by the estate of the late Ronnie Mack, who wrote “He’s So Fine”. Still, it was a tacky thing to do to a good, kind man who was only paying tribute to his god. They even played “My Sweet Lord” at the Krishna temple in London and at the one in San Francisco to begin the morning prayers, that’s how much they loved it!

But George wasn’t feeling any love during that tumultuous period in his life, during which the Beatles broke up and his wife Pattie left him for his friend Eric Clapton. If anybody deserved to become bitter and cynical as a result of these setbacks, it was George. But instead of turning to drink and drugs for comfort, he turned to Krishna. He withdrew to his estate, Friar Park, thirty-five miles north of London, where he prayed, meditated, sang and chanted with his fellow devotees from the Radha Krishna temple, wrote beautiful songs like “Blackbird” to show his sorrow and his optimism in the face of misfortune (“Take these broken wings and learn to fly…take these sunken eyes and learn to see…you were only waiting for this moment to be free.”) and “Here Comes The Sun” to show his hope for tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come (“Little Darling, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter…it feels like years since it’s been here. Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and I say it’s all right.”) He also gave a benefit concern for Bangladesh, which was then suffering from the aftermath of a terrible war, that he held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden with a little help from his friends; Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Badfinger, et al.

Not everyone appreciated George’s newfound faith. His own family handled his transition from Church of England to Krishna Consciousness with more grace than his fans, who, to do them justice, were expecting to hear at least a few Beatle tunes when George went touring on his own after the breakup. Instead they were inundated with religious references to the Hindu gods, which even found their way into old Beatles’ lyrics (“In my life, I love God more”? Really, George!) The albums he released during the 80’s— All Things Must Pass, Living in the Material World, etc.—were roundly panned by the critics for being “too preachy”, full of religious references. But George didn’t care; his mission in life was to preach the truth as he saw it, and how he had found the truth through Krishna. He did mellow out in his later years and tone down the religious references, much to the critics’ and fans’ relief, but he never lost his faith, even during the dark days after John Lennon’s murder, and the aftermath of being attacked by a drug-crazed fan in his own home on New Year’s Eve 1999.

In retrospect, those dark periods seemed to be preparation for the darkest days of all, when he was diagnosed with cancer at the Mayo Clinic in March 2001. From then on, he lived only to glorify God, chanting “Hare Krishna” constantly on his prayer beads when flying on a plane or sitting in his garden, or simply reciting “Om Hari Om” as he walked down the street. He loved life, but he also loved God too much to curse him for taking it from him. He wanted the world to go on without him after he left, because he knew that his loved ones would still be here, and all the things that he had learned to love, like music, friendship, family, the taste of good food and all the other simple pleasures one enjoys while in bodily form.

Now that George has passed on, it remains to us to receive his legacy of song and serenity with gratitude and appreciation. Even if you are not religious, or find it hard to see God in any religion but your own, you should find it easier to understand the concept of seeking God in your own way after reading this lovingly written account of George Harrison’s life. Just remember not to take too seriously the inconsistencies previously mentioned; does it really matter who was friends with Stu Sutcliffe first? Whether the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was really a dirty old man or not didn’t affect the validity of the message he was trying to teach; even a soiled stained glass window can still let in the sunlight.

As for the spoilsports who insisted on suing George for his unintentional plagiarism of their silly song, they only succeeded in calling attention to their own greed, while “My Sweet Lord” is still sung in temples and churches throughout the world. I’m willing to overlook the flaws in Joshua Greene’s account of George’s life because of the overall impression of genuine affection for George that I perceived between the lines, knowing that Joshua was only doing his best to tell us about his friend through the medium of words, which can be so limiting. To quote Neal Young, another musician known for his profundity, “I sing this song because I love the man, I know that some of you don’t understand…”