Toward the Final Beatle

Confronted with the prospects of watching yet another Beatles documentary, there are many who would understandably prefer a ticket to ride—some place where no one has ever even heard of the Beatles.  Well good luck, mean Mr. Mustard, because that octopus’ garden doesn’t exist.  You may have never given them your money, dear Prudence, but you can no more escape the Beatles than you can throw an old brown shoe across the universe.  “And your bird can sing” is another great title.

So Martin Scorsese had his work cut out for him in producing a 208-minute opus that once again revisits the single most perverse fame eruption of the twentieth-century--Beatlemania.  Even more remarkable, Scorsese’s Living in the Material World (currently playing in two 90-or-so minute chunks on HBO) is really only about 25% of the Beatles; namely, George Harrison…the “third” Beatle, the “quiet” Beatle, the Beatle who forced millions of pop fans to contend with the sitar and songs that occasionally strayed from 4/4 time.  

Fifty years after the Beatles began playing for beer and lodging in Reeperbahn (Hamburg’s notorious red light district, brought to screen here courtesy of contemporaneous footage culled from Mondo Cane), what is there left to say about this collective psychosis that defined a generation, a fixation on the music, biography--and most importantly--the mythos of the Beatles that will continue to enshroud the planet until someone pulls the plug on the last baby-boomer clutching the faders at the final classic rock station?  Even those who have only a casual Beatles habit will be familiar with most of the territory covered in part one—the lads meet in Liverpool, gig in Germany, get signed to Parlophone and George Martin, ignite a mass adolescent sexual frenzy, come to America, become bigger than Jesus, drop acid, push the confines of the recording studio, and so on.   

There are a few new details for the truly obsessed.  We meet George Harrison’s brothers, for example, who rather refreshingly seem to have remained non-fab Liverpudlians unfazed by a having a little brother who, in some improbable cosmic lottery, turned a fascination with skiffle riffs into a billion dollar empire.  Studio geeks, meanwhile, get to hear a few new tales about the recording of Harrison’s tracks on the Beatles’ records, including the story of an Abbey Road engineer working tirelessly to mix properly the saxophones on "Savoy Truffle" only to have Harrison request they be more distorted and bright (and truly, that track remains a treble endurance test to this very day—very “toppy” as George Martin pops in to opine).  Ringo also informs us that if it wasn’t for Paul, the other 3 Beatles would have spent most of the late 60’s in their respective Surrey mansions smoking pot and just hanging out.  Perhaps the oddest detail: the Beatles actually commuted into work each day at Abbey Road in Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce (somehow the idea of the Beatles as working stiffs commuting on the A3 is a winning image—especially given that today even the most abject reality star flotsam expect to be driven everywhere by limo). 

But expecting something “new” in a Beatles documentary misses the point, really.  No one stands alongside the route of a Passion Play with a box of popcorn wondering how things are going to turn out.  And so it is here.  The entire point of watching the story of the Beatles—over and over again in seemingly endless iterations—is to see the mop tops take up the cross of global fame, get cranky with each other, and then wander like lost souls into the 1970s.  Twelve men have walked on the moon.  There were four Beatles.  Both professions remain utterly mind-boggling in terms of their impact and exclusivity.  Much of Beatles’ lore has to do with the singularity of their collective experience.  What would it be like to be that famous?  That beloved?  That influential?  To be so epoch-defining that even those who hate you have to use you as the reference point for reclaiming another vision of late twentieth-century culture? 

All of which makes Part Two of Material World--the real heart of the documentary--all that much more interesting.  With the necessary Beatles preamble out of the way, Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi are able to focus on what becomes the unexpectedly poignant and even tragic afterlife of Harrison proper. 

Part two starts with a bang as the Beatles break-up (rather strategically and wisely withheld as the seemingly natural climax of part one).  We then get an extended account of the recording of All Things Must Pass, still the single greatest post-Beatles album by any of the four (this is provable by objective, song-by-song, empirical science—I will accept no arguments on this point.  What are you going to put up against it?  Band on the Run?  The Plastic Ono Band?  Goodnight Vienna?  Please, take a seat, you’re just embarrassing yourself).  Sitting atop a dozen or so songs that could not find room on the later Beatles records, Harrison and friends produced what was the first and probably the last wall-of-sound, folk-rock, Krishna record.  Scorsese is such a fan (recall that Ray Liotta freaks out in the last reel of Goodfellas to “What is Life?”) that virtually every song on the record receives a detailed accounting of its genesis. 

George-fans will also appreciate that Scorsese endorses the proposition that Harrison’s musical talents have always been woefully under-appreciated.  Even as early as “I Want to Tell You,” with its oddly dissonant piano figure under the chorus, Harrison’s songs were always the weirdest and even spookiest of the Beatles’ catalog (“Blue Jay Way,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Piggies,” “It’s All Too Much,” and, of course, the criminally obscure yet chillingly sublime “Long, Long, Long.”)  There is also some respect for Harrison’s guitar chops, both his distinctive “wah-wah” slide technique and the non-shredding elegance of his soloing (the short solo on “Something” is a clinic on not wasting notes—even as the solo on “All You Need is Love” remains a mysteriously aborted failure—evoke it in your minds, fellow Beatle-nerds, you’ll see what I mean).

After the huge success of that record, Harrison moves on to the Concert for Bangladesh—becoming, for better or worse, the first rock star to leverage his fame for charity relief. 

And then things get a bit sad and weird.  In addition to being the “quiet” Beatle, Harrison was probably best known for his enthusiastic embrace of Indian spirituality and philosophy—bringing sitars into the studio for “Norweigian Wood” and spearheading the band’s famous expedition to India to learn meditation.  Part one of the documentary emphasizes that this was no fashionable hippy trend on Harrison’s part, that his commitment to getting airlifted out of “maya” remained a lifelong pursuit.  Those who hate the Beatles often find this aspect of the fable particularly annoying—one of the richest men in the world using the security of his wealth and fame to engage in quite literal navel-gazing.  But Scorsese rather doggedly works to convince us that Harrison’s relation to the “material world” was genuinely tortured, that he really attempted to escape the suffocating obligations of being an ex-Beatle (and even if he was, in the end, more a pampered rock star afforded the luxury to indulge in spiritual experimentation, the story of how a working-class kid from Liverpool becomes one of the most famous people of the twentieth-century and then whole-heartily embraces eastern mysticism is, in and of itself, a fascinating story). 

In part two, Harrison’s commitment to embracing the non-material world experiences some obstacles.  There is the notorious triangle with Eric Clapton and Harrison’s first wife, Patty Boyd (speaking of burdens—imagine being the woman who inspired both “Something” and “Layla”—truly she is the face that launched a thousand tracks on Ampex tape).  Scorsese rather delicately handles Harrison’s apparently bad cocaine problem in the mid-70s (footage of a rail-thin Harrison, his voice absolutely decimated, chugging through a truly awful live arrangement of “What is Life?” is one of the documentary’s more cringe-worthy moments).  Wholly absent, no doubt by demand of second-wife/producer Olivia Harrison, is the foundational copyright lawsuit fought between Harrison and the Chiffons over the melody of  “My Sweet Lord.”  Also hanging like a dark cloud over part two is the knowledge that Harrison’s spiritual journey will eventually culminate in getting stabbed in his own home by a schizophrenic and then dying shortly thereafter from cancer. 

This might make Living in the Material World sound like a total bummer.  And in some respects, part two is often melancholic to the point of being downright depressing.  There are bright spots, of course, as in Harrison’s support and patronage of Monty Python (Harrison produced Life of Brian and Time Bandits…as well as Shanghai Surprise, which Scorsese understandably ignores).  Mostly, though, Scorsese’s portrait of Harrison casts him as someone who genuinely wanted to be a better person in a better world, and who ultimately preferred to stay at home and garden rather than do the obligatory record tour every year (at the time of Harrison’s death in 2001, Ringo had put out more albums than his former bandmate—Ringo, for Vishnu’s sake!).  Toward the end of part two, Olivia Harrison recounts how, toward the end of his life, George was invited to various award ceremonies to honor his many achievements, invitations invariably declined by the Beatle who really no longer wanted to have anything to do with the Beatles.  His widow offers this as evidence of her husband’s incredible humbleness—but there is also a sense that his reclusiveness had a touch of bitterness in it as well.

The Traveling Wilburys.  And then a “come-back” solo album that Harrison claims wasn’t really a “come-back” because, by that point, he had long stopped considering himself to be a pop star/public performer anymore. 

And then the stabbing at his home in England.  Given the unprecedented mass cathexis on the Beatles, it’s a miracle all four of them didn’t end up murdered by various crazy people.  Olivia Harrison narrates the events of that particular evening, leaving us to wonder why someone didn’t simply pick up a phone and call the police (Harrison’s initial strategy for dealing with this intruder, we are told, was to “chant” at him from the upstairs window.  A few moments later the guy has broken in, rushed up the stairs, and is wrestling with a wounded Harrison for the knife. So remember, while your mantra may be good for your soul, it remains generally ineffective in warding off the psychotic). 

Harrison survives, of course, only to die two years later from his ongoing bout with lung cancer.  As recounted by Scorsese, Harrison’s death is both more banal and yet, oddly, more profound than the murder of John Lennon.  Assassinated at forty, Lennon died so young and so abruptly that he was able to assume Kennedy-esque stature as a generational icon unimpeded by the embarrassment of continuing to live and thus disappoint everyone (and Lord knows, Double Fantasy was a bad step in that direction).  And besides, getting shot by a nut job outside the Dakota is a freakish tragedy—much like getting hit by an asteroid or falling through a manhole.  But to be someone who ruled the western world at the age of 25, only to then slog on through a failed marriage, some bad investments, a drug habit, and the burdensome expectations of your former greatness, all so that you might then live to be stabbed in your home before dying of cancer two years later—that’s the kind of depressingly common life arc almost any middle-aged boomer can relate to (if, of course, one substitutes the general exhilaration of one’s perceived youthful immortality for Harrison’s time as a Beatle).   And I don’t care how much you think you hate the Beatles, if Ringo’s account of his last meeting with George doesn’t get you misty-eyed than truly you are a soulless monster who deserves to come back in the next life as a latrine-born cockroach (while I understand the counter-distinctual obligations of thinking the Beatles were overrated or even just downright terrible, how anyone who has ever listened to and enjoyed a 3.5 minute guitar-based pop-song in the last 30 years thinks they “hate” the Beatles is beyond me.  It’s like loving spaghetti while claiming to hate Italian cuisine.  Even Kurt Cobain had the self-knowledge and graciousness to acknowledge that nothing much had happened since the Beatles, except perhaps for a general increase in yelling and distortion.    

Ultimately, Living in the Material World, with all its familiar popcult signposts of the past fifty years, is as much about its audience as it is about Harrison himself, artfully beginning the perhaps inevitable process of rewriting Beatles nostalgia into boomer elegy.  Here, too, is where the fascination with meditation, Krishna, and all things eastern finds its ultimate rendez-vous--both for Harrison and a generational audience that once upon a time fancied itself disenchanted with western politics, morality, and religion.  Throughout the documentary, we are told how Harrison’s spiritual quest was to practice “the art of dying,” to be at peace with one’s death so that the universe doesn’t force you to return for another round of frustrated desire and corporeal misery.  Apparently realizing at a freakishly young age that one faces the end alone, no matter what one acquires or achieves in this world, Harrison makes for a compelling index on boomer spirituality in general, an emblem of material success/excess apparently quite sincere (and thus quite conflicted) in his attempt to renounce the trappings of this world. 

This, finally, is the ultimate trick of Scorsese’s documentary--transforming Harrison the counter-cultural icon into just another aging boomer (albeit one of unimaginable wealth and fame—and, technically, not actually a boomer), doing his best to survive the humiliations of mortality with some grace and dignity, all while trying to remain true to a core set of beliefs.  Olivia recounts her husband’s last moments on earth as “glowing.”  I certainly hope so.  If, after his extraordinary ride through the late twentieth-century, George Harrison couldn’t figure out what does and doesn’t ultimately matter, what hope remains for the rest of us still plowing our way through the particularly pernicious maya of western existence, the legions of boomers who--years after their perceived rebellion against the social order--have rather lazily crawled back to the church of their parents more out of habit than belief.  Scorsese ultimately makes the viewer admire George, the quiet Beatle, not so much for being a Beatle, but for fighting so hard (and perhaps so futilely) to escape the absurd cosmic joke that gave birth to the Beatles in the first place.

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