Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: While My Guitar Gently Weeps - The Music of George Harrison

While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Music of George Harrison
Simon Leng
Hal Leonard Publishing

Beatleologically, I am a George. I relate to his outlook on life, his quiet personality, his contemplative nature, his musical approach. So when, on George's birthday this past February 25, my fiancée gave me a copy of While My Guitar Gently Weeps along with George's best-of collection, Let It Roll, I was ecstatic. (Yes, she's the most amazing woman in the world. Obviously). Simon Leng's masterful analysis of George's music is an absolute pleasure to read, especially if the reader is a) already a Beatles fan, and b) a musician. I am both, and so I devoured Leng's 300-page book in a matter of a few days, thoroughly enjoying the combination of Leng's easy style, evocative vocabulary, and insightful comments on George's music growth and spiritual journey.

Although Leng clearly respects the Lennon-McCartney songwriting powerhouse, he doesn't idolize the duo, and he doesn't shrink at putting them in their place when necessary (he calls the McCartney-driven Magical Mystery Tour "wretched," and is astounded that Lennon's "Ballad of John and Yoko," a "self-serving travelogue," trumped George's "Old Brown Shoe" as the A-side to the single). Leng is entirely sympathetic to George, and frankly, it's about time someone dedicated this kind of attention to George's vital musical influence within the band.

Leng notes that George did not merely play a filler role, lobbing in the occasional riff to fill up some blank space in a song; on the contrary, his lead guitar work often played a crucial role in giving those songs their final shape (it was George who worked out the riff that bridged the gap between the first and second parts of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" when Lennon was struggling to stitch them together).

George's solos are hardly ever throwaway noodlings, as Leng points out multiple times; as a rule, his riffs are miniature compositions in their own right, little songs-within-the-song, and as such they carry a high degree of quality of complexity. Rarely flashy, but always memorable, George's guitar work is subservient to the song and not his own ego. More often than not, his contributions to the Lennon-McCartney compositions are what make those songs shimmer and shine: just try to imagine "A Hard Day's Night" without the jarring opening chord or the closing arpeggio fade-out; imagine "Eight Days a Week" without the sweetly ringing introduction; imagine "I Want to Hold Your Hand" without the chromatic, bluesy hook that breaks up the verses, "Nowhere Man" without its chord-based solo, or "She Said She Said" without the clever, weaving riff that echoes and serves as a counterpoint to the vocal.

Leng's analysis of the group's cohesion (or disintegration, depending on how you look at it) is also spot-on. McCartney started to "go solo" long before Magical Mystery Tour; he was already wiping George's guitar parts and re-doing them himself as far back as the Help! LP (witness "Another Girl"), and by the time of Revolver, he was writing and arranging the bulk of his songs in such a way that the rest of the group became largely unnecessary: "Eleanor Rigby" is Paul and the orchestra, "For No One" is Paul and a horn player, "Good Day Sunshine" is Paul and his piano, "Got to Get You into My Life" is Paul and the brass (George's two-bar allowance at the end of the song notwithstanding).

With a good understanding of Indian music, Leng is able to explain the profound nature of what happened when George began to study the sitar. Far from simply learning a new instrument, George was absorbing the Indian philosophy/spirituality of music: music is prayer, is worship, is a way of communicating with God. In contrast to this, the Western World tends to view music as entertainment, as fluff, as sound-clips and accessories.

Just as George was embracing a philosophy of music as way of finding one's own identity in God, Paul was architecting an entire album of music-as-performance, a staged, theatrical show wrapped in shiny costumes and alter-egos - Sgt. Pepper. Leng insightfully comments that the Beatles and George couldn't have been further apart, ideologically speaking, and it shows on the album: George's "Within You, Without You" contribution is a bomb-shell that spins the album on its head, and his involvement on the rest of the album is fairly minimal. On an epic song like the ground-breaking "A Day in the Life," he did no more than shake the maracas.

With George finding a new musical identity and a new musical purpose that no longer required the support of Lennon-McCartney, with McCartney increasingly becoming a solo artist with a very famous back-up band, and with Lennon drowning in his new, self-absorbed, co-dependent relationship with Yoko, the unraveling of the Beatles was a foregone conclusion. Thanks to Leng's analysis, it can be seen more clearly that the strands of disintegration were present already in Help!, and only become more pronounced with each successive album.

The majority of Leng's book, however, is dedicated to George's solo career, taking each album and breaking it down song-by-song, complete with notes on instrumentation and play-length. Each song is given at least a few paragraphs of musical and lyrical analysis, and Leng's treatments are so well-written that he manages to breathe a new kind of life into George's songs. My experience of reading the book was that I immediately wanted to dust off my collection of George's solo albums and give them a fresh listen - and that, in itself, is a sure sign that the author did his job, and did it well.

blog comments powered by Disqus