Here’s a clip of the squire of Friar Park, slide-guitarist, ukulele player, and singer-songwriter George Harrison. It’s “Rising Sun”, a track off of his last album, 2002’s Brainwashed. The record was released the year after Harrison succumbed to cancer, ten years (!) ago tomorrow, November 29, 2001.
The first sign of cancer in Harrison occurred in 1997, leading to a course in radiotherapy. The disease spread to his lung, and then to his brain. As he sought treatment, his efforts to complete his last record increased too.
One person instrumental to that effort, in every sense of the word, was his son Dhani Harrison. Another was his old compatriot Jeff Lynne, he of Beatles-influenced ELO, Cloud Nine producer, and fellow bandmate in The Traveling Wilburys. Lynne would put the finishing touches on the record after George died.
It could be argued that there wasn’t a rock star on earth who was more prepared for the Great Beyond than George Harrison. Since his twenties, he’d been interested in Eastern mysticism of all kinds, and in the belief that the material world and all it offered was temporary by its very definition. This is the guy who wrote “All Things Must Pass”, after all.
But, even if George had dealt with the theme of death and the passing of the physical through out his career, this album is unique. But, how so?
George Harrison’s views on death and the material world are pretty stark on songs like “The Art of Dying”, “Living In the Material World”, “The Inner Light”, and even “Old Brown Shoe”. But, by the time he was in sessions for Brainwashed, it was the big leagues where his own mortality was concerned. Death was no longer an abstract basis for songwriting. He was actually dying, and the mandate was clear: to complete the new record before the Big Event itself.
But despite this unique pressure on him, he still had perspective as an artist, which is why the songs and the album as a whole work so well outside of the context in which it was made. That’s a part of what made him the talent he was; he could still make what he was writing about ring true for his audience. And he was able to do that by being honest, and by balancing the ideas in one song off of those in another.
For instance, a song like “Stuck Inside A Cloud” which also appears on Brainwashed, is his reflection on losing one’s material life, and knowing that it does mean separation from those one leaves behind. By 2001, he seemed to have no illusions about what that loss meant to those around him, and to he himself.
But, with “Rising Sun”, he balances that sense of loss out a bit, with this life on earth as simply a reflection of something greater, something beyond appearances, and something inside himself, and ourselves as listeners, too. Whatever George Harrison was going through personally, the song is still about the wonder of being, ultimately. It is about memory, and about what treasures memories can be. Sometimes, memories can be about baggage. Harrison knew all about that, having something of a love-hate relationship with his own fame. But, in the end, the sentiments in “Rising Sun” apply to all of us.
The theme of death has been a thread through Harrison’s work. Yet, in this song, and in many others he wrote, Harrison was fascinated by the mystery of what it means to be alive. That he shared that wonder with us so eloquently in his work, even to the last, is our gain.
In 1973, George created a charitable foundation. Learn about it at the Material World Foundation, including a list of all of the charities it is associated with and has contributed to over the years.
Also, check out Martin Scorcese’s film about George Harrison, Living In The Material World, which includes some never-before-seen footage of a very gifted, very private artist.