Living in the Spiritual World

George Harrison: Living in the Material World on HBO

I watched Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. It’s excellent, as was the filmmaker’s previous documentary on Bob Dylan. Naturally it tells the story of the Beatles rise to fame, their phenomenal success and impact, breakup, and George Harrison’s solo career. The film shows that Harrison was perhaps the first of the Fab Four to question living in the material world. Long before he had even heard of the Maharishi, in 1965 George wrote to his mum,

I know that this isn’t it. I knew I was going to be famous, but now I know I can reach the real top of what man can achieve, which is self-realization.”

I was one of the 74 million Americans who tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 to see The Beatles for the first time. From the moment the show started, you knew this was not going to be your average Ed Sullivan variety program. You could feel the electricity all the way from New York City to where I was at, in Wichita, Kansas. Ed introduced the Beatles, they began to play, and nothing was ever the same again.

For me, it was like stepping out of a black and white world and into a Technicolor one.  After that first appearance, everything was different: the way we talked, walked, styled our hair, and dressed. It may sound superficial, but it was really as profound as change can possibly be. It changed how we thought, too.

Rishikesh, 1968 (l-r): Jenny Boyd, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, Donovan, Mia Farrow, George Harrison, the Maharishi, the Beach Boys' Mike Love, John Lennon & Pattie Boyd

The Beatles had a second significant impact on the world. In the fall of 1968, either Life Magazine or the Saturday Evening Post (I don’t remember which) ran a multi-page spread on the Beatles in India hanging out with that groovy guru, the Maharishi, with some great color photographs. It looked really cool.

Before you knew it, Eastern spirituality was all over the place. Love beads and Nehru jackets were in style. Every other song had a sitar in it, and every other band seemed to have a new religion and a guru. I don’t remember them all, just that The Rascals found the swami Satchinanda and for The Who, it was Meher Baba.

I am not too proud to admit that I was a dedicated follower of fashion. I set out then to find a new religion for myself. I had only one criteria: no God. I figured that if I wanted a religion with a god in it, I could just keep the one I had. Naturally, the first god-less thing I found was Buddhism, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Beatles were to abandon the Maharishi while in India (after he allegedly hit on Mia Farrow), just as eventually most of our rock gods abandoned their gurus and returned to more secular music. George Harrison, however, pretty much stayed on the path provided by Eastern spirituality for the rest of his life, which is certainly reflected in his post-Beatles music.

Martin Scorsese says,

George was making spiritually awake music. We all heard and felt it, and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a very special place in our lives.”

The narration that moves George Harrison: Living in the Material World along is provided by friends and family, as well as letters the late singer wrote home; the film covers the Hamburg days quiet extensively, as well as other facets of Harrison’s life, including his relationship with Eric Clapton, and of course, the Beatles’ breakup. Scorsese, who made the film with the backing of George’s widow, Olivia, was given access to the singer’s own collection of photographs, films, recordings and documents, and he makes good use of them.

George Harrison’s interest in the sitar and Indian music opened him to new ways of thinking based on ancient spiritual traditions. He wasn’t the only influential person of that time keen to explore Eastern spirituality, but I think a case can be made that his influence, with his bandmates, was considerably greater.

These days, I tend to get sentimental when I think about The Beatles. For a time in our lives they were like angels, they were magical, and we, my generation, were magical too. The world was a brilliant tapestry we were trying to unravel and all its violence and darkness could not dim the brightness of our youthful hope and aspiration.

I don’t know if it is natural or silly, or both, to be nostalgic for your youth. I don’t really care. I like to feel sentimental from time to time. Makes me feel good.

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