I wrote this about George a while back, after watching some Dick Cavett DVDs:
Watching him talk to Dick Cavett has brought me to the verge of tears more than once, and not because he’s said anything particularly emotive, not even because I’ve watched him become upset remembering footage he saw of Bangladesh or his visible discomfort in the interviewee seat (despite having been there who knows how many times by that point in his life). Not even, hard as it was, because he’s gone. There’s something else that’s hidden, and something essentially unknowable about him. Dark Horse, right?
At one point in the interview, which is almost painful to sit through thanks to Cavett’s clear discomfort and Harrison’s even more visible version, the subject of composition comes up. Cavett mentions that Harrison doesn’t read or write sheet music, and asks if that has ever hindered the music-writing process. Harrison laughs, I believe for the first time in the interview, and says something to the effect of, “No, people who compose orchestras, people who write symphonies, those are people who ‘read’ or ‘write’ music, what I do is much more simple.”
Perhaps it’s that sort of self-deprecating (at least in tone) attitude that always gets me about him. As he went on to explain his process (“I have a tune in my head that I’ll remember, then I work it out on piano or guitar. I don’t write anything down until I have words, why else would I need to write anything down?”), I was startled at how difficult it sounded. Perhaps Harrison won’t go down in history as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but certainly the composition across genres, the scope of works like All Things Must Pass, and his general brilliance should lend insight into this idea that music is something that strikes us, that we have to work at to complete. It’s not really about writing at all. He says at another point, (amidst obnoxious questions about Yoko and LSD) that using the term ‘writing’ isn’t really fair. That just astonishes me, though I suppose his perspective on the creative process (while not, perhaps, revolutionary) lends itself to that idea.
The end of the interview is a short clip of Harrison with Ravi Shankar from Ragas, and the smile on his face is so bright, so honest, it almost makes me forget how sad and distant he seems throughout the rest of the show. As the Cavett stage comes back into focus, we catch Harrison picking what must be a small piece of lint from his pants, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger vigorously, then blowing it off of his fingertips like blowing a dandelion, seemingly unaware of cameras, Cavetts and stage lights.
This record is over-looked, and I’ve never understood why. It was the first ever triple album, the Spector-sound is outrageously good, and the songs vary so much, it’s hard to stop listening. For me, even after all these years, this record stands out and speaks to me — from top to bottom — in ways I never fail to marvel at. It’s sad when I want it to be sad, it’s uplifting when I want it to be uplifting — it’s almost as though it bends for me. There might be other albums ahead of it on this list, but none that make me feel as much.
George Harrison “If Not For You” (mp3)