George Harrison is probably the best role model I can think of being a spiritual and a creative person. Finding a faith didn’t inspire him to renounce everything he’d previously enjoyed in life, or to hide from the world, or to issue judgement on other people. Which are all common pitfalls of people who suddenly start believing (looking at you here, Yusuf Islam.) Most importantly, becoming religious didn’t negatively affect Harrison’s ability to make music – it did the opposite. He managed to make religiously inspired music that appealed to secular audiences, a pretty tough act. It’s hard to imagine very many other popular artists having a best selling single with this subject matter. Maybe because George Harrison was overall one of the most decent and likable people to ever ascend to megastardom. When he sang about his faith, it was only ever motivated by a desire to share a thing that made him happy.
Upon hearing the title Maya Love, you, the intrepid music critic, may automatically assume you’re in for a racist sex fantasy about a lady of Central American heritage. However, this is George Harrison, and nothing could be further from his real intentions. What Harrison is really talking about is the Hindu concept of Māya, a Sanskrit term broadly translated as ‘illusion’ or ‘delusion’. In Hinduism, Māya is part of a larger worldview which states that all of material reality is in fact illusory. Harrison is stating that love, like every other aspect of earthly life, is nothing but a temporary state of illusion. Some people assume that Harrison, freshly divorced at the time, was more specifically referring to his own experiences with the transience of human affection. Harrison himself said “Maya love is something when it’s ‘I love you if ’, ‘I love you when ’, ‘I love you but ’. It’s a type of love that comes and goes which we do tend to give to one another …” So it’s probably a combination of both general philosophical musing and personal angst.
Et tu, Harrison? Between you and McCartney and your sickening optimism I might just start feeling cheered up. This is really very cheerful and lovely, written when Harrison was newly married and awaiting the birth of his son. Unlike some, George Harrison is not the type to get schmaltzy just for the sake of it, so when he writes a gooey-eyed ode to love you know he’s serious about it. Not to knock all the silly love songs out there, but some people reflexively use declarations of love as an easy topic that doesn’t require a lot of thought. You could say that it kind of cheapens the sentiment, unless you’re the type who’s susceptible to even the most phony sentimentality. (I’m not making a dig at Paul McCartney here; he’s nothing if not utterly sincere.) George Harrison didn’t have any pretentious notions of himself as a poet, and his image as a very, very serious and constantly deep-thinking man isn’t entirely accurate either. (Exhibit A; Eric Idle, lifelong friendship with.) Not everything he said or did was necessarily fraught with deep portent, but he was always sincere. Therefore, the reassurance that love will indeed come to everyone might sound like a big fat load of corn syrup coming from fluffier headed people, but I can accept it from George Harrison, because I feel assured that he meant it.
The classic George Harrison move; write a song that sounds like a beautiful love song, but turns out to be a beautiful love song about God. Harrison was a famously a deeply spiritual person, and he knew how to incorporate that into his music in an accessible way. He spoke about his Hinduism, but he never preached about it – and there’s a big difference. And it’s undoubtedly a good thing; there are few things more annoying, especially in a celebrity, than preachiness. No one wants to be preached at or prodded towards conversion in daily life, and even less when the pushy one is a famous person full of the smug conviction that they’re on the one true path. It’s incredibly aggravating, even if the person is actually talking about something really positive and good. Has anyone ever felt more ardently turned off by the possibility of practicing Yoga and eating healthy than they do after hearing Gwyneth Paltrow brag about it? With religion, it’s that squick feeling times one thousand. George Harrison managed to get his message out and still avoid being insufferable. Partly because he was a very private person not given to jumping on soapboxes, and partly because when he did talk about his journey he did it without pretending he was better than others or showing judgement toward nonbelievers or believers of things other than what he believed. The simplicity and sincerity of the songs he wrote about his faith makes them easy to relate to emotionally. That they could double as love songs makes them all the more appealing to fans who wouldn’t normally stop to think about their own spiritual condition.
My guess is this is George Harrison speaking out against egocentric me culture. It doesn’t even take a spiritual man of Harrison’s caliber to be disgusted by the selfishness and narcissism of nearly everyone, and the way those qualities are celebrated by society. And this was 1970, before the words I Me Mine became a de facto religious mantra. I don’t know much about religion, but as I understand it, most major faiths agree that to achieve a higher spiritual plane one must learn to relinquish the self. Yet right now I see reams of books and seminars aiming to guide you to spiritual fulfillment by nourishing and pampering the earthly self in every conceivable way. That seems contradictory to me, but again, it’s not something I often think about. What George Harrison made of it, I don’t know. He lived long enough to witness millennial ‘me society’ in nearly all of its largesse, but he kept his thoughts to himself in his later years. What he’d have made of the advances that occurred in the years since his death, we can only imagine, but somehow I don’t see him looking kindly upon the glut of self-obsession new technology has allowed us to display.
Sometimes I suspect that the Beatles weren’t real, because, how could they be? Their story is stranger than fiction. Who could have written the story of four lads from an obscure port town who came together and took over the world in the most peaceful way possible? It’s so farfetched – if you were writing that your editor would tell you to tone it down and make it more realistic. What really makes everything fishy is how it’s like somebody wrote them as embodiments of four basic personality types – The Thoughtful One, The Troubled One, The Goofy One, The Romantic. Other people in other bands had personalities too, but no one else fell into such well defined personas. It wasn’t just some thing Brian Epstein thought up to make them more appealing. Those were really their personalities, and when they broke up they found themselves reverting to type more and more without the others to balance them out. John was shouty and mad, Paul couldn’t stop singing about his dog, Ringo was inconsequential and drunk. I’d say that George had the most consistent solo output, because he wasn’t as inclined as the others towards being ridiculous. You can’t say that John and Paul didn’t frequently make fools of themselves, but George never did. That’s why I like him so much. He was decent and not crazy and he wrote some of their best songs, like this one, which is one of their most inspiring.
If you recall, George Harrison also wrote Here Comes the Sun. Then I guess he decided it wasn’t fair to the moon, so he wrote about that too. This is certainly not as classic, but a pretty song nonetheless. In recent times I’ve become more and more attracted to George as my favorite Beatle. Because he strikes a sane balance between Paul McCartney’s saccharinity and John Lennon’s bile. Those two sometimes took their respective personas to cartoonish extremes, whereas George didn’t even have a persona besides steadfastly being himself. Picking a favorite Beatle is a simple and effective personality test, so picking the sane one is itself a sign of sanity. Right?