… and then there was the world after the Beatles, when he [Harrison] and his music seemed to open up and flower. I will never forget the first time I heard “All Things Must Pass” ... It was like walking into a cathedral. George was making spiritually awake music – we all heard and felt it.
– Martin Scorsese
Ever had one of those mornings when you are on your way to work and you are tense and stressed? You have so many projects waiting for you that it’s hard to fathom how to get it all done in a timely manner and to top it off, you have one or two people in your life, like most of us, who are being insanely difficult. Sounds familiar? I thought so. I had this happen to me a while back. Here’s how I decided to sooth my mind. I like reading The Economist, so I went to a newspaper stand, got the latest edition, opened it randomly and found myself glancing at an article called “How To Have A Better Death.” I instantly felt worse.
However, after the initial shock had dissipated and I actually started reading the article, I noticed it was a fantastic piece: well-argued and well-written. More to the point, I thought the article was right in claiming that we are more or less (at least in the Western world) living as if death doesn’t exist. As a result, we go through our lives completely and utterly unprepared for death. It’s one of those things that we decide to put on hold until we are forced to deal with it. This all reminded me of a song I hadn’t listened to for quite a bit, George Harrison’s fabulous ”Art Of Dying.”
The album on which this song is featured, All Things Must Pass, is of course, the most famous of Harrison’s solo albums. It was released right after the break-up of the Beatles and surprised pretty much everyone with its incredibly strong songwriting and inspired performances. The quality of the record might have caught everyone by surprise in 1970 when it came out but in retrospect, it is no surprise at all. Rather, it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Being allowed only two or three tracks per album in the Beatles (save the White Album) Harrison had accumulated a huge backlog of songs over the years (he began writing “Art Of Dying” in 1966), the cream of which were released on All Things Must Pass. These were tracks cherry-picked by Harrison and the now infamous Phil Spector, who produced the “Quiet One’s” legendary debut.
“Art Of Dying” is not the most famous song on the album or the most obvious track to review, the huge hit “My Sweet Lord” is. However, I have always found it the most intriguing track on the triple album. The curious thing about “Art Of Dying” is that it is first and foremost a track about Hindu reincarnation. This is how Harrison intended it and it becomes rather obvious when reading the last verse of the song.
There'll come a time when most of us return here
Brought back by our desire to be
A perfect entity
Living through a million years of crying
Until you've realized the Art of Dying
Nevertheless, as Hinduism teaches that a soul reincarnates again and again until it becomes perfect, in reality this track is every bit as much about the art of living as it is about the art of dying. Furthermore, since the song ponders not only on the inevitability of death (“There'll come a time when all of us must leave here “) but also on the difficulty of learning to live a perfect enough life to avoid rebirth (“Searching for the truth among the lying and answered when you've learned the art of dying”), what this track is ultimately arguing is that the art of dying is not something that can be learned quickly during your golden years but rather something that’s an arduous, life-long process. As the lyrics point out, “Nothing in this life that I've been trying could equal or surpass the art of dying.”
Another striking thing about this track, apart from the lyrics, is obviously the production as well as the performance, both of which are majestic. Even though Spector’s insistence to use his famous “wall of sound” on All Things Must Past has been criticized as well as heralded, it works well on this track, giving it space that enhances both the arrangement and the concept of its lyrics. I love the wah-wah guitar licks, the orchestral arrangement, the guitar riff in the middle eight, George’s double tracked lead vocal (which gives the track a very Beatlesque flavor) and obviously the haunting melody that is every bit as good as George’s best work for the Fab Four. All in all, “Art Of Dying” is a tour de force from Harrison, who was so often forced to take the back seat in the Beatles. And obviously, the same could be said of the entire album. Give it a spin. You won’t be disappointed.
Before closing, I want to share a memory I have of my grandfather with you. He died of cancer roughly about ten years ago after a particularly long battle with the disease. During the last three years of his life, he tried his best to make peace with himself as well as with his loved ones. I spoke to him on the phone a lot during that time. Realizing he hadn’t always managed to do the right thing and that some of his choices could have been a little less selfish (he was being too hard on himself), he told me during what became our last conversation that there was something he wanted me to always remember. I asked him what it was. He said, “Never forget that the only place you are irreplaceable is home. I failed at that and I don’t want you to make the same mistake. The price you have to pay for that is horrendous.”
Well, Granddad, I failed at that, just like you. I’m sorry. However, I promise not to repeat my mistake and I hope that when the time comes, I am man enough to follow in your footsteps when it comes to the art of dying.
Check out the official music video of “When We Was Fab” – it’s fantastic and it’ll put a smile on your face.
You can learn more about George Harrison here:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.