Thursday, March 25, 2004

Concert for George

Finally got around to watching the tape of the PBS airing of the concert for George Harrison held at the Royal Albert Hall a year after his death. It was quite a moving experience. Musically, we tend to hear only the most familiar Beatles tunes on the radio and, all too often, as elevator music and mall Muzak. It's easy to forget what amazing music it is, which is evident when other musicians try to play it. They come close, they make something different with their own interpretations, but often they can't quite measure up. Harrison's songs---and not just the basic melody or chords---are deceptive in their apparent simplicity but actual complexity, especially how he and the Beatles built them as recorded songs. Everybody thinks they know “Here Comes the Sun” as a nice little tune, but the construction of it as a recorded song is amazing, as the struggles they had on stage made clear.

In some ways I'm glad that I let Lennon and McCartney overshadow Harrison's music---especially his post-Beatles work---in my experience, because now I have the privilege of discovering its depth and wisdom and musicality. Since there's been no one new who really gets to me for a long time, George's music is a real treasure. Not only is it "new" in this way for me, but I can follow a process of aging and maturing in his work, which is far more personal than, say, McCartney's (except for certain songs, like "Tug of War." And Lennon never made it past 40.) Again this music is so rich that it repays repeated exploration.

But George's music alone doesn't account for how affecting this concert was. It was at once an elegy for my generation and an affirmation of continuity to the next generations. Though Eric Clapton was the organizer and musical director of this multi-artist ensemble, and provided two of the best musical moments (his solos on the Ravi Shankar piece written especially for this event, and on "When My Guitar Gently Weeps") the show was centered on the appearance of the two surviving Beatles. Apparently this was the first time that Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney had appeared together on stage since the Beatles last performed in 1969, which is hard to believe. Ringo sang one of his two best songs he cut as a solo artist, which he wrote with George Harrison (the other was a song he wrote with John Lennon, "I Am the Greatest,") and as he noted, the song had specific new meaning to the event. With a photo of George high at the back of the stage, Ringo sang: "All I have is a photograph/I know you're not coming back, anymore..." Paul sang a song George wrote and recorded as a solo artist, which is a specific and meaningful tribute to him apart from the Beatles, and he began a ukelele version of "Something" (apparently George had become fond of the ukelele in recent years) which Clapton ended powerfully as a full bore rock song.

As one reviewer noted, this was also probably the last time Paul and Ringo will appear together. Most of the musicians on stage had gray hair, and another story of the event referred to Bill Wyman, the former Rolling Stone, being present in the audience, a shriveled old man. Most of the musicians on the stage don't have many years of performing left, and probably many of them don't perform much anymore except as nostalgia acts. So it turned out to be an elegy by a generation of musicians for their generation of musicians, and for my generation that lived our lives by this music.

Ringo's son Zack was in the audience, as was one of Paul's daughters; John Lennon's musician sons by different mothers were nowhere to be found (I searched the Internet to find out why but they weren't mentioned in any account I found.) But on stage for the whole show was George Harrison's son Dhani, strumming a big acoustic guitar and singing backups. He looks almost exactly like George at his age of 21. At times it was eerie, as when Paul and Dhani did harmonies at the same microphone. It was seeing the past and the present alive at the same time.

Ravi Shankar did not play, but his son did, and his daughter, who is the first female sitar player in India, a beautiful young woman who also conducted the orchestra of Indian and western musicians performing Ravi's composition. And by coincidence, I watched this a day or so after seeing and hearing Sam Taylor, the son of James Taylor and Carly Simon, essentially playing a young James Taylor in the 1960s, on "American Dream." He played and sang a Beatles tune, "In My Life," and sounded exactly like James. He looks quite a bit like him, too. It's amazing how strong the genes of musical geniuses can be.

And this above all I celebrate-the continuity of accomplishment and talent at a very high level. As we leave the stage, it is good to know that our music and our work is renewed and continued by the capable next generation, carrying on, with all the beauty and strength of youth that we no longer have.

At times I regret not having had children, but frankly on the list of regrets it is so overwhelmed by others that would have made that possible, that it is not one of the unrealized fantaises I think about often---only sometimes when I feel a twinge as I pass a parent interacting beautifully with a child. I was so many levels removed from these possibilities being realized, that the conditions that would have made this desirable were never really there. But I'm glad that George Harrison had a son, that Ravi Shankar had a daughter. I've accomplished really nothing important in my life, so there is no legacy to continue. Their legacy is strong, and it is fulfilling to me that their legacy continues, their talent and temperament, etc. continues through their genes as part of the human mix. My regrets about children are only selfish, concerning the experiences I didn't have. I wouldn't have provided children with much to help them through this challenging world. (I suspect this is a legacy I got from my father, who I think did sometimes regret having children for just this reason.)

Arguably our fates at this age are more or less settled, no matter what illusions we need to keep going. That our youth is gone is inarguable, so as much as I fantasize George Harrison as a brother I can fantasize Dhani Harrison as a son, as a renewal of some of what I cherish. I hope he does great things for his generation and those that follow. One of the few benefits of getting older is that you can admit your guiding fantasies, since nothing you do can matter much anymore, and what are they going to do to you now for having them? Not much, compared to what you’re in for. All things must pass. But some things pass down, and if they’re good, it makes looking at the book of life a little easier.

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