From Beatle to Believer
George Harrison's embrace of Indian spirituality riled critics and Beatles fans, bringing him to a low point in his career.
BY: Joshua M. Greene
George Harrison's third solo album, "Dark Horse," was released in October 1974. Reporters at a Los Angeles press conference asked about his involvement with Indian spirituality and the reluctance he had been professing to delve into his past as a Beatle.
"I realize that The Beatles did fill a space in the Sixties," he said. "All the people that the Beatles meant something to have grown up and want to hold on to something. People are afraid of change-but you can't live in the past."
Did he think, the reporter asked, that it was possible to be spiritual in the material world? "Our consciousness has been so polluted with material energy," George said, "that it is hard to see our way towards anything spiritual. But everyone has within him the same qualities as God, just as a drop of the ocean has the same qualities as the ocean. Everybody's looking for something outside, but it's all right there within ourselves." That conviction was about to be severely tested.
The "Dark Horse" album earned George the worst reviews of his career. Writers complained that the tracks seemed unrehearsed, that vocals were out of tune, that the melodies were unremarkable and the lyrics weak. "Dismal," one reviewer groused, "an album which should never have happened." Another reviewer declared George a failure as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Two singles spun off from the album failed to reach the U.K. top 30, the first solo Beatle records to perform so poorly. Compared with his previous grand successes, reviewers deemed this album a complete disaster.
A seven-week promotional Dark Horse Tour began on November 2, 1974, and things went from bad to worse. George opened each show with Ravi Shankar and a troupe of Indian musicians playing a lengthy program of Indian classical music that had fans yawning and restless. When he came on to perform the second half, George's constant exhortations to "Chant Krishna! Christ! Krishna! Christ! Allah! Buddha!" added to their unease. He came across as zealous, alienating much of his audience. At one concert someone yelled out a request for his hit single "Bangladesh."
"You can chant 'Krishna, Krishna, Krishna,' and maybe you'll feel better," George said into the microphone. "But if you just shout 'Bangladesh, Bangladesh, Bangladesh,' it's not going to help anybody."
People had come expecting at least a few Beatles memories but he refused to be pulled back into that persona, instead providing concert-goers with what one reporter called "a surfeit of the unfamiliar and a short-changing of the golden greats." Ravi appealed to him. "Give the people a couple of old songs," he said. "It's okay."
It was not waving a picture of Krishna over his head that fans minded. They could even go along with his insistence that "God was where it was at" and his yelling out that "Someone's got to tell you." After all, those were his beliefs, and so long as the music rocked, fans felt they were getting their money's worth.
But things went too far when, finally relenting to sing a few Beatles tunes, he changed the lyrics to reflect those beliefs. Now his guitar "gently smiled," and in his life he "loved God more." No one in the audience shouted out what they were feeling, but the sense of betrayal was obvious in their indifferent applause. Beatles songs had made them feel good. Fans remembered where they were the first time they heard each new one, what they were doing, and who was with them. Those memories were important to them, and George's playing fast and loose with Beatles lyrics came across as elitist, and worse, hurtful.
Meanwhile, his already-sore voice grew worse, prompting reviewers to dub the tour Dark Hoarse. He was not always graceful under the pressure. "I don't know how it feels down there," he croaked from the stage of The Forum in Los Angeles, "but from up here you seem pretty dead."
After a performance in California's Long Beach Arena, he wandered alone through the stands, looking down on bulldozers scooping up tons of broken bottles, cigarette butts, discarded shoes, T-shirts, and bras, litter of every kind. Had returning to the stage been the right thing to do?
"Whether they like me or not," he thought, "this is who I am." He remembered a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: We should create and preserve the image of our choice. "The image of my choice is not Beatle George," he thought. "My life belongs to God. That's how I feel." He was here in the world to do spiritual good, and playing the old hits would have been hypocritical. How could he live with himself if he reinforced people's material attachment to nostalgic tunes and images? But was this better-bad reviews and mountains of trash?
Despite adverse circumstances and hostile critics, George pushed on with the tour. "You either go crackers and commit suicide," he told a reporter, or "attach yourself more strongly to an inner strength.. I don't have control over anything. I believe in God, and he is the supreme controller even down to the rehearsal."
His conviction only goaded unsympathetic writers, who insisted on using print space to attack his beliefs. "In defense of his tour and new album," wrote one critic, "George Harrison has argued that if you don't expect anything, life is one big bonus. So expect nothing-is that the moral?" The reviewer went on to accuse him of using the stage to "spread his gospel" and of creating formulaic tunes "as predictable as his spiritual preoccupations."
Musicians, crew, and those who understood George's higher purpose rallied to his side. Resistance was predictable, they told him, from people who were expecting rock-n-roll and never heard a raga before. He tried to see divine purpose in the debacle and reassured them that "the more they try to knock me down the more determined I am." He also accepted responsibility for his choices. "God is fair," he told them. "He's not watching over everybody and saying, 'You did that, so give him a kick in the behind.' It's ourselves get into a mess or get ourselves out."
Publicly, he was a good sport about the all-time low in his career. Privately, he suffered.