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I didn’t find out about George Harrison’s death until the morning after, just as I set out on my drive into work. Stories a few weeks earlier had said he was gravely ill, but the news still came as a surprise. I turned the car around and hurried back to tape something to play for my grade six class. Quick decision: what?
Not surprisingly, all you heard on the radio that morning was “Something” and “My Sweet Lord,” with rock stations veering as far afield as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I like them all, but I knew they weren’t what I wanted the class to hear. I considered the ecstatic chime of “What Is Life” instead, or maybe “I Need You,” one of my two or three favorite Beatles songs. The White Album‘s luminous “Long, Long, Long” was also a possibility.
I chose “Norwegian Wood.” After trying to convey to the students something of the significance of George’s death—that while he wasn’t a colossus like John or Paul, he had been a living Beatle nonetheless, a precious resource in increasingly short supply—I told them that the song they were going to hear wasn’t one of George’s, but his contribution to it was integral, and I thought it stood as his greatest two minutes as a Beatle.
Students have always responded favorably to whatever Beatles music I’ve played in the past, but I wasn’t sure how they’d react to the sheer strangeness of “Norwegian Wood.” Their response was one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced as a teacher. They listened attentively, following along with the lyrics I’d written on the board, and when the song finished—no sentimental exaggeration at all—two or three of them spontaneously began to clap. They stopped just as quickly as they started, undoubtedly feeling a little goofy, but the point had been made. I think, and hope, that those two or three students were thinking they’d never heard anything so quiet, so still, so perfect before.
Brainwashed, the near finished album George left behind, doesn’t contain anything within shouting distance of the career-defining songs mentioned above. It’s a low-key and playful exit, without highs or lows, and, the title track’s indictment of Wall Street notwithstanding, largely detached from events of the day (true of most solo Beatle work—and in architectural terms, George was always just a little more fully detached than the others).
Reviews of Brainwashed have been better than it really warrants, and for that I’m very, very glad—a world not ready to cut some slack for a recently dead Beatle would be a cold place indeed. My own favorites are “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “Rocking Chair in Hawaii,” latest installments of a good joke that goes back to “Behind That Locked Door” from All Things Must Pass: George’s guitar style owes as much to the South Seas as to Elmore James, and if he’s providing backup for anyone wherever he may be right now, it’s for Alfred Apaka, not Elvis or Buddy or John. But listeners hoping for a grand summation of George’s feelings about his old band will have to make do with fragments. The weirdest: the way “five Hail Marys” comes out sounding like “five Hail Murrays” on “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night),” obviously a nod to honorary Beatle Murray the K. The subtlest: the five seconds of “Within You Without You” that George sneaks into “Marwa Blues.” The most resonant fragment of all: the inside booklet’s list of thank-yous, which includes one for Paul and one for Ringo. As the teenage girls used to say, Beatles Forever.