The Other Stairway to Heaven: the influence of George Harrison in the cult of Beatlemania and beyond, a personal perspective.

Rev., November 28, 2016. Written in dedication to George Harrison on the 15th anniversary of his death.

On the fifteenth anniversary of George Harrison’s death, some further refinements of my sense that he was, for me, the most influential Beatle, which means the one I could identify with the most. Playing a supporting role throughout the heyday, his position in the group seemed to reflect my situation in life as a middle child AND a second born twin, but then the fact that he still managed to interject himself to play a major formative role in the overall evolution of their sound, especially in the arty years after 1966, was one thing about the Beatles that encouraged me, and still amazes me. I say that George Harrison was my first, second, and even third role model, in that his model of playing the guitar influenced me to 1) want to play the guitar; 2) take the guitar to new places (my theory of medium transcendence, see my June, 2013 rmarts posting), and then 3) the spacing out of my guitaring in the early 70s, which took me to interesting places, indeed, though eventually, alas, lead me to get stuck in a cul de sac, and then lose interest. But, from the age of ten to well on the age of 33, the role model of George Harrison guitarist remained my guiding star. It is easy to debate the relative merits of this or this person in a band, especially in a band where there was no weak link, and there seemed to have been a pact to make them share in the power equally, but the truth of any appraisal of who is the best Beatle, or whatever, must be grounded in the path of influence that one or other of them laid down on my life, and the seam of influence-received that I then acted upon, and grew up with. It is easy to say I was a manic Beatlemaniac, from 1963 to 1970, but it is more accurate to say I was a very particular type of Beatlemaniac when it is measured by how they influenced me not just as a fan, but as a person with some creative tendencies. In this note I want to sketch out in the broadest possible way the path by which George Harrison threaded me through Beatlemania to come out the other side a somewhat accomplished guitarist in my early 20s. Since I am not at all a musicologist, but a musician, and tire even of the level of detail you might find on George Harrison’s page on Wikipedia, I will not address these issues in any musicological way, but try to stay honest and true to my experience as a learning-guitarist in the midst of Beatlemania.


And that was the first thing. Within one year of the eruption of Beatlemania in my life, I begged my mom to get me a guitar for Christmas, and she did. She did that because I wanted it, not because she was trying to get me to play violin or whatever, it rose out my Beatlemania, and my enchantment with the guitar work in their songs, and wanting to make it more real by replicating it on my own. For that, it is clear to me, that for me and the Beatles it was always, from the very first, about the guitar. And if it was all about the guitar, though ironically I ended up playing rhythm in the only rock band I ever participated in, it was the lead breaks played by George Harrison that caught my ear and imagination, and hooked me from the beginning, even unto today. I did not understand why lead breaks existed, but I did sense that the 12 bar blues was the basic structure of all pop songs, and that the Beatles were covering some classic rock and roll simply by changing the pace, and adding emotional depth to some of its elements. Without going into it, one element of the classic 12 bar blues song structure that the Beatles excelled at, interjecting intense emotion into it, was the bridge, a section of the song where, after two singings of the verse, you shift to the middle of the key, and play a kind of escapist flight from the regularity of the beat, and float there, as in a hiatus, and then you come back. The Beatles did incredible bridges, were the masters of bridges, and both John and Paul made use of their voices in special new ways, almost to the point, though, sometimes, of Paul crooning, and John screaming, to give to their songs’ bridges a sense of abandon and despair, as the mood called for it, and a real feeling that the song could come apart on you. I have traced out the bridge mastery of the Beatles earlier, but in this note I will say that the lead break, also an inherited, and received trope of the classic 12 bar blues, as if to give the singers a break, and to give the audience one too, from the singing, this too was something that the Beatles decided to intensify by overlaying on it a deeper emotion. In straight up rock and roll, the lead break was just a point where the song was handed to the lead guitarist and he would go off on a riff showing off his skills, it is a conoisseurs’ interjection, to remind us that deep down all of this rock and roll stuff was fueled by the guitar and the guitar alone. But right away, just as the Beatles were deepening the bridge, so too Harrison decided to deepen and intensify the lead break. His breaks were never show-offy, though, so what was he up to? The breaks were not just about him showing off on his guitar with some fancy licks, he subordinated his lead breaks to the song, but, then, miraculously, by as it were letting the song speak for itself during the vocal pause he spoke to the architecture of the song, and expressed it in a stately, even majestic way that gave structure to the song that was entirely new. I can’t even tell you the number of early Beatles songs that, were it not for their architecture, their structured purity, would only have come off as OK (the structure of Beatles songs helped them greatly in live performances where, in spite of endless problems with sound equipment, and proper modulation of harmonizing, the live performances always strike you as real because they have a locked in structure that nothing can damage). What I mean by architecture is that the song was a 12 bar blues, it had a structure that had a deep psychological power, that’s why it emerged in the blues, the lament, the repeat of it, the sighing deferral, then the airy oh what the hell of the lead break, and then to return to it, more intensely, to wrap up and make a closing statement. Lesser artists just ran it through, but the Beatles nuanced the lead in, the breaks, the returns, and even the final statements, and fade outs, in a whole new way, with a whole new artistry. And in the middle of it, Harrison’s breaks, either imitating the vocal, or elevating the vocal in key or range, or counterpointing it, in amazingly subtle ways, he drew out the sighs or regrets or second thoughts under the vocal, and let the mind of the listener rest in those spaces between the vocal and his break, and then once that kind of mental relief was provided, he would return you. Sometimes the song would return from the lead break to repeat the bridge, in other songs, it would return to the verse, but it would always return in a new spirit, either of revival, or emphatic determination, the emotions that were laid out in the thesis part of the song, now being stated again, much more forcefully. By carefully leading the verse from stage one to stage two Harrison’s lead breaks were architectural, by summing up the song in a kind of instrumental condensation of it all, Harrison’s lead breaks were architectural, and by entertaining counterpoints that filled out the full range of possibility in terms of the emotion in the song or the tune, Harrisons breaks were architectural. In their simplicity, so often underestimated, in their beauty, also ignored, in the dazzling economy and amazing harmonizing, Harrison became, for me at least, the master of the lead break, and the greatest architectural lead break guitarist in the lead break era. It is in inspiring me to want to play the guitar, and, more than that, to play HIS lead breaks, to understand how he did it, how he got that sound (and I never quite did, the Rickenbacher, of course, was beyond my range, that twangy sound remains pure aural nectar to me), George Harrison was my first role model, in giving shape the my particular path of devotion through Beatlemania.

But then, there is a second reason why George Harrison became my role model as a guitarist. Because as early as the Rubber Soul album, but certainly in Revolver, and on, he sought to move past the limitations of the guitar as an instrument played, and stop playing the guitar, but play….music. And in this, he sought to transcend the guitar, or, if you prefer a less formalist language, to greatly expand its vocabulary, so that the guitar could do things instrument-wise it had never done before, and was never made to do. Let’s face it, and I know this from hours in Catholic guitar masses in the 60s, the straight strummed guitar can get pretty boring, it can get so monotonous that one is likely to just surrender to its limitations, and stay put. But Harrison had another idea. It started with the lead break, at some point, which I will have to work out, he began to do something MORE with the break, he began to change the voice of the guitar. This lead both to the inclusion of clavier and organ and piano lead breaks, to broaden the range (Lennon and McCartney playing a lot of these), but also, from George, to the sitar, which he was only ever interested in as a transcendent form of the guitar, he explored it and its possibilities in terms of stringing and sound to see where he could take the guitar. He introduced not only the sitar, but then it backtracked over his guitar work to influence it to try to speak in a clearer voice in an instrument-transcending. This started in Rubber Soul, and it continued on through the great albums to follow. It is a wonderful thing to hear happen, and for me it was the PRIMARY site of the development and deepening of the Beatles’ music in 1966 and after. That is, it was not simply that John and Paul were deepening their talents (Paul especially growing leaps and bounds in songwriting ability), but George’s playing with the guitar, to try to see how he might, while still playing the guitar, transcend it, this was ground zero of Beatles music at the time, the primary focus of my interest in and amazement at them, so during the period of the ascension to true art, from pop music, George Harrison’s guitar work was at the central of this drive. In addition to using other instruments to expand the range of the lead break, Harrison also enriched the basic lead break by realizing more deeply, an insight he must have got from sitar, that he could give VOICE to his lead breaks, and that as a result they were VOICED as actual human voices, and he was singing in the song with his guitar. This voiced lead break began to emerge in 1966 as well, and it became a second element of the growth of guitarwork that is little appreciated. From then on, his guitaring is much more richly voiced, with tone and nuance, and he can feel that with the guitar he is singing along, or dueting with the lead singing. This lead to two more developments, he developed a riff that he would play under the verse, and then let it break out in the lead break, and then after the lead break he and the singing of the song would in fact basically engage in a duet. This happens, for example, in And Your Bird Can Sing, a simple song with an amazing amount of difficult guitar work of this sort. The exchange between underplayed accompaniment and the surfacing lead break added greatly to the guitar quality of later songs. And then there was a third consequence of this, he developed the lead guitar that ONLY enters the song at about two minutes in, and becomes the very voice of transcendence, taking the song to a whole new level. This is my favorite type of leadbreak-takeover device in Harrison’s guitar work, and you can hear it best in Let it Be, where the big booming voice of god comes in at two minutes, and, even more so, in She’s So Heavy, where it literally is the whooshing voice of the dark universe, taking over the whole last half of the song. This voicing of course was not invented by Harrison: in standard rock and roll and blues, BB King, Elvis Presley, it was also quite clear that the singer and the guitarist (Elvis and Scottie Moore, RIP) were engaged in a back and forth call and response duet with each other. But Harrison embedded this in the structure of the song itself, not in the space between singer and guitarist, and made the whole song, through the guitar, respond to the song, tying it all together with a new organicism that was something to hear, and largely responsible for the “manic” response to their early music. It is as the master of voicing the guitar, in the middle years, that George Harrison became my role model for a second time, guiding my guitaring.

Finally, there is transcendence of medium as an end in itself. It is clear that at some point Harrison realized that in order to do great things with the guitar he would have to transcend the limitations of the instrument once and for all. As a result, he quickly moved past just playing the guitar with mastery, to a metaphorical level of playing the guitar, trying to get effects by way of striking strings, or whatever, that recreated on the guitar various other noises, I have detected a programmatic desire to imitate traffic, doors slamming, cars crashing, etc etc., this accounts early for the strange syncopated nature of his jerky lead breaks (Honey Don’t), but also for the overall metaphorical depth of his later playing, imitating all sorts of sounds (the idea is playing the guitar while in the mind you are trying to imitate a jet plane changes the way you play the guitar, drawing out new sounds, I am speaking figuratively, not literally here). And then, having reached the metaphorical stage, he went for absolute transcendence, which he found with the sitar and its influence, and with sitar inspired song, but others would find with attempts to metaphorically recreate on the guitar the noise or static at the end of the universe, and the like. (My simple model for medium transcendence I have laid out before, simple rubric, just listen to three songs by the Byrds, Mr. Tambourine Man, technical mastery, Turn, Turn, Turn, metaphorical guitar playing, and Eight Miles High, absolute guitar transcendence, while still on the guitar). But in this model, I see transcendence as still happening in the guitar, there is also an end beyond it, and that takes us to the last role model Harrison.

I know that there is a simple model that lead breaks in the early 60s were structurally simple, and then later on the guitarists took over and began to indulge in extravagant song-stopping lead breaks, but this impulse is much more instrument-related, the seeking of transcendence, it was all over the air waves in 1966, Dylan’s switch to electric, the Doors Light my Fire’s lead break forever and ever, then the Byrds were basically mined in imitation of the Beatles but, in my fashion, no wonder I like them so much, directly imitating and expanding on George Harrison’s drive to take the guitar to different places. This drive to transcendence of course also was picked up by Eric Clapton, and certainly his wailing guitar way in the background of the final part of the long instrumental section of Layla is his pounding on the gates of heaven with his guitar. By this model, then, it is from this third effort that my guitaring sought for post-Beatle models in Neil Young, in Chicago, and in other groups who took the guitar to new places. My playlist basically is all about post-Beatle George Harrison musing on where to take the guitar. In the seam of this influence, things got very spacey. I will call it spaced-out post-transcendence. I used to have a model of how the spaciness developed, play a simple 12 bar blues, in a bluesy way; then play it with picking or whatever, more folky, and then finger to the high frets and play it spacey and wide and let it go, up into outer space. This was the primary post-Beatle influence, no doubt catapulted to that place by the late Beatle albums, which on one level could be seen as attempts to replace the guitar with studio orchestration but which I viewed as all part of a drive of instrument transcendence. I even played the harmonic parts in Neil Young’s Heart of Gold as a finger-picked lead break; and I also had mastered the crazy violin effect of the final crescendo of A Day in the Life. It could be said that the crescendo effects of Day in the Life, in fact, though not by George, had a profound exiting strategy influence on my guitaring. I was so enamored of the buzzsaw strumming I had to do to get that sound that I began to try to play all songs in the buzzsaw manner, and then even flipped it so that the buzzsaw was my ONLY method of strumming, and then that itself creating a sort of pure transcendent sound, I just drizzled in over the top whole fingering of songs in staccato bursts of inferences of the song way at the end of the universe of the buzzsawing, nothing but interference at the end of the universe (and which I can only reproduce on a recording in the spaz-guitaring that the Byrds did in the beginning of the lead break for Eight Miles High on my left hand counterpointed, off cinque, to the buzzsawing of my right hand). I called it junk rock, and played it a lot. It was fun, my own style of rock music, and, I believe, still unimitated. This was enhanced by deep study of the modes of Greek music, and it has amused me in recent years to learn that Harrison was also experimenting with getting different sounds by using the various modes, Dorian, Ionian etc (I did not know this at the time, I have not been able to recreate how I came to them); this wonderful period, since I looked up what this words meant, also lead to a deep study of Greek mythology, and then too I got the idea of just superimposing regardless of sound maps of the constellations or other shapes onto the keyboard, and by that counterlogic also developed another flank of junk rock for my own private delectation. All of this was watered in the fountain of George Harrison’s drive to transcend the guitar. It was along this path that I not only bought a twelve-string guitar, which I loved, and which, by itself, sounded more like a harp than a guitar; and also a Glen Campbell plastic bow back, which also to me had a different sound (I still have them both, but the 12 string is broken). It was in the context of this development that all my literary and poetic studies also flourished, a wonderful intellectual part of my life. Problem was, it all took place alone, in my basement, without an amplifier on an electric guitar, and I never was able to ever break out of that cul de sac, meaning that over time that cul de sac became a cult of secrecy and then closed in over me as a dead end which eventually choked my guitaring and life to its death, as it had come to provide me no support in making a living, or forming a life based on it (by this point I had become very cynical about my more professional or mainstream playing, and when asked to play Classical Gas again, which I mastered in 1965, I would move my hand like the needle and arm on an old record player, ha ha). Still, though, in this regard I have to be somewhat bittersweet about this post-Beatle influence of George Harrison on my guitaring, this was my culture, it was a terrific, creative time, and he was its presiding god. And then it all ended.

All in all, then, this was my path through the Beatles, and leading all the way was George Harrison. As role model one, he got me to play the guitar, and devote more than 13 years of my life to it; as role model two, in the Beatles rising-to-art phase, he coaxed me to find a way to interject voice into the guitar, and truly play music, not just an instrument, an instrument, that is, transcending itself; and as role model three, in the late and post-Beatle phase, he was the guru behind the strange mania that overtook guitarists in the late 60s and early 70s, we set foot on the stairway to heaven, and wanted to climb it to the top, by way of the guitar, we wanted total instrument transcendence, to spaces beyond, while still playing the guitar we loved so much. While this last episode became in the end a dead end to my guitaring, it was in the crucible of that strange mania that my sense of what art is, and what art can be and do, was born, and its lessons have stayed with me for my entire adult life. Therefore, on this the fifteenth anniversary of his death, I again assert, but most particularly from my deeply personal point of view, that George Harrison was by far the greatest and most influential guitarist of my generation, and certainly the artist who had the most direct and real life-changing influence on my life in creative matters in the years of my coming of age.

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