#433: George Harrison, "All Things Must Pass" (1970)

In college, a friend told me I was a “dark horse,” a phrase I thought made me sound very compelling. This label transcended the perception I had of myself: fairly shy, quiet, boring. Or rather, I was interesting to myself—in the way, I suppose, that everyone is—but assumed my reserve came off as dull to others, which in turn made me worry that perhaps I really was dull. I rarely spoke up in public settings and classes, and I didn’t really open up to someone until I felt I could trust them, which usually took a long while. I was unsure sometimes whether my timidity was a hesitancy to speak my mind or if it was a symptom of having nothing to say.I was the sort of person who longed to be spontaneous because I recognized it as a desirable character trait, but struggled going along with last-minute changes in plans. It seemed all my friends were extroverts, and though they often pulled me out of myself, I also occasionally felt lost in the sea of their personalities. All of this to say, it was hard for me to reconcile my shyness with my self: who I knew I was, versus how I felt I must appear.

But maybe what I liked best about being thought of as a “dark horse” was the implication that I could exceed people’s expectations of me—that someday, terrifyingly, I could even blow my own expectations for myself out of the water. And there was something exotic about being the dark horse, so for awhile I used this term as an explanation, as a crutch. Instead of pushing myself to be more open and outspoken, I imagined myself sloshing with rivers of ancient wisdom. I dispensed advice to close friends with worldly sage, trying to lend the impression I had already lived a hundred lives before this one.

The moniker also put me in mind of my favorite Beatle, George Harrison, who was often called the same (and even had an album and a song called Dark Horse, which later led to his eponymous record label). Growing up, I had always identified with George because he was marked the “quiet one,” but maybe this comparison was wishful thinking on my part. I wanted my still waters to run deep without being sure they actually did. Regardless, it was comforting for me to have a shy person to look up to, especially one that was successful. I absorbed the fact that perhaps I could succeed at something I loved, even if I found it unbearable to be in the spotlight.

In popular imagination (or maybe just in my imagination), George was also the wise Beatle, the one who cared more about chasing inner peace than drugs and women.  In an interview with Guitar World, George’s son, Dhani Harrison, talks about a letter George wrote to his mother when he was young:

He was on tour or someplace when he wrote it. It basically says, 'I want to be self-realized. I want to find God. I'm not interested in material things, this world, fameI'm going for the real goal. And I hope you don't worry about me, mum.' He wrote that when he was twenty-four! 

I remember stumbling across that quote when I went through my own teenage Beatles frenzy, four decades after actual Beatlemania, and thinking how wise George was, and consequently, how real. But as I get older, I’m not exactly sure what being wise means. I haven’t really thought about the Beatles in a long time. I still listen to them occasionally, sure, but I haven’t considered them outside of the context of their music the way I did when I was a teenager and obsessively read up on them, so the rather simplistic image I had of George when I was fourteen has been preserved for over a decade: reserved, self-effacing but brilliant, striving toward enlightenment. And then I started doing research for this essay.

A few years ago, Martin Scorsese produced a documentary about George Harrison, and Harrison’s ex-wife Pattie Boyd published a memoir. Between the documentary and the memoir, I find myself, via multiple tabs of Google search, wading through the more unsavory details of George Harrison’s private life. How in his inner circle of friends George wasn’t thought of as shy so much as bitter and cocky; how he cheated on Pattie with Ringo’s wife, Maureen, and how Pattie once returned home to find them locked in the bedroom together. Did I know these sorts of details when I idolized him? I don’t remember. And if I did, why did I overlook them, instead favoring a more flowery and innocent version of Harrison?

It startles me, how upsetting it is to read those details about George’s private life, even when I haven’t actively looked up to him in years. Of course, it’s always discomfiting to find that someone you once idolized is not only imperfect but somewhat abominable. But if I had admired George for his guitar playing or his singing, it would be different. Instead, I admired him for his alleged wisdom, his success despite his shyness, traits which turned out to be much more complicated than they appeared.

During the time of my life that I most identified with George, I also took the most comfort in his lyrics, which told me that everything was impermanent, constantly changing. Listening to “Within You Without You,” for example, temporarily reminded me not to take myself so seriously (“and to realize you’re only very small / and life flows on within you and without you”), though it didn’t do much to make me consider why it was that I took myself so seriously. I actively sought out adages, going to bookstores and flipping through banal quotable cards (“Life is a journey, not a destination”; “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain”) to hang on my wall. In the same way I craved a label such as “dark horse,” I loved platitudes because they made more comprehensible a life I still found overwhelming and roaring in its uncertainty.

The most popular song off Harrison’s solo album All Things Must Pass, a title that is itself a platitude, is “My Sweet Lord,” a song about longing for communion with a higher power. The beauty in this song doesn’t belong to the lyrics (all of which express exactly one sentiment: the desire to be one with God, and the fact that it takes a long time to do so) but in the sound. Or maybe the beauty is in the fact that the melody makes its incredibly mundane lyrics beautiful, which distracts us from the fact that it isn’t saying much at all.

Platitudesand song lyricsthat act as placeholders for deep thinking, designed to placate pain or discomfort, are not bad exactly. But I’d argue they aren’t good either--sometimes discomfort shouldn’t be placated. So: what does it mean to be wise, and does real wisdom actually exist?

I don’t know. The version of me who liked being called a “dark horse” would say yes, because I felt then that wisdom was attainable; it was the only currency I felt I ever had a chance of owning. I thought wisdom could make me interesting to other people, and so I believed in it. But I hadn’t lived long enough and didn’t know anything. (A fact which is still true.)

Is this what George thought, too? That creating around himself a constructed aura of sagacity would help him stand out in the wake of the more colorful, witty duo of John and Paul? Do we always have to bend to other’s perceptions of us? Are we just making shit up as we go?

William James said that “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook,” which I like. It implies a certain meditative quality I think George would embrace: a calm mind in the face of too much information and too many details. But it’s also yet another platitude—in my mind, this quote marches in rainbow-colored text across a white-square card. There is no escape from boiled-down bits of knowledge, advice, guidance. This is because, to communicate knowledge, it must first be put into words, an action which inherently simplifies thought. There can’t be wisdom without simplification.

But of course we can’t have wisdom without recognizing contradictions, either, acknowledging that too often opposing characteristics coexist. Such as the ones in George, the ones in all of us: the public and the private. And sometimes there is no answer for the questions these inconsistencies raise. This is something I couldn’t see when I was younger: that I could be both quiet and loud, introvert and extrovert, successful and a failure, an interesting person yet, like everyone else, alarmingly mediocre. That I could be both a dark horse and one waiting for the light, impatient for the paddock door to open and let me be seen.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt