Saturday, May 26, 2018
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George Harrison's journey of the spirit

George Harrison and Joshua Greene's paths intersected purely by chance 36 years ago in London, when the Beatle decided to record an album of Sanskrit hymns.

Greene was in his late teens on summer break from college and touring Europe when he fell in with a group of Krishna devotees for reasons that at the time were as much social as spiritual. And it just so happened that Harrison also was exploring Eastern religions and meditation, hooking up with American Krishnas who were attempting to establish a temple in London.

"The mood was experimentation," Greene said in a phone interview. "We thought nothing of moving out of the familiar world into the unfamiliar world, and what greater inducement than a world populated by a Beatle and the exotic allure of India?"

Because he knew how to play keyboards, Greene found himself in EMI studios playing backup while the devotees chanted and Harrison - who impressed the young American with his friendliness and strong work ethic - played guitar. That summer was the last Greene, who now teaches religion at Hofstra University on Long Island, saw of the ex-Beatle as he drifted off on a spiritual journey that would in some ways mirror Harrison's.

Now he's written a book - Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison (Wiley, $25.95) - that may have found the one biographical stone regarding any of the Beatles that has yet to be turned over. Harrison, whose 63rd birthday would have been yesterday, was as public about his religious beliefs as any pop star ever, but there was always something mysterious about the whole thing.

Could George Harrison really be that spiritual? And, especially in the late '60s, dragging the rest of the Beatles along with him on a journey to India to practice with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, it seemed a bit too faddish.

When first Ringo Starr, and then Paul McCartney, and finally John Lennon bailed on the trip for various reasons, it seemed to be further proof that rock and religion don't mix.

Except that Harrison really was that spiritual, and rather than stop his pursuit of what he called "God-consciousness" in the face of withering criticism from fans and friends, he pushed forward for the rest of his life, chanting, meditating, and devoutly studying the Hindu texts.

He was at the peak of his popularity both as a Beatle and a songwriter; his "Something" from the "Abbey Road" album achieved the sort of chart success that seemed reserved for Lennon and McCartney. He was the first member of the band to release a proper solo album that was a huge commercial and critical success, the ambitious three-album set "All Things Must Pass."

Harrison also was unique among The Beatles because he was the first to recognize that the intense adulation that came with being a pop star was ultimately stifling, both creatively and personally. He was more interested in looking within, and when he first heard the music of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar in the mid-60s, his path was clear.

"He's at the top of the material mountain and he's saying to himself, 'There's got to be something more to this,'" Greene said.

So at the risk of alienating his legions of fans, Harrison spent his time hanging around with Krishna devotees - funding the first temple in Great Britain - and wrestling with the fact that no matter how wealthy and famous he had become, something always seemed to be missing.

"As influential as he was in the music industry, as powerful as his outreach may have been, all of it paled by comparison with the strength he derived from his meditative practices," Greene said. "At an early age George recognized the true self within is where our true powers lie. Once you reach that place, that will never fail you. The rest of it can be taken away in an instant, whether by harsh critics, fickle fans, two-timing friends."

Greene's book spends the bulk of its narrative looking at Harrison's life through the lens of his religion. There are long passages about his meetings with fellows with names like Shyamsundar and Prabhupada, and not much about friends with names like Dylan and Clapton and Starr. References are made to Clapton's famous affair with Harrison's first wife, Pattie Boyd, but they're the same ones you see in other biographies of the ex-Beatle.

Greene said the decision to pay scant attention to the more salacious aspects of Harrison's life - like his long history of drug abuse, which is mentioned only in passing - is explained by his mission in writing the book.

"I felt a responsibility to George that if I was going to presume to describe some point of his inner life I was going to do it with some integrity," Greene said, adding that his subject was by no means a saint. "George was not some avatar, he was a human being. He also was a rocker, a pop star, and that's a rugged life."

Which gets to the core of Here Comes the Sun: how a wildly popular rock musician balanced the needs of the material world with those of his "inner life." Harrison could have anything he wanted - the fastest cars, the most beautiful women, riches beyond description - but most of his adult life was spent in a quest for something that could only be found within.

That search took him places no other rock stars had been. He was the first musician to stage a major benefit show, The Concert for Bangladesh, which featured Clapton, Bob Dylan, Starr, and others to raise money for flood victims in Bangladesh. He was the first superstar to openly declare his religious views, paving the way for his buddy, Dylan, and even modern rockers like U2 to express their faith without fear of commercial reprisal.

Greene, 55, said his mission was to explore how Harrison's deep spiritual grounding affected his life as both a pop star and a man.

"This is a portrait. It's not meant to be an encompassing biography," he said. "The lens I chose to tell this story through is as a fellow Krishna devotee; as someone who shares our loving relationship with God."

The author spent 13 years in Hindu ashrams (retreats) in the '70s before emerging to write books, make documentary films (which have been adapted by PBS and the Discovery Channel) and teaching a class called Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest at Hofstra.

"The thread through all that being journeys to enlightenment," he said.

He said he kept track of Harrison's own journeys through mutual friends who practiced and meditated with the musician or just hung out with him, but beyond that one summer he never saw him in person again.

Of course the question is inevitable: when he was spending time with Harrison, what kind of a guy was he?

"If you talked to him like a human being, he was there. As soon as you addressed him as a Beatle or superstar, he walked away. You learned quickly that that was not the way to be with him," Greene said. "The reason he was so comfortable to be around Krishna devotees is that we never dealt with that superstar thing. We just wanted to serve him and his spiritual interests and we never asked him for anything."

Greene said reaction from the book has ranged from Beatleophiles who criticize him for having certain dates wrong, to praise for shedding new light on an old subject.

He said his mission ultimately was to clarify the message that Harrison tried to spread regarding the search for spiritual clarity. When he died of cancer in 2001, Harrison was a man at peace with himself and the world around him, Greene said.

"As you mature and ripen in your spiritual practices you realize that the world will not be transformed by proselytizing. The path to peace is one led by example. And so as he matured, George took that inside and worked on himself. And I think that example he left us is as inspiring a legacy as his music."

Contact Rod Lockwood at: or 419-724-6159.

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