Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Inner Light

Ravi Shankar: April 7, 1920-December 11, 2012
Robert Bunter: After George went to India and became obsessed with Eastern music and spiritual thought, he found a few different ways to integrate these sounds and ideas into his work with the Beatles. Sometimes, as on “Norwegian Wood,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Getting Better,” he would incorporate a subtle whiff of curry-flavored instrumental sounds into stellar Lennon/McCartney tracks. This was the most successful approach, in this listener’s opinion. The zangy, tangy, boingy sounds of sitars and sarods colored the canvas with shades of freaky novelty, as well as the solemn dignity of cultural traditions that are thousands of millions (?) of years old, without overwhelming the freshness and accessibility of the material. On other songs, George would use regular rock instrumentation (or at least regular for the Beatles – mellotrons, tape loops and session players) on songs that had an Indian influence in their songwriting aesthetic. I’m thinking of “Blue Jay Way,” “Long Long Long” and “It’s All Too Much” with their lengthy running times, static chord drones and non-Western melodic intervals. Great stuff, love it, yes please … though few would rank them among the group’s best. Finally, there are “Love You To,” “Within You Without You” and “The Inner Light,” where George dropped all the subtlety and went for full-tilt Indian ragatude. With the same clownish minstrel-show flatulence of Alvin Lee “singing the blues” or McCartney “getting into a bit of a reggae area” with “C-Moon,” George dons an imported peasant monk’s robe that probably cost a million pounds at Gloanburg’s Exotic Boutique on Carnaby Street, paints a dot on his head (not even correct, they actually do that in Indonesia, not India), and embarrasses himself and everyone else with a bunch of trite, fortune cookie platitudes and blatant cultural appropriation. The real guys study for thousands of years to write and play this music and this simple Liverpool bus-driver’s son thinks he can grasp the essence after a few sessions with Ravi in the Kinfauns drawing room? Get the hell out of here.

Richard Furnstein: "The Inner Light" is truly one of the most delightful and unexpected treasures in The Beatles catalog. Like finding a cardamom pod nestled in the pillowy saffron rice of your grandmother's kheer, George's solemn treatise provides some necessary mindthought to the light (Paul) and dark (John) forces of the world. Realizing his own limitations at the raga craft, George enlisted some of India's finest session musicians to lay down the track for "The Inner Light" along with much of the "world music" filler on the Wonderwall soundtrack. As a result, the familiar tones of John, Paul, George, and Ringo were replaced with the expert, rich flavors of new faces Aashish, Mahapurush, Hanuman, Hariprasad, and Rijram. Oh, how they probably laughed at George's novelty explorations of their music and culture. They probably plunked the elementary riff from "Norwegian Wood" every time he left the studio. Yet, they had a clear mission that day: to restore the Western man's spiritual balance and to illuminate the limitless possibilities of the human mind. The traditional Indian instruments (sarod, pakhavaj, shehani, bansuri, and harmonium) were merely a conduit to reach the inner peace suggested at George's optimistic prose.

Robert Bunter: Who would have thought that a Beatle could enter Nirvana? Let me tell you about Eastern thought. All the great texts, scriptures, sutras, koans, hymns and verses say the same thing, over and over again – the Ultimate Truth lies beyond mere words and rational thought, so you’re not going to find the answer in any text, scripture, sutra, koan, hymn or verse. I’ll tell you another place you’re not going to find it: on the flipside of “Lady Madonna” or, god help us, on the putrid monument to missed opportunity that is the 1980 Capitol “Rarities” compilation. This song exemplifies the phony, holier-than-thou ego-tripping that lay behind so much of the Me Generation’s pathetic spiritual dabbling. “Isn’t it great how I have transcended the Ego? If only you could be like ME and become enlightened. It’s so great to be egoless and serve the Lord. What a shame you have yet to reach MY level of mental development.” Lao Tze was the one who said, “He who knows does not say, and he who says does not know.” So why did he say it? If only there was a time machine and I could be present at that wonderful session. Surely Rijram and I would have shared a hearty chortle at the misguided floundering of “The Inner Light” because he would recognize that I, Robert Bunter, truly understand what the Indian mindspace is all about. Then we could have convinced them to scrap the whole session and put “What’s The New Mary Jane” on the “Lady Madonna” b-side. Let’s get OUT there and do something really experimental, Beatles. Outside the damn box. Yeah! Whooo-whee! SHAKE IT!


George dons an imported peasant monk’s robe that probably cost a million pounds at Gloanburg’s Exotic Boutique on Carnaby Street, paints a dot on his head, and embarrasses himself and everyone else with a bunch of trite, fortune cookie platitudes and blatant cultural appropriation.
Richard Furnstein: I'm confused. Are you using the time machine to stop by The White Album mixing sessions to grab the acetate for "What's The New Mary Jane" before you visit Rijram & Company at EMI Studios in Bombay? I hope you filled up the time machine with fuel, pal.

Surely you are right about the privileged escapism of George's initial hollow explorations into India's music, fashion, culture, and religion. George's attempts to fuse his love of Carl Perkins (the Brahma to a young George Harrison) with his new sensation were obviously clumsy (although I would argue that "Love You To" is a brilliant blend). I think he was successful in his overall goals. The "arrive without traveling" referenced in "The Inner Light" could have pointed to a progression to global concerns. This may be empty hope that The Beatles did more than just introduce nag champa, loose fitting white collarless shirts, and complicated sex positions to their gullible audience. George later proved himself to the doubting Rijrams of the world through the Bangladesh fundraiser, a lifelong friendship with his spirit guide Ravi Shankar, and his brilliant b-side for the Ronnie Spector/Phil Spector/George Harrison one off single "Try Some, Buy Some" b/w "Tandoori Chicken." I'm sure those jaded and flatulent session musicians later looked at George not as a cultural invader but as a bridge between their honored traditions and the gaudy and godless Western world. Indeed, the oft referenced Rijram Desad would later provide percussion and strings on George Harrison and Ravi Shankar's 1974 tour for the Dark Horse album. Can you imagine the wild times that this traveling circus had touring under-attended hockey stadiums throughout North America?

Robert Bunter: Yes, I can imagine it: backstage at Madison Square Garden, 1974. You can lightly hear the strains of Splinter’s debut album (produced by George and released on his then-new Dark Horse vanity label) over the PA system in the half-empty stadium; the confused fans are wondering why George’s new album doesn’t sound anywhere near this good. The dhorkti paste and naan crisps are starting to congeal on the hospitality tray as Rijram and the other Indian musicians attempt to meditate and practice their scales. They’re not having much luck, however, because here comes Billy Preston! He’s dressed outrageously in a sequined jumpsuit and his million-watt smile beams infectiously under his broad Afro-natural hairstyle. He’s dancing and clapping his hands in a merry dance but all of a sudden he slips on a plate of ghoon cubes and tumbles face-first into the lap of Ghovanda’s sari and the whole hospitality tray comes crashing down. George, who is pale, underweight and yellow with jaundice looks up from his diseased black Stratocaster and tries to lighten the mood with a pun (“I guess love means never having to save your sari”) but no one can hear him because his voice is utterly destroyed. No wonder the reviewers called this album and tour “Dark Hoarse.”

Richard Furnstein: Happier times, to be sure. Let's all send our love emotions out to the dear departed Ravi Shankar and his friends and family. He is now in a better place, visiting with all of his dear friends: George Harrison, John Lennon, Brian Epstein, Linda McCartney, Mal Evans, Klaus Vormann, Stuart Sutcliffe, Neil Aspinall, and, yes, even the exuberant Billy Preston. Remember this ancient mantra, friends:

If you believe in forever 
Then life is just a one-night stand 
If there's a rock and roll heaven 
Well you know they've got a hell of a band, band, band. 

Robert Bunter: What a beautiful vision. I'm sure they are all together in Heaven. Or else they all were reincarnated into snakes, common baboons, or other land beasts.

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