I recently watched the two parts of Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese's portrait of George Harrison, on the BBC iPlayer. Not out of any great interest -- apart from a couple of years in my early teens, the Beatles' music has never had much resonance for me, and I can't say I've knowingly heard a George Harrison album ever in my life. I used to find the Rolling Stones much more interesting (that is, until their only subject became their own descent into sleaze). But I can't resist any programme that incorporates vintage footage and interviews with aging musical celebrities.
I was particularly struck by a sequence where Lennon and Harrison are guests on one of those hyper-serious chat shows that have since vanished from the airwaves. I presume the theme was something like, what should we make of the spray-on "Eastern spirituality" that has infected some strands of pop of late? (maybe the programme was billed as "From Satire to Sitar"?) The two Beatles seem to have been summoned to appear before an invited audience of the intellectual and bien-pensant establishment, in order to explain themselves. Although, this is only an "audience" in the sense of the seating arrangement -- these people are certainly not there to listen to anyone. In fact, they behave like hospital consultants invited to discuss an interesting pathology, as displayed by the baffled pair on stage.
John Mortimer (one of those annoying upper class rebels, the archetypal "champagne socialist") and the guy seated near him (whom I feel I ought to have recognised, but didn't) are shown giving free vent to their theories on "Mr. Harrison" and his wacky Eastern ideas, all expressed in the most preposterously patrician tones imaginable. It's outrageous. Nobody speaks like that any more. You almost expect one of them to get up and poke John or George with a stick.
The main effect of their torrent of fruity verbiage, of course, is to establish a barrier: on this side we are serious, educated, well-informed, articulate people, with considered opinions, worthy of attention. On that side of the barrier you are, intellectually, objects, never subjects. You people over there may, in medical terminology, "present" interesting and even sympathetic behaviours, but you can never be expected to understand or express them yourselves. That's our job.
How very 1960s. Particularly British, too, I thought, was the fact that John and George -- a couple of streetwise scallies who had lucked out, big time, but ended up defining the zeitgeist -- were actually putting up with this treatment without verbally decking anybody. It appeared they knew their place, although it's clear from their faces that they weren't happy about it. It seemed a long way from the scene in the train carriage in A Hard Day's Night ("I fought the War for your sort!" "I bet you're sorry you won, now"). But then, I don't suppose they wrote that.
The irony is that Lennon and Harrison were pioneers of a New Aristocracy, and really didn't need to take any crap from those pompous schoolboy bores any more. Mortimer and Co. simply hadn't yet heard the news. But, if the evidence of this film is to be believed, global fame had already turned into a global prison for them, within which even prodigious wealth had become prodigious boredom. It seems no matter how you played it, mean-and-moody or eager-to-please, you ended up having to live in a stratospheric gated VIP lounge way above the wordy bleatings of the media, but -- more sadly -- also way, way above the world of the fans who put you there, but whose dangerous devotion was a constant threat to your safety.
No wonder Harrison eventually turned away, and took to either hanging out with congenial members of those other aristocracies in showbiz, motor racing, and the film world, or gardening and obsessively re-landscaping his estate at Friar Park. Not that it brought him safety, any more than it did John Lennon. A lunatic with a knife was able to penetrate into this sanctuary, and Harrison was probably only saved by the bravery of his gutsy wife.
George Harrison was clearly a man obsessed by death, or more precisely, by the "spiritual" preparations for leaving one's life with equanimity. Yet, in the film, Tom Petty reveals that Harrison's surprising message to him on the death of fellow "Travelling Wilbury" Roy Orbison was, "Aren't you glad it wasn't you?" Elsewhere, I read that Petty's message to Harrison after his stabbing was, "Aren't you glad you married a Mexican woman?"
Frankly, my takeaway message from the film was, "Aren't you glad you're not a massively successful and wealthy rock star?" Something we all need reminding of from time to time. As Keith Richards is often quoted as saying: I do all this stuff so you don't have to. Thanks, Keith.