Marking the twentieth anniversary of George Harrison’s death last week, I recalled a line from an obituary I read at the time—something that’s stuck with me for years. I knew it had the word “subtract” in it, so I went to the source, and searched for the term. And there it was, in all its brutality, and slightly more bitter than I remembered:
Harrison’s death, however premature, feels different [from John Lennon’s]. It is more in the ordinary course of things, a reminder that the simple passage of time is all that will be needed to complete the work that Mark David Chapman [Lennon’s assassin] began, subtracting the Beatles from the world.
The author goes on to say that Harrison’s death occurred in a season of loss, in the midst of mourning and war. “We have seen things pass,” he says. “We listen to his song differently now, cherishing it as a warning against old complacencies and a promise that the darkness of this moment too shall pass.”
I was a young man when I read that—too young to remember Lennon’s death—but I appreciated the aging of the Beatles as a near-universal reminder of our mortality. I also considered myself sophisticated for appreciating Harrison’s music the most out of all the Beatles. It may have something to do with the fact that his solo career peaked at the perfect time for me, with his hit “Got My Mind Set On You” and his collaboration with The Traveling Wilburys.
I have also enjoyed learning about Harrison’s surprising influence on some of the formative popular culture of my youth. Accurately or not, Harrison is regarded as the shy and quiet Beatle, the one who was the most reluctant to be remembered for his work with the most famous rock band ever. His time with the Beatles ended when he was only 27 years old, which accelerated a period of wandering and discovery for him. Wealthy, famous, young, intensely curious about philosophy (Eastern traditions in particular), and blessed with a mischievous sense of humor, Harrison used those years to explore (and sometimes stumble into) new areas of art, and to encourage and support other artists. A few unexpected examples arise from this journey, illustrating Harrison’s willingness to engage with the fantastical, while maintaining a sober awareness of how unfair the world can be, and how the things we build will eventually decay. On one occasion, Harrison’s lyrics even helped to inspire one of the most beloved works of science fiction ever.
Yellow Submarine (1968)
As is the case with so many Beatles works, Harrison’s contributions are limited for this acclaimed animated feature. Here, only one song written by Harrison appears: the easily forgotten “Only a Northern Song.” Moreover, the Beatles’ actual involvement with the movie was minimal, with the non-singing voicework completed by actors. Harrison himself said that this is one of the reasons why he liked the film so much. Still, Yellow Submarine, along with the Beatles cartoon and the madcap films Help!, A Hard Days’ Night, and Magical Mystery Tour, helped to solidify the whimsical, fantastical reputation of their music. Both in its tone and its surreal imagery, Yellow Submarine is similar to the bonkers cartoons of Monty Python, often placing proper British stereotypes in dreamlike scenarios, where they are either astonished or simply roll with it. Which brings us, of course, to…
Life of Brian (1979)
By the end of the 1970s, the Beatles had been broken up for nearly a decade. Ringo Starr had produced an odd musical-comedy-horror movie called Son of Dracula, for which Harrison wrote the song “Daybreak.” A musical version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1978, and while I cannot recommend you watch it, it does have to be seen to be believed. Around that time, the Monty Python crew had just lost the funding for their parody of the life of Jesus—the script was simply too blasphemous. Harrison, a good friend of Python member Eric Idle*, offered to finance the film, and even took out a loan on his house to raise the money. In a hilarious conversation retold in the documentary Almost the Truth, Harrison says in a deadpan voice, “I just wanted to see the film.” As executive producer, he paid for what Idle called the most expensive movie ticket in cinematic history.
Life of Brian is more than a mere parody. It is a scorching critique of tribalism and superstition that bends genres to the point where the sudden arrival of a spaceship piloted by cyclopean aliens seems completely normal. In a scene that is both intentionally and unintentionally hilarious, Harrison appears among the Jewish freedom fighters, jostled about in a crowd. I remember watching this at a young age and triumphantly shouting “That’s George Harrison!” (right before smugly explaining who he was to the few friends who didn’t already know). If you fixate on his confused expression for those few seconds, I promise you will laugh.
The studio that Harrison helped to establish, HandMade Films, went on to create a number of category-defying movies over the next decade, many of which included his music in their soundtracks. And arguably the best of these was…
Time Bandits (1981)
Time Bandits is one of those films for which I am an evangelist, and I love explaining the premise to people who have yet to discover its magic. The plot involves a team of troublemakers who steal God’s map of the universe, using it to plunder various points in history, from ancient times to the distant future. But in many ways, it is a meditation on the absurdity of life, the unfairness of death, and the relentless march of evil. Though Harrison is not credited as a writer, as producer he must have appreciated how all of this madness is viewed through the eyes of a child. Much like Harrison’s own personal journey, the unprepared and bewildered hero must force himself to process the chaos around him, while still maintaining his basic humanity.
Nothing illustrates this better than the ambiguous ending. While Life of Brian closes with an image of people whistling as they’re being crucified, Time Bandits goes even bleaker, leaving us to wonder what the point of it all was. In the aftermath, the camera zooms out, farther and farther. A pair of hands rolls up a map of the universe, cueing the start of Harrison’s peppy theme song “Dream Away.” We get the impression that the child hero has grown up; he understands that his place in the world is small, but that there is still joy, and still so much to learn. (That’s my interpretation, anyway.)
“The Inner Light” (1992)
Considered by many to be the best ever episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Inner Light” is directly based on a song by Harrison, which itself was inspired by the Tao Te Ching. The lyrics celebrate Harrison’s experiences with meditation, suggesting that this practice enables him to explore the world in ways that mere travel cannot provide.
Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth.
Without looking out of my window
I can know the ways of heaven.
Script writer Morgan Gendel uses this idea in the most literal sense. In his episode, the discovery of a mysterious probe sends Captain Picard into a dreamlike state, in which he lives another man’s life for decades. Picard, a loyal Federation man with no family, discovers a side of himself he never knew. In this simulated world, he is a husband, a father, a musician, and a concerned citizen of a tight-knit community. The themes of identity, memory, grief, exploration, and transformation are too profound for this essay. I’ll just say that Jean-Luc Picard learning to play the flute remains one of the most poignant moments in the Star Trek canon.
All Things Must Pass…
Gendel’s homage to “The Inner Light” brings me back to the lesson in mortality that started this essay. For the life of me, I could not find any information about what Harrison may have thought about the episode. In a 2013 interview on the official Star Trek website, Gendel says that he was (and may still be) trying to find out.
I often wonder if Jay Chattaway’s superb “Inner Light Theme” [Picard’s flute music] ever came to the attention of George Harrison, who wrote the little-known Beatles song for which I named the episode. The lyrics are so apt, it’s like some sort of artsy Mobius strip, song leading to story leading to song in one unbroken sequence. If you Google “Inner Light + song” you’ll get the Beatles tune and an acknowledgment of my TNG homage to it back-to-back. Don’t tell anyone but that might be the best gift my authorship of this episode has given me.
To anyone who can solve this mystery, I’ll buy you a drink.
I keep stubbornly thinking: well, can’t someone just ask him? After all, isn’t the shy, quiet Beatle perpetually young in our memory? But Harrison left us less than a decade after the episode aired. Still, the power and vision of that song remains. In 2020, the Material World Foundation, founded by Harrison, staged the Inner Light Challenge to raise money for a COVID-19 relief fund.
Harrison’s music still pops up in soundtracks for SFF films, most recently in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and, of course, Yesterday. As I wrote about Freddie Mercury, I’m left to wonder what could have been, what other strange projects that a curious (or bored) Harrison could have started, or stumbled into. In moments like this, I can’t help but think of the absurdity and the unfairness he sang about. But I’m also reminded of his acceptance that things change and fall apart, leaving us with the chance to move on and become something new.
Note from the editor: For more anecdotes about Harrison and his relationship with Monty Python, check out Eric Idle’s memoir Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. The audiobook version, read by Idle, is highly recommended.
Robert Repino (@Repino1) grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He works as an editor for Oxford University Press, and occasionally teaches for the Gotham Writers Workshop. Repino is the author of the middle grade series Spark and the League of Ursus (Quirk Books), as well as the War With No Name series (Soho Press), which includes Mort(e), Culdesac, D’Arc, and Malefactor.