George Harrison's Catholic Krishna

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Who knew that George Harrison once called the 1960s hippies in San Francisco "bums" and "spotty youth"?

It's one of the revelations in George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the Martin Scorsese documentary on the legendary Beatle.

I just got around to watching the film, and one of the misrepresentations about Harrison that it clears up is that "the quiet Beatle" was some kind of out-there hippie mystic. It's well known that Harrison became interested in meditation and Indian mysticism after he dropped LSD in the mid-1960s. This has been interpreted to mean that George Harrison was some kind of hippie.

But as the quote above about Haight-Ashbury shows, Harrison was much more a clear-eyed seeker that dippy flower child.

As Living in the Material World shows, Harrison got interested in Eastern religions because he wanted to see and feel God. He felt that his postwar Catholic upbringing in Liverpool had been rigidly dogmatic; thus he sought God through meditation, mantras and music. But in watching the film it becomes clear that Harrison was never a hippie or mystic, but a realist. He believed that God is real and that there are certain concrete things you can to to reach him.

In that sense his turning to Hare Krishna was not much different from the Catholic saints that he abandoned.

Indeed, one of the most interesting clips from the film is when Harrison reveals that while he once rejected Christianity, "the man in the sky" religion, he had "come around" to accept it as valid, because it, too, was an expression of God, who is everywhere. Harrison also had the humility to see the artistic genius not just in the sitar playing of his Indian friend Ravi Shankar, but in the Western rock and roll that had helped create the Beatles. It was after Shankar had told Harrison to reconnect with his roots that Harrison came back from India and began recording pop songs again.

One of them was a gospel-inspired song called "My Sweet Lord."

Hearing "My Sweet Lord" again, I felt some vindication for a piece I wrote a couple years ago for the Washington Post. In "All You Need is Love," I argued for a Catholic interpretation of the music of the Beatles. The vicious comments that followed my essay (none of which actually addressed my point) were charged with hysteria.

The Beatles, Christian? Fool! Idiot! It was left to one commentator to note the irony of this army of open-minded hipsters declaring that rock and roll could be absolutely anything -- except Christian. If only our Christophobic culture had the tolerance of George Harrison.

In the time since Harrison death from cancer in 2001, there has been a small but growing number of fans and music scholars who are claiming rock and roll for God. One of them is my friend Stephen Catanzarite, a Catholic and author of the book Achtung Baby: Meditation on Love in the Shadow of the Fall. It's an examination of the band U2 and its great album Achtung Baby.

Catanzarite sums it up this way:

In Achtung Baby, it is all there: our infinite potential for dreaming, discovering, and building, and the trouble we cause by confusing our liberty with license; our wanderings through streets both named and unnamed in search of peace or escape, enlightenment or forgetfulness, love or domination; the longing in our hearts for unity between and among God and man, man and woman, brother and sister, parent and child, and the restlessness, pride, larceny and fear in our heads that disturbs even the happiest of homes; our reveling in the fact that we truly are "fearfully and wonderfully made," and the sad acceptance of our brokenness; the excellence of fidelity; and the appeal of seduction; the glamour of evil, and the disaster of sin; the paradox of being rooted in time but destined for eternity; the God shaped hole at the center of our being, and our vain attempts to fill it with something, everything, anything other than God.

After that paragraph, it should be hard to listen to rock music -- or read rock criticism -- the same again. Catanzarite isn't shoehorning Christ into rock music in order to legitimize his fandom; to the contrary, after reading his book, it becomes obvious that it is the secular rock community that makes what is a spiritual popular art form into a never-ending vehicle for revolution and rebellion. And in that, as Harrison knew, they are wrong.

Spotty youth, indeed.

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