All four Beatles released solo albums in 1973, but George was first off the blocks with his long-awaited follow-up to All Things Must Pass. Living in the Material World was released May 30, 1973, just a couple month after his 30th birthday.

Following the release of ATMP in 1970, George had spent most of 1971 organizing the Concert for Bangladesh and subsequent triple album. I’m embarrassed to say I know very little about the Bangladesh situation, so let’s let Wikipedia summarize:

As East Pakistan struggled to become the separate state of Bangladesh during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, the political and military turmoil and associated atrocities led to a massive refugee problem, with at least 7 million displaced people pouring into neighbouring India. East Pakistan had recently endured devastation as a result of the Bhola cyclone, and the Bengalis’ desperate plight increased in March that year when torrential rains and floods arrived in the region, threatening a humanitarian disaster. Quoting figures available at the time, a Rolling Stone feature claimed that up to half a million Bengalis had been killed by the cyclone in November 1970 and that the Pakistani army’s subsequent campaign of slaughter under Operation Searchlight accounted for at least 250,000 civilians, “by the most conservative estimates.” Following the mass exodus to Calcutta, a new threat arrived as the refugees faced starvation and the outbreak of diseases such as cholera.

Alerted to this crisis by Bengali master musician Ravi Shankar, with whom he had been working at the time, George decided to do something about it. The Concert for Bangladesh (actually two concerts held at Madison Square Garden) was a massive undertaking that George spent months organizing, pulling every string he could to get big stars to participate. The concerts raised $250,000 and the album millions more, and Bangladesh became a major cause celebre.

But it was not all rainbows and flowers. Legal entanglements kept most of the money from reaching its intended recipients, causing George a great deal of hair-pulling. The stress of organizing the benefits combined with the fraught aftermath may have caused him to self-medicate a bit:

Throughout this period, Harrison’s devotion to Hindu spirituality – particularly to Krishna consciousness via his friendship with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada – reached new heights. As Harrison admitted, his adherence to his spiritual path was not necessarily consistent. His wife, Pattie Boyd, and their friend Chris O’Dell would joke that it was hard to tell whether he was dipping into his ever-present Japa Yoga prayer bag or “the coke bag.” (Wikipedia)

All of this feeds into Living in the Material World, where spiritual seeking meets exhaustion and disillusionment. The duality is right there at the beginning of the album, in “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” where George sings:

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope with this heavy load

“Give Me Love“ is immediately followed by “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” George’s lament over having spent so much time in court recently.

He sounds pretty world-weary. Of course he was 30 now, which was old at the time. He was no longer to be trusted, and on “The Light That Has Lighted the World” he sounds a bit defensive:

I’ve heard how some people have said
That I’ve changed
That I’m not what I was
How it really is a shame
The thoughts in their heads,
Manifest on their brow
Like bad scars from ill feelings
They themselves arouse
So hateful of anyone that is happy
Or “free”

He goes back and forth but never quite resolves the dichotomy:

So hard to move on
When you’re down in a hole
Where there’s so little chance,
To experience soul

I’m grateful to anyone,
That is happy or “free”
For giving me hope
While I’m looking to see
The light that has lighted the world

[INTERMISSION: We are now halfway through Side A, and man, this thing is going much longer than I thought! But I feel like I owe it to George after years of having dismissed his post–All Things Must Pass work without having really listened to it. So I treated myself to a vintage vinyl copy of Living in the Material World, which is a lovely package with a gatefold cover and a glossy lyric sheet decorated with “Krishna and Arjuna Paintings from Bhagavad Gita as it is by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.”

One thing I noticed listening to the vinyl that you might not notice otherwise is that there are extremely long spaces between the songs. I don’t think this is padding, as Side One especially is quite lengthy (24 minutes plus). Maybe it is intended to give us time for quiet contemplation, or to smoke another bowl or do another line? Anyway, back to it.]

“Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” is a throwaway love song. I suppose it could be another of George’s patented Love Songs to God, but the lyrics suggest otherwise; would he repeatedly call God “baby” and hector God with his impatience? I think not.

Tucked away in the fifth slot here is “Who Can See It,” a deeply personal song where George pleads,

I only ask, that what I feel,
Should not be denied me now

There’s more going on here than I have bandwidth for — so, back to Wikipedia!

In his autobiography, I, Me, Mine, [Harrison] makes light of the emotion behind the song, describing it as simply “a true story meaning ‘Give us a break, squire.’” Simon Leng, Harrison’s musical biographer, recognises the song as a statement of considerable personal anguish, however. He writes of Harrison having been “deeply traumatized” by the effects of the Beatles’ unprecedented popularity, and equally disoriented by his success as a solo artist following their break-up in April 1970. According to Leng, Harrison was in the same state of internal conflict over 1972–73 as John Lennon had been when writing the song “Help!” in 1965, during his self-styled “fat Elvis period.” Music critic Stephen Holden highlighted a similar comparison between the two ex-Beatles in July 1973, when he deemed Living in the Material World to be “as personal and confessional” as Lennon’s primal therapy-inspired Plastic Ono Band album (1970).

Side One of Living in the Material World closes with the title track, which is a whole epic unto itself at almost five and a half minutes. It’s a huge production, with tons of overdubs including two drummers and Zakir Hussein on tabla, but my favorite part — and probably yours — starts at 1:12, where George sings:

Met them all there in the material world
John and Paul here in the material world
Though we started out quite poor
We got Richie on a tour

Which is followed by a classic Ringo drum fill. Delicious.

That’s more than enough for today. We’ll look at Side Two tomorrow.

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