World Interview with Dhani Harrison
January 2003 issue
by Christopher Scapelliti.
In the final years of his life, George Harrison often predicted that he wouldn't finish the tracks that make up Brainwashed, his new, posthumously released album on Dark Horse Records. It wasn't his fight with cancer that the former Beatle guitarist believed would prevent him from completing the recordings-it was his own indifference. Harrison had little desire to see his work released in a pop culture climate controlled by an increasingly cynical and money-grabbing music industry. An inveterate nonconformist-the mark of a bona fide rock and roller-Harrison had throughout the 80s become increasingly disenchanted with the fickle and unsupportive nature of the record business. He spent much of his last decade at his Friar Park, estate in England, or at his homes in Switzerland, Australia and Hawaii, preferring the flowers in his gardens to the songs germinating in his head.
"He'd always say, 'One of these days you'll have to finish all this stuff,'" recalls his son, Dhani, who worked with his father on the new album. "And I'd say, 'Oh, c'mon, not if you finish them first!' I thought he was joking. But now I see he was being serious. He was doing the songs for himself, and he felt no pressing urgency to see them on store shelves." Which is putting it rather lightly. Brainwashed is, after all, an album nearly 15 years in the making: its opening track, the tropical "Any Road," dates back to the heady, healthy days of Cloud Nine, Harrison's 1987 release and, prior to Brainwashed, his most recent album of new material. In truth, Harrison had spoken enthusiastically in 1999 of releasing his new songs under the tongue-in-cheek title, Portrait of a Leg End. But his disinterest, combined with ongoing health problems-throat cancer in 1997, and a knife attack by an intruder at his London home in late 1999-ensured that Harrison's record projects were curtailed in the final decade of his life. With Brainwashed, however, many of his last songs have finally been released, roughly one year after Harrison's death from brain cancer on November 29, 2001. As he'd anticipated, it was laft to the son to finish what the father had begun. Working with producer Jeff Lynne (the founder of the Electric Light Orchestra and George Harrison's longtime friend and producer). Dhani Harrison-24 years old and himself an accomplished guitarist and musician-spent much of the last year putting the finishing touches to 12 demo recordings he and his father had begun in the years before the elder Harrison's death. "They were what Jeff and I refer to as 'posh demos,'" says Dhani, explaining the rather upscale quality of his father's original recordings. "What Jeff and I added were our own guitars, bass, backing vocals-all the things we would have done anyway had my dad been there. Basically, I was taking the role of the artist, because I was there the whole time with my dad. We were very careful to tread lightly-I only ever dared do anything with this album that I knew my dad would like."
Dhani and Lynne's
respect for the original effort is apparent in the final product: Brainwashed
doesn't only sound complete; its finely focused arrangements and production
suggest the vision of one artist, not three. Although both Dhani and Lynne
are quick to call their work on the album "a labour of love," it is
also evidently the result of tempering their artistic desires to one sympathetic
with Harrison's. Their care is more rewarding for the fact that George
Harrison's songs on Brainwashed are first-rate. Music journalists are
pathologically predisposed to enthuse over the latest works of their graying-or,
in the instance, deceased-heroes. Brainwashed is the all-too-rare instance in
which the results deserve the acclaim. If the quality of the music resembles
anything in Harrison's catalogue, it is his monolithic 1970 solo debut, All
Things Must Pass. Like that album, Brainwashed is full of beautifully melodic
and memorable music and lyrics-songs whose passages can be easily recalled after
just one listen. And, like All Things Must Pass, Harrison's new album is
nakedly spiritual. He was, after all, a follower of the Hindu faith for
much of his life, and as such believed in renunciation of the world, and rebirth
through many lifetimes by reincarnation. Although the songs on Brainwashed are
rarely as broodingly introspective as some on the earlier album-"Beware of
Darkness," "The Art of Dying" and "All Things Must
Pass" come to mind-Harrison stitches together their often droll tales with
his characteristically pragmatic spiritual outlook. On "Any Road," he
sings about the perils of running through life aimlessly, warning, "If you
don't know where you're going/Any road will take you there." The point of
view becomes more personal on "Pisces Fish," as Harrison describes a
landscape full of unexpected obstacles that hinder his progress, with the result
that "ones half's going where the other half's been." Elsewhere on the
album, the ailments that intruded upon Harrison's sanctuary hang ominously, and
it's here that the lyrics become more confessional. "I never knew that life
was loaded," he sings on "Looking for My Life." "I never
knew that things exploded/I only found it out when I was down upon my
knees/Looking for my life." "Obviously, his illness had an input
into the songs," says Dhani. "And it influenced the way he wrote songs
and the way he saw life. But my dad never let anything get him down. He was a
tough guy. He just got up and carried on."
That attitude, too, is apparent in the record. Far from a study in self-pity, Brainwashed is a celebration of an individual's ability-Harrison would likely say "responsibility"-to determine his fate, even when facing seemingly impossible odds, as Harrison did in his final days. Nowhere on the album is that spirit stronger than on his final song, the title track, which is both Harrison's most scathing and most instructive composition. Against a wall of chiming guitars and other string instruments, he counts the many ways in which the human race is drummed into submission, beginning with school, the place in which a teenage, free-thinking Harrison developed his rebellious streak. He continues on, denouncing kings and queens, Dow Jones and NASDAQ, the military, the media, computers and cell phones, before concluding with the plea, "God, God, God, wish that you'd brainwash us too." "I just love 'Brainwashed' so much, because it's the realest of all the songs," says Dhani. "It's true-everyone is being brainwashed by these messages, by taking so much of what we're told and how we live for granted." For all of his pronouncements on the album, Harrison makes some of his finest and most beautiful statements courtesy of his guitar. There is a decided emphasis on his distinctively fluid slide guitar, particularly on "Never Get Over You" and the instrumental "Marwa Blues." But the stringed instrument perhaps most prevalent on Brainwashed is the ukulele, the tiny nylon-stringed instrument long associated with Britian's mid-20th century music halls and traditional Hawaiian song. "He loved the uke," Dhani explained. "It just has a great little sound. And he always loved the tropics. He was a pretty troppo guy."
Not surprisingly, the ukulele was the instrument on which Harrison debuted many of the album's songs for Jeff Lynne. "George would come by and play them for me," Lynne recalls, "usually on the ukuele. And I would just go, 'Wow, that's fantastic!' And he'd say 'Well, I'm gonna lay them down roughly, as demos.' And then, of course, he gave me the honour of finishing them for him. We would have done it together. Instead, it was left to me and Dhani to finish." It was not the first time Lynne had been asked to produce an artist after death. In 1995, at the request of Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Lynne produced two new singles for the Beatles, working from a pair of vocal-and-instrument demos recorded in the Seventies by John Lennon. Released as part of the group's mid-Nineties Anthology series, "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" combined Lennon's voice-and-instrument cassette recordings with fresh overdubs from his surviving band mates. The songs were the first new "Beatles" tracks in 25 years. Yet, for all the responsibilities of that high-pressure assignment, Lynne says reanimating John Lennon for a pair of songs was less stressful than the task of completing Brainwashed. "Absolutely, because that earlier effort was shared amongst three other Beatles. That was, like, easy I suppose, because I didn't know John-although I'd met him once-and I'd been asked by the rest of the Beatles to come help with it. "But Brainwashed was kind of a different scenario. Those songs were new and fresh. And, you know, I'd worked with George for many years, and been his pal and hung out with him for a long time. Working on Brainwashed was a labour of love. But it was a very hard thing to do." In March 2002, Lynne, with Dhani, got down to sorting through Harrison's demos at his Bungalow Palace studio, in L.A., employing a Pro Tool HD setup he had purchased for the occasion. Much to Lynne's pleasure, the recordings were close to complete. In addition to guitar and ukuele, Harrison had laid down all of his lead vocals, as well as harmonies and bass tracks that had been recorded with legendary session ace Jim Keltner, and parts by keyboardist Jools Holland. "The first thing we did was scour every track," says Lynne. "To my great happiness, George left us with all these great slide guitar solos, which I was totally thrilled with. You know how when you make demos you try out different ideas on different tracks? Well, there would be, like, three or four different takes of solos. Amongst them, he'd left us some beautiful stuff, and sometimes we'd switch tracks halfway through another track, like you might normally do when working on an album. And from it we were able to create what we imagined to be the lead guitar track of his choice." Even so the songs were far from ready to be released. "There was a lot of tidying up to do," says Lynne. "Like, on some songs he'd play the bass and he'd sort of trail off and lose interest in what he was doing. And so I would have to finish some of the bass tracks, just to make them complete. In some cases, he'd left the songs in a real state that we couldn't really follow unless we worked like Sherlock Holmes. We had to go through each track and figure out what was going on."
Fortunately, Harrison left Dhani and Lynne details on what he wanted for the songs' arrangements and production. Often the tapes themselves contained clues to Harrison's desires for the songs. "For instance, on 'Rising Son' he sung his ideas for the string parts onto the tape," says Lynne. "Marc Mann, who played keyboard on some of the record, wrote out the parts that George had sung, and Dhani added a little line on top of it. And so that became the part for the string players. "But his instructions were sometimes cryptic, as well. Like at the beginning of 'Any Road,' you can hear him say, 'Give me plenty of that guitar!' Something like that was a clue to how he wanted things to sound." Key to Lynne and Dhani's efforts was one directive from Harrison: it was his desire that the final tracks sound close to the demo form in which he had left them. "I knew what he meant by that," says Lynne. "Basically, he didn't want it smeared in reverb or anything like that, he didn't want us to make it slick-which he knows I would never do anyway. And although George had asked me not to make them posh, I still don't think they're posh. I think they're exactly what he wanted." Lynne had the benefit of have recorded Harrison on several occasions. In addition to producing Cloud Nine and two Beatles singles, he had played with Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys, the late-Eighties supergroup that included Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the late Roy Orbison, and had produced both of the group's albums as well. "So I think George trusted me to get him the sound that he would like." Beyond his own experience with George, Lynne was guided by the advice and insight of the younger Harrison. "Having Dhani there was confirmation, or nonconfirmation, of whether I was getting it right or not. Dhani was really the guy who knew intimately what George wanted, because they were so close. So that made it much easier for me. I would just look at Dhani, and if something about him didn't look right I'd say, 'What is it?' And he'd tell me. So I'd get little clues like that. And then once we'd done a couple of tracks and they sounded really good, George was kind of with us. Because he was there, coming out of the speakers."
The greatest part of George Harrison's music career was already behind him when Dhani, his only child, was born in 1978. the product of Harrison's second marriage, to Olivia Arias, the guitarist's one-time personal secretary, Dhani grew up at a time when his father's activities were shifting away from music, towards film production and Formula 1 racing. But at home, music continued to play a central role in the family, and it was one means through which father and son bonded. Not only did Dhani frequently hear his father's last songs as they were developed over the years-he also performed on them at various stages in their recorded life.
For Dhani, the experience of completing the tracks was exhilarating, if tempered by the absence of his father. "When Jeff and I were working on the song 'Rising Son,' it was one of the saddest and happiest things to work on," says Dhani. "To hear the finished result, with the big strings on it like my dad had intended-it was the best thing ever. And then to realize that he never got to hear it, even though he probably just heard it in his head the whole time-for me, it's still one of the saddest things ever. "And at the same time, to go through my father's music with a fine-tooth comb made me see things about him that even I hadn't realized: that he was even more impressive that I thought he was. And that might sound like an arrogant thing to say, but, you know...even though I knew what I had, you never quite know what you've got until it's gone."
GW: Some of the songs on Brainwashed date back to 1988, when you were maybe all of 10 years old. Do you remember the first time you heard them?
HARRISON: It's kind of hard for me to put a date on them because they've been around for so long. For example, "Rising Son" was written on the Live in Japan tour in '91. I remember my dad playing that around the house on the ukuele. "Any Road" was written during the video shoot for "This is Love" [from Cloud Nine]. He was in Hawaii, sitting in a banyan tree, and waiting for the camera crew to film the video. Something like "Brainwashed" is more recent. The songs were never really written down; they were just songs he'd have in his head. He'd change the words and change the arrangements, and he would just play the songs around the house.
GW: He obviously wasn't in any rush to complete them. Or was he waiting for inspiration to strike?
HARRISON: We'd travel a lot, and these were his kind of travelling songs that he'd just play and muse over and then do nothing with for a long time. A lot of these songs were written very slowly because he was writing them for himself. That's why they sound a lot less affected than anything else that you're hearing at the moment. That's why they sound go good.
GW: When did he start actually committing them to tape?
HARRISON: They weren't actually recorded until the last few years. Some of them were demoed before then: he'd have them on a cassette, or on tape, and he might do a live mix, which he'd keep on a DAT. And then he might keep that for six years! But he would work in the studio a lot by himself wherever we were. We lived in Switzerland for a while, and we had a home studio there-Swiss Army Studios. [laughs] A lot of the album was done there.
GW: Did he ever intend to go beyond the demo stage with these songs and turn them into full-fledge productions?
HARRISON: Actually, we'd planned to go to Jeff's studio in March 2001 to finish up the tapes. But then Jeff had just finished touring for his [Electric Light Orchestra] album Zoom, and he wasn't feeling well. And it was a bad time for my dad as well, timing-wise, so we just decided to reschedule it for the following March. And...what had happened was, in the meantime, my dad got ill and, unfortunately, died. But we had the studio time booked, so I went ahead with Jeff and finished the album.
GW: What was it like working with your dad in the studio?
HARRISON: Oh, we had some great times. Some days it would be me in there pressing "play" and "stop," and some days we'd have engineers, so we could play together. It was very relaxed, just me and him at home in the studio. A lot of the time I would hear him play something that sounded amazing, and I knew I would hear it turn up years later, or whenever the album got done. And so when we were hearing all this stuff at Jeff's, you know, I just had memories of being at home, really, or being wherever our home was, 'cause we'd record in Australia, on the road, in Japan, in Switzerland. But the final recording material came from Switzerland. It was the most recent stuff that my dad and I worked on. From Switzerland, we went to America, which is where my dad died. After that I came home, and then I returned to America with all the tapes.
GW: Your father had worked with Jeff Lynne on many recordings through the years. The fact that he chose Jeff to produce Brainwashed says a lot about his trust in him.
HARRISON: Jeff and my dad had a great way of working together. They were very good friends, and Jeff was meticulous, and he'd have a lot of ideas and bounce stuff off my dad. They just worked very well together. I think their studios were set up very similarly, except Jeff had gone the next step, to integrating Pro Tools. That was part of the reason why my dad wanted to work at Jeff's studio. He said, "Oh, we can fix some of these little bits on Pro
Tools." Now, he was always against that idea before, but he sort of softened up on the whole idea when he played guitar for Jeff on Zoom. And I think he was really happy to be able to like Pro Tools instead of just fearing it. [laughs]
GW: Did you and Jeff use Pro Tools to "fix" any of your father's parts?
HARRISON: We didn't do any digital "cheating"-fixing of notes and rhythms. It's so easy to do that, but we were very, very conscious not to impose on the record's sound at all, 'cause it had a great, great sound. We didn't want to leave our footprints on it at all. So if a track seemed to need additional backing vocals, Jeff and I would add them because that's what we would have done if my father had been there. We did the album pretty much the same way it would have been done if he had been there. Only it was harder because he wasn't there, and we didn't have his feedback. Which was impossible some days.
GW: How helpful were the instructions he left behind?
HARRISON: He wrote lots of notes and left a very, very detailed blueprint for everything. But it wasn't written as "these are the instructions"; was more about what he had planned to do with the songs himself. But since I had talked about the album with him, and I had been in the studio with him for years and years, the majority of the instruction for me and Jeff came from my being there watching what my dad did every day. We were so close, it was just obvious certain things that should be there and shouldn't be there.
GW: Can you give me an example?
HARRISON: Well, like the bass guitar: my dad didn't really care much about the bass. He'd stick a bass on a song, and after four verses he'd change the riff. So sometimes we'd use his bass part all the way through. But a lot of the time Jeff and I would redo it entirely. We'd play exactly the same bit that my dad would play, only it would be metronome perfect.
GW: He obviously took more care with his ukulele parts. The instrument is all over Brainwashed. When did your father become such a fan of the ukuele?
HARRISON: Wow! [laughs] That's a good question! He loves the uke. I think he ended up getting into it in the late 80s, when he got interested in George Formby. I mean, he's playing it all over the [Beatles'] Anthology video. And the whole time I was growing up there've been ukes all over the house. Even I've played the uke since I was really young. My dad showed me how.
GW: Well, of course!
HARRISON: [laughs] So we played together. And, you know, you can't not like the uke. There was a point, I remember, when it was not cool when I was younger, but it won me over. And he got a great collection of ukes, and banjuleles, resonator ukuleles that haven't been made for god knows how many years-just all kinds, every shape and size of uke. For him I think it was just a silly way of being able to just play a tune. But when you get good at it, it's really not very silly. I mean, I play the uke every day myself, and I know a lot of people who do too.
GW: Did your dad ever mention to you that John Lennon's mother played the ukulele?
HARRISON: I think he might have mentioned it to me once, actually. And I think maybe that's why he had a fondness for it. I'm not saying that's a direct influence. But I'm sure it could have been a subtle influence.
GW: He must have taught you guitar as well.
HARRISON: Yeah. He just showed me all the chords. He didn't show me any songs, really. He showed me all the chords that I could possibly cram into my head, and then I had learned all those, then he made me just practice changing between them. I picked it up pretty easily, really. I used to play piano when I was young and, I have to say, I struggled pretty hard to read music. I just play by ear, and music teachers don't really like that, because they want you to read the notes. And I remember having an altercation with my teacher when I decided that I was never playing piano ever again, because my teacher was mean. But then soon after that I got a real urge to play the guitar. And so my dad, who'd never ever forced a guitar on me or so much as showed me a guitar [laughs]-really!-we just started playing guitar together. I was about nine.
GW: Did he ever share any of his technique with you? His slide technique, for example?
HARRISON: You know...no! Not his slide technique. I mean, I watched the guy play slide a million times, and I can't even tell you how he got those sounds!
GW: Was he particular about using, say, a glass slide versus a metal slide?
HARRISON: He used glass slides. And he had a favourite one that was cracked and had a bit of tape on it. There was nothing special about it; it was just a glass slide about the diameter of a mic stand. And that's what he used. Playing slide was just something that was his gift. In my opinion, the slide playing on this record is some of the best he's ever done. And he was a real "take over" kind of guy.
GW: There seems to be potential for people to listen to some of these songs and think, Ah, he's writing about dying. For example, "Looking for My Life" he sings, "Oh Lord, won't you listen to me now/Oh Lord, I've got to get back to you somehow." The song seems to present a man who's lost touch with God, who's now trying to reconnect with God because of some dire occurrence in his life.
HARRISON: Well, some songs were written prior to his illness and some during. And his illness did have an impact on his songwriting. But you have to realise that he never sat around moping, "Oh, I'm ill." Even when he first found out that he was ill, years ago [in 1997], and the doctor gave him-what?-6 months to live! He was just like, "Bollocks!" He was never afraid. He was willing to try and get better, but he didn't care. He wasn't attached to this world in the way most people would be. He was on to bigger and better things. And he had a real total and utter disinterest in worrying and being stressed. My dad had no fear of dying whatsoever. I can't stress that enough, really.
GW: But your father almost always wrote of his experiences. You don't think the experience of having cancer and almost being fatally stabbed by an intruder affected his outlook and made him more aware of his mortality?
HARRISON: I guess you would expect me to say that those things made him readdress his whole principal of life. But that is simply not the case. Those were things he was thinking years before he ever got ill, before he was attacked, before any of that stuff. For instance, he was writing songs like "The Art of Dying" a long time ago, back in the 60s, and that was before he even felt ill. So with that song, "Looking for My Life"-I just think he found himself in moments of desperation before he became ill, when he was under no sort of danger but just desperately wanting to know, "Why am I here?" He was really looking for his life the whole time.
So it didn't take an attack or cancer for him to reflect on his own mortality-he did it all the time. You know, he'd say, "One of these days I'm gonna be dead and you're gonna have to look after these trees!" And I'd be, "Stop saying that, Dad!" And he'd be like, "But it's true." Because he was a realist. And I'm very much the same way. Everyone is gonna die, but no one thinks they're gonna die. No one. And that's like the biggest blind spot that everyone in the world has, this inability to believe that they're gonna die. And I think the sooner you
address that, the better, really. It's like practice, really.
GW: Did the experience of facing death bring him any new revelations about life or make him re-evaluate his thinking?
HARRISON: My dad was constantly re-evaluating his thinking. He was always saying, "The most important thing is, 'Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going? Why am I going anywhere?'" And to even ask those questions-some people haven't even begun. So a lot of the music is just posing questions, maybe to himself, yeah. Or maybe he's posing the questions in his music because he's already found the answer for himself. You know, I read a letter from him to his mother that he wrote when he was 24. He was on tour [with the Beatles], or someplace, when he wrote it. And it basically says, "I want to be self-realised. I want to find God. I'm not interested in material things, this world, fame. I'm going for the real goal. And I hope you don't worry about me, mum!" And he wrote that when he was 24! And that was basically the philosophy that he had up until the day he died. He was just going for it right from an early age-the big goal.
GW: Of all the songs, "Brainwashed" presents the most revolutionary message. It denounces everything we've come to accept in the Western world, from our lifestyle to how we're governed. But it also seems to say, "If we're such God-fearing people, then why don't we let ourselves be brainwashed by spirituality?"
HARRISON: The song is very anti-establishment, just like punk music, or Rage Against the Machine. And all that stuff is great. But a lot of the time music that denounces what's happening in society doesn't offer an alternative; it just says, "Well, this is wrong," but it doesn't say, "Go and realise God," or, "Go and meditate for a bit." And that's why I think "Brainwashed" is so strong-because of the contrast that he presents in the song. It leaves you with something positive rather than just denouncing the brainwashing and leaving you depressed.
GW: It gives you hope.
HARRISON: Yeah. Because, you know, my dad was very alarmed by the state of affairs in the world. He was very disturbed by it. That's why he didn't go out much, why stayed in his garden. Because he didn't like traffic jams and mobile phones, and governments and war.
GW: Does listening to Brainwashed make you sad?
HARRISON: For me, it's not a sad album. I mean, the saddest it gets for me it listening to "Marwa Blues." And that's a real beautiful song, but it's also like a real lament. It's a man who wants to be somewhere else, or searching for something else. And it's got no lyrics! So it might not necessarily be that the sad songs are "Looking for My Life" or "Stuck Inside a Cloud." With my dad, it's hard to tell, unless you're really close to him. I don't know: anyone who looks at life the same way would get it, but not many people really do.
GW: It's odd, but in several pictures of your father taken in the last few years of his life, he looks much younger than the had 10 years earlier, even though he was ill. And in that time, he wrote the songs on Brainwashed, which are among the finest of his career. Someone recently said to me that trees blossom most beautifully in their final season. And the analogy to your father seemed rather appropriate.
HARRISON: Yeah...I think that's right. They do.
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