Art of Dying (song)
|"Art of Dying"|
|Song by George Harrison from the album All Things Must Pass|
|Released||27 November 1970 (US)
30 November 1970 (UK)
|Producer||George Harrison, Phil Spector|
|All Things Must Pass track listing|
"Art of Dying" is a song by English musician George Harrison, released on his 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass. It was written in 1966–67 when Harrison first became immersed in Hindu spirituality, and its subject matter is reincarnation – the "art" in question being the need to avoid rebirth, by limiting actions and thoughts whose consequences lead to one's soul returning in another, earthbound life form. The song was co-produced by Phil Spector and features a hard-charging rock arrangement that has been described as "proto-disco". The backing musicians include Eric Clapton and the rest of the latter's short-lived band Derek and the Dominos, as well as Gary Wright, Billy Preston and a teenage Phil Collins.
Since Harrison's death in November 2001, the lyrics of "Art of Dying" have been much quoted as a comment on the nature of human existence.
Background and composition
For the last 30 or more years of his life, George Harrison repeatedly identified his first experience of taking the hallucinogenic drug LSD, with John Lennon and their wives, as being responsible for his interest in spirituality and Hinduism. The "trip" occurred by accident in February 1965, and he later recalled a thought coming to his mind during the experience: "'Yogis of the Himalayas.' I don't know why ... It was like somebody was whispering to me: 'Yogis of the Himalayas.'" But it was a visit in August 1967 to the epicentre of hippie conterculturalism, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, that then persuaded him to abandon LSD and pursue a spiritual path through meditation. By that point, he had already immersed himself in Indian music, which is irrevocably tied to spirituality, and dealt with "the spiritual aridity of modern life" in his song "Within You, Without You" (on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). He had also begun writing a song dedicated to the Hindu concept of reincarnation and the inevitability of death, "Art of Dying".
There'll come a time when all of us must leave here
There's nothing Sister Mary can do, will keep me here with you
As nothing in this life that I've been trying
Can equal or surpass the Art of Dying.
The mention of "Sister Mary" refers to the Catholic faith in which Harrison had been brought up as a child. Speaking to author Peter Doggett, Harrison's sister Louise qualified his embracing of Hinduism with regard to his upbringing: "Our family were Catholics, but we always had a global outlook. We were spiritual, not religious as such. George didn't change as a person after he went to India [in 1966] …"
Rather than Sister Mary, Harrison's original lyric named "Mr Epstein" – the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein. Given this reference to Epstein, author Bruce Spizer has speculated that Harrison was "contemplating life after the Beatles" as early as mid 1966, since "most of the song's original verses recognise that even Mr. Epstein won't be able to keep the group together or help out when it's over ..."
As Harrison explains in his autobiography, I, Me, Mine, in most cases one's soul does not in fact "leave here" after death, due to the karmic debt, or "load", accrued through actions and thoughts carried out in one's lifetime. This point is illustrated in the third verse of "Art of Dying":
There'll come a time when most of us return here
Brought back by our desire to be a perfect entity
Living through a million years of crying
Until you realize the Art of Dying.
The mention of "a million years of crying" is a reference to the endless cycle of rebirth associated with reincarnation, where the soul repeatedly fails to leave the material world and attain nirvana, otherwise known as moksha.
Written in a period shortly before "karma", "mantra", "guru" and "māyā" all became key words in his vocabulary, Harrison shows an acknowledgment of possible confusion on the part of his listeners, and a degree of humour, with the pointed questions that appear at the end of the verses, "Are you still with me?" and "Do you believe me?" The subject of rebirth was one he would return to frequently throughout his solo career, notably on "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)", with its pleas "Keep me free from birth" and "Help me cope with this heavy load".
On 26 May 1970, a month after the Beatles' break-up, "Art of Dying" was one of many songs performed by Harrison for Phil Spector's benefit at Abbey Road Studios, with a view to narrowing down the material under consideration for All Things Must Pass. Harrison strummed the song on acoustic guitar, but as with "Isn't It a Pity", "Run of the Mill", "Let It Down" and other selections, its arrangement would be transformed significantly as the album sessions progressed; in this instance, Spector's production on the official release provided a "[big] 'kitchen sink' job", as authors Chip Madinger and Mark Easter put it. A widely bootlegged version known as "Art of Dying (take 9)", comprising a band performance dominated by acoustic rhythm guitars and piano, with Ringo Starr on drums, sees the song somewhere midway between the solo run-through and the All Things Must Pass arrangement. This take 9, played in the key of B♭ minor, a semitone up from that of the official version of the song, was still in contention for release during the album's mixing phase.
In a chapter discussing All Things Must Pass in his 2010 autobiography, American musician Bobby Whitlock writes of recording the song: "It was awesome when we were doing 'The Art of Dying,' Eric [Clapton] on that wah-wah and it was all cooking, Derek and the Dominos with George Harrison." The sessions led to the formation of Derek and the Dominos, whose four members – Clapton, Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon – all played on the track.
Kicked off by what author Elliot Huntley terms Clapton's "firecracking" lead guitar, and propelled by Gordon's drumming and Radle's urgent bass, the released version of "Art of Dying" was as close to the "hard rock idiom" as Harrison would ever go. Jim Price's horn arrangement provided a countermelody behind the various A minor voicings in the song's instrumental passages through to its "galloping" ending. Testifying to the ferocity of the performance, Phil Collins later recalled that his hands were so badly blistered during the run-throughs of the song, he was unable to play his congas with any force once they came to actually record it, hence the apparent absence of congas in the final mix. Another percussion part – maracas – does feature prominently, and may have been played by Mal Evans, Starr, members of Badfinger or Maurice Gibb, all of whom attended the session also, according to Collins.
Release and reception
Apple Records released All Things Must Pass in November 1970, with "Art of Dying" sequenced as the second track on side four, in the triple album's original, LP format. While describing the acclaim afforded the album on release, author Robert Rodriguez includes the song as an illustration of how Harrison's talent had been "hidden in plain sight" behind Lennon and Paul McCartney during the Beatles' career. Rodriguez writes: "That the Quiet Beatle was capable of such range – from the joyful "What Is Life" to the meditative "Isn't It a Pity" to the steamrolling "Art of Dying" to the playful "I Dig Love" – was revelatory."
In his review for Rolling Stone magazine, Ben Gerson similarly wrote of the wide range of styles found on All Things Must Pass and recognised "Art of Dying" as "a song of reincarnation" with a melody supposedly "borrowed" from the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black". Village Voice contributor Nicholas Schaffner and others have described it as an "essay" on the subject of reincarnation. Writing in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, Andrew Gilbert highlights "Art of Dying" as an example of the "finely crafted, spiritually charged songs" that ensure that All Things Must Pass "only sounds better with time". While reviewing the 30th anniversary edition of the album, James Hunter enthused in Rolling Stone: "Imagine a rock orchestra recorded with sensitivity and teeth and faraway mikes: bluesy and intricate on Harrison and Dylan's 'I'd Have You Anytime,' fizzy on 'Apple Scruffs,' grooving on 'Let It Down,' and spookily proto-disco on 'Art of Dying.'"
Among Harrison's biographers, Elliot Huntley describes the song as "certainly the most dramatic" track on the album and "one of the most scintillating rock songs in the Harrison canon". Ian Inglis writes that "Art of Dying" displays "all the features" of Harrison's "post-Beatles confidence" and notes the Middle Eastern "musical antecedents" despite the obvious Hindu concepts within the lyrics. In his book While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Simon Leng views "Art of Dying" as picking up "where 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and 'Within You, Without You' paused", and adds: "If ever a song challenged the one-eyed nature of the rock world, this is it. Nothing could be further from superficial pop culture."
Harrison never performed "Art of Dying" live, although he included it on his proposed setlist for the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. It was rehearsed for the two shows at Madison Square Garden, judging by Jim Horn's horn chart for the song, reproduced at the end of I, Me, Mine. The acoustic demo of "Art of Dying" from May 1970 has been available unofficially since the 1990s, on bootlegs such as Beware of ABKCO!
Jazz guitarist Joel Harrison covered "Art of Dying" for his album Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explanations of George Harrison, released in October 2005. Three years later, Suburban Skies recorded the song for their Harrison tribute album George.
The musicians who played on "Art of Dying" are believed to be as follows:
- George Harrison – vocals, electric guitars, backing vocals
- Eric Clapton – electric guitar
- Gary Wright – electric piano
- Billy Preston – organ
- Bobby Whitlock – tubular bells[nb 1]
- Carl Radle – bass
- Jim Gordon – drums
- Jim Price – trumpets, horn arrangement
- Bobby Keys – saxophone
- Phil Collins – congas
- uncredited – maracas
- Madinger and Easter write that the various in-progress mixes of "Art of Dying" reveal the presence of tubular bells on the recording but make no mention of a piano part, for which Leng credits Whitlock as playing. In his autobiography, Whitlock states that his contribution was the tubular bells, which he played with a leather hammer.
- James Hunter, "George Harrison All Things Must Pass 30th Anniversary reissue", Rolling Stone, 29 March 2001; quoted in The Super Seventies "Classic 500", George Harrison – All Things Must Pass (retrieved 4 June 2014).
- The Editors of Rolling Stone, pp. 144, 145.
- George Harrison, in The Beatles, pp. 179–80.
- George Harrison, pp. 36, 44, 106.
- Olivia Harrison, p. 190.
- George Harrison, p. 41.
- George Harrison and John Lennon, in The Beatles, p. 177.
- Lennon, p. 241.
- Clayson, p. 223.
- Tillery, pp. 53–54, 160.
- Leng, pp. 24, 29.
- MacDonald, p. 215.
- MacDonald, p. 15.
- Leng, pp. 29, 98.
- Leng, p. 98.
- Leng, p. 95.
- Doggett, p. 22.
- George Harrison, p. 182.
- Madinger & Easter, p. 432.
- Spizer, p. 225.
- George Harrison, pp. 180–81.
- Tillery, p. 89.
- O'Dell, p. 141.
- Allison, p. 87.
- Clayson, pp. 208, 217–18, 293, 295.
- Huntley, p. 59.
- Schaffner, p. 159.
- Stephen Holden, "George Harrison, Living in the Material World", Rolling Stone, 19 July 1973 (retrieved 26 June 2012).
- Badman, p. 10.
- Leng, p. 77.
- Whitlock, p. 75.
- Rodriguez, p. 77.
- Leng, p. 101.
- Spizer, pp. 220, 225.
- Leng, p. 97.
- John Harris, "A Quiet Storm", Mojo, July 2001, p. 72.
- Castleman & Podrazik, p. 94.
- Spizer, pp. 219–20.
- Rodriguez, p. 147.
- Ben Gerson, "George Harrison All Things Must Pass", Rolling Stone, 21 January 1971 (retrieved 3 July 2012).
- Schaffner, p. 142.
- Album review by Andrew Gilbert, in Robert Dimery, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, Universe (New York, NY, 2005); quoted in The Super Seventies "Classic 500", George Harrison – All Things Must Pass (retrieved 4 June 2014).
- Inglis, p. 31.
- Madinger & Easter, pp. 436–37, 447, 473, 481, 485.
- Olivia Harrison, p. 288.
- George Harrison, p. 399.
- Madinger & Easter, p. 426.
- "George Harrison – Beware of ABKCO!", Bootleg Zone (retrieved 26 June 2012).
- Matt Collar, "Joel Harrison Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explanations of George Harrison", AllMusic (retrieved 4 October 2013).
- Release: Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explanations of George Harrison – Joel Harrison, Second Hand Songs (retrieved 16 September 2012).
- "Suburban Skies George", AllMusic (retrieved 18 August 2012).
- Whitlock, p. 81.
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- Alan Clayson, George Harrison, Sanctuary (London, 2003; ISBN 1-86074-489-3).
- Peter Doggett, You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup, It Books (New York, NY, 2011; ISBN 978-0-06-177418-8).
- The Editors of Rolling Stone, Harrison, Rolling Stone Press/Simon & Schuster (New York, NY, 2002; ISBN 0-7432-3581-9).
- George Harrison, I Me Mine, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA, 2002; ISBN 0-8118-3793-9).
- Olivia Harrison, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Abrams (New York, NY, 2011; ISBN 978-1-4197-0220-4).
- Elliot J. Huntley, Mystical One: George Harrison – After the Break-up of the Beatles, Guernica Editions (Toronto, ON, 2006; ISBN 1-55071-197-0).
- Ian Inglis, The Words and Music of George Harrison, Praeger (Santa Barbara, CA, 2010; ISBN 978-0-313-37532-3).
- Simon Leng, While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Music of George Harrison, Hal Leonard (Milwaukee, WI, 2006; ISBN 1-4234-0609-5).
- Cynthia Lennon, John, Hodder & Stoughton (London, 2006; ISBN 0-340-89512-8).
- Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, Pimlico (London, 1998; ISBN 0-7126-6697-4).
- Chip Madinger & Mark Easter, Eight Arms to Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium, 44.1 Productions (Chesterfield, MO, 2000; ISBN 0-615-11724-4).
- Chris O'Dell with Katherine Ketcham, Miss O'Dell: My Hard Days and Long Nights with The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Women They Loved, Touchstone (New York, NY, 2009; ISBN 978-1-4165-9093-4).
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- Bruce Spizer, The Beatles Solo on Apple Records, 498 Productions (New Orleans, LA, 2005; ISBN 0-9662649-5-9).
- Gary Tillery, Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography of George Harrison, Quest Books (Wheaton, IL, 2011; ISBN 978-0-8356-0900-5).
- Bobby Whitlock with Marc Roberty, Bobby Whitlock: A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography, McFarland (Jefferson, NC, 2010; ISBN 978-0-7864-6190-5).