Art of Dying (song)
|"Art of Dying"|
Cover of the original Hansen Publishing sheet music for the song
|Song by George Harrison|
|from the album All Things Must Pass|
|Released||27 November 1970|
|Genre||Rock, hard rock, proto-disco|
|Producer(s)||George Harrison, Phil Spector|
|All Things Must Pass track listing|
"Art of Dying" (sometimes titled "The Art of Dying") is a song by English rock musician George Harrison that was released on his 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass. Harrison began writing the song in 1966 while still a member of the Beatles and during a period when he had first become enamoured with Hindu-aligned spirituality. The subject matter is reincarnation and the need to avoid rebirth, by limiting actions and thoughts that lead to one's soul returning in another, earthbound life form.
Harrison recorded "Art of Dying" in London shortly after the Beatles' break-up in April 1970. The song was co-produced by Phil Spector and features a hard rock arrangement. 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, Bobby Keys and Jim Price. The song has received praise from several music critics; among these, James Hunter of Rolling Stone described it as a "spookily proto-disco" performance by "a rock orchestra recorded with sensitivity and teeth and faraway mikes".
Since Harrison's death in November 2001, the lyrics have received further recognition as a comment on the nature of human existence. The song has been interpreted in the jazz style by American guitarist Joel Harrison and as a grunge piece by the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
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.'" A visit in August 1967 to the epicentre of hippie conterculturalism, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, then persuaded him to abandon LSD and pursue a spiritual path through meditation. By that point, Harrison had already immersed himself in Indian music, which is irrevocably tied to spirituality, and dealt with what author Ian MacDonald terms "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 ..."
Harrison says in his autobiography, I, Me, Mine, that 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 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".[nb 1]
"Art of Dying" was one of many compositions that Harrison stockpiled during the Beatles' career due to the continued dominance of the band's principal songwriters, Lennon and Paul McCartney. When discussing his plans for making a solo album in an October 1969 interview, Harrison referred to "Art of Dying", saying he had been "working on a song about reincarnation since 1966". On 26 May 1970, a month after the Beatles' break-up, it was one of at least fifteen songs performed by Harrison for producer Phil Spector's benefit at Abbey Road Studios in London, with a view to narrowing down the material under consideration for All Things Must Pass. Harrison performed 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 was transformed significantly as the album sessions progressed. In the case of "Art of Dying", Spector gave the track a heavy production for the official release; authors Chip Madinger and Mark Easter describe the production as a "[big] 'kitchen sink' job". 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. In a 1990 interview, Clapton said, "We made our bones, really, on that album with George", since the four musicians had no formal plans to work as a band beforehand.
The released version of "Art of Dying" is in the hard rock style. The track begins with what author Elliot Huntley terms Clapton's "firecracking" lead guitar, and is propelled by Gordon's drumming and Radle's urgent bass.[nb 2] Jim Price's horn arrangement provides a countermelody to 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.
Although Harrison acknowledged Collins' contribution on the 2001 reissue of All Things Must Pass, Collins writes in his 2016 autobiography that this credit was merely out of kindness, and that he did not in fact play on the released version of "Art of Dying". In Collins' recollection, the session he attended for the song was an earlier take from May 1970, featuring a different musical arrangement and with Starr, Klaus Voormann and Billy Preston as the other musicians.
– Martin Scorsese, recalling the release of "Art of Dying" and Harrison's other spiritually themed songs on All Things Must Pass
Apple Records released All Things Must Pass on 27 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 positive response to the album, author Robert Rodriguez includes the song as an illustration of how Harrison's talent had been "hidden in plain sight" behind Lennon and 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."
The song also exemplified Harrison's focus on Hindu-aligned religious concepts as a solo artist from 1970 onwards, a theme that informed director Martin Scorsese's 2011 film George Harrison: Living in the Material World. On the Hare Krishna Tribute to George Harrison DVD, in which devotees from the Radha Krishna Temple (London) offered their reminiscences on Harrison, Shyamsundar Das, a lifelong devotee, expressed his certainty that Harrison had achieved a state of transcendence in line with Hindu teachings. Shyamsundar quoted from the lyrics to "Art of Dying" while remarking that Harrison had successfully grasped the principals of moksha even by the late 1960s. In January 1991, Starr contributed a preface to the book Walking After Midnight in which he reproduced Harrison's I, Me, Mine entry on the song. The book followed the 1988 documentary film Walking After Midnight, in which well-known figures such as Starr, Martin Sheen, Willie Nelson, Donovan and the Dalai Lama speculate on their past incarnations.
In his contemporary review for Rolling Stone magazine, Ben Gerson 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 that he likened to "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones. Village Voice contributor Nicholas Schaffner and others have described it as an "essay" on the subject of reincarnation. While reviewing the 30th anniversary edition of the album, James Hunter of Rolling Stone enthused about the performance: "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.'" In another 2001 review, for The New York Times, Jody Rosen grouped "Art of Dying" with "Wah-Wah" and "Hear Me Lord" as examples of how Spector successfully transformed Harrison's compositions on an "operatic scale". Rosen added: "The symphonic squall of these songs seems less about rock star hubris than Mr. Harrison's straining to express outsized emotions – sorrow, regret, longing, writ very large."
In his feature on Harrison's solo career for Goldmine magazine in 2002, Dave Thompson paired "Art of Dying" with "Beware of Darkness" as songs that "rate among the finest compositions of Harrison's entire career". Writing for Uncut in 2008, David Cavanagh said that, while "My Sweet Lord" was the best-known of the spiritually themed songs on All Things Must Pass, "Art of Dying" was the most "far-sighted", with a lyric that "saw the 27-year-old Harrison prepare for death in an ecstasy of resolved, purified karma". 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".
Among Harrison 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" fully reflects 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 in 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 the bootleg Beware of ABKCO! Early mixes of the released track, showing the recording at various stages during the overdubbing process, have been issued on the bootlegs The Making of All Things Must Pass and Songs for Patti – The Mastertape Version. The latter also includes the discarded "Take 9" version.
Jazz guitarist Joel Harrison covered "Art of Dying" on his 2005 album Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explorations of George Harrison. At the George Fest tribute concert in Los Angeles in September 2014, "Art of Dying" was performed by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Their version appears on the 2016 film and album release from the event, co-produced by Harrison's son Dhani. In a subsequent interview, Dhani Harrison highlighted this version as one of the George Fest performances that had particularly impressed him, saying: "I didn't realize that was like grunge until I saw BRMC play it; I was like, 'Oh. This is a shoegazey grunge song!' They unlocked that song for me." Megan Volpert of PopMatters similarly considers it to be one of the concert's two "particularly great, more interpretive covers". She highlights the use of slide guitar as a "bold" new feature, given the reverence afforded Harrison's slide playing.
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 3]
- Carl Radle – bass
- Jim Gordon – drums
- Jim Price – trumpets, horn arrangement
- Bobby Keys – saxophone
- Phil Collins – congas 
- uncredited – maracas
- Other examples include "Living in the Material World", "Simply Shady" and "Circles".
- Simon Leng considers Clapton's guitar riff to be partly an adaptation of a "lick" played by Harrison on the Beatles' 1969 song "The End". He adds: "['The End'] had been a track on which Harrison was lauded for sounding like Clapton. Reincarnation indeed."
- 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.
- Mick Gold, "The Act You've Known For All These Years: The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper", unpublished, 1974; available at Rock's Backpages (subscription required).
- 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, p. 54 (retrieved 26 June 2012).
- Tillery, pp. 111–12.
- Inglis, p. 45.
- Allison, p. 139.
- Madinger & Easter, p. 427.
- Unterberger, p. 286.
- Harry, p. 10.
- Badman, p. 10.
- Leng, p. 77.
- Harry, p. 21.
- Unterberger, p. 290.
- Whitlock, p. 75.
- Rodriguez, p. 77.
- Leng, p. 101.
- Spizer, pp. 220, 225.
- Timothy White, "Rollin' & Tumblin'", Spin, March 1990, p. 36.
- Leng, p. 97.
- John Harris, "A Quiet Storm", Mojo, July 2001, p. 72.
- Collins, pp. 69, 75.
- Collins, pp. 63, 66, 69–70.
- "George Harrison Documentary and Book Announced", georgeharrison.com, 14 July 2011 (retrieved 24 February 2017).
- Castleman & Podrazik, p. 94.
- Spizer, pp. 219–20.
- Rodriguez, p. 147.
- Steve Rabey/Religion News Service, "George Harrison, 'Living In The Material World', The Huffington Post, 9 October 2011 (retrieved 25 February 2017).
- Harry, p. 217.
- "The Art of Dying", Hare Krishna Tribute to George Harrison DVD (ITV Productions, 2002).
- Badman, p. 459.
- Dan Pavlides, "Walking After Midnight (1988)", AllMovie (retrieved 18 April 2018).
- Ben Gerson, "George Harrison All Things Must Pass", Rolling Stone, 21 January 1971, p. 46 (retrieved 3 July 2012).
- Schaffner, p. 142.
- Jody Rosen, "Luxuriating in the Sprawl of That Early 70's Sound", The New York Times, 29 July 2001, p. 2 (retrieved 25 February 2017).
- Dave Thompson, "The Music of George Harrison: An album-by-album guide", Goldmine, 25 January 2002, p. 17.
- David Cavanagh, "George Harrison: The Dark Horse", Uncut, August 2008, p. 40.
- 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.
- Richie Unterberger, "George Harrison Beware of ABKCO!", AllMusic (retrieved 26 February 2017).
- Richie Unterberger, "George Harrison The Making of All Things Must Pass", AllMusic (retrieved 26 February 2017).
- Madinger & Easter, pp. 431–32.
- John Kelman, "Joel Harrison: Harrison On Harrison: Jazz Explorations Of George Harrison", All About Jazz, 14 November 2005 (retrieved 28 February 2017).
- Matt Collar, "Joel Harrison Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explorations of George Harrison", AllMusic (retrieved 27 February 2017).
- Philip Cosores, "Live Review: George Fest at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood (9/28)", Consequence of Sound, 30 September 2014 (retrieved 24 February 2017).
- "GEORGE FEST: A Night to Celebrate the Music of George Harrison @ the Fonda Theatre", larecord.com, 30 September 2014 (retrieved 24 February 2017).
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, "Various Artists George Fest: A Night to Celebrate the Music of George Harrison", AllMusic, 29 February 2016 (retrieved 24 February 2017).
- NPR staff, "The Quiet Beatle's Long Shadow: Dhani Harrison On Sharing His Dad With The World", npr.org, 28 February 2016 (retrieved 26 February 2017).
- Megan Volpert, "Various Artists: George Fest", PopMatters, 29 March 2016 (retrieved 3 March 2017).
- Whitlock, p. 81.
- Dale C. Allison Jr., The Love There That's Sleeping: The Art and Spirituality of George Harrison, Continuum (New York, NY, 2006; ISBN 978-0-8264-1917-0).
- Keith Badman, The Beatles Diary Volume 2: After the Break-Up 1970–2001, Omnibus Press (London, 2001; ISBN 0-7119-8307-0).
- The Beatles, Anthology, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA, 2000; ISBN 0-8118-2684-8).
- Harry Castleman & Walter J. Podrazik, All Together Now: The First Complete Beatles Discography 1961–1975, Ballantine Books (New York, NY, 1976; ISBN 0-345-25680-8).
- Alan Clayson, George Harrison, Sanctuary (London, 2003; ISBN 1-86074-489-3).
- Phil Collins, Not Dead Yet: The Memoir, Crown Archetype (New York, NY, 2016; ISBN 978-1-101-90747-4).
- 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).
- Bill Harry, The George Harrison Encyclopedia, Virgin Books (London, 2003; ISBN 978-0753508220).
- 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).
- Robert Rodriguez, Fab Four FAQ 2.0: The Beatles' Solo Years, 1970–1980, Backbeat Books (Milwaukee, WI, 2010; ISBN 978-1-4165-9093-4).
- Nicholas Schaffner, The Beatles Forever, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY, 1978; ISBN 0-07-055087-5).
- 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).
- Richie Unterberger, The Unreleased Beatles: Music & Film, Backbeat Books (San Francisco, CA, 2006; ISBN 978-0-87930-892-6).
- Bobby Whitlock (with Marc Roberty), Bobby Whitlock: A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography, McFarland (Jefferson, NC, 2010; ISBN 978-0-7864-6190-5).