By Mark Allen Baker
Finding beauty and transcribing it is one thing; attaching it seamlessly to a composition is another.
Yet that’s precisely what George Harrison managed to accomplish. While it was an organic process for the Beatle, it was also an activity long in coming. As a member of a band that also featured a couple of talented writers — like the most successful songwriting duo in the history of popular music — Harrison considered his role both a blessing and a curse. Yes, he could learn from the masters, but at what price? Minimum (album) space meant nominal exposure, a consequence he accepted.
Eventually, some of The Beatles’ best-loved songs would come from Harrison’s pen, including “If I Needed Someone,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” If this were a prerequisite to a stellar solo career, then it was the perfect prelude.
George Harrison (Feb. 24, 1943- Nov. 29, 2001) released 11 studio albums (not counting best-ofs), including his masterpiece “All Things Must Pass” (1970) and the memorable “Cloud Nine” (1987). Waving his pen like a magic wand, Harrison transformed reality into a spiritual conflict before you could say “abracadabra.”
The incredible journey began with the throwaway track, “Don’t Bother Me” in 1963, and ended with arguably the two best tracks on The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” (1969) album: “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun.” Harrison’s six-year transformation was as diverse as it was noteworthy. He immersed himself in Indian music at the height of Beatlemania and became a lifelong devotee of Hindu religion, Krishna consciousness and Vedic philosophy. While he coveted the songwriting process, he respected it more.
Harrison never really considered himself a songwriter; he would say he felt more like an expressionist — just “trying to get something out of his system.” A song like “Taxman,” for example, became both a protest and a relief.
From 1965 to 1968, the sitar aided Harrison in his songwriting. It added the mysticism and strange melodies he was seeking. Yoga and meditation, he thought, were best suited for lyrics. To him, it was notes as a catalyst for a thought, rather than vice versa. “Within You Without You,” “The Inner Light” and “Love You To” were all Harrison songs with heavy Indian musical influences and proof that the marriage worked well, at least for a time.
He returned to the guitar in the winter of 1968, when he accepted that he wasn’t going to be a great sitar player — this by his own admission, not as a result of an admonishment. The instrument had played a pivotal role in his songwriting, and for that, he was eternally grateful. But the time seemed right to move on.
No longer feeling limited by any instrument, Harrison opted for the piano to compose “Something” in 1969. Completed while making “The White Album,” the track was written during an overdubbing break in Studio I at Abbey Road. Harrison was now dismissing the thought that notes kindled lyrics, or that words stimulated notes. Paramount to him was the message.
Even though creativity can be boundless, it isn’t always convenient.
Harrison composed when and where inspiration struck: at hotels, the homes of friends, inside studios or even outside, in a garden. It really didn’t matter where, nor with whom he collaborated, be it Eric Clapton or even his mother. It was cause, over concept, chord or contrivance.
Since he was rather at the mercy of his creativity, Harrison wrote on whatever was available. Full pages, partial sheets, torn folios, steno pads, hotel stationery and letterhead from associated businesses, pages from a calendar, blank sleeves or envelopes — all were home to his words.
He wrote with whatever was handy as well, using both pencils and pens, never afraid of scribbling over a verse and adding a drawing or chord sequence. When he wanted a greater emphasis, Harrison expressed it in ink or lead, often writing over characters numerous times. Since items associated with the process have characteristics; they, too, can be useful in the authentication process.
It has been said about more than one composer that, “understanding his compositions is understanding the man.” So why not use his body of work, specifically his handwritten lyrics, to provide us a genuine portrait of this songwriter?
Collectors seem to explore an artist’s handwriting only before a related purchase, such as a signed note or letter. While the intent is comforting, it is also unfortunate, as it is not only a lesson in composition but an intriguing aspect of forensic science, since handwriting and document analysis is often conducted as part of a crime investigation.
Individuals who study documents spend years analyzing everything from paper and ink to aging and environmental conditions — all facets of the examination process. While an individual doesn’t have to be a board-certified document examiner to cast judgment on authenticity, one should respect the fact that it is a discipline, and, as such, it involves many sophisticated techniques. A collector might also note that forensic methods are likely to be accepted by a court of law over those used by a nonprofessional.
So what if factors such as time, education and cost prohibit a formal study? Acquainting yourself with sources and techniques may help.
In comparing George Harrison’s handwriting for forensic purposes, exemplars (also called an examples, standards or controls) are used. These are defined as authentic samples — acceptable or provable to the court, and, as such, valid comparisons to the questioned handwriting.
For our needs, I have chosen Harrison’s lyrics because they represent the criteria I feel most useful:
1. Authenticity. I’m using a verified source — Harrison himself — and his own samples available through his autobiography, “I Me Mine”).
2. Quantity. There need to be sufficient samples to observe; Harrison’s lyrics are in plentiful supply.
3. Legibility. Can you read the samples?
4. Wording. Harrison’s lyrics all involved the creative process.
5. Dating. Examples often exhibit aging or development characteristics that set writing from one era apart from that of another.
While I could have used old letters, notes, documents and even signed albums, the forgery factor — the possibility that an example is faked is too risky. You don’t want to determine authenticity through anything other than a verified source. More than one court case has been discredited as a result of inadequate exemplars. Remember, the object of the controls is to illustrate, fairly and completely, their author’s writing habits.
Harrison’s Writing: The Beatle Years
An entire book could be written about George Harrison’s handwriting, not because it is that distinct, but because it is that important.
As one of the great composers of his era, Harrison’s work speaks to generations who cherish its relevance. While significance secures respect, it also commands value.
Harrison’s writing in any form, be it a handwritten letter or simple signature, is pricey. Some “Buy It Now” examples on eBay include: a signed copy of “The Concert For Bangladesh” album ($2,450); a signed copy of “I Me Mine” ($6,000); and a personal check ($899).
George Harrison penned “Don’t Bother Me” in the summer of 1963. It was his first song, and, upon reflection by the artist, “not a particularly good one.” “Think For Yourself” followed two years later, but it also lacked the memorable qualities he desired.
“If I Needed Someone,” a song influenced by The Byrds, was often fondly remembered by Harrison because he performed it in concert. Reflective of his songwriting abilities, it was lyrically simple — a single and dual syllable construction, and written around the D chord.
Drafted fairly quickly, as indicated by the word combination of “tospend,” his lyric sheet is filled with creative nuances, such as overwritten words, multiple underlines and deletions. Interesting in this example was his use of the letter “t.” Whenever the letter appeared at the beginning of a word, regardless of how many strokes he used to form the letter, it always connected to the next letter. Examples include, “that,” “thinking” and “time.” Other anomalies include his character construction of the letters “B,” “S” and “I.” This was an early example, which makes it an important reference.
By 1966, it became clear to Harrison that earning money didn’t mean putting every cent into your pocket, thus the song, “Taxman.” The methodically written piece exhibits minimal alteration with little or no slant(angle) to his handwriting. The title of the song appears eight times over a page and a third of his handwritten lyrics. It is written as “Tax man,” “taxman” (twice) and “tax man” (five times). Contrary to the construction of the letter “T” as stated above, he uses a two-stroke variation the very first time the title appears, with the second stroke not connecting to the next letter. Only in the final chorus, where the title appears twice, does he use a single stroke construction for the lower case “t.” Already we can note the benefit of multiple exemplars.
One of the artist’s first sitar compositions, “Love You To” was originally titled “Granny Smith” according to Mark Lewisohn’s book “The Beatles Recording Sessions.” Written on what appears to be a torn sheet of paper, the lyrics appear more like an afterthought. Perhaps he tore the working title off the top of the page; Harrison was never big on titles anyway! The follow-up to “Norwegian Wood” (This Bird Has Flown) in October 1965, “Love You To” uses just more than 100 words, six of which are the word “Love.”
“I Want To Tell You”, like many of Harrison’s songs, was written out of frustration. In hindsight, and published inside his autobiography, “I Me Mine,” Harrison suggested that the second line should be reversed. [“The mind is the thing that hops about telling us to do this and do that — when what we need is to lose (forget) the mind.”] The lyric sheet is a good example of how Harrison would use a thicker pen to print over lyric changes.
Omitted from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “(Only a) Northern Song” was first featured in the animated movie “Yellow Submarine.” Be it a joke relating to Liverpool, as the artist once claimed, or an obvious reference to Northern Songs — a music publishing company formed in 1963 primarily to exploit Lennon–McCartney compositions, “(Only a) Northern Song, was a condemnation of the music business.” Brian Southall’s book, “Northern Songs,” details the company ownership and Harrison’s subsequent dissatisfaction. The hand-printed lyric sheet — the only example to appear in this noteworthy style inside his autobiography — is bold, distinct and an excellent reference of his printing style.
The LSD-influenced “It’s All Too Much” contains several lines taken from other works. A line was lifted from The McCoys’ “Sorrow,” according to music guide writer Tom Maginnis. Timing in at nearly six and one half minutes, it is the longest Harrison-penned song recorded by the group and sung by the artist. The lyrics, which were written with a porous-tip pen, exhibit more clockwise slant than any previously written piece. While the reason is uncertain, it could be simply a matter of speed or available writing space. Because this type of pen deposits more ink when used at various angles, the writing exhibits a variety of widths; this gives it a shadowing effect. These factors, along with others — like the addition of verses at the bottom of the page (using a different pen), the rewriting of “Too Much” in the title, etc., make it a useful example.
Written in Klaus Voormann’s London home, “Within You Without You” occurred after the artist entered meditation. Featuring only Harrison, along with a group of uncredited Indian musicians, the songwriting progression was notes before words. Author Hunter Davies claimed that Harrison was proficient enough in Indian script to assist the musicians; this may explain some later script found on other lyric sheets. Flipping over a used piece of paper, the Beatle began the songwriting process with the chorus; a drawing of a grave, the first such illustration to appear on any of his lyric sheets, appears next to “pass away.” The work is often cited as a song credited to The Beatles, but featuring no other members.
Written on a sheet of “Robert Fitzpatrick Associates” letterhead is “Blue Jay Way,” which also happened to be the address of Harrison’s rented Los Angeles home. His friends, Derek and Joan Taylor, couldn’t find the residence due to fog — thus the first verse. Despite Harrison’s claims that he was tired due to a flight and time change, the lyrics are legible and very exemplary of his handwriting; a person’s health and well-being can effect their handwriting.
“The Inner Light,” which was first released by The Beatles as a B-side to “Lady Madonna,” was the first Harrison composition to be featured on a group single. He had received a copy of “Lamps of Fire” from Juan Mascaró, a Sanskrit teacher at Cambridge University, who wondered how the composer might mix music with Tao.
A necessity for virtually every “Best-of” list, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was inspired by a copy of the “I Ching,” the Chinese book of changes. The book, which contrasts Eastern and Western culture — and the idea of “everything is relative to everything else” vs. “merely coincidental” — fascinated Harrison. Using the treatise as a tool for his songwriting, Harrison randomly opened the book and choose “gently weeps” from the text. Never dismiss the random aspects of creativity!
“Piggies,” the social commentary on the upper class, originally was penned in 1966. Harrison reworked a version and even had his mother assist him on a construction that rhymed with “lacking.” The Orwellian-compared piece even included an extra verse; Harrison reinstated this segment during his later live performances (1990s). Noteworthy on the lyric sheet is the song title, which is capitalized in all instance but one, regardless of its position in the melody. The piece is also useful to illustrate the consistency of how the letter “o” connects with the letter that follows, in examples including “you,” “for,” “worse,” “to” and “around.”
Word construction is a paramount factor in determining authenticity. Because the lyrics were written in pencil, observers also can pick up on certain anomalies associated with the instrument, including writing pressure and faint strokes. Additional variations of the letter “r” also can be noted in the example.
Harrison’s lyrics for “Long Long Long” found a home on a page removed from a 1968 calendar. Lyrically, the work exhibits many familiar words — “I,” “you,” “oh-oh,” “long long long,” [no commas between words] and “How.” His use of the word “time,” in both the first and second verse, is a good example of how the composer could vary his construction of the lower case “t.” Harrison’s hallmark lower case “h,” with its curled opening formation, can also be seen in the words “have” and “happy,” while his consistent capitalization of the letter should be noted in the word “How.”
Many music critics rave about the track, some even calling it Harrison’s finest moment.
A piano composition — which the artist admitted he didn’t really play, “Old Brown Shoe” began with chord sequences. Contradictory lyrics were then added as hooks; it is also a contraction-laden song with the dominant use of “I’m.” This “I am” construction varies both in the number of strokes — one or two, and the use of an apostrophe. It is these handwriting characteristics that fascinate document examiners and give clues to authenticity. Speaking of nuances, Harrison also opted for the use of “they’ll or you’ll” over “they or you” as originally penned. “Love,” a common word in many Beatle songs, appears capitalized in a majority of instances, although it never begins a line.
Also, interesting is that Harrison originally began the song with the contraction, “I’d” but dropped it in favor of “I want.”
George Harrison’s handwritten lyrics provide a fabulous glimpse into the creative process. But, they also serve collectors’ needs for authentication purposes. Even with calligraphy skills, precision tools and sophisticated surface testing, a document examiner could spend months determining the authenticity of an item. Since comparison points — such as those found in the construction of individual letters — are important, a cross reference may prove beneficial.