Sunday, August 23, 2009

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I suspect that "Something" might generally be agreed to be George's single best Beatles song, and then of course the "Here Comes the Sun"s and "Taxman"s and so forth have won the quiet Beatle deserved accolades as well-- they are songs as solid as any Lennon-McCartney track. But "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is in some ways the ultimate HarriSong. It resonates with so much raw feeling, so much frustration, and so much musicianship, that it's just unmistakably George. Even if it is Eric Clapton's guitar technically doing much of the weeping.

Yup, that's Eric Clapton on the lead guitar line, of course, leaving George to take over on the acoustic rhythm guitar. By the time he brought Eric in, George had already made several attempts to get the weeping guitar sound he wanted, including trying to record a backwards solo as he'd done on "I'm Only Sleeping," but he remained unsatisfied with every attempt. Unfortunately, his bandmates weren't that helpful-- spending as much time as George was demanding on a song that George actually wrote simply wasn't something that John and Paul were very enthusiastic about, especially in these particularly trying sessions. (Their own songs were different matters, of course. Paul had already spent scads of hours during the White Album sessions on the fluffy "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" and squandered much of the group's goodwill in doing so.) In bringing in his good friend Eric to the usually closed Beatles sessions, George accomplished two things: he made the rest of the band shut up and behave themselves in order to make a recording that lived up to his expectations, which certainly was his right as a Beatle. And he also got a really freaking killer guitar line. You have to admire George's humility here-- he tried and tried, but in the end, he couldn't get the guitar sound he wanted, so he called in someone who could. It's kind of neat.

Before "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was a hard rock jam-a-riffic guitar-god classic, though, it was a soft acoustic song that George recorded as a demo, with just a touch of Paul on the harmonium. I don't always include Anthology versions of songs that found homes elsewhere, but this is one of those Anthology tracks that seems to have taken on real notoriety these days, especially after its inclusion in Love. It's easy to hear why-- it's gorgeous. And I think it's preferred by a lot of people just for its sweetness, a sort of purity it has. (Weirdly, this acoustic version sounds more modern to me-- the White Album version with all its guitar-rocking-ness has a dated feel, almost, doesn't it? At least comparatively.)

Anyway, even before it existed in this acoustic demo (we're just traveling backwards through guitar time here, kids), it was written by George in an exercise inspired by the I Ching. George determined that he would write a song based around the first phrase that he read on a random page in a book that he would randomly select from the shelf. That phrase was "gently weeps." And off he went. His brain filled in the gaps with a lot of typically Harrisonian obsessions: he's very worried about us and our souls, or so he sounds. He's looking at us all and seeing a love there that's sleeping. Well, at least he's not chastising us as strongly as he has in the past, but one does feel a little condescended to, doesn't one? Or is it me? Am I being oversensitive? Actually, no, it's not nearly as irritating here as it has been before, though George's serious streak is as on display here as ever.

For what it's worth, I've lately preferred to hear the lyrics as directed not to all of humanity (though it's easy to do so), but as directed to his fellow Beatles. I don't think this would have been conscious on George's part, but it sounds a lot like an affectionate rebuke to these people who were his friends but who had lately been acting obnoxious. It's there in lines like "see the love there that's sleeping" and "they bought and sold you" and so on, and it's there even more strongly in the verse that got left out of the album version (it's in the acoustic demo): "I look from the wings at the play you are staging... As I'm sitting here doing nothing but aging." Tell me that doesn't make you think of the Beatles machine and George's perception that it might be leaving him in the dust.

Whatever this is about, George clearly feels something deeply here. His vocal on both versions is shot through with real emotion, and in the album version in particular I hear something very raw and very sad, as if George still isn't sure he's getting through to whomever he's singing this to. The wails on the coda just cut straight to the bone, don't they? Though everyone is playing awesomely (perhaps a little star-struck by Eric Clapton, even though they were all friendly with him-- who wouldn't be star-struck listening to that?), Ringo in particular plays with an angst that sounds as though he's saying to George, "Man, I hear you." Everything about the drumming is pretty much perfect, from the tinny cymbals in the introduction to the heavy bass-drum-centric sound he gets through much of the rest. (To say nothing of the fine tambourine stuff on the coda.) Elsewhere, that's Paul on the memorable piano opening, and I believe John on the bass, which was a bit odd for him, and might explain why it's a fairly simple (yet effective) bass line. (John was not a natural bass player.) Together, they make for a fairly thick, crunching texture that supports the Clapton solo, which sings its impassioned duet with George's vocal (Paul on the harmony vocal is really just decorative).

So effective was that duet, and so comfortable was George with singing alongside Eric's weeping guitar, that I rarely know of George ever playing it without Clapton. Though it did become a concert staple of his. At the Concert for Bangla Desh, for instance, the organ-inflected live version was a high point.

And then they paired up again in 1987 for a fundraising concert for the Prince's Trust (along with Ringo and Jeff Lynne and, oh God, Phil Collins).

So even if "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is the ultimate HarriSong, it might more fairly belong to both George and Eric Clapton, together. It's become their song, kind of, and, frankly, a tribute to their long friendship.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps," released in the U.K. side A track 7 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. Call me crazy, but the instrument that defines this song for me is actually the keyboard playing that high A that kind of pitch-shifts a little bit. It conspires with the tone Clapton gets to make the track sound like the record's warped. Wikipedia says George was playing a Hammond organ and Paul was playing "organ." I'm guessing it's George; sounds Hammondy to me.

    On the topic of George's lyrics, I've decided trying to figure him out is no more useful than listening to John bash his own songs. Here's a link where he talks about the meaning of "I Me Mine" without once mentioning John or Paul:

    So if you want to believe George, maybe most of his lyrical chiding was directed at himself ...

  2. Hey Meg, i prefer the original White Album version, hands down. The demo you posted is "nice," but not even a close second on capturing the emotion present in the White Album. It's like comparing the acoustic Layla to the Derek and the Dominos version. Nice, but give me the original.

    Gently Weeps is my favorite Harrison song, and i think it is the best guitar solo work that Clapton ever did. Well, maybe not; Layla is pretty good. I'm not a big Clapton fan, and think he is vastly over rated as a guitarist, but i do appreciate his contribution to this song.

    Troy, i agree that the High A keyboard is great, quite distinctive, but the defining instrument for me still has to be the crying guitar. What a great song. Period.

  3. P. S. I just remembered, Duane Allman did the slide guitar work on Layla. So, Gently Weeps is the best guitar solo that Clapton's done, for my money.

  4. I'm not a huge fan of the Layla solo, but then I'm not a huge fan of Layla. Give me Bellbottom Blues any day.

  5. Troy, I agree, Bell Bottom Blues is a goodun. I'm a tad surprised that you don't like Layla. It's a well constructed song, featuring strong playing. It's mesmerizing to me.

    I think Duane Allman was one great slide player. Plus, he was a Georgia boy!

  6. This song just doesn't do it for me. Never has. The lyrics are just so sappy. Your guitar is gently weeping? Really? Someone is taking himself a little too seriously. That lyric just seems so trite, I can't get past it.

  7. Different strokes for different folks. I like the lyric line.

  8. For me, there are lots of other great George songs, like "Old Brown Shoe" and "It's All Too Much" that I'd prefer to hear these days . .
    they are underrated gems . . .It WAS a concert staple for George - unfortunately he didn't tour much - i like the perverse version he did when i saw him in 74 - complete with different lyrics (an angry version, 2nd song in the set, 1st with vocals, totally demolishing it - i love it)- and with Robben Ford on guitar with George . .and didn't EC give GH a Les Paul around this time as well ? To get him back to playing guitar instead of sitar? i prefer the bangla desh version over the live in japan version - it seems less rehearsed . .but the acoustic version is the most moving i think