George Harrison’s ‘Any Road’

George Harrison died fifteen years ago today.

* * * *
For nearly a decade before his death, George Harrison had been working slowly on a new solo album while dealing with a cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatments, a remission, and then, a new cancer and its eventual metastasization. He was also stabbed 40 times in a house invasion about two years before his death.

So George Harrison’s late 1990s was a period in which the “material world,” as he once called the here and now, appeared to be a genuinely unpleasant place, one that no longer wanted him around, but he retained a sharp wit about it anyway. Asked about his attacker, Harrison said that he “clearly wasn’t auditioning for the Traveling Wilburys.” (The attacker suffered from untreated schizophrenia and was found not guilty of attempted murder by reason of insanity.)

Working on his music through all of this, Harrison finished enough tracks to have a rough cut of a full album, but he finally ran into the ultimate deadline when cancer was found in his brain and he was given weeks to live. He wrote out instructions for his son, Dhani, and musical collaborator, Jeff Lynne, and they produced his final work, the farewell album Brainwashed, which they released a year after his death, in 2002.

(In 2016, the farewell album became something of its own genre, its own section in the music store stacks, with the addition of David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker.)

James Boswell reported that Samuel Johnson once said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Many variations of this quip are bouncing around literature, some of which credit Boswell, some Johnson, and some no one: “Death concentrates the mind.” It is one of those sentences that does not beg for an author because it feels like a thought that no one would be the first to think.

The great music critic, Robert Christgau, used a variation of the phrase in his one-sentence review of Brainwashed: “Say this for death—it focuses the mind.” Christgau was no Harrison fan; his review of the triple album, 23-track, All Things Must Pass reads: “He’s never been good for more than two songs per album,” which was a reference to Harrison’s usual Beatles contribution per album. Christgau gave that album a C.

Christgau gave Brainwashed three stars (a B or a B-plus), though, and one of the songs he cited as noteworthy is “Any Road.” The song’s composition dates to the late ’80s, the last fertile period in Harrison’s career, but he had not recorded it or found it a home until the Brainwashed sessions.

Some of Harrison’s songs are written in something like the structure of a joke, with the chorus serving as a punchline to a set-up, a reply to the ideas contained in the verses. “Any Road” employs that idea; the line, “If you don’t know where you’re going,/Any road will take you there” feels almost-deep, but it winks at the knowledge that it isn’t deep at all. Like Samuel Johnson’s quip about death, “If you don’t know where you’re going,/Any road will take you there” is also a sentence that does not beg for an author because it feels like a thought no one would be the first to utter. In fact, the Cheshire Cat says something like it to Alice:
cheshirecat4
 
The first verse and several after in “Any Road” start with the word “But,” which implies that the singer is replying to someone, something. There is another side to the conversation, but we do not get to hear it; the singer is grateful for the many-roaded ride thus far, and is neither asking for more parts to the journey nor turning down any more rides on any more roads.

Which isn’t deep at all and contains an entire life at the same time. A real Cheshire Cat trick from George Harrison. The song:

Any Road, George Harrison
(Give me that plenty of that guitar.)
 
But I’ve been traveling on a boat and a plane
In a car on a bike with a bus and a train
Traveling there, traveling here
Everywhere in every gear
 
But oh Lord we pay the price
With the spin of the wheel with the roll of the dice
Ah yeah you pay your fare
And if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there
 
And I’ve been traveling through the dirt and the grime
From the past to the future through the space and the time
Traveling deep beneath the waves
In watery grottoes and mountainous caves
 
But oh Lord we’ve got to fight
With the thoughts in the head with the dark and the light
No use to stop and stare
And if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there
 
You may not know where you came from
May not know who you are
May not have even wondered
How you got this far
 
I’ve been traveling on a wing and a prayer
By the skin of my teeth, by the breadth of a hair
Traveling where the four winds blow
With the sun on my face, in the ice and the snow
 
But oooeeee it’s a game
Sometimes you’re cool, sometimes you’re lame
Ah yeah it’s somewhere
And if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there
 
But oh Lord we pay the price
With the spin of the wheel with the roll of the dice
Ah yeah you pay your fare
And if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there
 
I keep traveling around the bend
There was no beginning, there is no end
It wasn’t born and never dies
There are no edges, there is no sides
 
Oh yeah you just don’t win
It’s so far out, the way out is in
Bow to God and call him Sir
But if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there
And if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there
If you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there

 
* * * *
This is a re-written appreciation that first appeared two years ago.

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3 comments

  1. Ken Chawkin · November 29

    Thanks, Mark, for this remembrance of George Harrison. He was a very dry-witted and spiritual man as well as a great musician and songwriter. I took this part of the song to mean a description of the soul, the inner transcendental Being within each of us, described in the Bhagavad Gita, but in his own words: “There was no beginning, there is no end / It wasn’t born and never dies / There are no edges, there is no sides. / It’s so far out, the way out is in.” Maybe he was sending the message that unless we meditate and transcend and tap into our own transcendental nature, then any sensory experience in life will lead us nowhere: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. My take on this song, which has a lot of wisdom in it. Your thoughts?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mark Aldrich · December 28

      I think you are correct.

      I need to embrace my need for meditation. This year brought me to several dead ends and it is time for a change, for me to find something deeper, in me and around me.

      Thank you for your notes to me, Ken, and I hope the new year brings many great things your way–Mark

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ken Chawkin · December 28

    Sounds like a good decision, Mark! George would be the first one to suggest that you learn to meditate. A friend sent me a link to someone you might recognize on the Today Show http://www.today.com/health/biggest-loser-host-bob-harper-s-health-tips-new-year-t106445. I found it interesting that he was recommending TM, and his interviewers both practice it as well. It’s the most scientifically verified meditation practice with benefits in many areas of health and inner development. Check out http://www.tm.org to find a certified TM teacher in your area. I’m also here to answer any of your questions. May this new year bring us both many good changes. ~ Ken

    Liked by 1 person

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