George Harrison’s ‘Any Road’

George Harrison died fifteen years ago today.

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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.
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If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going …

George Harrison died 13 years ago this month. For nearly a decade before his death, he 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 life, 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 album “Brainwashed,” which they released a year after his death, in 2002.

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 no one would be the first to think.

A 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” read in part, “He’s never been good for more than two songs per album,” which was a reference to Harrison’s usual Beatles contribution per album. He gave it a C.

He gave “Brainwashed” three stars, 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” uses that technique; the line, “If you don’t know where you’re going,/Any road will take you there” feels almost-deep but it winks at knowing that it isn’t deep at all. It, too, is 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.

The first verse and several after begin 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.

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

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 5 asks, “You’re asked to recite a poem (or song lyrics) from memory—what’s the first one that comes to mind? Does it have a special meaning, or is there another reason it has stayed, intact, in your mind?”

May 13’s “Occupy Daily Prompt” is titled, “They’re Talkin’ ‘Bout Me,” and offers the George Harrison quote as a topic. I wrote about it in November.

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