Lessons from A Beatle: An Appreciation

Writing a song about band mates or fellow musicians, about friends or family, comes from a deep well of bonding.

Or is that just what we want to see?

George Harrison seems to have gone there with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

The song opens with a scene very much like Christ looking on sleeping disciples. I picture George finger-picking a melody, almost absentmindedly, lovingly, quietly, as Ringo, Paul and John, maybe others, lie about, sleeping, after some long, tiring but liberating gig.

Ah but that’s not necessarily so! According to a fascinating site called Songfacts, George actually wrote the song based on the first words he saw in the I Ching, “gently weeps.” The site goes on to recount the strain between Harrison and Lennon and McCartney, who didn’t always want to include Harrison’s songs on Beatles albums, as well as Eric Clapton’s role as peacemaker and lead guitarist on this song.

There is something both easy and lazy in some of the rhyme in this song (diverted, perverted, inverted, alerted), and yet the gaze of the musician “at you all,” seeing “the love there that’s sleeping” is at once all-encompassing and focused. The more George seems to go for the easy rhyme (weeping, sleeping, sweeping), the less it matters, because the electric guitar and steady drumbeat take over. It all works and the song endures today as vividly as many other classic Beatles tunes.

In Songfacts, the writer also notes that Carlos Santana covered this song and imagined John waking up early in the morning while his wife and children still slept and penning the words and music. How we all bring our own ideas to a singular piece of work, and transform it.

Words, The Book of Now author Eckhart Tolle writes, are no more than “a means to an end … an abstraction … a signpost, a mental idol.” But here, a guitar gently spilling out a song about love and regret, mistakes and control, points to whatever we bring to it. It takes us into the heart and soul of a songwriter who struggled to be heard, yet wrote music as compelling as anything the Beatles ever performed.

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