George Harrison’s Brainwashed Taught Me To Deal With Death

Morgan Enos (Other Houses) on how the late Beatle’s final album guided him through tragedy with wit and optimism.

I hadn’t driven a car since I’d moved to New York, seven months prior. But I was about to take one hell of a driving lesson.

The year was 2017; I was 24. I was unexpectedly back in my hometown of Atascadero, California, as my dad had dropped dead a few days prior — the hinge on which my life continues to swing. Out of desperation to get out of the house, my now-wife, Brenna, and I borrowed my mom’s SUV. I put on my dad’s CD copy of George Harrison’s Brainwashed and blasted down the country road, weaving erratically, maniacally laughing and singing. 

The album begins with “Any Road,” a jubilant chorus of ukulele and guitar strums, with audible whoops from his jubilant accompanists; drummer Jim Keltner choogles along. In his sandy tenor, George sings of perpetual, aimless journeying — “in a car, on a bike, with a bus and a train.” But the aphoristic chorus — by way of Lewis Carroll, Yogi Berra, or whoever the hell said it — reveals that’s the point all along: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

“Any Road” has a quality shared with “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys — the cheeky, avuncular classic-rock supergroup of whom George was the de facto leader. In both songs, you’re tooling around; through the passenger’s-side window, the sun dapples your face; you’re both happy and sad. The future’s uncertain. Mortality is on the menu. But when George is in the driver’s seat, that all feels strangely OK. 

Fear of death, tempered with acceptance. Letting go. All tempered with wry humor.

Around “Run So Far,” a pair of sunglasses flew out the window, into the middle of a busy street. “Leave it!” Brenna protested. My abruptly departed dad picked those up for me; however insignificant the item, I would do no such thing. Riding on fumes, I bolted out the door, and risked my hide for the insignificant item. I still hang on to everything he touched. Those shades are on my desk as I write this.

Likewise, I cling to Brainwashed, George’s final album, released 20 years and a few weeks ago. Well, it’s technically a posthumous album, even though George was chest-deep in its making by the time he succumbed to cancer. He even left detailed instructions as to its completion, down to the cover art. The result, in its way, is perfect. It could have been made this morning.

And that’s not simply because the songs are great, or because I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Jeff Lynne defender. (I connect with his extremely widescreen production — with a highly obvious tag on everything — on a cozy, nostalgic level.) 

No, Brainwashed is like an amulet I keep clutched to my chest as I navigate my thirties, forties, and onward without my dad, who was my best friend by any stretch of the term. It’s less an album than a feature on my emotional landscape; a mountain I glance at as I round the curves of my day-to-day life. George’s death is my dad’s. And mine, whenever it comes.

Part of the reason George’s death continues to reverberate through my bones is that his life was so colorful. That’s the way I want to grow old — the improbability of an eccentric mansion and $400 million estate aside. When I consider what George means to me, I don’t really think about  “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” and “Here Comes the Sun”; as much as I love those songs, they’re kind of beside the point. Instead, I think of the man he turned out to be after the Beatles went kaput.

George only got 58 years on the planet, but given the jaw-dropping sum of his experiences, it was like he got 508. He was one of the most famous people on the planet by the time most of us were old enough to drink. After getting a head start against the rest in the solo-album department, with All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World, he spun out in 1974 with his exhausted, sanctimonious, drug-fueled Dark Horse album and tour. 

To the critics, George had overdosed on God; as he grew older, he cheekily deemed himself a “closet Krishna.” What that means to me is that he kept his religious beliefs close to the vest, while grinningly indulging in the material world in (mostly) wholesome ways. After George married Olivia Arias in 1978, his music took on an increasingly serene dimension, precipitated by his blissful domestic life with Olivia and his son Dhani, born the following year.

He seemed to put his music on the backburner — however tranquil and numinous tunes like “Life Itself” were. After his 1979 self-titled — partly the product of the Hawaiian rainforest — his music career generally seemed like an afterthought. With the exception of 1987’s Cloud Nine, designed as his comeback. (Everybody makes fun of it for the deeply dated cover; I celebrate that, as well as the often excellent songs. And, yet again, I stan Lynne.)

So, what do I think about when I think about George? His extra-musical pursuits as he entered his goofy-dad phase. Because when he freed himself from Beatledom, he enabled himself to take an even bigger bite out of the apple of life. Specifically: gardening, ukuleles, his rock ‘n’ roll-stuffed jukebox. Funding Monty Python flicks from his own pocket. Formula One fandom.

Why am I prattling on with this backstory? Because that’s what I hear in Brainwashed. It’s the album where George stands at the precipice of his time on Earth, but it feels more playful and lively than anything he’d released previously. Even when he frets about leaving too soon, it feels like a toast to the time he got.

In the tongue-in-cheek “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night),” George ponders an eternity spent in “my concrete tuxedo.” In “Looking For My Life,” he admits “I had no idea that I was heading/Toward a state of emergency.” “Stuck Inside a Cloud” is the heaviest clash between musical effervescence and lyrical despondency.

As a kid, I drove hundreds of miles per day across the podunk towns of central California selling furniture with my dad. Well, I was less a participant than a hanger-on; as irascible and difficult as he could be, his soulfulness, dark humor, and killer timing thereof meant I endlessly loved being around him. At any rate, I can’t tell you how many times we spun Brainwashed, loud.

My dad’s nature flows through  Brainwashed in profound ways. “I’m living proof of all life’s contradictions,” George sings in “Pisces Fish,” an evocation of his astrological sign. “One half’s going where the other half’s just been.” 

It’s nothing short of miraculous that my dad, a devoutly religious man suspicious of all world systems, who called himself one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, would play such a song around me hundreds of times. Anything like astrology or Eastern religion was, again, a heavy clash, and he would have never forsaken his beliefs to be fully down with those concepts. But something at George’s essence moved my dad to the depths of his soul: George’s earnestness and sincerity in his Siddhartha-like search.

That it led George far astray from my dad’s understanding of the truth didn’t deter him one iota. My dad was as opposed to flabby Unitarian-style thinking as one could possibly be.

But he found kindred spirits in artists like Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, who railed against religious hypocrisy in songs like “Wind Up,” yet also seemed to defend God as unadulterated by human understanding: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday.” Likewise, reverent lines from Brainwashed, like “The only thing that matters to me/Is to touch your lotus feet,” resonated profoundly with him.

Listening tonight, I remember the tune he’d crank up while we sped together through the middle of nowhere: the closing title track, “Brainwashed.” George isn’t the type of musician who would go on to give us treasure troves of posthumous recordings; It’s the monumental final statement by a man who’d seen it all. And he spends the song excoriating factions of fake-ass society.

“Brainwashed in our childhood/Brainwashed by the school/Brainwashed by our teachers/And brainwashed by all their rules,” he begins in the driving, climactic track. 

From there on, he aims his guns at leaders, kings, queens, the Nikkei, Dow Jones, the Financial Times Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, the military, the press, computers, mobile phones, and satellites. They all compromised his cousin, his uncle, even his grandma. The choruses provide the counterweight: “You are the wisdom that we seek,” George declares of God. “The lover that we meet.” 

The ending prayer with Dhani got my dad misty every time. Me, too, even today. For a moment, their searches were one.

One year after George’s death on Nov. 29, 2001, his friends, family and colleagues put on the Concert for George, a gut-punch of a tribute at the Royal Albert Hall. I grew up with the double-DVD, featuring Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, both surviving Beatles, and a litany of other figures close to him. Just last week, Brenna and I went to see it at a theater near us for its 20th anniversary.

Nothing against the source material; the presentation just wasn’t all that. It peeped through the speakers; I wanted it to blare, like the concert it was. (Dad always eschewed headphones for that very effect.) Plus, I wasn’t used to this jarring edit. I remembered the Indian-music section, then the appearance of the Monty Python troupe, then the all-star band, not some mishmash of the three.

That said, there was a moment that made Brenna and I lose it. After the jaw-droppingly mystical and reverent Indian section (not shown in this cut), Pythons performed a nude-assed “Sit on My Face” followed by “The Lumberjack Song,” then saluted the audience. Then, they turned on their heels, and saluted the colossal George wall-hanging above the stage.

On the way back to our New Jersey home on a freezing post-Thanksgiving night, we listened to my favorite song on the album: “Rising Sun.” Of course, death hangs over it — this is Brainwashed we’re talking about. But there are no direct references to it. Instead, “Rising Sun” feels exhilarating, bittersweet, reaching toward a zone beyond words.

In my mind, “Rising Sun” cross-pollinated with Concert for George’s paradoxical mix of tragedy the horror and sorrow of death counterweighted with a goofy grin. Maybe the way to defeat death is to take the biggest bite out of the apple of life that you can. Driving in pitch-black, my heart rose to the strains of the song.

“In the rising sun/You can feel your life begin,” George, who had been dead for two decades, crowed in my ears. But it felt like he was riding with me. When Dad died, I decided I had nothing to lose; you could finish me off. Ever since, I’ve licked my wounds, led a more successful life than he or I could have ever dreamed, and interacted with most of his heroes as per my day job.

And life is just beginning.

Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in BillboardHuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.