Why are we sometimes moved to tears when famous artists die? I thought of this question while pondering the anniversary of George Harrison’s death today. I did not know George Harrison. I never met him. Yet when I learned of his passing on November 29, 2001, I wept.
Artists wield a ferocious power. Sometimes they shape your identity with their work. Sometimes they penetrate your soul. George Harrison created music that reflected an important part of my identity, especially the songs from his masterpiece All Things Must Pass. “My Sweet Lord,” perhaps Harrison’s best known work as a solo artist, expresses my own spiritual longing over the years. As a boy I sought spiritual comfort amid a traumatic childhood. As an adult I turn to God for wisdom and comfort, always seeking answers and guidance, but finding those things to be elusive more times than I’d like. As Harrison sang:
I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you, Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord
In the song “Hear Me Lord,” Harrison articulates the reasons why I often find spiritual fulfillment to be elusive: because I’m not listening to God. I become lost in the stress and worries of everyday life or my mind becomes cluttered by material things and worldly distractions:
Forgive me lord
Please, those years when I ignored you
Help me lord, please
To rise a little higher
Help me lord, please
To burn out this desire.
And in “All Things Must Pass,” I see myself on my best days, drawing upon my spiritual well to accept change and counseling others to do the same:
Sunrise doesn’t last all morning,
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.
All things must pass,
All things must pass away.
These songs matter to me because I identify with the spiritual journey Harrison shares in them. But why did George Harrison himself become important to me? Because when someone creates music that moves you so deeply, you want to believe that the artist is worthy of the songs they create. I want to believe that the man who wrote “My Sweet Lord” was a profound spiritual seeker. And if you have never meet the artist personally, it becomes that much easier to create your own narrative about them.
In George Harrison’s case, I can certainly glean some clues about his life from his biographers. I cannot deny he often failed to live up to the noble sentiments expressed in his songs. History tells us he was an unfaithful husband and capable of childish, judgmental behavior. But he never claimed to be perfect. By his own statements and actions he was indeed a flawed seeker. He once said, “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot.” His search famously resulted in the Beatles traveling to India to seek enlightenment in 1968, which unlocked a creative lode of songs that made their way on to The White Album. George Harrison attempted to improve himself and the world around him. The fact that he stumbled makes him more relatable and personal.
When I look at George Harrison’s sober face on the cover of All Things Must Pass, I see myself — the part of me that broods, worries, and ponders matters of the spirit. Because I was not present when he was photographed for the album cover decades ago, I am free to construct my own narrative and identify with him, or at least the image of George Harrison as portrayed to me. And here is why the death of an artist you don’t know personally can move you to tears: because you do know them. They’ve opened themselves up to you with their art. You’ve bonded with their words and their music. And you’ve allowed yourself to internalize their art, to identify with it. When an artist you love passes away, they take part of you with them.