Touring George Harrison's 'Material World' at the Grammy Museum
The Grammy Museum’s new exhibition “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” offers an unusually intimate look into the public and private lives of one of the most intensely public and private people in pop music history.
The exhibition opened Wednesday with a press preview during the day, followed in the evening by an invitation-only VIP event hosted by Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison. Guests included Ringo Starr and wife Barbara Bach, Harrison’s Traveling Wilburys cohort Jeff Lynne, Doors drummer John Densmore, actor Edward James Olmos, veteran studio and touring drummer Jim Keltner (who played on most of Harrison’s solo projects), Recording Academy President Neil Portnow and longtime Grammy Awards telecast executive producer Ken Ehrlich, according to museum Executive Director Robert Santelli.
Olivia Harrison has loaned a large batch of items that span her husband’s life, from notebooks he used as a schoolboy in Liverpool to iconic instruments (his Gretsch Duo Jet electric guitar, the Gibson acoustic from “A Hard Day’s Night” and rosewood Fender Telecaster from “Let It Be, ” among several) clothing (his original Shea Stadium suit) from his years with the Beatles to signature pieces from his life after the Beatles (the cream-colored Nudie Cohn suit he wore at the Concert for Bangladesh).
If may seem ironic to put the spotlight on material objects associated with a musician who spent much of his life emphasizing spiritual over temporal matters. But as Olivia Harrison put it when she spoke to me recently about the exhibit as well as the Martin Scorsese documentary of the same title that premiered last week on HBO, “George was also into material things because he lived in the material world. He wasn’t a mendicant going around holding a bowl, although he might have ended up that way if he had lived longer. You never know.”
The aspect Harrison himself might have had the most trouble with was seeing his guitars safely ensconced within Plexiglas display cases.
“Fans have been wanting to see these things,” Olivia Harrison said. “The guitars are beautiful, and I know they should be seen and shared. George always said that instruments should be played. When he came across somebody who had collected a thousand instruments, he thought it was wrong that they were kept locked away in a warehouse somewhere. Maybe one day we’ll be able to have it where people can actually pick up and play some of them.”
That’s not an option at the Grammy Museum exhibition, but there are hands-on aspects, notably three listening stations at which visitors can manipulate the sound mix on his 1973 hit “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).” The stations are equipped with all eight tracks drawn from the original master tapes, so listeners can isolate Harrison’s vocals, his slide guitar, drums, bass, percussion or backing vocals or balance them to their own preferences.
Santelli said that at Tuesday night’s VIP opening, Starr spent several minutes playing producer with the track. He said Starr told him, “Now I’m going to give George Martin a run for his money.”
Other elements of special interest to longtime Harrison fans will be displays of several of his signature songs in his own handwriting, some appearing to be original drafts including corrections, revisions and in some cases, words or even entire verses that he omitted from the final version.
The show runs through Feb. 12, 2012, and then is expected to move on to other museums around the world.
Self-portrait of George Harrison while on tour with the Beatles in 1964, one image on display at the Grammy Museum's exhibition "George Harrison: Living In the Material World." Credit: George Harrison Family.