Last week, the George Harrison estate released a new, “official” video for Harrison’s 1970 masterpiece, “My Sweet Lord” from his magnum opus All Things Must Pass. It’s a playful and fun video, with a kind of goofy X-Files plot, featuring a star-studded cast (Mark Hamill, Fred Armison, Vanessa Bayer, Weird Al Yankovic, Rosanna Arquette, Joe Walsh, Kate Micucci, Claudia O’Doherty, along with Harrison’s wife and son, Olivia and Dhani, and his former bandmates Jeff Lynne and Ringo Starr; conspicuous in their absence: Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan). Of course, the song is the real star, as it should be, and like all great Beatles (and solo Beatles) songs, it seems timeless, sounding as fresh and joyous today as it did a half century ago.
If you haven’t seen the video, take a break and give it a watch.
As fun as this video is, I think it rather misses the point of the song. I wrote about “My Sweet Lord” in the spring of 2020 when I blogged about the break-up of the Beatles as a metaphor for the fragmented spirituality of our age. At the time, I commended the optimism and unapologetic spirituality of this song as a welcome alternative to John Lennon’s cynicism, Paul McCartney’s sentimentalism, and Ringo Starr’s escapism. I think that still holds true, as a commentary on the Beatles, but today I just want to reflect on “My Sweet Lord” on its own merits.
“My Sweet Lord” is the national anthem of interspirituality.
Let me explain. Harrison, as a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who gave the world transcendental meditation), could have easily written this song as a simple hymn of bhakti devotion to Lord Krishna, and left it at that. And certainly the song could be sung in a kirtan, with its devotional lyrics, sung in a kind of call-and-response to Harrison’s lead:
And so forth, all song as a counterpart to Harrison’s joyous love-song-to-God: “I really want to see you, Lord, I really want to be with you, I really want to see you, but it takes so long my Lord…”
He could have left it at that. But there was one little detail, earlier in the song, that to my mind anchors this song as an interspiritual anthem. Before all the bhakti lyrics, the backing singers chant Hallelujah in response to Harrison’s vocals.
Hallelujah! Hebrew for “Praise the Lord” — a word that is as anchored in the devotional spirituality of Judaism and Christianity as much as Hare Krishna embodies the spirit of bhakti yoga.
In other words, Harrison has written a song that deftly brings western and eastern spirituality together into a single expression of love for the divine, transcending our religious and cultural boundaries.
What blows my mind is that this song was wildly successful. It was a number one song in America, Britain, and other countries around the world; the single sold a million copies in eleven days. It was the first solo Beatles song to become a #1 hit and remains one of the best-selling solo Beatle songs of all time. But it wasn’t just Harrion’s Beatles-cred that made this song a “radio juggernaut” (in the words of Harrison biographer Gary Tilley) — the song was the perfect expression of the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, when books like Ram Dass’s Be Here Now and Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi — not to mention the works of writers like Alan Watts or Christmas Humphreys — were bestsellers in the west. It was “the dawning of the age of Aquarius” and young people especially were interested in the spirituality of the world, not just the religion of their upbringing.
A half century later, that seems like an innocent, idyllic time. As the 70s progressed, Christians responded to the rise of interspirituality in both conservative (the charismatic renewal) and progressive (the contemplative movement) ways; eventually it seemed like consumerism co-opted the spirituality of the hippies into the crystalline mercantilism of the 1980s-era new age movement. As our society has moved ever more steadily toward consumerism and pervasive entertainment, it seems that interspirituality has become marginalized — more of a “special interest” worthy of its own Facebook group, than a groundswell of cultural consciousness capable of catapulting a song like “My Sweet Lord” to the top of the charts.
So when you watch the video, enjoy its silliness, epitomized by Ringo Starr throwing popcorn on a hapless Fred Armitage. The song is a joyful song, so a little bit of silliness is not entirely out of place. But it’s also a venerable song now, half a century old, and it’s a reminder that once upon a time, and not so very long ago, being interested in a spirituality that transcended religious boundaries was mainstream. That’s the legacy of this song, which unfortunately this video seems to miss entirely.