The mercurial talent of George Harrison took a little while to bubble up to the surface. Having contributed a few songs to early Beatles albums, by the time the recording sessions for The White Album arrived, the guitarist had a ream of tracks that he was sure could match up to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s standards. He was right.
Most of the songs Harrison wrote can be attributed to his intrinsic ear for a tune and his ability to think beyond the reaches of pop stardom. But it seems one song he wrote for The Beatles can be put down to fate, destiny, a book about Eastern philosophy and, of course, with a little help from Eric Clapton.
Like much of The White Album, perhaps one of George Harrison’s greatest songs, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was originated while The Beatles were in India. Under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the band were undergoing so much needed spiritual reconnection and had been practising the art of transcendental meditation. It would provide different results for each member of the band but for Harrison, it was the foundations he needed to build his own career.
The trip gave Harrison a sense of purpose outside of the band and as the Eastern philosophies began to resonate within him, he felt now that he had a surer footing to be able to compete creatively with Lennon and McCartney. Taking his ruminations and conception for the song back to England, the guitarist picks up the story in Anthology, “I wrote ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ at my mother’s house in Warrington. I was thinking about the Chinese I Ching, the Book of Changes… The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be, and that there’s no such thing as coincidence – every little item that’s going down has a purpose.”
Harrison was never one to do things by halves and so committed wholeheartedly to the project: “‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simple study based on that theory. I decided to write a song based on the first thing I saw upon opening any book – as it would be a relative to that moment, at that time. I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw ‘gently weeps’, then laid the book down again and started the song.”
The track was originally laid down at Abbey Road as a solo in July 1968 but despite having all the gravitational pull of a new moon, Harrison struggled to get the two other principal songwriters, Lennon and McCartney, interested in the track. It was a situation that Harrison had become all too familiar with. Much like his song ‘Here Comes The Sun’, Harrison would turn to his friend Eric Clapton for the help he craved.
“We tried to record it, but John and Paul were so used to just cranking out their tunes that it was very difficult at times to get serious and record one of mine,” remembered Harrison in Anthology. “It wasn’t happening. They weren’t taking it seriously and I don’t think they were even all playing on it, and so I went home that night thinking, ‘Well, that’s a shame,’ because I knew the song was pretty good.”
“The next day I was driving into London with Eric Clapton, and I said, ‘What are you doing today? Why don’t you come to the studio and play on this song for me?’” The idea would be to not only use Clapton’s expert skills on the iconic solo of the track but also use his presence as a way to cool tensions and put the Fab Four on best behaviour. “He said, ‘Oh, no – I can’t do that. Nobody’s ever played on a Beatles record and the others wouldn’t like it.’ I said, ‘Look, it’s my song and I’d like you to play on it.’”
Eventually, Harrison managed to convince Clapton to jump on board, “So he came in. I said, ‘Eric’s going to play on this one,’ and it was good because that then made everyone act better. Paul got on the piano and played a nice intro and they all took it more seriously.” After that, the song soon found a home on the album and its true power suddenly shone out.
The real beauty of this song, with this knowledge in hand, is knowing that it was conceived from the book I, Ching. The book tells us that everything is predetermined and that destiny will take care of itself. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ works as the perfect allegory for this, if Harrison hadn’t have found those words, if he hadn’t have met Eric Clapton the next day and if the guitarist had refused to take part, then it is clear the song would have never seen the light of day.
Luckily, it did and we get to enjoy easily one of The Beatles best ever songs. Listen to ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ below.