Can We Just Talk About “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”?

Legend has it that George Harrison decided to write “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as an experiment regarding his theory that “that everything has some purpose for being there at that given moment” (Harrison).  He opened a book to read the words “gently weeps,” then set out to write the song; the product did exactly what Harrison set out to prove, creating a song that is nothing short of a God-sent.  That is not to diminish Harrison’s talent as a creator, but rather enhance it; there is something supernatural about his ability to essentially feel his way into creating a work of art.  Like the other Beatles, he had no formal musical training, making his talent even more remarkable.  Granted, in 1968 the Beatles had been playing together for nearly a decade, but to evolve from “The Quiet Beatle” performing the simplistic yet infectious “She Loves You” to bearing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” simply on a whim takes more than practice performing.  It takes innate talent.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Wikipedia
Harrison on the cover of Apple Publishing sheet music

This song is so incredible that is is difficult to parse out its most impactful aspect  Surely, the instrumentation is some of the most memorable among the Beatles’ discography, not solely because it features Eric Clapton, one of the world’s greatest guitar players.  The opening piano riff, paired with the snare drum, heavy bass guitar, and steady strumming builds an orchestral sonic tapestry of major and minor chords that blend seamlessly. The folk influences bring the Beatles back to their Rubber Soul days, yet the bluesy rock n roll overtones, work within a framework more reminiscent of Revolver.  Even so, the deep expression of emotionality, characterized by the bass dragging lower and lower and the piano’s erratic start, is perhaps the best of any Beatles track.  Harrison’s vocals float angelically from the melancholic verses to the wistful bridges; the raw emotion behind his singing, culminating in his own climactic weeping, further drives the vulnerability of the lyrics dripping with religiosity Harrison so exuded.  The evocation of the world turning around its observer is particularly haunting, possibly hinting at Harrison’s own inner state of helplessness in a world he cannot control. In addition to possibly reflecting the fracturing of the Beatles, Harrison’s lament about “the love there that’s sleeping” expresses the sense of nihilism and disharmony infecting 1968; not only were there several assassinations, including those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, but the Prague Spring, the nuclear threat, and the Vietnam War loomed large in the popular imagination.  The lyrics thus go hand in hand with the background instruments; for example, returning to the piano, the manic opening of the song reflects the anxiety of both the listener and Harrison as the writer. Along the same lines, the steadily descending bass mirrors the perceived state of the world as it descends into darkness as Harrison can only sit back as his guitar (an extension of himself) weeps.

Perhaps Harrison’s uncharacteristically negative sentiment is why this song is so memorable.  It speaks to the shared feeling of hopelessness in a world that appears to be falling apart at the seams.  Harrison’s usual optimism and assuredness is replaced by a vulnerable, mournful cry for help, a cry for the world to wake love up.  51 years later, we still live in a world similarly plagued with uncertainty, division, and anxiety. Even more frightening, the lack of expressive musical productions in the tradition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is completely appalling, leaving us in a type of musical dystopia.  Rather, the same unoriginal songwriters create lyrical shells sung by figures completely disconnected from the emotion needed to bring a song to life. The lack of rich instrumentals, replaced with rather bland electronic alternatives with overwhelmingly long periods of silence, especially characterizes the severe lack of sentimentality.  The missing emotions in current musical production extend to covers of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” such as Regina Spektor’s 2016 rendition of the piece; the disconnection between Spektor and the altered instrumentals essentially erases the original tonal complexities, producing an almost disrespectful “tribute” to the song and late Harrison.  The only modern artist close to reaching the level of the mid-1960s-late 1970s Renaissance of Rock Music is Billie Eilish, whose attention to detail in regards to the production of her music and intentionality in conveying a certain tone clearly sets her apart from the bunch. Even so, the very few modern artists tapping into the true spirit of rock embodied most by artists like the Beatles may never reach the apex of perfection demonstrated by “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (and the White Album as a whole, for that matter).  

Returning to Harrison’s original theory regarding the song as an exercise to prove that everything has a purpose for existing in a given moment, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in its original form transcends the moment in which it was conceived, turning into a timeless piece accessible to billions.  Its universal theme of longing and the anxiety that can be applied to almost any moment in history brings it into the present moment as I sit and write about it. Its very existence alleviates any tension conveyed in the song itself, as listeners are given a taste of that greater purpose. The song’s existence has impacted countless lives, inspired countless artists, and will continue to brighten the world, despite (and perhaps because of) its heavily melancholy tone.

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