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The Quiet Beatle's Long Shadow: Dhani Harrison On Sharing His Dad With The World

Dhani Harrison (second from right) joins Weird Al Yankovic, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, Brandon Flowers of The Killers and Jonathan Bates of Mellowdrone on stage at George Fest.
Courtesy of the artist
Dhani Harrison (second from right) joins Weird Al Yankovic, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, Brandon Flowers of The Killers and Jonathan Bates of Mellowdrone on stage at George Fest.

When you're in a band with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it's got to be pretty tough to convince them that you should get to write songs too. But some of The Beatles' most memorable tracks — "Something," "Here Comes the Sun," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Taxman" and others — were actually penned by "the quiet one."

George Harrison died of cancer in 2001, and since then, his son, Dhani, has kept his father's spirit alive in many ways. In 2014, he helped organize a charity tribute concert, just like his dad used to do, called George Fest: A Night to Celebrate the Music of George Harrison. It featured an eclectic mix of heavy-hitters like Brian Wilson, Norah Jones, The Flaming Lips and Cold War Kids — and this week, those performances were released as an album and concert film.

Dhani Harrison spoke with NPR's Eric Westervelt about how his relationship with his father grew into a relationship with music — and why it's sometimes hard when your loved one belongs to everyone. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Eric Westervelt: Back in 2002, you mounted a different tribute in London — the Concert for George, which featured Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and many others. The stars who played George Fest feel more like your peers.

Dhani Harrison: We never really got to do a tribute concert in America, per se, and we wanted to do a small club show — something where we could really get inside the songs and not have to be so rigid with sticking to the plan of how the original recordings were done. It's sort of the anti-Concert for George: a lot of deep tracks and a lot of young artists who've got really great takes on the songs themselves.

Do the different interpretations of your dad's music ever help you find any new insights into his work? Is there ever a moment when a song sort of reveals itself as something different than what you'd considered?

You know, I specifically liked Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's version of "The Art of Dying." I didn't realize that was like grunge until I saw BRMC play it; I was like, "Oh. This is a shoegazey grunge song!" They unlocked that song for me. Or, a thing that was really great was having female vocalists.

Yeah, I really liked Norah Jones' take on "Something." You reserved a few songs for yourself, including "Savoy Truffle." What do you like about that song?

Apparently, it was all about a box of chocolates! Good News was the [brand], so: " Coffee, dessert, yes, you know it's good news." It's basically just my dad rattling off the names in there. Someone actually made us savoy truffles in a really nice box, which I've got sitting on my desk in my office.

I imagine, as the child of a famous musician who is also his own musician, your relationship to your dad's music could be complicated — but you seem to have embraced his musical legacy. What has that journey to his music been like for you?

I guess I got lucky, because I got George Harrison! You know, it's good music, and I'm honored to be a part of his legacy. And also, we made so much music together, and spent so much time in the studio at my house in Friar Park, in Henley where I grew up. The studio was directly below my bedroom, so my floor has rattled my whole life. I would always go downstairs and just see what was going on. I remember the Traveling Wilburys there. So, I was very comfortable in the studio, and I kind of grew up learning how to produce and play. For me, it was facilitated very much by my dad, and we were best friends, so spending a lot of time in the studio with him was natural.

We were finishing a record together [when he died]. After he passed away, I got to work with Jeff Lynne, and I ended up finishing it with Jeff and kind of taking the role of my dad on, because there was no artist there to answer questions. That kind of left me in Los Angeles, and left me in a studio thinking, "Well, that was the most fun thing that I could be doing." So I kind of just carried on from there, making my own records and composing for film and TV. It just seemed like a logical step for me.

How great to grow up in an ecosystem where music is naturally part of your everyday life. You come down for tea, and maybe Jeff Lynne or Eric Clapton is in the kitchen.

And also, it offers you a different perspective on life to have these people around the house. It made going to school easier, because you wouldn't take yourself so seriously. You'd come home and Bob Dylan would be there or something.

The media image of your dad is of the spiritual, quiet Beatle who loved gardening, but we know it's more nuanced and complicated than that. He also loved absurdity, and he helped fund the Monty Python movie Life of Brian . How do you keep his spirit alive for yourself while having to, in effect, share his legacy with the rest of the world?

That is an interesting thing, actually. There's times when you feel like this person's getting taken away from you. Maybe you see them on an Apple billboard or something and you think, "Oh. He belongs to everyone." You know, you've just got to be quiet and go in the garden and meditate, and then you remember lots of other stuff that's personal and deeper.

But, yeah, when we released the Martin Scorsese documentary, there was a lot of press around that, and a lot of clips that people had edited together in their own way to make a little George Harrison compilation. That kind of weighs on your heart a little bit, and makes you feel disconnected. You just feel like everyone else. And it's a hard thing to understand unless you've had a parent who's passed away and who's been in the public eye. Sometimes you don't want to share them.

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