The name George Harrison is usually not the first that comes to mind when we think of The Beatles. Known as the “quiet Beatle”, despite being the lead guitarist Harrison was often overshadowed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. However, in the mid-1960s Harrison came forward as a songwriter. Among the songs composed by Harrison, one in particular stands apart from the usual Beatles sound – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Over 50 years have passed since the track was first released but it remains popular as ever, prompting us to look back at the song’s origin.
Originally released in 1968, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was the seventh track on side one of The Beatles’ self-titled album also known as ‘The White Album’. The track was composed after The Beatles’ visit to India in the spring of ‘68, where they studied Transcendental Meditation. Indian culture and Eastern philosophy had a profound impact on Harrison which he incorporated into his songwriting. The track was first arranged in the style of folk music but was later recorded in the heavy rock style.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was a track that almost didn’t make it to ‘The White Album’. Initially, the rest of The Beatles were not too keen on recording the song, resulting in a take that Harrison was unsatisfied with. That was when he decided to bring in Eric Clapton – guitarist of the British rock band Cream and Harrison’s long-time friend. Understandably, Clapton had his own reservations about coming amidst The Beatles. Harrison nonetheless convinced him, bringing to life one of the greatest guitar solos ever played. Harrison recalled the events which led to the collaboration;
“When we got into things like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, we recorded it one night and there was such a lack of enthusiasm. So I went home really disappointed because I knew the song was good. The next day I brought Eric Clapton with me. He was really nervous. I was saying, ‘Just come and play on the session, then I can sing and play acoustic guitar.’ Eric was nervous saying, ‘No, what will they say?’ And I was saying, ‘F*ck ‘em, that’s my song.’ You know, he was the first non-Beatle person who’d ever played on anything.”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was one of the songs from ‘The White Album’ that left behind an impressive legacy. It is listed as #10 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Beatles Songs and featured on the magazine’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The contribution by Clapton ensured that the track is also recognized for its guitar performance, holding #7 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time as well.
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The Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
The lyrics of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” appear to be quite nonsensical at first. But in truth, they are a reflection of philosophical beliefs of Harrison. The song is about potential; speaking of a love that mankind is capable of yet is no longer a part of their lives. And so Harrison laments this lost love. It is the instrument featured in the song’s title – the guitar – that joins him in this mourning.
“I look at you all
See the love there that’s sleeping”
Harrison begins to unfold his philosophical outlook right from the onset of this song. At the time of composing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” he was reading ‘I Ching’, the Chinese book of changes, and decided to apply the principle of relativism found in it to a song. Inspiration for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” struck when Harrison opened a book randomly and saw the phrase “gently weeps”.
It is the idea that every single thing has a purpose and a meaning that resonates throughout the song. Harrison sings of the love that lies dormant within all humans and bemoans that it is not expressed. He recognizes the potential for love, comparing it to a floor that’s waiting to be swept. In contrast to the universality of love he describes, the comparison is somewhat mundane. However, it is drawn from ordinary life, implying perhaps that love can be found in everyday ordinary things. So Harrison weeps for love lost – not romantically but spiritually – while his guitar keeps him company.
“I don’t know why nobody told you
How to unfold your love”
The second verse asks some hard-hitting questions from the listener. Harrison first wonders why people no longer know how to love. Here he criticizes the sad state of a world where people learn everything but how to love each other. Next, he questions why people let themselves be controlled by materialism – bought and sold being the description used.
Harrison is dismayed by the fact that people would regard money above love, yet it seemed to him the way that the world was going. This aspect must have especially stood out after his visit to India, where philosophy and religion advise against materialism and excess. So Harrison, accompanied by Clapton on guitar, continues to mourn for a world that would rather have money than love.
“I look at the world and I notice it’s turning”
The third verse is more of an acceptance of the way things are. The lyrics convey that as time passes people would learn from the mistakes made. Yet Harrison’s cynicism shines through these lines. The guitar does not stop weeping, indicating that he did not believe that the world will become a better place.
The fourth verse is preceded by one of Clapton’s best guitar solos to date. One could say that this performance definitely lives up to being one of the only outside collaborations that made it into a Beatles record.
“I don’t know how you were diverted
You were perverted too”
The fourth verse follows a simple Bob Dylan style ‘abab’ rhyming scheme and the lines are often interpreted in two ways. Firstly, in keeping with the theme of the rest of the song, the lyrics express how people have moved away from love into a more wayward path of materialism. Harrison believed that to be a deviation from the natural path of mankind.
The other interpretation, often agreed upon by some critics and fans, is that these lines are Harrison’s way of censuring The Beatles. The dissonance between the way Lennon and McCartney carried on as opposed to how Harrison wanted the band to be was a point of contention. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a record that epitomized that lack of harmony.
For example, for Harrison, the visit to India was cathartic and life-changing. Upon return, he was able to pick up the guitar and compose some of the best music we’ve heard from The Beatles. Yet for McCartney and Lennon, it was simply a waste of time. Harrison believed that The Beatles were losing their spirit and the soul of their music to commercialism and these lines are an indication of how far they veered from that path.
“Look at you all
Still my guitar gently weeps”
The last verse is a repetition of the first. If we were to go by the previous interpretation, then the final lines of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is not just Harrison mourning the unrealized potential for love. It is also a dirge for his fellow bandmates; he’s looking at them as his guitar continues to cry out for all the lost potential The Beatles had as musicians.
No matter how we choose to look at “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, it is undeniable that this track is a true masterpiece. Leaving aside one of the best guitar solos of the time, the song stands out on its own merit. The lyrics, deceptive in their simplicity, are an exercise in conveying deep thoughts through the plainest of terms. It was also a significant triumph for George Harrison who came to realize his own potential as a songwriter among the other talented members of The Beatles.
Compared to other songs by the band, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Yet it certainly earned a well-deserved spot as one of the greatest Beatles songs ever!
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.