Isn’t It A Pity (Live In Japan) (1992)
If the 20th century were to be given a memorial service and a closing song chosen, “Isn’t It A PIty” is not merely the best, but the only, candidate. It embraces with a tear-jerking honesty all the sorrows and triumphs of a long, convoluted period in history.
It also serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone for the story of The Beatles as seen through the lens of a phenomenally gifted songwriter who had to take a back seat to two even more gifted men.
On top of that, it brings together George Harrison and Eric Clapton (above) who struggled through a spine-cracking love triangle with Pattie Boyd, once Harrison’s wife and then, after the fall, Clapton’s. (A story told on Layla And Other Love Songs, shaped especially exquisitely on “Little Wing.”)
“Isn’t It A Pity”
Yet the work doesn’t feel in the least bit harsh, cynical or sentimental, but lean and matter-of-fact. It is all things Zen. It is George Harrison. It reminds us that regardless of who you are, the world breaks your heart.
The live version recorded in Japan while George toured with Eric Clapton is one of the loftiest pinnacles of Rock-N-Roll performance music. While the two versions on All Things Must Pass are superb, different from one another, the emotional pitch of the Japanese tour
rendition surpasses the studio tracks.
The music swirls and spins hypnotically, like a sacred song from the Sama Veda collection of liturgical chants. But “Isn’t It A Pity” is squarely in the Western Humanistic canon. If there is such a thing as a secular hymn to goodness, forgiveness and humility, Harrison’s song is it.
Layers and layers of music shift and swell, fall and rise, ask the listener to ride the long, seagoing instrumentals and the hummmm of voices that drone in the positive sense of the word.
And then there is the guitar playing of Clapton and the “shy Beatle.” Both musicians turn in some of the most outstanding work of their careers. It is easy to hear how the interplay begs comparison to the Clapton-Duane Allman duetting on Layla.
Clapton is at his crispest. His notes are sharp and clear, and, for once, he is able to step down off the mountain and play sideman to George. On George’s part, his slide guitar swoops and dips, gives your stomach the feeling you get when you first take a big drop on a roller coaster. You’re weightless but in gravity’s grip. You’re free but earthbound.
The rhythms by Nathan East on bass, Steve Ferrone on drums and Ray Cooper on percussion evoke the Raga Rock past of the mid- to late-1960s that was particularly favored by many British bands, but American groups, too: The Beatles in many Harrison songs; The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” and The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” Though, the sound is streamlined, waxed, polished and as ’90s as can be.
Possibly because he was more constrained under the Fab Four’s pop regimen, (hits were important to them), George’s voice seems at last to come alive and find a soulful timbre. He sounds like a true believer, a beleaguered soul on a journey that could be the road to Golgotha, Mount Kailash where (left) Shiva sits and destroys worlds of ignorance and mass confusion, or just the daily laboring road of billions of struggling people anywhere on Earth.
Of course, Harrison has written and sung many beautiful, enduringly enchanting and moving songs. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes The Sun,” and “Beware Of Darkness” are among his timeless contributions to the modern songbook. George inevitably brings clarity and unaffected sincerity plus a deep love of the world to his singing.
While “Isn’t It A Pity” was presented to the rest of The Beatles a number of times beginning in 1966, first for the future Revolver, it never made the cut. It wasn’t chosen for Get Back, the album that later became Let It Be. It’s quite possible that in 1966 there indeed was too much of a drive to produce crowd-pleasers, and that even for such an innovative album, the tune was just too far beyond the pale. In 1969-’70, the band was in such disarray, it’s a wonder the Let It Be project was finished. Let It Be contains two of Harrison’s lesser creations, which are nonetheless fun, “I Me Mine” and “Yer Blues.” But neither approach the great weight of “Pity.”
Ironically, the song became an anthem for the demise of The Beatles. The four boys who were slung into the international spotlight and managed to create twelve supernaturally excellent albums probably could not have lasted much longer, anyway. Competing egos, a dismissiveness toward the brilliance of Harrison, the offensiveness of the harshness that so bothered Ringo, the interloping Yoko Ono, and a John Lennon much too big for his britches would have spelled doom if not in ’70, then surely shortly thereafter.
The bittersweetness of looking back at a near decade of genius in popular music, though, left Harrison with a renewed fervor in “Isn’t It A Pity.” And you know – just know – when he sang it thereafter, his thoughts were often on his murdered “big brother,” Lennon.
Some things take so long
But how do I explain
When not too many people
Can see we’re all the same
The close of “Isn’t It A Pity,” which arrives amidst much wailing of guitars, thrashing of percussion, and bouquets of colorful back-up vocals is an endearing, if slightly obvious, homage to “Hey Jude.”
Instead of the instantly recognizable “Nah-nah’s” of that earlier song, we are asked to bear witness to the sublime pain of a life lived to the fullest. You swear you can hear Paul McCartney doing his Jump Blues shouts somewhere but it is George…nodding his head at his other brother.
In the background, Clapton plays incandescently. He speeds up, he slows down. He mourns. He celebrates. Even “god” seems grateful to be in the moment.
Making up at last for stealing his close friend’s wife? Who knows what conversations were had in the heat of rivalry and on the continuing, suffering road the pair shared. The level of connection between the two men is, to coin a phrase, electric.
It ends all too soon simply with:
What a pity
What a pity, pity, pity
What a pity
What a pity, pity, pity
- In some crowd patter, George says, “I’d like to thank the band and Eric for making me come to Japan,” a reference to the last time Harrison toured, in 1974, a disaster.
- The Eric Clapton Band, which backs both Clapton and Harrison on “Isn’t It A Pity,” is made up of members who have also performed with Roger Waters, Stevie Wonder, Joe Satriani, Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, BeeGees, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Slash, Tom Petty, Duran Duran and Elton John. Whew.