The song is believed to have been written as early as the summer of 1966, when The Beatles were leaving behind live performance and moving into their next phase of more elaborate recording – their own creative rebirth. ‘Art Of Dying’ expressed Harrison’s desire at that time to move beyond fame and seek out a greater meaning in life.
Indeed, Harrison’s original handwritten lyrics, as reproduced in his autobiography I Me Mine, show that the the opening lines were: “There’ll come a time when all of us must leave here/Then nothing Mr Epstein can do will keep me here with you”. In the final version, ‘Mr Epstein’ was reborn as ‘Sister Mary’, possibly a reference to Harrison’s Catholic upbringing and Paul McCartney’s Mother Mary.
As kids, we were always encouraged to find out for ourselves what we believed in, and what was right and wrong. Our family were Catholics, but we always had a global outlook. We were spiritual, not religious as such. George didn’t change as a person after he went to India; he was the same as he’d always been. But he became a passionate apostle for what he had found there, and was very keen to spread the word.
You Never Give Me Your Money, Peter Doggett
Harrison became interested in Indian philosophy and religion in the mid-Sixties, and ‘Art Of Dying’ shows his belief in reincarnation and the need to live a better life in order to avoid the soul returning to Earth for “a million years of crying”. In Hindu teaching, the self or soul (atman) is repeatedly reborn until reaching moksha – a state of self-realisation, self-actualisation and self-knowledge, and freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Everybody is worried about dying, but the cause of death (which most can’t figure out unless they are diseased) is birth, so if you don’t want to die you don’t get born! So the ‘art of dying’ is when somebody can consciously leave the body at death, as opposed to falling down dying without knowing what’s going on. The Yogi who does that (Maha-samadhi) doesn’t have to reincarnate again.
They say the thing about the chicken and the egg, and they don’t know which comes first – and the seed growing into a tree, which produces seeds which grow into trees. This is Karma, the law of action-reaction – (‘God is not mocked – for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’1 – so every action has an equal and opposite reaction, which is like the chicken and the egg, each is a reaction to the other. And the only way you escape the chain of Karma, going round and round again, is if you get the seed and you roast it so it can’t germinate (or fry the egg).
So, symbolically, the fire burns out the ‘seed’. We have to first of all not create more Karma – that is, more actions and reactions – like throwing a pebble into a clear lake, the ripples keep on going. Every thought, word, action or deed that we have is like sending a ripple out across the Universe and it does eventually come back. Whatever you do, it comes right back on you.
So, first of all is the process of trying not to create big reactions – you see ‘Apple’ and the ‘Beatles’, the whole trip we have gone through, has been like throwing boulders into the lake – because everything comes bouncing back and ties you up forever, or for as long as it takes to untie it.
1 Galatians, chapter 6, verse 7.
I Me Mine
When you’re born, your life (past Karma) is like a piece of string with knots in it and you’ve got to try, before you die, to undo all the knots: but you tie another twenty trying to get one undone.
So in ‘Karma’ we try to burn it out (fulfil desires) and that finally is only possible when we have reached a very advanced spiritual level. The ‘Saviour’ – the ‘Sat-Guru’ – comes at that point in time, and He takes on your remaining Karma. They say ‘a strong man can help carry a weak man’s load’, so the spiritual masters take on their disciples’ Karma and ‘burn’ it out sometimes through their own bodies, in order that it will no longer recur, in order we become perfected. That is another reason for Christ’s suffering. He took on others’ Karma in his own body as the ‘Saviour’.
There will come a time when all of us must leave here (death) – and whatever anybody tries to do about it there is no way you will be able to avoid that eventuality. The last verse says:
There will come a time when most of us return here (reincarnation)
Brought back by our desire to be a perfect entity
Well our soul’s desire is perfection. The last thought or desire that we have as we are leaving our physical bodies, that (thought or desire) is the motivation for rebirth. It’s all right going through your life forgetting about God and then, as you are dying, hoping to be able to remember Him then, or remember something that is liberating. You have to practise all your life as you are likely to be in great pain as you are leaving your body – which could be at any moment. I mean I don’t want to be lying there as I’m dying thinking ‘Oh shit, I forgot to put the cat out’, or ‘I didn’t get a Rolls-Royce’ because then you may have to come right back just to do those things, and then you have got more knots on your piece of string.
I Me Mine
In the studio
Accompanying himself on a guitar in Studio Three, Harrison played Spector fifteen songs he had written, to allow the producer to assess their suitability for further recording.
The performances were recorded without Harrison’s knowledge. Fewer than half of the songs – ‘Run Of The Mill’, ‘Art Of Dying’, ‘Wah-Wah’, ‘Beware Of Darkness’, ‘Let It Down’, ‘Hear Me Lord’, ‘If Not For You’ – made it to All Things Must Pass.
‘Art Of Dying’ is one of the album’s tracks which deployed Spector’s Wall of Sound to its greatest extent. Recording began on 29 May 1970 with Ringo Starr on drums, but the final version was take 26, taped on 1 July.
It was awesome when we were doing ‘Art Of Dying’, Eric on that wah-wah and it was all cooking, Derek and the Dominos with George Harrison.
Bobby Whitlock: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Autobiography
In the liner notes of the 2001 reissue of All Things Must Pass, Harrison belatedly thanked Phil Collins for his performance on the song.
A lot of people new to me came into the sessions, I know not how; the most famous being Phil Collins. During one such session, Phil was allegedly playing congas on ‘Art Of Dying’, and although it’s taken me thirty years I would like to thank him for his participation.
At some point in the making of the album, a three-disc set of production acetates was pressed. This did not include any of the ‘Apple Jam’ recordings, but instead contained the following running order, kicking off with ‘Art Of Dying’:
This Side: ‘Art Of Dying’, ‘Apple Scruffs’, ‘The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)’, ‘Awaiting On You All’, ‘All Things Must Pass’
That Side: ‘I Dig Love’, ‘What Is Life’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ (Version 2), ‘Hear Me Lord’
And Another Side: ‘I’d Have You Anytime’, ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ (Version One), ‘Beware Of Darkness’
The Other Side: ‘Wah-Wah’, ‘If Not For You’, ‘Behind That Locked Door’, ‘Let It Down’, ‘Run Of The Mill’