The Common Good

George Harrison: From 'Taxman' to 'I Me Mine'

Winston Churchill famously said, “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”

Churchill was out of power by the time his countrymen, George Harrison and the Beatles, released “Taxman” on their Revolver album in 1966. New Prime Minister Harold Wilson had introduced a 95-percent supertax on the wealthiest Brits, including the Beatles. Harrison’s song was and remains a perfect Right-wing caricature of the Left. I can almost hear Bill O’Reilly singing an attack on President Obama’s plan to “ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more.”

Should five percent appear too small

Be thankful I don’t take it all

‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman

Don’t ask me what I want it for

If you don’t want to pay some more

‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman

"'Taxman’ was when I first realised that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes,” George wrote in his 1980 autobiography.

Ironically, the book was named for another one of his songs “I Me Mine” – every bit as biting as “Taxman,” but with a very different target – the sort of self-professed “self-made man” who might have written a song like “Taxman.”

No one’s frightened of playing it,

everyone’s saying it

Flowing more freely than wine:

All through the day, “I me mine!”

In the mid-60s, songs like “Taxman” and “Think for Yourself” show Harrison as a fierce individualist. But by the end of the Beatles in 1969 – “I Me Mine” was the last original song they recorded together – George had undergone a spiritual transformation that made him perhaps everybody’s favorite Beatle by the time of his death on Nov. 29, 2001.

It wasn’t like he had suddenly decided that government was perfectly efficient in the way it was spending his tax payments. It wasn’t like he was getting older and losing his brains, as Churchill might have said.

“It was and still is typical,” George wrote of his high tax bills in 1980. But, as George got older, it seems the taxman was less and less important to him. By the time of “I Me Mine,” he had embraced a kind of communitarianism that echoed throughout his songs as he grew in his Hinduism. Maybe he was ready to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what was God’s, because money just wasn’t that important to him anymore.

“'I Me Mine' is the ego problem,” George said on the Beatles Anthology. “There is nothing that isn’t part of the complete whole. When the little ‘i’ merges into the big ‘I’ then you are really smiling!”

As early as 1967, George was quoting Jesus (who, you might recall, got himself into some trouble by being too nice to the taxman) in the song “Within You, Without You” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:

We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold

And the people who gain the world and lose their souls

The time will come, when you see that we’re all one

And life goes on within you and without you

After the shock of seeing most of his paycheck get gobbled up by the government, I imagine that George came to see he was only able to gain the world because he was part of a society that embraced his music. Whatever monetary value it had, it was given by the collective. In and of itself, the music had no value, at least not in an economic sense. Maybe writing another song like “Taxman” would feel a bit like losing your soul at that point.

When you sense that you’re constantly receiving grace, it’s a lot easier to offer it, even to the taxman. With due respect to Churchill, I’d call George an old Liberal with brains and heart. Rest in peace, George.

Jesse James DeConto spent 11 years as a newspaper reporter and editor with the Xenia (Ohio) Daily Gazette, thePortsmouth (N.H.) Herald and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He now works as a contributing editor for Prism magazine and a regular contributor to The Christian Century. He blogs at http://jessejamesdeconto.com.

The taxman, © maximma | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

 

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