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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"All Things Must Pass," the life truth with which we all grapple

George Harrison's reflection on the ephemeral nature of life and the world takes on a more profound meaning on this day.

As I began thinking about today’s soundtrack selection, I simply wanted to write about a song I enjoyed. These past couple days haven’t been the greatest, and I just wanted to escape through music.

Well, I can definitely say I got halfway on that. I decided on one of my favorite tracks, but I couldn’t shake away the weight of the day on which I’m writing about it.

September 11 is always a difficult day, and it’s impossible to divorce whatever’s happening on that date in present times to what happened across American 20 years ago. In the context of the attacks and the memorials of those lost to them — including my aunt's dear friend Mark Bingham, who helped thwart the hijackers of Flight 93 — George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” becomes a eulogy for those lives taken far too soon and unnecessarily.

"All Things Must Pass" was written by Harrison during his time with the Beatles, and they demoed multiple versions of the tune during the Let It Be sessions before deciding to table it. Ultimately, the Beatles' "Get Back" collaborator Billy Preston released his soul-derived version of the song first in 1969, before Harrison released his take on his solo album of the same name a year later. His version features a calm backing interspersed with a hopeful horn line, inspired by his time spent with members of The Band in recent years. Harrison's slide guitar is one of the most distinctive instruments on the song, which also features the likes of former bandmate Ringo Starr on drums, Eric Clapton on guitar, and the aforementioned Preston with his serene piano chords. Clapton would form Derek and the Dominos (of "Layla" fame) during the album session, and Preston's piano on "All Things Must Pass" and "Isn't It A Pity" later inspired Chris Martin of Coldplay in his writing of "The Scientist."

The song originates, both in name and lyrics, from a poem by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of the school of thought known as Daoism (alternatively spelled Taoism). This poem was then adapted and translated by Harvard professor Timothy Leary, famed advocate of psychedelic drugs like LSD and coiner of the phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out." The "drop out" portion of that saying very much aligns with Daoist philosophies, as with it Leary advocated for "a commitment to mobility, choice, and change," as he wrote in his 1983 memoir Flashbacks. Similarly, Daoism values spontaneity when it comes from a selfless and unperturbed mind. The school of thought also emphasizes tapping in with the world's unplanned rhythms, essentially "going with the flow." Lao Tzu's poem reflects these viewpoints as it discusses the changing of nature and invites its reader to "[t]ake things as they come." Harrison adopted the first two non-title lines of the poem as his song's opening lyrics: "Sunrise doesn't last all morning / A cloudburst doesn't last all day."

I'm fascinated by Harrison's lyrics because of how they alternate between things we see as good and bad, those things we want to last and those we don't. Rather than simply focusing on the fact that darkness won't stick around forever, Harrison reminds us of the impermanence of anything and everything in our world. Through the repetition of the title in the chorus, he also encourages us to embrace this constant state of change — after all, we can't stay stuck in the past while the rest of the world moves forward.

The above idea also places this song in an interesting space in terms of memory and memorial, on which America focuses every September 11. As we remember the nearly 3,000 souls lost on that Tuesday morning in 2001, we struggle to simultaneously live in our present moment. The trouble is, the world doesn't stop for us when we want it to. Time moves in a constant direction and at a constant speed (note to my roommate: please, no relativity arguments today for the sake of my narration), and we have to be able to live at that speed at all times. Of course we can pay our respects, but we also can't let the past consume our entire present. We are more than capable of moving forward while honoring our history, and that's what we must do in order to continue improving our world.


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