Bittersweet Tales of "Isn't It a Pity"
by: Denise Sullivan
July 22, 2010
From its humble beginning ("Isn't it a pity? / Now, isn't it a
shame?"), to its bitter end ("What a pity, what a pity"), "Isn't It a
Pity", by notorious spiritual seeker and light-bringer George
Harrison, offers no hope or relief from bleak truths its narrator
comes to speak. The song's dark matter came to my attention recently
when I heard a new version of it by Bettye LaVette, who's added her
voice to the distinguished chorus that's chosen to interpret the
song. Which set me wondering: How is it that a dour little
lamentoffering no respite from life's shadow sidebecame one of
Harrison's most reinterpreted and beloved rock classics?
It was 40 years ago this summer that Harrison took to the studio with
Phil Spector to cut his solo debut masterwork, All Things Must Pass,
on which two versions of "Isn't It a Pity" appear. As if fans of the
quiet one had any doubt, Harrison and his number one triple album
proved he was no third wheel or little brother in the Lennon and
McCartney hit-making partnership; rather, he was a self-sufficient
songman, capable of executing his own luscious melodies with
depth-filled themes to spare. Harrison had been saving up his Beatles
rejects from at least 1966, from which it is supposed "Isn't it a
Pity" dates back. According to Richie Unterberger who scrutinized the
band's demos in his book, The Unreleased Beatles, "Isn't It a Pity"
shows up in the logbooks for the first time during the January 1969
Apple Studios dates for Let It Be (also known as the Get Back sessions).
Unterberger writes, "[Harrison] also reveals that 'Isn't it a Pity'
was about three years old at this point, but had been cursorily
rejected by John Lennon." Lennon famously mocked Harrison again upon
the release of All Things Must Pass in 1970, but public response to
Harrison's work told the tale in the end. As the last Beatle to weigh
in as a solo act, Harrison's album, as well as its devotional first
single "My Sweet Lord", was more successful than any other Beatles
solo effort to date.
Standing at number one in the US for weeks in 1970, All Things Must
Pass marked an auspicious beginning for solo Harrison, while all
these decades later, the Beatles reject "Isn't It a Pity" emerged as
the most cultish/covered song from it.
As it happens there's a George and Ira Gerswhin standard about love
at long last with the same title: "Fishing for salmon, losing at
backgammon… my nights were sour spent with Schopenhauer," is how that
one goes, but Harrison's "Pity" offers more pith than playfulness,
which suits the kind of singers who've interpreted it just fine.
"Isn't It a Pity" has been rendered by names with a similar heaviness
of heart as Harrison's, artists as extreme as Eric Clapton and his
ax, Nina Simone and her sharp tongue, and Harrison's fifth Beatle
buddy, Billy Preston; it also sopped up the more mild and depressive
styles of Galaxie 500 and Elliott Smith.
I believe it's somewhere between the lines in those top-notch
versions (there are others), where the seeker's question rather than
any answers to it surface as the song's genius. The quiet compliance,
in accordance with what is, instead of what if, what isn't, and what
could be, is the element that inspires its beautiful sadness. No
"sun, sun, sun here we come," no "I say, it's all right" or Hare
Krishnas on offer here: It's pure catharsis, a free-flowing,
unrelenting emotional cleansing where "Isn't It a Pity" strikes the
chords of pain.
"I just liked it," claims pain-bringing song specialist LaVette,
whose version appears on her latest collection of songs,
Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Among her album's 13
tracks, including rock standards by Traffic, the Who, the Moody
Blues, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr, "Isn't It a Pity" is the
sleeping giant that awakensthen tearsthe roof off the project.
"When I slowed it down, it seemed to bring out the parts of it I
likedwhich is the story," she says. "I think it's quite different
from the original." Explaining to the arranger that she wanted the
story out front, "I told the bass player I wanted him to be the
heartbeat and be the only thing that played consistently. I wanted
the bass to sound like the only thing keeping us alive. And I told
the guitarist I wanted him to be the painand to get a moaning lick
for me every once in awhile. I wanted it very sparse like that. Other
than that, I wanted it to sound like we're all dying." As in, hopeless.
Back in 1972, Nina Simone was among the first to hear the life and
death urgency of Harrison's missive when she cut "Isn't It a Pity" on
her quasi-live document, Emergency Ward. Consisting of just four
songs, side one pairs "My Sweet Lord" as a medley with the power-poem
"Today Is a Killer" by the Last Poets, while side two features
"Poppies" (concerned with heroin abuse) and a piano version of "Isn't
It a Pity." Performed in her "High Priestess of Soul Protest" era,
Simone connects the dots between Harrison's phrases, leaving no room
for doubt about what she perceives to be the pity and shame of it all.
"Mankind has been so programmed, they don't care 'bout nothing that
has to do with care, c-a-r-e," she elaborates. "Forgetting to give
back," states Harrison, while Simone's improvisation counters with,
"Because we're moving so fast…We do it everyday just to reach some
financial goals." And so forth.
There were versions in between, though none worth really mentioning
till Dean Wareham and Damon and Naomi recorded itback when they were
still the trio Galaxie 500. They took it slow alright, which was
their way. That Harrison's song resonated for emotional indie-rock
pioneers like them and Elliott Smith should come as no surprise now,
though by the time Smith got hold of it, the song seems positively
tragic (though perhaps that's only in light of the way in which he
ended his life).
"What a pity, what a pity, what a pity" goes the original, at points
echoing the refrain of "Hey Jude"or might we conclude it's the other
way around, given the 1966 provenance of Harrison's song? As sung at
the Tribute to George concert in 2002, that connection is only all
the more stunning as delivered by Harrison's son, Dhani (you can't
miss their likeness in the clip). With Harrison's friends Eric
Clapton, Billy Preston, Jeff Lynne, and the others lined up that
night, you might call this performance of the song the ultimate
oxymoron: A supergroup version of a one man's humble
lamentationthough surely it served to please Harrison's beloved
Krishna and all the Hindu love gods who favored him, as well as the
good man himself. And the heavenly choir has yet to abate (apparently
there is a Facebook page dedicated entirely to "Isn't It a Pity").
Not even nine years since Harrison's been goneand yet, "because of
all their tears / Their eyes can't hope to see / The beauty that
surrounds them." Seems us stupid humans will be singing this one
until it no longer needs to be sung. "Isn't it a pity?"