George Harrison February 25, 1943-November 30, 2001
“Watch out now,”Take care, beware the thoughts that lingerWinding up inside your headThe hopelessness around youIn the dead of nightBeware of sadness.” –”Beware Of Darkness”
I feel like I’ve just lost a member of my family. Maybe I haven’t made such a big deal out of my love for the Beatles lately, mainly because of their current omni-presence, but also because they are such a part of my psyche that it almost seems redundant to listen to their music or talk about them anymore. I wasn’t even being thought of when they broke up, but when I finally discovered them it opened up a whole world of music to me. Suddenly music wasn’t just something that was played by my parents when there was nothing else to do. (Yeah, I found them VERY early on.) It was something that would take me to a different place and show me worlds that I may never see for myself.
Now, though, I know their music so well, it’s such an ingrained part of me that I don’t have to listen to it as much. All I have to do is think of the song title and it’s all right there. Every drum beat. Every word. And every guitar chord.
And that’s what we’re here to talk about. That guitar. Today the guitar weeps for its owner who has left it alone all too early.
George Harrison died last night, succumbing to the cancer that has been with him since the late 90s. He was 58.
I guess we all knew it was coming, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. We’ve lost another member of the most popular and greatest rock band in history. But I guess they weren’t only that. They were a part of our world. And, while George may not have been the most famous or most talked about (which at times kind of got to him) he was still one of the most talented people in the world and, from what everyone has ever said about him, one of the nicest guys you could ever want to meet.
His transformation from The Quiet Beatle to The Spiritual Beatle to The Dark Horse was a rocky and interesting one. He was the youngest of the Beatles and was barely allowed to join them at the age of 14. And, in fact, because of his age he got the boys kicked out of Hamburg. Not before they were able to perfect their sound and become the band we all know and love today.
As time went on and the Beatles became an international phenomenon, George started to want to get his own songs recorded. He got to sing occasionally (“Chains” and “Do You Want To Know A Secret” on Please Please Me), but John and Paul were always a little reluctant to record his original songs. They finally let him put out “Don’t Bother Me” on With The Beatles. He didn’t get another Harrison-original until Help! in 1965 (“I Need You” and “You Like Me Too Much”), George got at least one song on each album after that. He still never got an A-side to a single until “Something” in 1969. But we’ll get to that.
In 1964, on the set of A Hard Day’s Night (the Beatles first movie, in case you’re a total newbie to the Beatles), George me his first wife, Patti Boyd. A few years later she introduced him (and, in effect, the rest of the boys) to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This started George down his road towards spiritual enlightenment and the rest of the Western world down its road towards a love for Eastern mysticism and music. George introduced us to the sitar on John’s “Norwegian Wood” in 1965 (Rubber Soul) and brought the rest of the Eastern world to us with his own “Love You To” the next year (Revolver, which had an unprecedented THREE Harrison songs on it).
This began the real era (short as it was) of psychedelia, which the Beatles brought to a culmination with the Sgt. Pepper album. That was also the year of their flight to India to meet the Maharishi in person. They were all disillusioned, but George remained faithful to the spiritual guidance of the Krishna viewpoint.
1968 brought the White Album and George’s first real masterpiece, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The song, with lead guitar by George’s best friend outside the band, Eric Clapton, brought all of the world’s woes through the viewpoint of a wailing guitar that just can’t stop crying for the pain it sees.
But the next year was the real watershed for George. With two songs on Abbey Road he summed up the end of the 60s and pure love. “Here Comes The Sun” acknowledged the passing of the Summer Of Love and the paranoia that followed, but it said that everything will be alright. The sun is coming and soon we will all be ok.
But “Something” is the real masterwork here. Frank Sinatra once called it “the greatest love song of all time.” It’s lyrics show an unconditional love even though he can’t quite put his finger on why it’s there. It’s just something about her.
Unfortunately Patti wouldn’t feel the same way for long. In 1970 Eric Clapton would covertly pronounce his love for his friend’s wife with his album with Derek And The Dominos, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. By 1974 George’s first marriage would be over and Eric would take his place. Amazingly they remained friends throughout George’s life. This is a testament to his strength and spiritualism. I’m not so sure that I could do that.
In 1970 the Beatles were officially over and George was the first to help his fans through it with the release of the three record All Things Must Pass. Critics and fans alike were stunned. It went to number one and had two very big hits, “My Sweet Lord” (also number one) and “What Is Life.” The album caused a lot of people to wonder if John and Paul were just keeping George down because they knew he was more talented than they were.
As it turned out All Things Must Pass was a release of pent up emotions and frustration from years of being delegated to back-up. None of George’s subsequent releases would live up to the mastery of this one. He would have the occasional hit (“Give Me Love,” “I Got My Mind Set On You,” etc.), but none would have the power of anything from All Things Must Pass.
This was also a release of great despair for George. “My Sweet Lord” was ruled a plagiarism of The Chiffons’ old hit, “He’s So Fine.” It was unconscious, but it was still pretty much the same song.
Soon after George heard about the famine in Bangladesh from Ravi Shankar. This caused him to create the first benefit concert which was recorded for posterity on the triple album The Concert For Bangladesh. Along with Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Shankar and many others, he raised a few million dollars. Unfortunately that money would not get to Bangladesh until the early 80s because of legal entanglements.
Throughout the 70s George would release a lot of albums, but none would be as big as All Things Must Pass, although 1974′s Dark Horse was a pretty big hit. Around this time George met his second wife, Olivia. In 1978 they had a son, Dhani.
After the 1980 murder of John Lennon, George was left kind of shattered. He was rarely seen without bodyguards. I read somewhere that he never made up with John, but he was on both the Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums and they were together the night that Lorne Michaels came on Saturday Night Live to try to get the Beatles back together, so I’m not sure when they broke apart. He did, however, never play with Paul again until the reunion of the Anthology series. (If I’m wrong on this please correct me, but I don’t think they actually recorded together until then.)
Through the 80s George’s recording sessions got more sporadic. He occasionally got nostalgic (Somewhere In England’s “All Those Years Ago” and Cloud 9′s “When We Was Fab”), but he never really caught the same groove that he had in the early days.
He seemed to be more interested in his hobbies like producing films, gardening and racing cars.
His most successful hobby was the producing. In the 70s he formed a bond with Monty Python that never ended. He helped produce Holy Grail (one of the funniest films ever made) and nearly single handedly got Life Of Brian made. (It was too controversial for anyone until George came along with his own company, Handmade Films.) He went on to be a producer of some of Terry Gilliam’s early films (Time Bandits and Brazil) and helped Eric Idle make the Beatle parody band, The Rutles, into a full-length feature. He once said that All You Need Is Cash was closer to the real history of the Beatles than any serious biographer had ever gotten. He even appears in it as an interviewer.
And, of course, being friends with the Pythoners means that he had a great sense of humor. His music sometimes shows it, too. Listen to his impression of Lili von Shtupp in “Crackerbox Palace.”
In 1987 he managed a feat that no one really thought was possible. With Cloud 9′s “I Got My Mind Set On You” he found himself back on the top of the charts. It was a cover of an old song and wasn’t his best performance, but it was good enough for the public at the time and it helped to remind us all that the other half of the Beatles could still be a viable source of real entertainment. Not long after that he helped form The Traveling Wilburys with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. The blend of the five guys’ talents also caught the public’s consciousness and became a huge hit at the end of the 80s. Their second album (Vol. 3) didn’t do so well without Roy’s operatic voice.
The 90s were a time for reflection for George. His only album was 1992′s Live In Japan and it wasn’t very well received. It really wasn’t until 1998 that people really remembered that he was still around when he told the world that he was being treated for throat cancer. But it was handled and soon forgotten about. But in 1999 he was brutally attacked in his own home and stabbed multiple times, which resulted in a punctured lung. Only Olivia’s quick thinking (she knocked their attacker out with a fireplace poker) saved his life.
Earlier this year George was re-admitted to a hospital to be treated for cancer. Even though he said that everything was ok a lot of us knew that things probably weren’t going so well for our favorite guitar god.
So now here we sit, less one Beatle. We Beatle fanatics are kind of a little family, you know? Especially those of us who weren’t around when they were. We sometimes feel like we have to prove our love for these four guys, so we sometimes go a little overboard. I know three other people who are as fanatic as I am and only one is over 26. Most other people are ok with just hearing the music. We have to get to know the men behind the music. And now there are only two.
So now we’ll get together and share our memories and hopefully do what George probably would have wanted us to do: not mourn his passing, but celebrate his life. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s something I can hear him saying. As many of his friends and family have reported, he was not afraid of death. He saw it as a new journey. He fully believed in reincarnation. And if there is such a thing, he is on a higher plane now.
All Things Must Pass ended up being a fitting epithet for George, the song and the album. I know a lot of his fans will listen to that album over and over looking for solace and somewhere I hope they find it. I think they will.
So long, Dark Horse. We were glad to know you.
Catch up with George and The Beatles here:
(PS–As good as some of the Best Of collections of The Beatles are, don’t settle for them. Get the whole damn catalog. It’s worth it. George’s solo stuff is a little more spotty. But All Things Must Pass is a must. The Best Of collection is good enough for a casual fan after that. Unfortunately, The Best Of Dark Horse is out of print, else that would be enough to get through the later years. Except for Brainwashed, his final musical statement. That’s quite good.)