THERE IT IS, New York Times, front page, above-the-fold. George is dead.
Even an editorial about George from the Times' stuffy editors. A second Beatle death is awful to fans who see another piece of the puzzle disappearing each year. Two Beach Boys are dead. Jerry Garcia is dead. Read the New York Times obituaries on a regular basis and some lesser known performer is dead. Those who survive are nearly eligible for social security, as if they need it.
George was one of the truly interesting stars of his era. While among the granddaddies of psychedelic music, unlike other hippies who mastered only that domain, George's best stuff came later. His image as "the quiet Beatle" meshed with his refusal to sell out. When George grew tired of recording in 1982, he didn't bite the bullet and pump out the same old crap like the Rolling Stones and other has-beenauts. George instead issued a half-assed album, Gone Troppo (the local music mag when I was growing up called it "Gone Floppo"), declined to promote it in any way and pursued extracurricular interests -- movie-producing, auto racing and, to offset the excitement, gardening while vowing never to reunite the Beatles. The early 1980's were not an exiting time for rock music, and, in pulling the plug for a few years, George probably saved himself a lot of embarrassment. Sort of like Lennon's "retirement" in the late 1970's.
George once said the Beatles would not reunite so long as "John Lennon remains dead." I always marveled about this comment. Anyone else would say, "out of respect for John Lennon, the Beatles find it inappropriate to regroup." As the thought of reforming the Beatles without Lennon is utterly preposterous, George's comment hit the bulls-eye.
More than a few of Harrison's contemporaries could learn a thing or two from his vow never to profit from the past. Unlike the whores who never seem to have enough money, George never let corporate America exploit his songs. If I see another luxury car whiz around a mountainous cliff to the wizardry of Jimi Hendrix, the TV goes out the window. Think about the integrity that compels a man to reject perhaps millions of dollars to have "Here Comes the Sun" advertize, say, Florida vacations or suntan lotion. You know that some schmuck on Madison Avenue has thought of this. Praise the lord that Michael Jackson, who owns the rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalogue, owns none of George Harrison's songs (he created his own publishing company, Harrisongs, in the 1960's).
George was also one of the few rock stars with the guts to condemn the Gulf War. At a time when 80 percent of Americans and God knows how many Britons cheered as our boys pummeled innocent children in Iraq, George announced that both sides were nuts: "They're all lunatics. So is Saddam Hussein. They're all crackers. I think it's interesting that Britain probably started the trouble in the first place by making Kuwait. It's all greed. It's the usual story, isn't it?" You tell em, George.
One of his final stunts was doctoring the original artwork on the recent reissue of his fantastic debut solo album, All Things Must Pass. The original cover, from 1970, shows George surrounded by gnomes in the yard of his mansion. This year, placing ecology over tradition, George colorized the cover and superimposed smokestacks and highways. Some artists create a boxed set to commemorate their best work. George screws with the cover. "I thought I would have a little fun with the package," he writes in the new liner notes. "If you haven't already noticed, our planet has been concreted over at an alarming rate and let's hope in another thirty years we don't have to add Planet Earth to the R.I.P.s."
For a man who played with the most popular band in the world, George was always a little underrated. He was no John Lennon, and he wasn't Paul McCartney, either. But George held his own and helped make the Beatles the Beatles. It would not have happened without him.
Every band has its leaders. Depending on the day, John and Paul led the Beatles. George was the best number three man in the business. Being number three means accepting your fate and, for George, working with the best songwriters of his generation. That George did not go postal on the others is more significant than you think. For many people, his supporting role made George their favorite Beatle.
Some bands dissolved when the guys in the background wanted more action. Others, like the Beach Boys, fizzled when the band could not rally around its brilliant leader. While Brian Wilson was charting new ground in the late 1960's, taking the band away from the beach and into his head, his buddies pressured him to stay the course. The result is an aborted album, Smile, the holy grail of rock bootlegs which would have placed the Beach Boys right behind the Beatles for sheer psychedelic exploration. Brian gave in and the band eventually became a nostalgia act. George -- who went along as the Beatles mastered the sound of psychedelia -- would never have objected to Smile. Just listen to it.
George Harrison knew his place, and his restrained brilliance certainly enhanced the Beatles's sound. It was George who played lead guitar; Lennon played rhythm. But George was not a Hendrix-styled technician. He did not play the guitar with his teeth and he did not break new ground like his best buddy, Eric Clapton. But listen to the Beatles' songs and play close attention to the guitar. Totally economical and tasteful, just enough to develop the song, bunting when the team needed a run, hitting one into the gap when they needed more baserunners, belting a home run when the Beatles really needed one. Now think about the songs that stay in your head. I Feel Fine. Day Tripper. Ticket to Ride. Nowhere Man. Paperback Writer. Birthday. Here Comes the Sun. Get Back. You know the others; there are zillions of em. Now it's time to thank George for flavoring the melody with nimble guitar playing that never overshadowed the music.
Unlike the Beach Boys, who resisted setting Brian Wilson's mind exercises to music, George contributed to the Beatles' progression from early 1960's Beatlemania to the mid-60's folk period to the psychedelic era to the final phase that gave us the straightforward White Album, Abbey Road and Hey Jude. How the Beatles pushed forward with each album, altering the landscape with each new innovation, is the greatest story in the history of rock. George was on board, introducing the band to the sitar and Eastern sounds in the mid-60's and embracing the Dylan-styled lyrics that brought the fans out of Beatlemania and into the psychedelic period that peaked with Sgt. Pepper and "I am the Walrus."
In an interview with Rolling Stone 14 years ago, George recalled how the Beatles charted new ground each year: "Those years did seem to be a thousand years long. Time just got elongated. From one record to another was a drastic change. But to us it was just the way it was. It was forced growth. I think anybody who gets in the limelight and goes through that kind of experience loses out on the innocence of growing up, just day-to-day, mundane stuff. But in the average day, you go through much more than most other people go through, are conscious of, in months. That period ... I mean, sometimes I felt like a thousand years old."
I try to ask first-generation Beatles fans if they appreciated how quickly the band was changing and whether they lost interest as the band entered a new phase. This transformation was apparent to most people, but some just took it for granted that rock and roll would undergo this sort of revolution every other year, just as the 1960's routinely spewed social earthquakes. Things sort of slowed down as the 1970's slagged into the 1980's. No one ever replied that the Beatles turned him off in entering a new musical niche. The band grew up with its fans, who weren't much younger than the Beatles themselves.
Play the last song on the Revolver album a couple of times. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is one of the missing links that bridged the Beatles' second phase (1965-66) with the third phase which embraced full-blown psychedelia (1967). How could the Beatles go from "Day Tripper" and "Nowhere Man" (1965) to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" only two years later? They did it with Revolver and the astonishing "Tomorrow Never Knows." Singing above bizarre tape loops, backwards guitars and Ringo's powerful and insistent drumming, John Lennon asks the listener to "turn off your mind, relax and float downstream." Lennon then tries to encapsulate the Chinese I Ching.
Hard to believe that a song like this came out in 1966. I used to wonder if the fans were ready for this song. Some tell me they were not. But probably most devoured it, figuring, if this is where the Beatles are taking us, then that's where we're going. But the real question is what would have happened if the other Beatles told Lennon to stick it? "John, this song is just too far out. Let's do some more of the old stuff." But no one said that. Had they said it, would the insecure Lennon have abandoned the creativity that fueled the Beatles' glorious psychedelic period? Would he have gone the way of Brian Wilson, who suffered a breakdown because his bandmates rejected innovation? We don't know the answer to this question because George Harrison, among others, endorsed Lennon's experiment and found a way to enhance the music. A flashier guitarist with a larger ego might have objected. And that's why the best rock bands don't always resemble the all-star team.
But George did not just follow the others. He began writing his own songs by 1965, initially turning in a few cuties that made the Beatles albums a bit tastier. He kept writing and caught up with his mentors. On average, the Beatles recorded two Harrison songs per album, about two dozen in all. If that doesn't sound like much, name five Rolling Stones written by anyone other than Mick and Keith. Or any Led Zeppelin songs by John Paul Jones.
The Beatles weren't humoring George in recording his songs. He was just writing good songs. They added some texture to the albums and, by the late 1960's, his voice was a cross between John and Paul's. Since George also sung his own stuff, the Beatles were among the few bands with three good singers and songwriters. This made them stand out and the three-headed beast never ran out of ideas.
George's musical progression with the Beatles shows the Lennon-McCartney influence made a difference. And George learned from the best. On what many critics deem the best album in rock history, Revolver, George contributed three of the 14 songs: "Taxman," "Love You Too" and "I Want to Tell You." Each song is excellent. With its strong guitar lick and smartass lyrics about the English tax structure in which the Beatles were paying 95% of their income to the government, "Taxman" opens the album and hits hard. The first thing we hear is someone clearing his throat. "Love You Too" is a sitar tour de force that rocks as hard as any song of that era. Like a journalist, George was writing about a world that had shed its skin many times over since the Beatles had begun recording only a few years earlier: "Each day just goes so fast, I turn around it's past. You don't get time to hang a sign on me." That song also includes the first of George's many cynical lines, revealing the ying yang of Harrison: spiritual but a little sour: "They're people going round, they'll screw you in the ground."
The final George song on Revolver, "I Want to Tell You," rocks as hard as any. It also uses unorthodox time signatures, a bluesy piano lick and lyrics that captured the moment: "I want to tell you, I feel hung up and I don't know why. I don't mind, I could wait forever, I've got time. . . And if I seem to act unkind, it's only me and not my mind that is confusing things."
As the Beatles turned psychedelic, George led the way. It was he and Lennon who first tried LSD in the mid-60's. A famous story recalls that John and George went to visit a friend for tea, only that their friend dropped LSD into the mix and they unwittingly went out for a freak-out ride along the English countryside. At the same time, George was discovering Eastern religion and got the others to embrace the Maharishi in India, sitting with the guru in 1967 and again in 1968. Like everyone else, George dressed the part, growing his hair and wearing psychedelic clothing. He also painted his house in psychedelic colors. I don't think its a coincidence that the band entered a new dimension when George got the band to stop touring in 1966. The fans were screaming while the band was growing up, having just released its most sophisticated album, Revolver, light years away from the Beatlemania years. No one could hear the concerts, anyway. George then began writing more and more songs as the band took a giant step forward and got started on the Sgt. Pepper album, spending its time and money in the studio. Impossible to imagine the Beatles playing before screaming fans in 1967. Can you imagine the Beatles playing "A Day in the Life" at Shea Stadium?
George and his wife visited Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love (1967). George carried an acoustic guitar and wore heart-shaped sun-glasses. He stopped in a park to play a few bars of "Baby, You're a Rich Man" for the hippies. But, just as he had grown disgusted with Beatlemania and the screaming girls a few years earlier, the San Francisco visit turned George off to the hippie scene. Too much drug use. He said, "They are hypocrites. I don't mind anybody dropping out of anything, but it's the imposition on somebody else I don't like. I've just realized that it doesn't matter what you are as long as you work in fact, if you drop out, you put yourself further away from the goal of life than if you were to keep working." (Seven years later, when George toured as a solo act, he revisited that epiphany. Observing the tons of trash that his audience had left behind, and amazed at the rampant drug use, on one of the great rock quotes, George asked himself, "Do I actually have anything in common with these people?").
Harrison's output in 1967 ranked him among the better psychedelic songwriters. On "Within Without You," George's most philosophical song layers his thick English voice over a sitar-drenched soundscape. The tempo accelerates as George asks, "Try to realize it's all within yourself no one else can make you change. And to see you're really only very small, and life flows on within and without you." George figured out how to phrase like Sinatra. It took me years to appreciate this song, but it's impossible to imagine Sgt. Pepper without this one.
Another Harrison gem from 1967 signaled that the Beatles could not keep up with his growth spurt. Recorded for Sgt. Pepper in 1967 but released two years later on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, "It's All Too Much" is another psychedelic tour de force that mocks the hippie ethic ("show me that I'm everywhere but get me home for tea") to a sound collage with tons of overdubs and some general screwing around in the studio. The soundtrack was really just a bunch of "throwaways" that the Beatles had rejected from other albums. While "It's All Too Much" would have TKO'd Paul's lightweight "When I'm 64" with ease, the Beatles were still John and Paul's gig, and George would have to wait.
The conflict between George and the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team crescendoed in 1968, when the Beatles recorded the White Album, two records containing nearly every conceivable style of music in the rock repertoire. This time around, George had four songs, all of them excellent, including "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the title of the New York Times editorial the day after his death became public. George was writing more songs these days, including "Not Guilty," a cynical tune that he re-recorded 11 years later for one of his solo albums. Finally issued on the Beatles Anthology a few years ago, we hear the original "Not Guilty" in its full splendor. And rational Beatles fans can identify at least four of five songs from the White Album that "Not Guilty" could have replaced.
Lyrically and musically, George was growing more sophisticated. Few rock artists were able to consistently churn out melodic hooks like George. Some critics call it "ear candy." I call it good writing. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is chock full of philosophical observations: "I look at the world, and I notice it's turning...With every mistake we must surely be learning." Showcasing George's voice, the acoustic version of "gently weeps" is even better. The infamous "Piggies" assaults wealthy meat- eaters. "Long Long Long" is among the first of George's many spiritual endeavors. "The Inner Light," another sitar tune, has one of the most beautiful melodies of the 1960's. New confidence and friendships with luminaries like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan must have prompted Harrison to wonder where he fit in with the other Beatles. A turning point had to be late 1968-early 1969, when George hung out with Dylan and The Band in bucolic Woodstock, N.Y. There, George saw a brotherhood of musicians quite unlike the bickering that marred the White Album sessions. George wrote a song with Dylan, and according to Dylan's photographer, George was relaxed and, amazingly, even made Dylan smile.
But returning to London in early 1969 to record another Beatles album, the bottom fell out as George was again relegated to second-class status. Frustrated, he actually quit the band briefly. A famous scene in the Let it Be movie (the Beatles filmed themselves recording the album) shows George objecting to Paul's dictatorial orders. Later that year, the Beatles recorded two more George gems, "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something," maybe the two best songs from Abbey Road. Yet, as the Anthology albums now reveal, Harrison had other great songs in the can which the other Beatles apparently rejected in favor of drivel like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Octopus' Garden."
Legend has it that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles. But we know that a confluence of events caused the split. By 1970, the Beatles were growing up and had other interests. Opening his eyes politically, Lennon was probably too restless to stick around much longer. McCartney's ego probably made him wonder if he could do it alone. But I think Harrison was ready to quit for good. He told Rolling Stone in 1987, "for me, it was just too much. The novelty had worn off. Everybody was growing up. Everybody was getting married and leaving home, in effect. I think it was inevitable, really."
Right after the Beatles broke up in 1970, George, only 27 years old, headed to the studio with a stockpile of songs and recorded All Things Must Pass, the best Beatles solo album, even better than Lennon's Imagine. George had enough songs to fill up two records. Any one of these songs could have found a home on the Beatles' final albums. Screw em, George probably would have thought had the Beatles not broken up, I'll record them myself.
All Things Must Pass is a masterpiece. First, the production. George teamed with producer Phil Spector, who in the early 1960s mastered the "Wall of Sound," employing orchestration and other studio techniques to paint a lush, brassy, big-beat sound that complimented George's philosophical and religious themes. George co-wrote the opener, "I'd Have You Anytime," with Dylan in Woodstock. "What is Life" bursts like sunshine. "Apple Scruffs" celebrates the Beatles' fans who hung outside Abbey Road studios for years. Other songs, like "Let it Roll," combine Harrison's genius for melody and atmospheric rhythms. There's also some country music with Pete Drake's pedal steel guitar. But my favorite is "Run of the Mill," a commentary on the Beatles' breakup, driven home with slow horns, weary singing and sophisticated phrasing: "Everybody has choice, when to and not to raise their voices. It's you that decides, which way you will turn, while feeling that our love's not your concern." Ringo's loyal drumming grounded the album.
George thus exited the starting gate as fast as anyone graduating from the 1960s, including the other Beatles. Only Lennon's first two albums compare with All Things Must Pass, and it took Paul a few years to catch up. A few months later, George did it again, rounding up Dylan, Ringo, Clapton and other stars in organizing a benefit concert in New York City to raise money for people in the devastated country of Bangladesh. In the wake of hedonistic rock festivals, no one had ever done a benefit gala before.
But, as they say, George nearly threw all his eggs in one basket. All Things Must Pass was the best he could do. Like his contemporaries, the 70's were hit or miss as 60's heroes like Dylan, Lennon, McCartney, Clapton and, really, most everyone else, burned out musically, running out of ideas and plopping out album after album of mediocrity. Some of Harrison's albums in the mid 1970's are preachy and a little stinko, but, salvaging the decade, he issued a few good, non-spiritual albums with short and witty songs. On 33-and-a-Third (1976), George makes light of an "unconscious plagiarism" judicial finding that "My Sweet Lord," an early Harrison solo hit, sounded too much like "He's So Fine," a girl-group song owned by Bright Tunes. In response, George wrote the upbeat "This Song," which, he sang, "has nothing bright about it." Not a bad attitude for a guy who had to pay $587,000 in damages. Three years later, Harrison issued an eponymous record with laid back songs that seemed totally out of place in 1979. But who cared? Once again, his ear for melody produced a few gorgeous ballads and another hit, "Blow Away." Both albums are worth searching out.
Just as he had rejected Beatlemania 15 years earlier, though, Harrison turned his back on recording, releasing only two albums from 1979 through 1987 both of them subpar before his comeback with Cloud Nine whose great and bluesy title track was sung with a shit-eating grin.
But the coolest thing about George's career it what happened next. Recording a B-side for one of his singles in 1988, George summoned the help of old buddies, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and others, for Handle with Care, which instead became the debut song for the Traveling Wilburies, each star taking a pseudonym for this fictitious band of journeyman hillbillies. Never before had a "supergroup" put its egos aside. "Vol. I" is among the best Beatles solo albums and includes the infectious "End of the Line," as each Wilbury takes turns extolling old age. George's reedy and beautiful voice pops in and out on this song and he sounds revived and better than ever. This shot of adrenaline was contagious; Dylan's songs are his best in years. "End of the Line," which closes out the album, is structurally one of the more excellent songs in rock history. The band again takes turns singing lead, with George's sweet voice chiming in, "it's all right, even if you're old and gray. It's all right, you still got something to say." Anyone who doesn't rank this album among the best in rock history can go put Get the Knack on infinite repeat in their iPod. A more egotistical rock star would have hoarded the songs for himself and raked in the cash. Some album covers contain photo close-ups so you can see the nose hairs. But George started this fictitious band as a goof and his name does not even appear on the album.
After another decade of near-seclusion, George was stabbed in December 1999 by a lunatic who broke into his mansion. He also underwent a few cancer treatments before that. My guess is that the cigarette smoking caught up with him, or, in the least, it certainly didn't help. George would probably say that death is just the beginning. Certainly his death will prompt a wholesale re-evaluation of his legacy, and hopefully a boxed set with his best material and the many songwriting and production jobs he did for others, including Ringo's solo hit "Photograph" and "Badge," a Cream hit co-written with Eric Clapton in the late 1960's. Harrison's obituaries do speak to his strong points and credit his influence on the Beatles and the music world.
Some people remember George's dour personality that re-worded the Beatles songs during his solo concerts in the mid-70's. But that gave way to his positive testimonials about the Beatles when they filmed the Anthology documentary 20 years later. He was happy that the Beatles' recent greatest hits album struck it big, and seemed to come to terms with his Beatles past. While he may not have embraced death like Timothy Leary (who couldn't wait for the Big Day and had his remains sent into outer space), a religious man ravaged by cancer, George might have been ready to check out. Asked about his sense of the future, his parting words in speaking with Rolling Stone in 1987 sum up the paradox of George Harrison and reflect the maturity that comes with a lifetime of chaos:
"In one way I feel pessimistic. When you see that rate that the world is being demolished people polluting the oceans and chopping down all the forests unless somebody puts the brakes on soon, there isn't going to be anything left. There's just going to be more and more people with less and less resources. In that respect, I feel very sad. But at the same time, I have to be optimistic. At the bottom line, I think that even if the whole planet blew up, you'd have to think about what happens when you die. In the end, "Life goes on within you and without you." I just have a belief that this is only one little bit, the physical world is one little bit, our planet is one l ittle bit of the physical universe, and can't really destroy it totally. You can destroy our planet, but the souls are going to keep on going, keep on getting new bodies and going onto other planets. So in the end it doesn't really matter."
George was telling us to roll up our sleeves lest we go to hell in a handcart. That fight won't be easy. And we'll have to do it without him.++
Steve Bergstein is our music editor. When he's not busy burning compilation CDs for his friends, he is a civil rights lawyer who lives in New Paltz, NY. Email: PsychSound@gmail.com.