The day after George Harrison died, a friend of mine reminded me of a scene in the movie "A Hard Day's Night." In the scene Harrison is wandering innocently down the street when he gets hauled into a teen marketing agency. Once he's inside, fashion experts extol on him the virtues of trendsetting, and go so far as to point out to him a calendar they have that tracks the life and death of clothing fads. What is most important to these people, however, more so even than the fad, is the model that sells it, and they hurriedly ask his opinion about their most popular girl, who is by most accounts a sensation. His reply is disappointingly indifferent. When she comes on TV, he says, he and his mates like to "turn the sound down on the telly and make jokes about her."
The scene was intended--and succeeded--as a parody of the bubblegum pop industry, but it also did a fair job of summing up Harrison himself. He was always the Beatle that never quite bought into Beatlemania, and never quite cared for the celebrity-making machine that even then comprised so much of rock music (and comprises so much more of it now). He was the Quiet Beatle, the one who preferred full-time recording to touring, who was baffled and annoyed by adoring crowds, and who managed to shun publicity even after he was dead. Reporters who approached the Harrison family for details of his final hours were greeted instead by Gavin de Becker, Harrison's friend and a Los Angeles-based security consultant renowned for his work in protecting the privacy of famous people (de Becker is also the author of an eccentric contribution called The Gift of Fear, which urges people to heed their distrust of others). De Becker made a short statement and then cut off further questions with the terse declaration that "this is a very private matter."
Therein lay the problem. How could it be a private matter when the Beatles were and are, in many ways, public property? They were a generation's tonic, and for one of them to be so withdrawn was always puzzling, even as it was attractive. There are pitfalls, of course, to ignoring the promotion machine: it is a too-common trait of eulogies to say that the departed never got the respect or appreciation he deserved, but in Harrison's case such a statement would probably be fair. He was the Beatles' lead guitarist, but few people--and very few who have never tried their hand at the instrument--realize just how good of a guitar player he was. Nor do they understand the pivotal role he had in taking the band away from its folksy-happy period as British skiffle band and into the realm of more serious, and often groundbreaking, rock 'n' roll.
The reasons for this under-appreciation were numerous: during his years with the band he was unwilling, and often unable, to carve out a niche for himself in the manner of his bandmates. Existing in the shadows of Lennon and McCartney undoubtedly helped his songwriting, but it hindered his ability to get his heard. On a 12-track Beatles album, it was inevitable that nine or ten songs would be products of Lennon and McCartney. A composition by Ringo might also be thrown into the mix, to showcase the drummer's offbeat humor, and this left little room for Harrison, who unlike Starr took his songwriting very seriously. It wasn't until 1968 that a Harrison song ("The Inner Light") appeared on a Beatles single, and even then it was as a B-side the Lennon-penned "Lady Madonna." When some of his works were finally released and became hits, the acclaim that followed was often misdirected. Frank Sinatra, for instance, never cared for the Beatles until he heard "Something," which he dubbed the finest love song of the prior 50 years and then recorded himself. He automatically assumed, however, that Lennon and McCartney had written it, and regularly introduced it live as his favorite song by the duo. He was later startled to learn that they hadn't written it at all.
This isn't to say that he didn't like his bandmates, because every indication is that he loved them. And they loved him back. Even people who didn't like the Beatles seemed to like Harrison. John Lennon idolized Bob Dylan, but the admiration was far from mutual. When the two first met, Dylan didn't bother to hide his scorn for Lennon, and stalked out of the room while the head Beatle was playing him a song. He developed an affinity for Harrison, however, and began a friendship with him that lasted until the guitarist's death. He also introduced the young Harrison to marijuana, and Harrison in turn got his bandmates high for the first time. Harrison complemented this by later introducing his mates to acid (a drug he was turned onto by, of all people, his dentist), and sending the Beatles down their renowned road to psychedelia, and the landmark recording of Sergeant Pepper's.
In a way, Harrison was the Beatles' pivot: they moved in the directions he turned them, and he started things he was content to let others run away with. Certainly he isn't the first Beatle most people think of when the topic of the band's drug use comes up--that honor probably belongs to Lennon, simply because most Beatle associations do, or to Ringo, who spends most of his time in the film Let it Be looking as though he needs to be peeled off the ceiling. But the genesis of it lay with the overlooked guitar player.
So too, for that matter, did the beginning of the Beatles' adventures in spiritualism and world music. The pictures that are usually trotted out to illustrate Beatle spirituality usually center around Lennon, but it was Harrison who became curious about Indian music (during the filming of Help!, when he picked up a sitar while shooting a scene in an Indian restaurant) and traveled to the country to study both its music and meditation. He embraced Hindu spiritualism, and it soon infused both his music and his life. It is not an overstatement to say that in 1965 Harrison altered rock music forever, when the Beatles recorded "Norwegian Wood," and Harrison played its eerie lead on sitar, introducing most of the western world to that strange and beautiful instrument for the first time. In doing so he predated by two years the next great rock-sitar player, the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones (whose haunting work on "Paint it, Black" provides the backdrop for one of the rock's finest anti-war songs), and predated by three decades the so-called "world music" movement.
Jones was Harrison's only contemporary in merging Eastern music with western rock, and in a better world the two may have been able to push each other further into new frontiers. The story, of course, didn't work out like that. Harrison's infatuation with Eastern music never tore him too far from the Beatles' larger purpose, which was to make good rock records. The same can't be said for Jones: he got lost in the eastern world, and by the time he left his band he had lost almost all interest in the guitar. His departure allowed Keith Richards to take control of the band's instrumental direction, and the Stones' experiments with Eastern music ended almost as soon as it began. Jones himself drowned alone in his own swimming pool.
With his loss, Harrison alone was left to merge the world's of eastern and western popular music. After "Norwegian Wood," he wrote "Love to You," which appeared on "revolver" and which was comprised entirely of sitar. In 1968 he became the first Beatle to embark on a solo project, when he released an instrumental collection of Indian music, entitled "The Wonderwall Chronicles." (In 1995 the British band Oasis paid homage to this album with the lovely song "Wonderwall," which remains its biggest hit to date.) But his best work may be "Within You Without You," which featured the dilruba, tabla, surmandel, drone and cello, and lyrics that asked for an end to ego, and a greater emphasis on unity. Musically it was an important song, and lyrically it had an admirable sentiment, but both were cruelly overshadowed by events; by the time it was released the Beatles had already begun to come apart.
Age is a cudgel: the old wield it against the young, the young against the old, and all too often neither side comes out the wiser. I'm not old enough to remember the Beatles; the difference between my writing about them and someone of my father's generation writing about them is the difference between pondering JFK's significance and remembering where you were when he died. What I write about the Beatles will undoubtedly be heresy for some, and I use the term in its most literal sense. The Beatles, I have been assured many times, were in their day "Bigger than Jesus," and the gods among gods were of course John and Paul (fittingly so: they even had the Biblical names).
But from the perspective of my generation (or, at least, those people in my generation who I have unscientifically polled during my years of listening to rock music), the legacies of the two lead Beatles are tarnished, albeit only slightly, by an impression that they began to believe everything people said about them. The egos of Lennon and McCartney are ultimately what tore the band apart. They claimed most of the fame and, not incidentally, most of the money. Lennon and McCartney each controlled 30 percent of Northern Songs, the band's music publishing company, while Harrison and Starr each got 2 percent. Still it wasn't enough. The final turns came when McCartney insisted that his wife's family take over the band's management, and Lennon insisted that the Beatles use the same management as the Rolling Stones. It was this dispute, which in hindsight seems deeply silly, that put the final stakes in the band's coffin.
Harrison remained free of most of that pettiness. During the worst of it he fled to Eric Clapton's house and wrote "Here Comes the Sun," ironically one of the band's most optimistic songs, and still a benchmark for the beauty and possibility of the electric guitar. In "Let it Be," the documentary that intended to chronicle the rebirth of the Beatles but instead recorded their demise, there is a scene that captures well just how tired Harrison has grown of the band's infighting. He is playing a lead on the guitar and McCartney keeps telling him he doesn't like it. Finally Harrison says "Tell me how you want me to play. You know I'll play what you want, or if you want I won't play at all. Just make up your mind."
"It was terrible, really," he later said in an interview. "...I'd just spent like the last six months producing an album of this fellow, Jackie Lomax, and hanging out with Bob Dylan and the Band at Woodstock and having a great time. And for me to come back into the winter of discontent with the Beatles in Twickenham (where "Let it Be" was shot) was very unhealthy and unhappy... I thought 'I'm quite capable of being relatively happy on my own, and I'm not able to be happy in this situation, you know, I'm getting' out of here."
When the house finally collapsed, Harrison didn't seem to miss it much, and he moved on much more quickly than the other Beatles. The Beatles folded in 1970 and less than a year later Harrison released an album that featured not one but three LPs. Telling titled "All Things Must Pass," the album featured gorgeous pop tunes infused with Eastern influence, and offered some insight into where the Beatles could have gone had they used more of their guitarist's work (and if they had gotten along).
In the years to come he would wildly diversify. Joe Dimaggio, it is said, felt dominated his entire life by a responsibility to his own legend as the Yankee Clipper. For Harrison, the opposite was true--he held the Beatles in no particular reverence, and gave little thought to how his new endeavors would jibe with his past achievements. He started a production company called Handmade Films that bankrolled Monty Python movies, most notably "The Life of Brian." When "The Ruttles," a Beatles parody movie, was made, he happily appeared in a cameo that poked fun at both himself and his former band. With Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and a host of other friends he formed the lighthearted Traveling Wilburys, and recorded two albums with them. He also, almost as an afterthought, invented the rock benefit concert. His 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, which featured Dylan, Clapton, Starr and his Indian mentor Ravi Shankar, raised over $1 million for that beleaguered nation, and more importantly opened for rock music a new avenue for both expression and social action. Live Aid, Farm Aid, USA for Africa and the rock benefits that followed September 11 all trace their lineage back to Harrison's efforts.
All of this, it should be noted, he did as quietly as possible; he rarely traded on his identity as a Beatle, and often lamented the expectations that came with it. He was the best ex-Beatle, not only for the quality of music he turned out but also for his attitude in seeing the band die: he was ready to let it go, and couldn't understand why the rest of the world wasn't.
But the road always had bumps. Since it was the first of its kind, no one--and certainly not Harrison--quite knew how to set it up. Paperwork snafus prevented some of the money, initially, from reaching the people who needed, and Harrison got a public black eye as a result. In 1976 a court found that he had "subconsciously plagiarized" the Chiffons' "He's So Fine," when he wrote his solo hit "My Sweet Lord." And in 1976 his wife, Patti Boyd, divorced him to marry Eric Clapton, his best friend. He handled this development remarkably well (not only staying friends with Clapton, but playing at the wedding), but hated the sordid publicity surrounding it. His setbacks fuelled his desire for privacy, and Lennon's 1980 murder--by a deranged man in New York--only made his distrust of the public even greater. Always disdainful of celebrity, he now became terrified of it, and retreated still further.
It made no difference: in 2000 a lunatic broke into his sprawling English estate and stabbed him in the chest. He recovered, but soon found himself fighting various forms of cancer. In the summer of 2001 newspapers began reporting that he was on the brink of death, and had only days to live. He lashed out angrily at these reports, although on some level they were appropriate. The publicity machine that had tried, prematurely, to make him larger than life was now trying, prematurely, to kill him off.
What it comes back to, however, is the young guitarist in the marketing agency, looking at the beautiful model and finding her to be not just boring but also more than a little bit ridiculous. A defense of the boy-band machine that has employed far too often in recent years is that the Beatles were once a bubblegum boy-band too. If one wants to nitpick, they were really a skiffle band, skiffle being the cheery British amalgam of folk and pop that characterized the band's early recordings. And the skiffle didn't last long: Harrison, who hung out with guitarslingers like Eric Clapton, who forged their ties with serious lyricists like Bob Dylan, who brought back the sitar from India and ushered them into the landscape of drugs, made sure they would be something more. That he defined the Beatles direction so much, even as his songs amounted to so little of their music, says mountains about his influence.
This is not to say the Beatles didn't benefit from the bubblegum pop machine, because of course they did. But the Beatles never contented themselves with celebrity, and certainly not celebrity for its own sake. Whatever the failings of the band's members, each had a vision that transcended fame, money and the machine that sought constantly to feed them both. And yet the Beatles are gone, and the machine remains, stronger today than ever. The "merchants of cool" who mold and sell public opinion are today so insidious that one can almost yearn wistfully for a time when a reluctant pop star might be hauled into a marketing agency and asked for his approval. Now if a company needs a pop star's approval it creates a pop star of its own; the spiritualism that Harrison embraced has long since been trumped by a consumerism that defines success as a Pepsi campaign and top billing at the Super Bowl halftime party. Television subsumes music; whereas George and his mates may have turned down the telly to make fun of it, Britney Spears and N'Sync turn off the sound because the sound no longer matters--what matters is their smiling faces smiling back at us.
Rock music is an odd path, and image defines it to a degree far greater than it probably should. No other path so values youth at the expense of talent. Music, like most art forms, is not mastered until the later years, yet rock has no use for the later years, and it popularizes as a result artists only beginning to come into their own. It is logical that Eric Clapton plays the guitar better today than he did thirty years ago, just as it is logical that Don Delillo's writes better now than he did as a struggling part-time novelist. But while Delillo is today showered in acclaim, and receives fees for his work that dwarf those paid for his earlier efforts, Clapton will never be able to recapture the money or popularity he had as a drug-addled younger man.
There are few parallels for this set of priorities. Professional sport, of course, celebrates youth and denigrates age, but at least in sport there is the discrimination is backed by a certain logic. The aging athlete, thrown to the sidelines, must usually admit that he is no longer as young or strong as the players who have replaced him. But what does the rock musician tell himself, when he plays better, and writes songs better, than he did in his heyday? Blues legends, jazz masters, even country-western heroes are revered until they die. Rock, though, prefers the flash-and-fade, the book half-complete, and would rather mythologize wasted potential than see talent fully developed. In rock, we want our icons to be immortal, but also to die young--nothing disappoints the rock fan so much as an immortal who actually achieves longevity. Age is a cudgel: the young become the old, and somewhere in that transition the attitude, energy or image that rock demands gets lost. The legend dies before the man. There is no explanation for this, other than that this is it is, and that this is rock 'n' roll's darkly morbid appeal.
But where does that leave Harrison? He died too young, to be sure, but hardly as young as a flashier guitarist like Jimi Hendrix, or a more ostentatious personality like Lennon. They were explosive, and they, well, exploded, throwing long shadows in death just as they did in life. Harrison succumbed to cancer, the slowest of deaths, and he did it not with defiance but with grace. Few people expect to die in a haze of booze, or at the hands of a gun-wielding lunatic. Cancer, though, is never beyond the realm of possibility. For Harrison, the most extraordinary of musicians, death was almost unjustly ordinary.
No matter. If his death ill-fit a rock star, perhaps that's because he never wanted to be one. He wanted to write music, and he did; he wanted to be in bands, and he was. The foolish idea of living forever was something he openly disdained, as the title of his first solo LP reminds us. All things must indeed pass, but some pass more quickly--and more deservedly--than others. Nothing is immortal, and neither Harrison nor his music are exceptions to that rule. But what he did will doubtless linger one hundred years after the world's forgettable music has been justly forgotten.