A musical, spiritual journey
December 2, 2001
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
He was the youngest Beatle. The quietest Beatle. The Beatle most concerned about success and making money. But of all the gross caricatures and oversimplifications of George Harrison’s public persona, “the spiritual Beatle” is probably the description that comes closest to the truth.
Mr. Harrison died Thursday afternoon at a friend's home in Los Angeles after a battle with cancer. He was 58.
As the world mourns Mr. Harrison's passing, the media will no doubt emphasize his position as one of the most important idols of the baby boom generation, just as it did when his band mate John Lennon was shot to death in 1980. That fame was an inescapable by-product of having been a member of the most successful rock band of all time, and Mr. Harrison paid a steep price for it when a stalker burst into his home and stabbed him during a scuffle in 1999.
But it was the loss of his personal identity that the guitarist struggled with the most. "The Beatles exist apart from myself," he famously said. "I am not really 'Beatle George.' Beatle George is like a suit or shirt that I once wore on occasion, and until the end of my life, people may see that shirt and mistake it for me."
The part of Harrison's legacy that should be preserved is much deeper and more complicated than the image of an undeniably talented musician lending a group its trademark jangle and chime via an electric 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. In the end, he may be best remembered as an artist who believed that music was a force without equal for transcending the everyday and reaching a higher place.
In one of his finest songs, Mr. Harrison wrote of his guitar gently weeping. But when he was at his best, he was using the instrument for praying and celebrating, not mourning.
Born Feb. 25, 1943, and baptized a Roman Catholic, he was one of four children reared by a bus driver father and homemaker mother in a public housing complex in the Wavertree section of Liverpool, England. He was the only Beatle whose childhood was unscarred by divorce or the death of a parent. He was a mediocre student, and his family encouraged his early obsession with music.
His mother, Louise, bought him his first guitar at age 13, and after first abandoning the instrument in frustration, he eventually taught himself to play by studying the records of Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy. Echoes of their styles could be heard in his own playing throughout his career.
He was 14 when he met Paul McCartney on the bus as they rode to the Liverpool Institute. A year ahead of him in school, McCartney was already playing in the Quarrymen with Lennon. Mr. Harrison became a constant presence at their shows and rehearsals, and Lennon finally asked him to join the band.
The group eventually changed its name to the Beatles, and it changed the music of a generation.
The innate chemistry that made the Beatles the Beatles continues to fascinate fans, critics and scholars. But no one besides the musicians themselves will ever really know what unique elements each member brought to the collaboration. Though Lennon and McCartney were the songwriting dynamos and primary vocalists, evidence that Mr. Harrison was an indispensable part of the mix can be gleaned from the fact that the band returned to Liverpool from Hamburg in 1960 when it was discovered that he was too young to be legally performing in Germany.
The exuberant, ringing opening of "A Hard Day's Night" is arguably the most famous guitar chord in rock history, and Harrison played a distinctive electric 12-string on several songs on the soundtrack album. Roger McGuinn has said that seeing Harrison playing that instrument in the film inspired him to start the Byrds.
Throughout their meteoric rise and many artistic peaks, the Beatles benefitted enormously from Mr. Harrison's input, including his fluid guitar leads, gorgeous harmonies and occasional lead vocals. His songwriting contributions started with "Don't Bother Me" in 1964 ("I can't believe that she would leave me on my own/It's just not right when every night I'm all alone"), though he made his biggest mark on the Beatles' best album, "Revolver," in 1966.
Along with many of their peers in the mid-'60s, the Beatles became intensely interested in psychedelic experimentation, with Mr. Harrison leading the way. He first took LSD in 1964 when he was unknowingly dosed by his dentist and spent an unnerving evening zooming around London in his Aston Martin. But the Greek roots of the word "psychedelic" mean "mind-revealing" or "soul-manifesting," and Mr. Harrison later became very serious about using drugs as a spiritual shortcut to break on through to the other side.
While Lennon wrote the Beatles' all-time psychedelic masterpiece, "Tomorrow Never Knows," Mr. Harrison penned many of the group's most surreal, otherworldly and wildly inventive songs, among them "Blue Jay Way," "I Want to Tell You," "It's All Too Much," "Love You To," "The Inner Light" and "Within You Without You."
His interest in Indian music was spurred by a 1965 meeting with sitar player Ravi Shankar. That led Mr. Harrison to study the droning instrument and then to explore Hindu spiritual values. In 1967, he famously persuaded the other Beatles to travel to India to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
"After [recording] 'Norwegian Wood,' I met Ravi Shankar at a friend's house in London for dinner," Mr. Harrison recalled. "He offered to give me instructions in the basics of the sitar, like how to sit, how to hold it and the basic exercises. It was the first time I had ever really learned music with a bit of discipline. Then I started to listen to Indian music for the next two years and hardly touched the guitar, except for recordings. Having all these material things, I wanted something more. And it happened that at just the time I wanted it, it came to me in the form of Ravi Shankar, Indian music and the whole Indian philosophy."
Mr. Harrison's search for meaning was never faddish or trivial, as has sometimes been implied. He remained devoted to the Hindu deity Krishna through the end of his life, but he never drifted off into the lilac mist. In fact, his political songs were some of the Beatles' strongest.
Some critics dismiss "Taxman" as Mr. Harrison's whining about the bite from his paycheck, but it's really the first Beatles song to question governmental authority. ("Don't ask me what I want it for," comes the bureaucratic reply.) And "Piggies" is a biting satire and Orwellian allegory. ("Everywhere there's lots of piggies/Living piggy lives/You can see them out for dinner/With their piggy wives/Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon.")
Like McCartney, Mr. Harrison was also a romantic, but his love songs seemed to come straight from the heart, without Paul's sometimes saccharine sentimentality. The most famous is probably "Something" ("Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover"), though contrary to popular belief, it was not written for model Patti Boyd, whom he met on the set of "A Hard Day's Night" and married in January 1966.
In his 1980 autobiography, I Me Mine, Mr. Harrison says that he wrote "Something" by trying to imitate Ray Charles.
Mr. Harrison and Boyd separated in the mid-'70s, and Boyd went on to have a relationship with Mr. Harrison's close friend Eric Clapton. The love triangle is probably the most famous in rock history, and it inspired Clapton's greatest song, "Layla."
Mr. Harrison met his second wife, Mexican-born Olivia Trinidad Arias, in 1974, when she worked for A&M Records, distributors of his own Dark Horse label. They married in 1978 and later that year had a son, Dhani, who is said to play the guitar.
An avid gardener, Mr. Harrison spent much of his spare time tending his flower beds. (I Me Mine is dedicated "to gardeners everywhere.") Ever a man of surprising contradictions, he also loved Formula One racing and traveled the world to follow the sport, though he was generally happy to go unnoticed. "The nicest thing is to open the newspapers and not to find yourself in them," he said.
Of all the Beatles, he seemed most grateful when the group's wild ride finally came to an end. "I don't intend to be a performing flea any more," he said. "I was the dream weaver, but although I'll be around, I don't intend to be running at 20,000 miles an hour trying to prove myself. I don't want to die at 40."
Mr. Harrison disliked nostalgia--"Why live in the past? Be here now," he said--but he was also justifiably proud of the Beatles' accomplishments. "If U2 thinks they're a big and popular band, then they should sit through this [crap], and they can see how popular a real band can be," he said a few years ago after screening the "Anthology" video.
As a solo artist, Mr. Harrison was the Beatle who seemed to suffer the most artistically when deprived of the interaction with his old band mates. He made only one album that can be considered an unqualified classic, "All Things Must Pass." But to dwell solely on his songwriting credits is to miss his most significant achievements.
Mr. Harrison should be lauded as one of rock's most talented and sympathetic supporting players, as well as an artist who never stopped believing in the power of music to transport the listener.
"There's high, and there's high, and to get really high--I mean so high that you can walk on the water, that high--that's where I'm goin'," he said in 1968.
Fans everywhere wish him godspeed on his final journey.