R.I.P., George Harrison, 2001

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, December 1, 2001 

George Harrison wrote his own epitaph: “All Things Must Pass.” He sang that song in 1970, just after the passing of the Beatles, the group that made him famous. And with his death at the age of 58, Harrison leaves behind a profound body of work in music and film.

But the millions who mourn his passing mourn more than the loss of a great songwriter.

Harrison died after struggling with various forms of cancer, including an inoperable brain tumor. He was nearly killed in 1999 when a man broke into his home and stabbed him in the chest. In 1997, Harrison had a cancerous lump removed from his throat, a condition he attributed to his years of smoking.

A statement released by the Harrison family said: “He left this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends. He often said, ‘Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.’ ”

With Harrison’s death in Los Angeles on Thursday, coming almost 21 years since the 1980 murder of John Lennon, only two members of the Beatles survive – Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

“I am devastated and very, very sad,” McCartney told reporters Friday morning outside his London home. “He was a lovely guy and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humor. He is really just my baby brother.”

Starr issued a statement Friday: “George was a best friend of mine. I loved him very much. … We will miss George for his sense of love, his sense of music and his sense of laughter.”

Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, also commented on Harrison’s death. “George has given so much to us in his lifetime and continues to do so even after his passing, with his music, his wit and his wisdom,” Ono said.

While Lennon’s murder in 1980 was a shocking tragedy, Harrison’s death of natural causes seems to signal the real end of an era in which rock stars were looked to for not just music but inspiration. Harrison is a big reason that era developed in the first place.

Harrison, a guitarist, singer and songwriter with the Beatles, was a musical leader. But his early devotion to Indian mysticism and music, of which he was the first mainstream artist to champion in the West, brought challenging new ideas to millions.

He also used the prestige and fame he’d achieved to take direct action to help suffering people around the world, when he staged the all-star rock benefit concert for the victims of Bangladesh’s civil war in 1971. The concert became a feature film and Grammy-winning album.

Harrison also was an accomplished movie producer, his Handmade Films responsible for such films as Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” “The Long Good Friday,” “Mona Lisa,” “Time Bandits” and Madonna’s “Shanghai Surprise.”

Born in Liverpool, England, late in the evening on Feb. 24, 1943, George Harrison began playing with John Lennon’s band The Quarry Men, which also featured Harrison’s friend Paul McCartney, in August 1958. Harrison was only 15, McCartney just 16 and Lennon 17. Ringo Starr joined the group several years later.

Perhaps because of differences of temperament, or the fact that he was youngest, Harrison was always viewed as a figure apart from the other Beatles: “the quiet Beatle.” And while Harrison wrote his share of upbeat songs, he had a dark, outsider’s point of view from the start. That was apparent from his very first songwriting credit, “Don’t Bother Me” in 1963, and continued in songs like “If I Needed Someone” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Still, he also showed his dry wit, which he had in common with the other Beatles, in a scene from the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” when he challenges a trend-sniffing clothing designer.

Perhaps the Beatle most uncomfortable when Beatlemania swept the world, he quickly turned his attention to things far beyond rock ‘n’ roll. His interest in Indian music first appeared on the 1965 Beatles song “Norwegian Wood,” which later inspired wide imitation, including the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” That influence continued in such exotic Beatles songs as “Within You Without You,” “Love You Too” and “The Inner Light,” but it didn’t just expand the Beatles’ sound – it exposed Western culture to ideas that would soon inform the emerging counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s.

It also added to his mystery, which even his fellow Beatles, who knew him well, noted.

“George himself is no mystery,” Lennon said in 1968. “But the mystery inside of George is immense. It’s watching him uncover it all little by little that’s so damn interesting.”

Harrison had little choice but to “uncover it all little by little.” He was working in a group led by the 20th century’s most popular and influential songwriting partnership, Lennon and McCartney, and he once told Q magazine in England, “Sometimes we’d have to record maybe eight of their songs before they’d listen to one of mine.”

When Harrison did take center stage, there was no doubt of his talent. In addition to his earlier songs, the last Beatles album featured two Harrison melodies that rank with the best in the Lennon-McCartney catalog: “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” “Something,” in particular, is one of the most-recorded songs of the 20th century, nearly matching McCartney’s “Yesterday” in its hundreds of cover versions.

Even Harrison’s wit was overshadowed by the charisma of Lennon and McCartney. When recalling the genesis of “Something,” Harrison once said with characteristically dry wit, “Everybody presumed that I wrote it about (his wife) Patti, but actually, when I wrote it, I was thinking of Ray Charles.”

Still, being forced into the background gave Harrison two advantages. One was that he developed into a remarkable guitarist, his work embellishing and bolstering the Lennon-McCartney songs in increasingly sophisticated ways. By the group’s final album, “Abbey Road” in 1969, his guitar playing had reached a level that has seldom been matched.

And because he was serving the songs, he never joined the ranks of “lead” guitarists like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or his friend Eric Clapton, who would take minutes to solo. Harrison got a few bars at most, and he made every note count. He was, if not the first, one of the earliest rock guitarists to employ the creative use of feedback (on the introduction to “I Feel Fine” in 1965) and his style of slide guitar work is, to this day, absolutely singular.

Harrison benefited from his second-class songwriter status because by the time the Beatles officially folded in early 1970 (the last song they recorded, on Jan. 3, 1970, was Harrison’s “I Me Mine”), he had an enormous backlog of songs, some dating back several years. The world would find out just how remarkable his songs were when he released “All Things Must Pass,” rock’s first boxed set, in December 1970. It went to No. 1, the first Beatles solo work to do so, and its lead single, “My Sweet Lord,” did the same, selling 5 million copies worldwide. (That success would be colored by a later legal decision that Harrison had “subconsciously plagiarized” the Chiffon’s 1962 hit “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord.”)

It is for these reasons that Harrison, the so-called “quiet Beatle,” preferred to be known as a “dark horse,” the title of his 1974 album and the name of his later record label. A dark horse, he once told an interviewer, is “the one who suddenly pulls out from behind the rest and barrels ahead to actually win the race. The one that nobody’s bothered to put any money on. That’s me, I guess. The very last one anyone would have ever expected to come out a winner.”

Indeed, after the demise of the Beatles, many would argue that Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” was a solo achievement to rank with McCartney’s “Band on the Run” and Lennon’s “Imagine.” And his successes continued for a time.

His friend and former teacher, sitar player Ravi Shankar, appealed to Harrison to do something to help the millions of people displaced and starving as a result of the civil war in the state of East Bengal, which was fighting to free itself from Pakistan. Harrison responded with what was one of the first all-star benefit rock shows on Aug. 1, 1971, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The concert, which featured Ringo Starr, Clapton, Leon Russell and the then-reclusive Bob Dylan, was a huge success, airing later in the year on CBS. The concert recording was released as a triple boxed set and won the 1972 Grammy for Album of the Year.

Harrison won 10 Grammys during his career.

Harrison’s next album, “Living in the Material World,” started off well, with the No. 1 hit single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” but was generally weak, and set the stage for a surprisingly lackluster subsequent solo career. He released six more albums in the next eight years.

Harrison became the first Beatle to do a solo tour, in 1974, but it was widely panned by critics, and he was not to tour again until a short 1991 tour of Japan.

Harrison’s personal life was difficult. In 1966, he married Patti Boyd, a model he’d met on the set of “A Hard Day’s Night” (she plays one of the schoolgirls on the train and has one line: “Prisoners?”), but in 1974 she left him for his best friend, Clapton, who had penned his classic song “Layla” for Boyd. Harrison and Boyd were divorced in 1977. A year later, on Sept. 2, 1978, Harrison married Olivia Arias, a secretary at his record label. Their wedding was preceded by the birth of the couple’s first and only child, Dhani (pronounced Danny), born Aug. 1, 1978. Despite it all, Clapton and Harrison remained best friends, and the next spring Harrison played an impromptu set with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at Clapton and Boyd’s wedding.

His recording career in the doldrums, Harrison developed an interest in Formula One racing and in working on the expansive gardens of his estate, Friar Park, in Berkshire, England, which he bought in 1970 and is pictured on the cover of “All Things Must Pass.” He also wrote an autobiography, “I, Me, Mine,” that was published with much fanfare in 1980.

His most successful endeavors of the 1980s would be in film. In 1979, he launched Handmade Films to help out his friends in Monty Python, who had lost backing for “Life of Brian.” He also had a cameo in the film. In the next 10 years, Handmade Films also released “The Long Good Friday,” “Time Bandits,” “Mona Lisa,” “The Missionary” and Madonna’s first flop, “Shanghai Surprise.”

Five years after his own flop, the album “Gone Troppo,” Harrison returned to the studio with co-producer Jeff Lynne of ELO, and created 1987’s “Cloud Nine,” which re-established his credentials and scored a No. 1 single with his remake of James Ray’s 1962 gospel hit, “Got My Mind Set On You.”

Harrison was once again on top, and followed up the next year by helping to form a loose-knit supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys, which also featured Dylan, Lynne, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. The group scored a hit in the Harrison-dominated “Handle with Care,” and the album “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” sold more than a million copies and won a 1989 Grammy. A second Wilburys collection, jokingly titled “Volume 3,”was released in 1990.

Though he later contributed an occasional song here and there, the 1989 single “Cheer Down” and 1990 benefit single “Nobody’s Child,” released to benefit his wife’s charity for Romanian orphans, were Harrison’s last releases under his own name.

He did, however, have a hand in compiling the massively successful CD and video histories of the Beatles, “The Beatles Anthology,” which racked up staggering sales in the mid-’90s and featured two “new” Beatles’ songs, both written by Lennon and put together from his old tapes (with new performances by Harrison and the others) in the recording studio. The “Anthology” book also featured extensive interviews with Harrison, as well as with surviving Beatles McCartney and Starr.

Harrison also enjoyed the tremendous international success of the compilation album of Beatles No. 1 singles, “1,” when it was released in 2000.

“The thing that pleases me the most about it is that young people like it,” Harrison said in an interview at the time. “I think the popular music has gone truly weird. It’s either cutesy-wutesy or it’s hard, nasty stuff. It’s good that this has life again with the youth.”

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