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Sunday, November 12, 2023


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 George Harrison (left) and Ringo Starr and his wife Maureen in the audience at a 1969 Bob Dylan concert. To the right: Yoko Ono in the background. Getty photo. 


 GUEST BLOG / Excerpt by Philip Norman from his book “George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle via Scribner. Philip Norman is the best-selling biographer of Eric Clapton, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Paul McCartney. A novelist and a playwright, he lives in London

On November 29, George Harrison dies after a four-year battle with cancer, aged 58. The atrocities of September 11 were only two months earlier, but despite the pressure of grim news from the still smoldering wreckage of New York’s World Trade Center and President George W. Bush’s retaliatory “War on Terror,” his passing instantly goes to the top of TV news and leaps into front page headlines. 

 Even at such a time, there are no complaints of trivialization; the Beatles long ago ceased to be just a pop group and became almost a worldwide religion. And somber though the TV and radio coverage may be, it includes generous helpings of music that, 30 years after their breakup, still has undiminished power to charm and comfort. 

 Inevitably, it also unlocks memories of John Lennon’s assassination in 1980—but the two tragedies differ in more than their circumstances. That horrifically sudden obliteration of John seemed to have half the human race in tears at what felt like the loss of a wayward but still cherished old friend. With George struck down by a quieter killer, millions can mourn the musician, but there’s much less to go on in mourning the man. For no more private person can ever have trodden a stage more mercilessly public. 

Masterpiece album
In later years, he took to calling himself “the economy-class Beatle,” not quite joking about his subordinate status from the day he joined John and Paul in the Quarrymen skiffle group until almost the end of their time together. Yet by sheer dogged persistence, he made it into the First Class cabin with songs equaling the best if never the vast quantity of Lennon and McCartney’s. 

 Here is a small sample of Harrison’s songwriting resume: “While my guitar gently weeps; Here Comes the Sun; Something and My sweet lord.” 

 As a guitarist, he indisputably belongs in the Sixties’ pantheon of six-string superheroes alongside Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, though he never considered himself more than “an okay player.” 

 Alone in that company, he had a serious turn of mind: the Beatles, then commercial pop as a whole, radically changed direction after his discovery of the sitar and embracing of Indian religion and philosophy. Better, rather, to call him the Beatles’ Great Minority. 


The Turban Years
Back in the Beatle madness of the early 60s, no one would have taken him for an underdog. In live shows, he was adored almost as much as Paul with his fine-boned face, beetling brows and hair so thick and pliant—that as a Liverpool school friend once said—it was “like a fuckin’ te-erban.” 

 But the fine-boned face could be noticeably economical with the cheery grin his fans expected at all times; indeed, it first planted the amazing thought that being a Beatle might not be undiluted bliss. 

 This was the endlessly self-contradictory “Quiet One,” actually as verbally quick on the draw as John at press conferences; who excepted the workhorse rule of lead guitarist, plodding dutifully over his fretboard while John and Paul competed for the spotlight, yet offstage was the most touchy and temperamental of the four; who railed against “the material world,” yet wrote the first pop-song complaining about income tax; who spent years lovingly restoring Friar Park, this 30-room Gothic mansion, yet mortgaged it in a heartbeat to finance his friends the Monty Python team’s the Life of Brian film; who, paradoxically, became more uptight and moody after he learned to meditate; who could touch both the height of nobility with his Concert for Bangladesh and the depths of disloyalty in his casual seduction of Ringo’s wife at the time: Maureen. 

 His obituaries agree his finest post-Beatles achievement to have been All Things Must Pass, the 1970 triple album largely consisting of songs that John and Paul had rejected for the band or that he hadn’t submitted, anticipating their indifference. A blend of his Indian influences and high-octane pop, “World Music” before the term existed, it far outsold their respective solo debuts and has done so ever since: an unextinguishable last laugh. 

 “My Sweet Lord,” the defining track, was an anthem for any creed a year ahead of John’s “Imagine,” with a slide-guitar motif like a tremulous human voice that would become a signature as personal and inimitable as Jerry Lee Lewis’s slashing piano arpeggios or Stevie Wonder’s harmonica. 

 But, as Sir Bob Geldof observes, almost every George Harrison solo or riff planted itself in the mind’s ear forevermore…the pauses as eloquent as words in his masterpiece, “Something”…the downward carillon, so full of optimism he wasn’t feeling, in “Here Comes the Sun…the “backward” solo compounding the euphoric haze of John’s “I’m Only Sleeping”…the drawn-out jangling coda to “A Hard Day’s Night”…the jazzy acoustic ripple lending a touch of sophistication to Paul’s Cavern show tune “Till There Was You…the languid chords reining back the frenzy of “She Loves You”…the Duane Eddying bass notes on “I Saw Her Standing There” that still exhale the smoky, beery, randy air of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. 

 “He was a lovely guy and a very brave man—really just my baby brother,” says Sir Paul McCartney, truly up to a point. “I feel strongly there was a beautiful soul in him,” says his sitar guru and surrogate father Ravi Shankar. “He found something worth more than fame, more than fortune, more than anything,” says Sir Elton John. “His life was magical and we all felt we had shared a little bit of it by knowing him,” says Yoko Ono Lennon, though it really wasn’t and she didn’t. “It takes courage to be gentle,” says Brian May from Queen. “He was an inspiration.” 

 His second wife, Olivia—an inconspicuous figure throughout their 27 years together until the night in 1999 when she saved his life—issues a statement on behalf of herself and their 23-year-old son and only child, Dhani. His mourners should try to be as positive as he managed to be. Olivia says, that the Hindu precepts he lived by had banished all fear of death. “He gave his life to God a long time ago. George said you can’t just discover God when you’re dying…you have to practice. He went on with what was happening to him.” 

 Still across every culture and in every language, the same chill thought occurs, often to somebody born after—in many cases, long after—the Beatles broke up: 

 Only two of them left. 

Photographed by Terry O’Neill on April 27, 1981: The Wedding of Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach. George and Olivia; Ringo and Barbara and Paul and Linda.
Kids: Zak Starkey with rose and James McCartney.


CLICK HERE for George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle by Philip Norman from Scribner. 

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