George Harrison during the height of Beatlemania
Psychedelic era Harrison
Older and wiser
Harrison with his wife Olivia
My first exposure to George Harrison was a hit song called “All Those Years Ago”, a fun little tune that blared from the transistor radio under my pillow as I rocked myself to sleep. It was 1981 and I was in fifth grade, and the song was an amiable companion to fellow hits such as “Bette Davis Eyes” and “Kiss on My List”. Casey Kasem told me that “All those Years Ago” was a tribute to the recently assassinated John Lennon, but the song failed to make me cry. It was a hooky nostalgic memoir, not a spiritual rendering of a great man. What the hell did I care?
No, “All Those Years Ago” did not make me like the Beatles: but Lennon’s strangely spiritual posthumous “Watching the Wheels”, did. My mom bought me the Beatles Red Album (a.k.a. 1962-1966), and from “Love Me Do” to “Yellow Submarine”, I was hooked. Several of my Catholic schoolmates shared my fascination with the Beatles, and we formed an impromptu Beatles fan club, which was slightly less cool than playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons back then. We sought out and played every Beatles and Beatles-related tune we could find. It was a magical time an era when music seemed like a limitless rock’n'roll palette to inform our dreams and score our reality.
But the mystique of George Harrison still escaped us for all intents and purposes we schoolboys figured “silent George” was the Fifth Beatle. Our sixth grade teacher, Mr. Byrnes, told us that “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was his favorite Beatles song. We just laughed. Who would like a slow, boring song like that?
I stopped paying attention to the Beatles when I turned thirteen and bought Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil. The jump from Mötley to hardcore, indie rock and then hip-hop was a short one. The Beatles still sounded pretty cool on occasion, but they were more a curiosity than a real part of my musical landscape. Still, I awoke last Friday morning feeling a deeper sense of sadness than I imagined I would at George Harrison’s death. I hadn’t really paid him much attention in years, and even in my youthful Beatlemaniac period, he stood resolutely at the periphery of my consciousness. George was the Mystical Beatle, the Insular Beatle, the Strange Beatle, the Serious Beatle. He was a great guitarist, and there are countless Beatles classics that would be nothing without his pretty, jangly, button-down riffs suffusing them like a potent incense cone. But he was still the Quiet Beatle, and stood in the background of my memory.
Despite their four discrete egos and two-tiered songwriting ethos, the Beatles would have been nothing without George. And when you think about it, George is a fascinating and important cultural figure, too. Sure, Lennon and McCartney were “important” in all the standard ways, but Harrison was essential because he created a singular worldview and guitar style that influenced the whole of the sixties musical aesthetics. He did this insidiously, perhaps even unintentionally. In fact most people don’t credit his central influence only because he was a hidden Beatle, and his ego was often redirected away from world-historical significance.
George’s influence on musical history is possibly more unique and strange than we know. Take, for instance, the sitar. Much has been made of his introduction of the sitar to the Beatles repertoire, and Beatle-ologists disagree about whether that was ultimately a good thing. Sure, “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a dynamite, sublime tune for which George (lysergic sitar) and Ringo (astounding drum riff) deserve equal billing with John as composer. But on the other hand, the sitar intro to “Norwegian Wood” is just plain annoying. And no one is claiming that “Love You To”, “The Inner Light”, and “Within You Without You” are Beatles classics on par with “Something” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. And yet . . . and yet.
When you see parodies and evocations of psychedelia, the sitar is the first instrument you hear, right? By making the most mystical tunes of the most popular band in the world into sitar-drenched anomalies, George may have single-handedly defined the aesthetics of the sixties in a unique way. Ersatz Hinduism has survived as a sort of Sixties Identifier, whereas another premier icon of the decade, Muhammad Ali, utterly failed to popularize Islam in any way. Let the cultural theorists rage on about race and class, but let’s honor Harrison’s memory by giving him credit for punctuating the equilibrium of the twentieth century with sitars and Hinduism. Sure, Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi might deserve equal billing. But they weren’t Beatles, and their influence would have been predictably marginal without our George as their eager pupil.
Indeed, George was an excellent student of songwriting. His nasal voice appeared on some early tunes such as “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and “Roll Over Beethoven”, usually providing an egalitarian change of pace. Everyone knew John and Paul were the better singers. Yet George kept trying, and in a band of working-class mates, he figured his talent might become the equal of John and Paul’s in the songwriting department if he kept practicing. He was right.
“If I Needed Someone” and “Think for Yourself” are fun little ditties, but no one cites them as classics. When the kids bought the new Beatles album Revolver in August 1966, the first sounds they heard were George counting down, and then a chunky, rocking riff that introduced the song “Taxman” a populist anti-tax anthem (by a nouveau riche rock star) which was jarringly different from anything the Beatles had ever recorded. Revolver introduced the New Beatles psychedelic, experimental, topical, and romantic and one could argue that George’s “Taxman” is the song that marks the transition between the teen-idol Beatles and the serious-artist Beatles.
Also, “Taxman” introduced George as one of the band’s central composers, even though his output was pretty sparse thereafter. This supposedly peripheral, mystical composer penned some of the Beatles’ weirdest, most memorable tunes: “It’s All Too Much”, “Piggies”, “Savoy Truffle”, “Old Brown Shoe”, “I Me Mine”. None of them were hits, none of them played much on the radio. Yet all of them were pretty ace tunes. Indeed, “It’s All Too Much” still commands a visceral power that rivals the works of groundbreaking contemporaries such as the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones.
It wasn’t until late in the Beatles era that George wrote his Trilogy of Classics: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Something”, and “Here Comes the Sun”. Where would the Beatles’ legacy be without these songs? All three songs were self-conscious, sublime, ostentatious epics in an era where schlock was poetry and simplicity was subtle. It is part of George’s genius that such seemingly schmaltzy compositions remain fresh and relevant no matter how many times you play ‘em. George had been perfecting his songwriting craft by watching his co-workers, and it’s likely that he would have improved even more had the Beatles continued as a unit.
Another George Harrison contribution to culture is his weirdness. Before the Beatles broke up, he recorded two solo albums Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound which nobody heard at the time, and few people listen to now. But both songs consist of all sorts of strange experiments in sound construction, far removed from the standard pop context. Is it possible that the young Brian Eno saw the possibilities in a major pop star getting random with his banks of moog synthesizers? Could Harrison’s Electronic Sound be a secret influence on Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider-Esleben when they recorded strange little tunes like “Tone Float” and “Rhythm Salad” before forming Kraftwerk in 1970? George Harrison was a major pop star who dared to be weird, avant-garde, and unlistenable for no apparent reason. He turned fecklessness into a virtue, and this legacy has both enriched and betrayed popular music ever since.
Unfortunately, when the Beatles broke up George was at a loss for context. All Things Must Pass has some great songs (“If Not for You”, “My Sweet Lord”), but its reputation is larded over with the critical overkill that initially greeted a triple-LP solo-Beatle mystical masterwork. But the backlash is also just as unnecessary. The man was on a roll with his late-Beatles compositions, and this album was an experiment in creating an identity. Sure “My Sweet Lord” stole a melody from the Chiffons, possibly unintentionally, but now that swiping melodies is transcendentally cool (viz. Pavement), we can see the song as a pre-hipster post-rock mystical anthem of sorts.
As the Mahavishnu Orchestra was going prog, George inadvertently went Motown, and which is the more enlightened path? The remainder of his solo career will likely be buried by the shifting sands of time. The man drowned his evasive identity in a murky pool of mysticism, and so most of his solo albums are combinations of pseudo-carnal greeting cards [“A Bit More of You”, “(Ooh Baby) You Know That I Love You”], and hamfisted recitations of his spirituality [“The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)”, “Far East Man”]. On occasion he transcended his limitations and gave us beautiful gems such as “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” and “Crackerbox Palace” (my personal favorite).
But solo George was, in the end, a disappointment. I think most critics were afraid to dismiss his albums outright only because he could simulate great pop art with his winning everyman voice and jangly guitar. He seemed more earnest and credible than Ringo, who made bad albums for no reason whatsoever. George’s brief 1987 comeback the glossy, overhyped Cloud Nine did nothing to improve his solo reputation, no matter how many units it sold. Heck, 1967’s “It’s All Too Much” seems like a much more modern, edgy, eternal song than “Got My Mind Set On You”, which now sounds like an oldie. At least he was trying. His participation in the Traveling Wilburys was depressing but fun: Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne both outshone him in that supergroup, but his mere presence seemed to give the project a boffo, important aura - croaky Dylan and world-historic Orbison were just moss-covered statues in comparison.
With the Traveling Wilburys he was sneaking up from behind and anonymously influencing a group project, just like when he was in the Beatles. Still, it’s a dull album and not too many people care about it, anymore. He also did some ace film production over the years, and of course participated in some of the Beatles pseudo-reunion tapes (“Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”). On the whole, however, he laid low over the past ten years, a sensible move.
Born a working-class kid in Liverpool, George ended up a famous, instantly recognizable talent who gave the world some eternal songs [“Here Comes the Sun”, “Something”, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)”], and he inadvertently defined late-sixties culture by popularizing mysticism (and adding tablas and sitar to the sixties soundtrack). Also, he was a Beatle.
All this makes his origins alone an inspiration. His career rising from humble mediocrity to covert genius is yet another disproof of Joan Miro’s maxim that “there is always an aristocracy in art”.
There’s a hilarious scene in the film A Hard Day’s Night where an arrogant stiff offers a young, sarcastic George mistaken for an average1964 hipster a pile of shirts. “They’re grotty”, sneers George. The stiff replies, “You’ll like these, you’ll really dig them, they’re fab and all the other pimply hyperboles”. George may have occasionally flirted with the grotty in his real life, and he was rarely fab after 1971, but he never once caved into a pimply hyperbole. And if he ever did, he would be the first to admit it. Today his ashes are being scattered in the grotty, holy Ganges River. The world will miss him.