My Friend, George Harrison: Reflections on the Cool Beatle
The minute I saw George in those blue jeans, work shirt, and those sand-colored boots, I had to have them, and that was exactly what I wore for the months that followed.
George Harrison was my friend. I never met him face-to-face, but that doesn’t matter. From the mid-60s until his death on November 29, 2001, I truly thought of him as my friend, in a way that I haven’t ever felt about any other musician or celebrity.
New Year’s Eve 1999, when it was reported that he’d been stabbed by an intruder but luckily survived, it was that -- his survival -- that I celebrated at midnight. And when I read about his courage, drawing the attacker to himself and away from his wife, I thought, “Well, what else would you expect of George?”
George may have been “the quiet Beatle”, but he was also the “cool” Beatle, at least I always thought so. When I saw the (still un-rereleased!) movie Let It Be when it first came out in 1970, it was George who came across as staying above the fray. During the famous argument with Paul over how to play a certain part, it was George who kept his cool. “I don’t mind. I’ll play whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it,” he said, ever the gentleman, and though he meant what he said, he still stood up to Paul in his own gentle way. That bowled me over when I was 17.
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George had style, too. Take the cover of Abbey Road. The minute I saw George in those blue jeans, work shirt, and those sand-colored boots, I had to have them, and that was exactly what I wore for the months that followed. (I still wear a pair of those boots now and then.) And I grew my first beard (or tried to), because of the poster that came with All Things Must Pass, where the heavily bearded George stands backlit in front of a beveled glass window, a poster that I framed above my bed.
And though we don’t think of any of the Beatles as sophisticated or suave, George was indisputably glamorous. Take this cameo on the Smothers Brothers show from 1968:
A holiday ritual each winter season for more than two decades, driving my family to the home of my parents for Christmas, I would play All Things Must Pass during the last 90 miles of the trip. (I still play it every Christmas day.) Justifiably, that landmark album is considered by many as the best of the Beatles’ solo recordings. Songs like “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Beware of Darkness,” and “All Things Must Pass” are not only beautiful melodic structures, but they each convey the heart and soul of the man himself, his spiritual nature, and the depths of the philosophy by which he lived as well. He sings these words not as a preacher, but as an older brother:
Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night
Beware of sadness
It can hit you
It can hurt you
Make you sore and what is more
That is not what you are here for
That last line always made me shiver, just like the line “... forgetting to give back” in the song “Isn’t It a Pity”:
Isn't it a pity
Now, isn't it a shame
How we break each other's hearts
And cause each other pain
How we take each other's love
Without thinking anymore
Forgetting to give back
Isn't it a pity
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One of George’s greatest songs, “My Sweet Lord,” would cause him the greatest anguish when he was sued by the publisher of Chiffons “He’s So Fine,” a moderately successful song in England, reaching Number 12 on the charts for a few weeks. Unaccountably, the judge pronounced against George in 1971, calling it unconscious plagiarism. (Today, I play the two songs side-by-side and only the slimmest similarity is evident. And besides, this kind of vague plagiarism is not at all unusual these days in popular music, but nobody thinks twice about it.) It was all typical of the kind of backlash the members of the Beatles often suffered, from John and the furor his “Bigger than Jesus Christ” comment caused, to, more recently, all the tabloid gossip surrounding Paul’s recent divorce.
But George never took such outrages lying down. Unlike John and Paul nastily dissing each other in song, he wrote great songs of gentle revenge. In response to all the legal wrangling that followed the breakup of the Beatles, George wrote and sang “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” and for the judge who found against him in 1971, he wrote the hilarious “This Song”:
This song has nothing tricky about it
This song ain't black or white and as far as I know
Don't infringe on anyone's copyright, so ...
This song we'll let be
This song is in E
This song is for you and ...
This tune has nothing Bright about it
This tune ain't bad or good and come ever what may
My expert tells me it's okay
As this song came to me
This song could be you could be ...
This riff ain't trying to win gold medals
This riff ain't hip or square
Well done or rare
May end up one more weight to bear
But this song could well be
A reason to see - that
Without you there's no point to ... this song
George also wrote some of the finest tributes to his former band mates. His song to John, “All Those Years Ago,” and to the whole group, “When We Was Fab,” from his last great album, Cloud Nine, are both memorable tributes as well as great pop songs.
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George was the last person to take himself too seriously. Just check out his music videos if you need some convincing. “Crackerbox Palace,” “This Song,” “When We Was Fab,” and “I Got My Mind Set On You” in particular (oh, I’d love to think George actually did that back flip himself!).
I often think about John Lennon’s comment to George Martin during the recording of the Let It Be album, that he didn’t want any more of the producer’s “jiggery pokery,” meaning that he’d had enough of all the studio gimmicks and wanted something genuine and simple. George, on the other hand, filled his videos with plenty of visual jiggery pokery, as if to say, “This is for fun, folks. Take me too seriously, and then the joke’s on you.”
George had a broad impact on musical culture as well, perhaps more than any other Beatle. The Concert for Bangladesh was one of the first attempts (if not the first attempt) that used rock music in order to raise significant funds for charitable causes, decades in advance of “We Are the World,” Live Aid, and the institution known as Bono.
George’s using of the sitar as early as the Rubber Soul album and forging a lasting friendship with the great Ravi Shankar, undoubtedly helped raise awareness of World Music, and was one of the seminal events leading to the globalization of culture.
(I happen also to be a Shankar fanatic, thanks to George. I’ve seen Ravi perform twice and I’ve never heard greater genius or technical facility on a concert stage. His “Raga Jogeshwari” never fails to rock and stun me.)
* * *
And all this from a self-proclaimed gardener, who was happiest with his flowers and gardens in his home, Friar’s Park, and spending time with his family, and who went out to play music now and then because, he once said, “Sometimes, you just need to boogie.”
In his interviews, George talked unashamedly about his religious beliefs. Similarly, his post-Beatles music is often religious, from “My Sweet Lord” and other songs on All Things Must Pass, to the joyous “This is Love” on Cloud Nine, to several lovely songs on his final album, Brainwashed. Though I’ve never followed Hinduism as George himself did, his interest in religions other than Christianity was very much an influence on my own spiritual development. I’m more of a seeker than a believer -- George was a staunch believer in reincarnation, for example -- and Zen has always been more compelling to me than other religions. But there’s no doubt that I would have never even begun to explore such things if it hadn’t been for George.
George Harrison believed in the right things: the simplicity and power of great music, flowers, human connection, charity toward others, love, and spiritual seeking. Not a bad combination. And while I don’t emulate George in pursuing every one of these things as rigorously as he did, they are all a part of my psyche. I miss him.
(One final note: recently a new George Harrison “Best of” collection was released. Titled Let It Roll, it’s a great introduction to his music. Highly recommended.)