For one thing, this time it was natural causes. George Harrison’s death last week was experienced by fans, and by the world, very differently from John Lennon’s more than twenty years ago. Nowhere near as searing, yet every bit as sad. A glance at the TV, at the “cute” ex-Beatle as he talks about the late, “quiet” ex-Beatle, is reminder enough that we are getting old. And the Four of Them – or rather the two that haven’t died – are even older. Heavy stuff for those of us who will always regard the film A Hard Day’s Night as a formative, joyful childhood memory. Back then, was George anyone’s favorite Beatle?
He wasn’t mine, though I liked him because we had the same first name – something that, around the time of those first Ed Sullivan appearances, improved the status of grateful grade-school Georges everywhere.
George himself, though we couldn’t have known it then, was watching and learning and, eventually, seething in the background, waiting for his chance to step up in a band crowded with geniuses. His contribution became manifest on Rubber Soul and Revolver, the albums that marked the Beatles not just as pop stars but as artists. His sitar on “Norwegian Wood,” from the first of those records, staked out a new kind of musical territory that was greedily annexed on the sitar-happy Revolver – which opens (opens!) not with a Lennon-McCartney track but with “Taxman,” the unmistakable sound of Songwriter No. 3 asserting himself at last.
But George’s contribution couldn’t be measured in songwriting credits. He was the passionate, spiritual guitar (or sitar) hero, indifferent to the spotlight. His soul wasn’t rubber.
Post-Beatles, a phase that came not a minute too soon for the genuinely private Harrison, he shot out of the gate right past his betters with All Things Must Pass – ironically, becoming for a short time everyone’s favorite ex-Beatle. And even though he never matched it as a piece, there were some good tracks still to come. (Both he and Paul wrote songs about John in the wake of Lennon’s murder; George’s – “All Those Years Ago” – was first and best.) With his passions and curiosity (the concert for Bangladesh was a landmark, leading to benefits like LiveAid and FarmAid), his earnest missteps (a disastrous, raw-throated tour of the U.S. in the seventies) and wry humor (producing a Monty Python film; appearing in the Rutles’ All You Need Is Cash), Harrison took three-dimensional shape for us in a way not all his Beatles colleagues have been able to.
After 58 years that sent him literally and figuratively all over the map, and just before finally finding peace in California, Harrison, reportedly seeking treatment for his cancer, turned up for a while in Staten Island. Staten Island? Maybe it’s not as incongruous as it seems. In the best possible sense, George Harrison – undervalued, proud, essential – was the outer borough of the Beatles.