Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ten Years Without George Harrison

Nearly a year ago, a friend of mine asked me to write something about George Harrison.

I knew we were coming up on the 10th anniversary of Harrison's death so I promised her that I would. And this is the fulfillment of that promise.

But I've really been fulfilling the promise incrementally over the year.

Since she made that request, I have written other pieces that mentioned Harrison — specifically, in connection with "Taxman" and when I wrote about his musical tribute to former Beatles bandmate John Lennon and when I wrote of the anniversaries of the benefit concerts for Bangladesh and the release of the Beatles album "Revolver."

All of that has reminded me how much modern music owes the "quiet Beatle." I haven't seen Martin Scorsese's HBO documentary about Harrison, but I have heard that it is an important step in giving him the recognition he never really seemed to get during his life.

If that is so, then I applaud it.

Because I have learned things about Harrison as I have worked on this article since making my promise — perhaps I re–learned some of them.

There were lots of things about Harrison that I already knew or thought I knew.

I knew Harrison was a seeker. He was easily the most spiritual of the four Beatles. And that has its place, I suppose. It may be the single quality that people mention most about Harrison.

There are worse ways to be remembered.

But I always felt there was more to him than that. Harrison possessed a sensitivity that Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr did not — at least not to the extent that Harrison did.

That sensitivity could be seen in the passion he had for humanitarian causes. That wasn't something he did because it was fashionable. He was involved in humanitarian issues all along, but he was more visible after the Beatles split up.

His role with the Beatles was always limited. He always existed in the overwhelming shadow of the Lennon–McCartney partnership, but that role, thankfully, expanded in the later years, and the world was allowed to see more of his talent in songs like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," "Something" and "Within You Without You."

Harrison's most significant contributions were musical, but that doesn't mean his musical talent and his spirituality were kept separate from each other; far from it. The two often converged — as when Harrison's acceptance of Indian Hinduism led to the introduction of sitar music to Western listeners.

"In his most obvious contribution to music as lead guitarist for the Beatles, George Harrison provided the band with a lyrical style of playing in which every note mattered," wrote Bruce Eder for AllMusic.com.

"Later on, as a songwriter with the Beatles and subsequently as a solo artist, Harrison used his celebrity and his musical sensibilities to try and raise the awareness of millions of listeners about issues much bigger than music."

That's probably what sticks out in my memory of George Harrison. His music always had an other–worldly aura to it. Sometimes it was subtle, other times it wasn't so subtle. But it was always about things that were bigger than the music alone.

Music was where Harrison found his sense of purpose. He perceived, as many do, that his true mission in life was to seek a higher power, and I feel that, ultimately, he believed he had reached it through his music.

But there was, as I say, the humanitarian side of Harrison that really got its chance to blossom when the Beatles broke up.

Do spirituality and sensitivity exist as separate entities? That is a different argument — and one in which I prefer not to engage on this occasion.

But I will say this: As much as I admired Lennon and as much respect as I have for what McCartney has done musically, Harrison truly distinguished himself post–Beatlemania — apart from writing and recording popular songs and beyond anything the other three did.

Harrison was, as John Donne wrote centuries ago, "involved in mankind."

He was really the first to organize a benefit concert featuring several big–name performers, a pioneer whose experiences still serve as useful guides for what to do and what not to do. His concerts for Bangladesh truly blazed a trail for others to follow.

I sensed a certain amount of peace in the last years of his life — peace that may have been missing when he was young and his pursuit of the spiritual world often seemed to be at odds with the people and things that surrounded him.

That pursuit didn't get any easier as he got older. In 1999, he was stabbed by an intruder in his home, an ironic turn of events, considering that, in the 19 years since Lennon's murder, Harrison may have been the most reclusive of the surviving Beatles, avoiding most public appearances and probably taking more security precautions than McCartney or Starr.

He had been diagnosed with throat cancer a couple of years earlier, but it seemed to have been successfully treated and nothing more was heard about that until 2001, when it was revealed, in successive months, that he had been treated for lung cancer and a brain tumor.

The final months of his life were hardly peaceful. There were reports that his death was near, even when it turned out not to be true.

And then there was the report that was true. In mid– to late November, it was reported that George Harrison was expected to die within days.

And so he did.

Maybe age — as it has long been rumored to do — brought him peace and wisdom even though he was only 58 when he died.

Both were well earned.