Dark Horse Moves On, Sun Sets in East

by Greg Panfile

3:30 a.m., Friday, Nov. 30, 2001. I’m fast asleep with the TV on, the antiterror war chanting “Tora Bora, Tora Bora” in the background. I awake to these words: “Former Beatle George Harrison is dead at age 58.” George Harrison had left my life, and those of millions, the same way he entered it: unusually, and on television. Dead of cancer on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2001, the announcement delayed for his family’s sake.

It wasn’t unexpected, this bookend to the cathode-lit black-and-white night in the early 60s I first saw him play, via tape on the Jack Paar version of the “Tonight Show.” George had been ill for awhile, the news departments seemed to be prepared. Like so many, I “relived” and recalled the musical mania that followed from that first Ed Sullivan show, when George and his mates turned hormones, adrenalin, electricity and genius into a cultural phenomenon that will never be duplicated and will last forever. As Yogi Berra or Ringo Starr might have said: After the Beatles, the future will never be the same.

And there could be no Beatles without George Harrison. Collectively, electronically, emotionally, in all media, and only with his passing, came the revelation of the sheer musical brilliance and variation of this “quiet” man who had so much to say; this “serious” incessant jokester who scaled the greatest heights of fame, fortune, and achievement. Despite so much exposure he had been elusive in life; his private, obsessive focus on musical excellence and general lack of “pushiness” so often concealing the artful way in which George pulled more than his share of the weight while seeming, somehow, to be just tagging along.

Over the next few days, his life as seen from without unfolded in the sound and pictures of countless radio and television retrospectives, revealing more than the eye met when he walked among us. It turns out that Beatle George was a musician’s musician, a genius at that art, and a very complicated man who packed an immense amount of living into his 58 years. After the incredible excesses of Beatlehood came to an end, he went on as a solo artist to achieve “hit” status in each of four consecutive decades (five total!), and left a legacy of brilliant session work with most of the greatest songwriters and performers of his era. As a film producer in the 80s, he brought to light such comic gems as Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” (1979) and the surreal “Brazil” (1985) with Robert deNiro; Add to this staging the first superstar benefit (Concert for Bangladesh, 1971), the first triple album ever (All Things Must Pass, 1970), and just a few of the great musicians he played with after the Fab Three: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Eric Clapton, Carl Perkins, Leon Russell.

Not bad for a bus driver’s son born in wartime England (Liverpool, 1943) and high school dropout. At age 15, a slacking George dreamt of rock stardom in America. At age 20 (1964), he had it, and was one of the most famous people in the world. He burst upon us (the Ed Sullivan show, the film “A Hard Day’s Night”) dancing and grinning, with slicing wit and an understated, unique approach to lead guitar ... a mixture of rockabilly, jazz, and blues that made the Beatles flow. While Ringo pounded the earth and kept time, reining in the fiery and airy excesses of John and Paul, George played the watery role, filling in as needed and making it all smooth, and always with a sound and style all his own.

From this center, George grew musically during the Beatle years, gradually becoming more involved with songwriting and arranging, notably on Revolver (1966), to which he contributed three original songs including the rocking opener “Taxman.” An interest in Indian music and philosophy that began on the set of the film “Help!” (1965) led to a friendship and apprenticeship with sitarist Ravi Shankar, and George’s commitment to Eastern thought and religious concepts stayed with him throughout his life (and beyond it, as his ashes have been scattered on holy rivers in India), musically and otherwise.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (1968) set a new standard of songwriting quality for George, and began a decades-long friendship and musical collaboration with fellow legend Eric Clapton. With the release of “Something” (the only Beatle song ever covered by Frank Sinatra) and “Here Comes The Sun on Abbey Road” (1969), George hit his stride as a songwriter, setting the stage for his solo career. “All Things Must Pass” starts and dominates George’s that era, featuring the megahit “My Sweet Lord,” an ecumenical tour de force of devotional rock and near-perfect ear candy.

George never had the personality or vocals to front a band or tour consistently, and even in the Beatle years didn’t care for stardom and self-promotion much. He always seemed more musically comfortable among equals or superiors as just one of the boys, and that direction dominated his musical life in the 80s and 90s. Sporadic solo albums were woven occasionally between tours with Eric Clapton (1992), sessions with the superstar Traveling Wilburys (1988-90), and sessions behind the wheel of serious racecars; George’s driving idol was the late Richard Petty. He and second wife Olivia” raised a son, Dhani, and saw him graduate from college just recently. The “Beatles Anthology project (1995-6), and solo works including “When We Was Fab” (1988) and “All Those Years Ago” (1981), show a George musically and peronsally comfortable with his past and present, always keenly observing and putting his feelings on the line at the same time, a real talent if ever there was one.

The horrid violation of his personal space by a knife-wielding would-be assassin in 1999 was the last, darkest spot in George’s life, and while that can’t have helped he was not well before it. Still, while there is a feeling of sadness, there is not the violence and suddenness associated with John Lennon’s death, and George did make it almost to 60 while Lennon only reached 40. Though he might have lived longer, he did live plenty, a full and interesting life, and George Harrison left the world more a more beautiful place than when he entered it. Even his exit seemed almost planned, foreshadowed by songs such as “All Things Must Pass” and “The Art of Dying” (both 1970); reports say that a nearly-finished last solo collection will appear before too long, and he had already initiated plans for a full boxed set of demos, alternates, and outtakes. As the next decade goes by and numerous 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ this-or-that milestones pass, a George Harrison Anthology will be part of any reasonable future, and a good thing I look forward to eagerly.

In his later years he loved gardening most of all, content to live a private life, at peace with his individual and group legacies. And if there is one song that sums up what George had to offer and who he was musically, and one recording of it ... the “Anthology 3” slow version of an acoustic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” would be it. Solo voice, lovely quiet acoustic guitar, and a simple yet effective Hammond organ overdub ... The voice is that of an outsider, an observer, yet someone who empathizes. At least some of the time, George was being quiet because he was paying attention rather than seeking it:

I look from the wings at the play you are staging while my guitar gently weeps; As I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging, still my guitar gently weeps.

So it did, and for me, for many of us, it still does. Rest in peace, George; you are number one (“All Things Must Pass,” remastered with bonus tracks, 2001) and you have always been. Play on.