By Mark Guarino
George Harrison died just like he lived: serenely and with dignity. For a man who was one-fourth of the 20th century’s most influential pop group, that was a Herculean task. Yet Harrison – who was tagged the “quiet Beatle” in the early days of Fab stardom – was able to maintain a low-key profile throughout his four-decade career, sidestepping the calculated moves typical of a rock star of his stature. Instead, the music Harrison chose to make became a beacon for personal enlightenment.
His interest in using rock music as a vehicle to explore mysticism was a first, opening the door for future musical journeymen, from Van Morrison in the late ’60s to Ben Harper in the late ’90s. And the instruments he chose in expressing that direction helped rock mature from rockabilly dance music to more psychedelic-laced music that probed the inner mind.
“What George went after in his music was, if you wanted to be really good as an artist, you had to think more about the inner, what’s life about, and what things matter,” said pop songwriter Matthew Sweet, whose own music from the past decade has a heavy Beatles influence. “Then again, he also had a great sense of humor. That combination made for really wise music.”
The youngest of the Beatles – he died at age 58 – Harrison also was a world music pioneer by introducing Eastern rhythms, instrumentation and philosophy to a generation of Westerners. And by putting what he learned into practice, he was the first to demonstrate on a mass scale how rock culture can become
a vehicle for raising an entire culture’s social conscience.
Today that sounds almost passe, considering that modern pop music is a rapid interchange between cultures and ideas. In interviews, rock’s more adventuresome figures like Moby or U2’s Bono are considered, more often than not, savvy and insightful world statesmen.
But in 1964, when the Beatles first arrived in the United States, the pop charts were ruled by highly polished teen fluff. After joining the ranks of groups like Jan & Dean, Peter & Gordon or Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles eventually shot forward into adulthood, bridging the gap between mature self-exploration and innovative popcraft. As a songwriter, Harrison worked outside the Lennon/McCartney partnership, contributing songs to successive Beatles albums that, over time, were equal to their own.
But in the role as lead guitarist, Harrison’s vigorous playing broke new ground and his introduction of the sitar to a Western pop group was unprecedented.
“It was interesting to see a rock star talk about something else other than what he ate for breakfast,” said Terri Hemmert, the on-air Beatles guru on WXRT 93.1-FM. “George was really different.”
Although Harrison had made songwriting contributions to early Beatles albums, his breakthrough was the song “Love You To,” on the band’s landmark 1966 album “Revolver” (Capitol/EMI).
Harrison invited several Indian musicians to play the opening chord flourishes on sitars until the song erupted into a bustling rhythm accented by heavy Indian percussion.
He became enraptured with the complicated stringed Indian instrument after meeting Ravi Shankar, the composer and sitar master, at a party in London. Although Harrison had an early interest in the sitar – he played it on the John Lennon song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” a year earlier – he immersed himself with the instrument for two years, studying with Shankar and absorbing Eastern spiritual practices.
“He has a tremendous love and respect for Indian music and tradition and the whole Vedic culture,” Shankar told the Daily Herald in 1998.
“Because Harrison was always the quiet one in the group, almost everything he said was significant,” said Les McTighe, professor of humanities at Elgin Community College, who teaches courses on Asian culture. “I had seen Krishnas at the airport and all kinds of things about Indian culture, but I didn’t take them seriously. But this guy Harrison was the more thoughtful of the group, so I thought there must be something to it. He got into what Hinduism really is rather than just the meditation stuff for fun and
Harrison continued to play the sitar – he last recorded with it on his 1987 comeback album “Cloud Nine” (Warner Bros./Dark Horse). But when he was still with the Beatles, he further expanded the group’s boundaries. On songs like “Within You Without You,” “Fool On The Hill” and “Long Long Long,” he demonstrated how pop music can be a conduit for meditative bliss for Westerners. His songs were those in the group that most reflected on death and God.
Harrison’s contemplative side also happened to be paired with a scorching pessimism. Songs like “Taxman,” “Piggies” and “I Me Mine” railed against social hypocrisy and he joined Lennon as the group’s most outspoken critics of their own fame.
“In a way, that’s a Liverpool mentality,” Sweet said. “People from Liverpool tend to be really direct sort of people.”
Aside from being the first to use Indian instruments on a pop record, Harrison was the first to play the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar – later popularized by the Byrds and countless folk pop groups.
“George Harrison single-handedly changed the sound of the ’60s,” said Andy Babiuk, author of “Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four’s Instruments From Stage To Studio” (Backbeat Books), a book that exhaustively details all the Beatles gear. “He was an underrated guitar player who was technically very good.”
When the Beatles broke up, Harrison was the first to record solo. The result was the three-vinyl collection “All Things Must Pass” (Capitol), a sprawling, 23-track masterpiece that aimed for transcendence through country-tinged pop songs.
Peter Frampton, the British guitarist who then was with Humble Pie, played on the album.
“It was much more important to me meeting George Harrison … than being No. 1 with (his mega-selling album) ‘Frampton Comes Alive,’æ” he told the Daily Herald last year.
In 1971, Harrison took his newfound philosophical bent to a heightened level. At the urging of Shankar, he organized The Concert For Bangladesh, a rock festival to raise money for the war-torn country in the Middle East that was decimated by famine.
Held at Madison Square Garden and featuring Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Leon Russell, it ushered in the age of the rock benefit show, setting the stage for Live Aid, Farm Aid and last month’s Concert For New York City.
Harrison quietly released eight solo albums and briefly returned to touring in 1991, playing a few dates in Japan with Clapton. But besides a high-profile, two-album tenure with the Traveling Wilburys – a supergroup featuring Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and ELO’s Jeff Lynne – Harrison retreated from public life.
“He’s so gentle,” said Astrid Kirchherr, the German photographer who befriended the Beatles in 1960 and who took their earliest publicity shots. She remained close friends with Harrison until his death. “He’d rather do his garden than a new record. I love him for that,” she told the Daily Herald in 1998.
Harrison’s death this week is shattering, not just for fans, but for culture as a whole.
“The Beatles were living myths. They were living people, but they were mythical personalities,” said Gary Kendall, professor of music technology at Northwestern University who also teaches a course on the group. “These mythic personalities were associated with the cultural change that took place in the ’60s. George was a part of that. It’s like the loss of an ancient Greek hero. I think the death of the Beatles marks how far away we are from the ’60s.”
Sweet said Harrison’s healing music is what “the music industry tries to kill right now.”
“It’s not of the moment,” he said. “I think that’s an interesting lesson.” This year, Harrison planned to re-release all his solo albums, a project he started last February with the CD reissue of “All Things Must Pass,” in which he re-recorded an entirely new version of “My Sweet Lord.” The new track was in preparation for a forthcoming album he expected to have out by November 2002. After battling cancer and a violent stabbing by a home invader in December 1999, Harrison reported that he wanted to make music once more. The album would have been his first since 1987.
“It’s not going to be the end,” he assured Billboard magazine last December. “It’s going to be one of lots of records.”