Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The 10th Anniversary of George Harrison's Death

Ten years ago today on 29 November 2001 George Harrison, of The Beatles and The Travelling Wilburys, died. It is a significant day in my life, not simply because George was a Beatle, but because after John Lennon he was my second favourite Beatle. Many of my favourite Beatles songs were written by George Harrison: "Think for Yourself," "Taxman," "I Want to tell You," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "I, Me, Mine," and many others. What is more, I had somewhat of a connection with George Harrison that I never had with the other Beatles, not even John Lennon. George's sister Louise Harrison lived for many years in Benton, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. George Harrison was the only Beatle to have been to the United States before the group's historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. He visited his sister in Benton, having flown in from England to Lambert Field in St. Louis. Unlike the other Beatles, then, George had a link to the Missouri/Illinois border area. It's even feasible some of my relatives might have met him, not knowing they were meeting someone who would one day be part of the greatest rock band of all time.

Because George Harrison had been a significant part of my life and because I had something of a personal connection to him, however small, I can remember very well the day he died. Indeed, George Harrison was the first rock star from one of my favourite bands whose death I learned from the internet. I read the news of his passing in Yahoo News. And while I had known that he had cancer for years and I know the prognosis for him was not good, the tears still began. They would last, on and off, for a few days. I remember listening to George's songs (both with The Beatles and on his own) over and over. And I remember the local television stations talked to Louise Harrison about her younger brother and his legacy.

George Harrison was born on 25 Feburary 1943 in Liverpool in the district known as Wavertree. He was twelve years old when he became interested in music. He had been riding his bicycle down the street when he heard "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley playing in a nearby house. From that moment on George devoted his life to music. In fact, it was while at Liverpool Institute that with his older brother Peter and his friend Arthur Kelly (later an actor who appeared in Bergerac and The Bill) that George founded a skiffle band called The Rebels. It was also at Liverpool Institute that George would meet someone who would change his life forever, a fellow rock 'n' roll aficionado. His name was Paul McCartney.

Of course, Paul McCartney was a member of the skiffle band known as The Quarry Men, founded by John Lennon. Beyond the fact that Paul introduced George to John and the other Quarry Men, the exact circumstances and even the date of that first encounter are not clear. From Paul McCartney to John's friend Pete Shotton to George himself, accounts of that first meeting tend to vary Regardless, while John and the other Quarry Men considered George to be too young to join the band, they did permit him to tag along with them. In 1958, at the age of 15, George Harrison, the kid with a gift for playing guitar, officially became one of The Quarry Men, replacing Eric Griffiths as lead guitarist. George would leave school at 15 and would work as an apprentice electrician at local department store Blacklers for a short time.

In the meantime The Quarry Men, the band of which George Harrison was lead guitarist, would evolve into The Beatles.  It was on 5 May 1960 that the band once known as The Quarry Men would become The Silver Beatles. On 18 August of that same year, they became The Beatles. It was when The Beatles were offered a job playing in Hamburg, Germany, 17 year old George Harrison would accompany them.  In Germany The Beatles would receive musical training like no other, playing show after show, night after night. When they returned to Liverpool they were very well trained musicians. Once one of several bands in Liverpool, The Beatles soon became one of the top Merseyside bands. Eventually The Beatles were signed to EMI. They released their first single, "Love Me Do," in October 1962. It proved a moderate success. Their next single, "Please Please Me," also proved to be a moderate hit. Their next single, "From Me to You," would do even better, but ti was their fourth single which would establish The Beatles as the most successful band in the United Kingdom. "She Loves You" became the fastest selling single in the history of the UK charts and the biggest song ever in the UK for years.

While The Beatles' earliest hits were written by John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney, George Harrison's skilled guitar work was responsible for much of their success. And while John and Paul would write many of the band's early singles, George Harrison was also a composer. In fact, his first song, "Don't Bother Me," appeared on The Beatles' second album, With The Beatles. Sadly, John and Paul would generally restrict George anywhere from one to three songs per album. Despite this George proved a very skilful composer, writing some of The Beatles' best remembered songs. It was while The Beatles were still together that George Harrison would launch his solo career, with the soundtrack to the movie Wonderwall, Wonderwall Music, in 1968. After The Beatles broke up he would have a fairly successful solo career and would also play with the supergroup The Travelling Wilburys (in addition to Harrison, the members were Bob Dylan,  Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty).

Sadly, I have always thought that George was under appreciated as both a composer and a Beatle. In most rock bands the lead guitarist is the undisputed star, the equivalent of a quarterback on a football team or the handsome leading man in a movie. In a band that featured not one, but two impressive and often vocal composers (John Lennon and Paul McCartney), it was all too easy for the more quiet and reserved George Harrison to be overlooked. Indeed, while Beatles fans are all too aware of George's contributions to the band, as lead guitarist, as a composer, and, well, as George, the general public has always seemed to treat him as just The Beatles' lead guitarist. Like many Beatles fans and George Harrison fans, this strikes me as wrong, and for several reasons.

First and foremost, in my humble opinion George Harrison was nearly the equal, if not the equal of John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney as a composer. Indeed, he wrote some of The Beatles' best known songs, songs that are every bit as good as anything composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney: "Taxman," ""If I Needed Someone," "Love You To," "Only a Northern Song," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," "I, Me, Mine," and many others.  No less than Frank Sinatra himself referred to "Something" as the "...greatest love song ever written." Indeed, in many ways I think George may have been a better composer than Sir Pal McCartney over all. Granted, Paul's best songs tended to be better than George's best songs with but a few exceptions ("Taxman," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), but then George's worst songs ("Within You, Without You") were fare superior than Paul's worst songs ("Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Silly Love Songs"). With the exception of a few songs George may have never reached the dizzying heights of "Eleanor Rigby" or "Yesterday," but then he never reached the low points that Paul did with "Mother Nature's Son" or "Wild Honey Pie." While John and Paul are deservedly lauded as composers, then, it seems to me that George Harrison should be as well.

Indeed, it seems to me that not only did George make considerable contributions as a composer to The Beatles, but he may have also had the best solo career of any of The Beatles except John Lennon. All Things Must Pass may have been the single best solo album released by any Beatle after the break up of the band. As a solo artist George wrote and recorded a number of songs that are memorable to this day: "Isn't It a Pity," "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)," "Crackerbox Palace," "Not Guilty," All Those Years Ago," and many others. As a solo artist George Harrison wrote songs and recorded albums that were consistently good and in some instances even better than those he had recorded with The Beatles.

Not only do I think George has always been underestimated as a composer, but I also think his contributions to The Beatles have been not been recognised by the general public as well. Indeed, George Harrison's contributions went far beyond that of most lead guitarists to their respective bands. It was George Harrison who first proposed that The Beatles stop performing live concerts. Ever the musician, George felt that the screaming crowds at their concerts made playing well nearly impossible. Of course, it is generally believed that in abandoning live concerts The Beatles were able to concentrate on recording, not only making advancements in recording techniques but allowing them to make even more sophisticated songs.

Indeed, George would have an even more direct impact on The Beatles' recordings. Ever on the look out for new and more sophisticated means of recording, it was George Harrison who introduced The Beatles to such new innovations as the Moog synthesiser. It was through his fascination with Indian culture that George Harrison discovered a sitar, an instrument that found its way into such Beatles songs as "Norwegian Wood."

As much as I admire George Harrison (and the rest of The Beatles, for that matter), I realise all too well that he was not perfect. George was known to have a very severe temper. His temper was so great that early in The Beatles' career he was known to get into fights with photographers and even police officers. George Harrison could be a perfectionist when it came to his music, testing the patience of even his producers. He was not always the most faithful husband, at times cheating on first wife Patti Boyd and second wife Olivia Harrison. George Harrison was also sued for copyright infringement because of similarities between his song "My Sweet Lord" and The Chiffons' song "He's So Fine." A United States district court would rule that George did not deliberately commit plagiarism, but instead he subconsciously did so without realising it. Given George's personality, I tend to believe that he was indeed a victim of cryptomnesia and did not initially realise that he was copying "He's So Fine." That having been said, one would think that given how often "He's So Fine" was probably played in 1969 (and still is) sooner or later he would have heard the song and then changed "My Sweet Lord" so the two were not so similar.

While George Harrison had more than his fair share of flaws, he remains a man I admire and one whose life had a very large impact on my own. As I said, after John Lennon, George Harrison was my favourite Beatle. Known as "the Quiet Beatle" and even referred to as "the Great Stone Face" by Ringo Starr, George taught me that there could be strength in silence. That is, one could sometimes accomplish more by saying little and remaining reserved than by making a verbal commotion of things. George Harrison proved that the English stereotype of "maintaining a stiff upper lip" can actually be a strength.

And while I would never follow George Harrison into Hinduism (my religious views are rather more Western in outlook), I cannot deny that his spirituality had an impact on me. George proved that one could be a deeply spiritual individual without forcing one's choice of religion down other's throats. Like so much in his life, George's religious views were a quiet, reserved affair. Everyone knew his religious beliefs, everyone knew he was a deeply spiritual individual, and yet one never felt that he was flaunted his religion. Indeed, in many ways George felt like a much more spiritual, more more religious person because of that.

George Harrison also taught me a good deal about approaching one's own death. Like George, my father had died of lung cancer, so I knew something of what George was going through. Throughout George's illness, however, I never remember reading in the news that he complained about having developed cancer, wallowed in self pity, or blamed others. Even to the very end he faced death with dignity and even cheerfulness. Indeed, George even took responsibility for his own death.  I remember reading an interview with him not long before his death in which he pointed out that developing cancer was his own fault. If he had never taken up smoking or had given it up long ago, he would most likely have never developed lung cancer.

More than anything else, however, George Harrison taught me to treat other people with respect. George viewed all of us as unique and special, and yet at the same time irrevocably connected to each other. It was a thought that often surfaced in his songs. As much as I dislike "Within You, Without You," I must admit hat its lyrics carry an important message. Essentially it is up to us to make a difference, and that difference is to treat others with the love and respect with which we ourselves would like to be treated. George Harrison's final words were “Love one another.”  Those three simple words summed up what he had been saying since the days of The Beatles. If I am even half the man I should be, if I am better than that what I could have been, it is in a large part due to George Harrison.

It is then that I will spend today listening to George Harrison's songs. It is also the reason that I will shed not a few tears today. George Harrison had an impact on me more than most musicians in history, more than most artists in history. In fact, it is possible that only John Lennon had more of an influence on me. To a large degree, then, I owe George Harrison for almost everything I am and everything I ever will be.

No comments: