George Harrison first came to the world’s attention with the Beatles, and it is no small part of his gift that his contributions to so many of the Beatles’ greatest songs are not immediately apparent to casual listeners. As a guitarist, Harrison was a player of consummate taste and subtlety, and he viewed his role as serving the song in the most selfless, organic way possible. Among the renowned rock guitarists of the Sixties, he was by far the most self-effacing, the least given to pyrotechnical display. He was also among the most inventive and original.
Harrison was the youngest member of the Beatles, and partly because of that, it came naturally to him at first to define a role for himself in the musical background. That supportive role suited his personality in some ways. The notion of Harrison as the “Quiet Beatle” is something of a cliché – he was as ready as the next mop-top with a quip during the band’s early and now legendary press conferences. But he was far less given than the others to calling attention to himself. Years later he would name one of his albums and the record label he founded Dark Horse. It was an image with which he identified. A dark horse, he said, is “the one who suddenly pulls out from behind the rest and barrels ahead to actually win the race…. That’s me, I guess.” As Paul Simon would say of him shortly after his death, “He wasn’t particularly quiet. He just didn’t demand to be heard.”
But however much Harrison receded from the celebrity spotlight, his talent was evident to anyone who understood how songs really worked, who knew what people actually heard when all they could say was how much they liked a song. If the Beatles’ songs still sound fresh today, Harrison is a critical reason why. “I can’t say enough about George’s playing,” says John Fogerty. “For anybody else, it would be enough just to say that he was the lead guitar player in a great band, and guitar certainly was the voice of rock & roll during that period. But he was so versatile as a player, almost like a chameleon.
“When the Beatles wanted to go off in any direction, his guitar would never be out of place,” he continues. “When they did rockabilly like ‘Honey Don’t’ or ‘Act Naturally,’ he was right there. But when they did something funkier like ‘You Can’t Do That,’ which is one of my favorite guitar parts of his, he could make your jaw drop. He made you want to learn a song just so you could play the guitar part. There was a wonderful guitar surprise in every song.”
But such contributions, needless to say, were only the beginning of Harrison’s impact both on the world of music and the larger world beyond. His use of the sitar on songs like ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ‘Love You To’ and ‘Within You, Without You’ and his creative friendship with that instrument’s master, Ravi Shankar, helped revolutionize popular music in the Sixties. In addition, his interest in Eastern spirituality had effects that are continuing to be felt in the West today. And, as his confidence grew, Harrison began playing a significantly larger role as a writer and singer in the Beatles. ‘Tax Man’, ‘If I Needed Someone’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ are just a few of the gems he brought to their extraordinary catalogue of songs.
As the Beatles began to splinter in the late Sixties, Harrison seemed to grow only more determined to create his own music in his own way. As producer Phil Spector labored to assemble the Let It Be album out of the hundreds of hours of tape the Beatles had essentially abandoned, Harrison famously told him that he had a backlog of “about a hundred” songs for the solo album he wanted Spector to help him make. The result was All Things Must Pass (1970), which stands to this day among the very best work any of the Beatles produced as solo artists. Over the course of three vinyl LPs and songs like ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘Beware of Darkness’, ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ and the title track, Harrison fully emerged out of the long shadow cast by Lennon and McCartney and became a force to be reckoned with in his own right. Having started out as their little brother, he had finally become their equal.
The next year, Harrison would exercise his power in the music industry by staging The Concert for Bangla Desh, a benefit to provide humanitarian relief to a nation that had been ravaged by a natural disaster. Inspired by Ravi Shankar’s plea to help in some way, Harrison headlined the first large-scale, cause-related concert of its kind, an event that provided the paradigm for every similar effort that followed over the next four decades. Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr were among the many performers who shared the stage with Harrison for those two shows in New York City on August 1, 1971.
After that, Harrison resumed what, from the outside at least, looked like the conventional recording career of a high-profile solo artist. For the next decade, he released an album every year or two and enjoyed Top 20 hits with ‘Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth’, ‘Dark Horse’, ‘You’, ‘Crackerbox Palace’, ‘Blow Away’ and ‘All Those Years Ago’, which he wrote in memory of Lennon after he was murdered in 1980. Still, as the years went by, Harrison grew increasingly alienated from the music scene. When he was about to tour the U.S. in 1974, he told an interviewer, “I either finish the tour ecstatically happy or I’ll end up going back into my cave for another five years.” Other than a two-week tour of Japan in 1991, he never went out on the road again.
But neither did he retreat into a cave. In 1978, he co-founded HandMade Films in order to bankroll Monty Python’s Life of Brian after the movie’s religious satire frightened off its original backers. Though HandMade ended in acrimony and lawsuits, for a time the company energized the British movie scene and set a standard for intelligence and quality. Its 16-year run generated such excellent work as Time Bandits, Mona Lisa, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Withnail and I.
By the end of the Eighties, though, Harrison was back making music in a big way. His 1987 album, Cloud Nine, co-produced with Jeff Lynne, returned him to the top of the charts, a development he regarded with considerable amusement. His sense of fun rekindled, he and Lynne then formed the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison.
After the Wilburys had run their course, however, Harrison retreated from the public eye once again. Unfortunately, this time fate would deny him the opportunity to emerge when he wanted to. He spent the first half of the Nineties gardening and landscaping, and as always; indulging his passions for Formula One racing, playing the ukulele, and luxuriating in the time he could share with his wife Olivia and their son Dhani. The family’s homes provided exactly the sort of environments he needed for imaginative play and restorative beauty. Interest in the Beatles surged in the Nineties as well, and, ambivalent as he would always be about his experiences with the band, Harrison participated fully in all aspects of the hugely successful Anthology project.
But shortly after Harrison began work on what would eventually become Brainwashed, illness struck. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1997. If that weren’t difficult enough, Harrison was nearly murdered in 1999 when an intruder broke into his home and repeatedly stabbed him. Through that hard time, Harrison always had his family, his friends, and his music. With Dhani’s help, he never stopped working on his new songs. And then there was the sustaining power of his conviction that this world is not the end of anybody’s spiritual journey.
Speaking about John Lennon after his death, Harrison once said, “We saw beyond each other’s physical bodies, you know? I mean, this is the goal anyway: to realize the spiritual side. If you can’t feel the spirit of some friend who’s been that close, then what chance have you got of feeling the spirit of Christ or Buddha or whoever else you may be interested in? ‘If your memory serves you well, we’re going to meet again.’ I believe that.”