- When George Harrison died here in Los Angeles, in the lush green
hills a few miles distant, it rained. I wondered, after I heard the news
of his departure, if he had been conscious enough to notice. I wondered
if one of the reasons he had come to L.A. for his last hours was not merely
to avert a post-mortem crush of mourning fans in New York, but to feel
the warm sun one more time.
- It was sunny for most of the week or
so that Harrison was here, when a few friends came to say goodbye, when
drummer Jim Keltner described him as not looking like a person suffering
from cancer---but smiling, with shining skin, "like a prince."
- As he faded, though, early on a Thursday
afternoon, so did the L.A. light. The clouds gathered, the sky darkened,
and it gently rained, as the man who once turned a few slight words about
returning sunshine into a glorious anthem of hope, slipped away.
- The next day, the storm had passed. The
sun returned, and the air around the world filled with memories of a gentle
- "He had a magnanimous heart and
always cared so much. He was a fearless and beautiful soul always conscious
of God," said Ravi Shankar. "George was a true friend, intensely
loyal, caring deeply for those he loved, and he inspired much love in return,"
said George Martin. "He was a giant, a great, great soul, with all
of the humanity, all of the wit and humor, all the wisdom, the spirituality,
the common sense of a man and compassion for people," said Bob Dylan.
- All the epitaphs and
eulogies and tributes---that are yet appearing---have not only been effusive
in their affection, but surprising in content. This was not merely an admired
musician or celebrity. This was a deeply loved person of grace, courage,
civility, kindness, earnestness, wit, integrity; a person who left all
greatly affected. It's telling, and must be of some comfort to the family,
that the accolades concerned Harrison's character as much as his musicianship.
- And as for the musicianship, hasn't it
been gratifying to read all the paeans to his skill? How his solos with
The Beatles said just enough, how they were not flashy, but integral parts
of the song personalities? How his inventive guitar comping and underpinnings
formed such an essential sound---and spine---to Beatles music? How his
dusky, portentous voice and harmony vocals were as invaluable to The Beatles
as McCartney's bass, or Ringo's inimitable timekeeping? How his minor chord
compositions injected greater depth, and even solemnity, into The Beatles'
catalogue? How his songs---solo or with The Fabs---were variously wry,
witty, tender, incisive, philosophical, gorgeous, and always sincere? How
his slide guitar work was crystalline, distilled, eloquent, poignant?
- The praise has not been so much blind
eulogizing; it was far too specific and thoughtful to have been so. There
is almost the sense that friends and admirers held back their feelings,
through the years, out of respect for Harrison's much-coveted privacy.
Besides, the man famously shied away from compliments, and was dogged in
playing down his musical worth, whether as a Beatle or solo artist. As
he remarked in a 1987 interview I was fortunate to get when he was promoting
Cloud Nine: "I'm not really a guitar player. I never felt like a proper
one, you know," and of his Beatles solos: "I'd just play to the
song. . .I got an idea of where to go, and I tended to blank out when I
actually was doing the solo. . .I didn't really know what I'd done till
- Such modesty had early roots. From all
the recent writing---notably Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone---one is almost
tempted to place the beginning of the Beatles with the meeting of McCartney
and Harrison. The pair palled around together for two years, singing and
practicing guitar before McCartney joined the Quarrymen and persuaded John
Lennon to let his friend join, too. Harrison, younger and slower to learn
songwriting than Lennon and McCartney, had to accept his friend abandoning
him as a primary musical partner, and content himself with the role of
guitar specialist. Even in his solo years, Harrison often seemed happy
to let others do his soloing---from Eric Clapton in Bangladesh to Robben
Ford on the '74 tour. ("It's the overall thing I'm interested in,and
somebody else can do it better than they can do it," he told me.)
The spotlight-burn from Beatlemania didn't help matters, yet there was
also the anti-egotism learned from Hinduism and LSD; Harrison just seemed
destined for a life of modesty and magnaminity.
- I burrowed into boxes recently, after
my emotions settled a bit, and dug out my 1987 interview with George, along
with another from 1979 from a press conference heralding the fine George
Harrison album, as I sought to write something worthwhile about him. A
number of quotes from '87 stood out, but none more than this one, spoken
in request for a statement about John Lennon: "I think probably so
much has been said about him already. But occasionally, you know, you miss
him, because it would be fun to hang out with him," Harrison said,
noticeably misty-eyed. "But at the same time, what I've got to believe
in over the years is the spiritual thing, that death is only like changing
your suit. So now you're in your physical body, and you're in your astral
body. . .He was great, he was brilliant, and he was a great soul. Still
- These words are now equally applicable
to. . .The Beatles' lead guitarist.
- I can remember him walking into the
posh office at Warner Records/Dark Horse Records in Burbank, tanned and
fit, with an open-collared Peter Max-ish shirt, black jacket with white
flecks, and jeans. I also recall my state of mind. What, I wondered, does
one ask of the fellow who wrote the epic philosophy to "Within You
Without You" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps?"
- I had attempted to address this problem
by focusing on the mechanical job at hand, mentally repeating "just
ask about the album," like the Hare Krishna mantra. I had even done
something I rarely have in my career: I wrote my questions down. In the
end, the thing that put me at ease was. . .Harrison.
- Exuding calm, I think he sensed my nervousness,
and bent over backwards to give full, thoughtful answers so I wouldn't
be stuck, groping for words. He was undoubtedly used to encountering reporters
afflicted with Beatle Paralysis. We spoke for about an hour, the conversation
largely focusing on his guitar playing, since I was selling the article
to Guitar World magazine. A salient guitar quote:
- "It all sounds like it's the same
guitarist," he said of most contemporary playing, "whether it's
Whitesnake or Bon Jovi or whatever; they all play good, but it just sounds
like it's the same fella."
- The statement was ironic, considering
it would appear in a mag that made much of its bread-and-butter from showcasing
"heavy metal" heroes. (It proved even more ironic, when Guitar
World barely fit George's name on its cover, leaving the bulk to one George
Lynch of something called "Dokken," certainly one of those "same
fellas" to which Harrison referred. Lynch appeared to be either having
some sort of fit, or preparing to eat his guitar.)
- My favorite anecdote from the interview
came in response to the question I'd most wanted to ask--- how did he come
up with the exquisite, fluid, aching solo on "Something?"
- "Now, that is an example of that kind of thing where I find
roughly where I can go," he said. "In those days, I don't know
if that was an eight-track or whatever, but I remember specifically that
it wasn't a clean empty track to put that solo on. Ringo was overdubbing
something, and Paul was overdubbing something at the same time I was doing
my solo. [As it turns out, on the final take, the orchestra was also playing
live.] So in order for me to practice, I'd say, 'let's do it again, and
again.' But they'd have to do their bits, too. Even in those days, there
were times when we were also very cooperative, and we'd do that to help
each other. And I think also I sort of smoked something, and I didn't really
know what I was doing. I did that solo a number of times, and then we left
and went on holiday, came back, put the tape back up, and I was very pleasantly
surprised, because I did hit some right notes, and it did have a certain
spontaneity to it."
- Translation: he worked really hard on
it (it is built from the discarded vocal bridge that goes, in part, "I
need that woman mine"), and wound up. . .inspired.
- The reputed humility was evident throughout
our talk. This was as close as he came to egotism:
- "You know, there's something I've
got," he said. "I don't quite know what it is---that came about,
I'm sure, from the years I played the sitar. It gave me something that
I know other people don't have."
- An articulation. . .a way of sustaining
a line, bending a note. . .of writing sentences in his solos, not free-verse
poetry. . .
- "I need time," Harrison said
simply. "I need to work out what I'm going to do, and then I have
to work out how to play it."
- In other words, he composed. He didn't
just improvise. Listen to the solos in "Fixing a Hole," his spotlight
in "The End," "Learning How to Love You," "The
Light That Has Lighted The World," Lennon's "Gimme some Truth,"
and you hear how he "worked out how to play" them in his head.
They have structure, syntax, and development. Unlike the playing of many
"greats," they are anything but pyrotechnic flourishes. These
are thoughtful and original, deceptively simple sounding, invested with
feeling. The conversational duet-solos in "Life Itself" and "Beautiful
Girl"---where his solo guitars overlap and answer one another--- are
impressively imaginative, virtuosic.
- Eric Clapton tells a little story about
seeing Harrison smiling in the wings at a concert once, and realized that
George could have played anything he or Hendrix did, if he'd wanted to.
Harrison touched on this, in reference to the guitar heroes of the '80s:
"There's a lot of players who are really good, but there's still not
a lot of them who blow me away---and there's a lot of stuff that they do
which I could do if I wanted to do that kind of thing."
- He didn't, and listeners are all the
richer for it.
- A few weeks after Harrison joined the
ethers, a friend put together a double CD of all of his Beatles songs,
from "Cry For a Shadow" written with Lennon, forward. The legacy
was impressive for many reasons, beginning with, in the early days, Harrison's
underappreciated, rousing rock 'n' roll singing, and impeccable guitar.
But it was the second CD, extending from "Only a Northern Song"
through "I Me Mine" (including the acoustic "While My Guitar.
. .", the demos for "All Things Must Pass," "Something,
"Sour Milk Sea," and "Circles") that was absolutely
eye-opening. This was the bandmember who consistently tried to make overt
philosophical statements. Lennon and McCartney's statements or messages
were spectacularly bound up in their art and musicality, less directly
in the prose. Yet Harrison was deliberately, forthrightly trying to say
something, and often something vast---whether "Try to realize it's
all within yourself/ no one else can make you change" or "He
who knows does not speak/ He who speaks does not know" or "I
don't know how you were diverted/ you were perverted too" or "A
cloudburst doesn't last all day. . ."
- He courageously attempted to share his
life's realizations, and succeeded bit by bit, album by album. When you
hear all the "bits" together on one CD, it's powerful and jarring.
The epic Beatles oeuvre would have benefitted from a few more Harrisongs
and a few less "Maxwell's Silver Hammers."
- Still, George made up for the sporadic
songwriting later, in his yet underrated solo years. As I wrote in Beatlefan
# 132 (www.beatlefan.com) his work is my choice for best among the ex-Fabs
for being the most substantial in melody, structure, and content. Thirty-Three
and a Third, for instance, might yet be hailed as a minor masterpiece (especially
if there are bonus tracks), as George played atypically numerous and lengthy
solos (probably at the encouraging of producer Tom Scott.) All his albums,
even the rather hasty "Extra Texture," and the post-scripty "Gone
Troppo" contain some of the most affecting moments in his career.
"You," "That's the Way it Goes," "Writing's on
the Wall," "Life Itself," "Someplace Else," "When
We Was Fab," "Be Here Now," "The Answer's At the End"---there
are many similarly impressive grab-bag groupings of his songs. It's hard
to find clinkers---and how many songwriters have ever sung a line as wonderful
as "The speech of flowers excels the flowers of speech?" (from
"The Answer's At The End.") The fact that Harrison sang openly
of "God"---which was respected by fans, if not embraced---has
acquired greater weight in recent years. The man's spiritual conviction
now is known to have been abiding and devout, and the "God" songs
duly inspire greater contemplation in listeners as the years gang up on
- It was Harrison's own mortality, or a
reference to it, that I remember most from my 1979 encounter. I was on
the floor of an office at Warner/Dark Horse in 1979, with about thirty
other reporters, waiting to fire off some questions about his new eponymously
titled album. George hobbled in with a cane, the result of a tractor crash
while gardening at home in Friar's Park (it ran over his foot!)
- A gold band in each pierced ear and a
shirt covered with palm frond patterns (gardener theme), Harrison's opening
words were to ask, in all sincerity, why people weren't enjoying the free
scones on hand! Planting himself in a chair, he was promptly surrounded---and
almost suffocated---by the always delicate press corps., patiently answering
the usual array of dumb questions, self-deprecating, soft-spoken, even
kindly. When a young woman reporter asked, wide-eyed and breathless, "George,
what are you trying to teach us," he chuckled and muttered, "I
guess I'm looking for somebody to teach me a few things."
- Oddly, no one
followed up on the breathless reporter's question---except me, on the way
out. I pushed through the mass of microphone-sprouting arms, sidled up
beside him and said, "You said you're looking for someone to teach
you a few things---like what?" Harrison's answer was droll, but had
a ring of conviction that is heartbreaking in retrospect: "Like how
to stop smoking."
- Looking back on my articles about the
conference (in the Los Angeles Daily News, and Valley Magazine) it is obvious
that the bulk of the questions---a year and a half before Dec. 8, 1980---centered
on the prospect of "The Fabs" reuniting. Harrison acknowedged
that "it was a privilege to have had that experience---to have been
one of the Fab Four, because there were only four of us who had that whole
experience." Still, the answer was no, "but if it did happen,
there is no way we would do a mediocre record."
- His response to a query about incessant
multi-million-dollar offers to regroup now seems ominously, gut-wrenchingly
prophetic: "The Beatles can't save the world," he said. "I
mean, we'll be lucky if we can save ourselves."
- It's downright amazing how much Harrison's
comments that day foreshadowed remarks he made in The Beatles' Anthology
in 1995. The Beatles, he said, were "four relatively sane people"
who went around the world "while everyone else went crackers."
- "They were using us an excuse to
go mad!" he declared, much as he would in Anthology. "I mean,
it was 'Here come the Beatles! Crash! Let's smash up windows! Rip up limosines!
Let's just have fun and go mad!'. . .Although everyone talks about The
Beatles as being loved, we were loved for one minute, then they hated our
guts. Then they loved us, then they hated us. That was probably one reason
we all went into meditation. As the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said, it's like
being a little cork; like being a ship on the ocean at the mercy of whatever
chopping or changing occurs---unless you're anchored to the bottom. That's
what was happening to us. . .You just have to find some inner point to
anchor yourself to."
- I recall the title, "The Inner Light"
popping into my head during that last sentence.
- There was one comment that went all but
unnoticed by the collected press that day, perhaps dismissed as stale flower-power
talk. Today, though, it seems the most important statement of the entire
press conference. Asked vaguely if he had "entered a new phase"
with the George Harrison album, he said this:
- "I'm always entering new phases
each day, as far as just trying to enjoy the moment more---just to experience
the experience deeper. That's the main thing to remember, that we're all
here now, and are we all happy? If we're not, we should try and be happier.
The phase is to try and manifest love in your life. That's all I can try
- Love Comes To Everyone. . .The Inner
Light. . .All I've got to do is be happy. . .song titles and lyrics come
to mind as I read this comment today, realizing how it evidenced the constancy
of his themes and heartfelt commitment to them.
- Yet Harrison was hardly Martin Luther,
as McCartney referred to him in jest in "Let 'Em In." The comic
side of the man was, famously, as big as his spirituality. I had a slight
brush with that side, which I am pleased to share here. I used to dine
at a little sushi bar in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley, where
the people were friendly, the fish fresh, and the chefs committed the culinary
sin of using brown rice. I also liked the place because they offered handout
tracts advocating kindness and peace on earth.
- Lining the restaurant walls were twelve-inch
by twelve-inch white squares of paper, signed by many of the more famous
patrons---mostly actors and local politicians. You often find this sort
of thing in sushi bars in L.A.---and perhaps, Japan---but these all centered
around the restaurant's theme, "May Peace Prevail on Earth."
You know, frilly actresses would write in frilly script, "Peace!"
with little hearts and stars around it, then sign their frilly names, and
- Well, one night, after a fair amount
of sake, I stopped in my tracks and did a double-take outside the men's
room, of all places, where Harrison's trademark signature graced one of
the little squares. Above it, he had written: "Peace on Toast."
- Love on wry.
- (Years later, some idiot stole that white
square---and it wasn't me!)
- And speaking of love and peace, there
is one more anecdote I hope the reader will indulge here. In March or
April of 2000, I went out to buy a new pair of shoes, one Wednesday, at
the Santa Monica Place mall. It was around 1:30 in the afternoon, and almost
empty, as I stepped on to an escalator behind two guys. I rode up one flight
and turned for the next level, when one of them peripherally caught me
eye. Black and white print shirt, jeans, salt-and-pepper hair, sunglasses---no
big deal, but that profile. . .I looked more carefully. Then I heard an
unmistakable voice speaking one word, "Okay."
- It was George. He looked good. Seeing
as he'd been fighting cancer, and had nearly been stabbed to death by a
contemptible madman just three months earlier, I was floored to see him
out in public. No, floored isn't the word. I am an appreciator of The Beatles'
music, and spirit, and of Harrison's---but I'm also a journalist, and
a Beatlefan correspondent. The "scoop" value was momentous. I
even had a proper excuse to say hello, seeing as I'd met and interviewed
him twice. The cosmic cliché came to mind: was this meant to be?
- I wished more than I
can say to introduce myself, tell him how great it was to see him well,
and that I looked forward to new music. If I got a quote, well, swell.
But as I watched Harrison scanning the mall, in search of what turned out
to be an India imports store, I got to thinking that the last thing in
the world this man wanted was to be bothered by a stranger. Especially
considering the horrific intrusion he had just suffered. In that small
moment, I had the privilege of giving him the one thing he most coveted
in day-to-day life: a little privacy. . .
- Like Lennon, George Harrison never lived
to be a grand old man of music. . .never got to be the wise old musical
man of the mountain, making the occasional pilgrimage to loving audiences.
And yet, in a way, he did, having retired from The Beatles at twenty-six,
and then as a public figure, for the most part, after Lennon's passing.
He was thereafter sought out by musicians to hear stories, share a pint
or two, or if they were lucky, to have him guest on an album. There were
dozens of such quietly realized appearances; George's slide guitar may
be found on records from Duane Eddy to Carl Perkins to relative unknowns.
He liked to play.
- He also, thankfully, liked to write,
and record. "I need to do something every so often," he said
casually, in that '87 interview, "otherwise, I will never do anything,
you know." So there are somewhere between 25 and 37 new songs awaiting
release, along with a remastered solo catalogue (with bonus tracks), if
not a boxed set of rarities including Harrison versions of songs he gave
to others, from Ringo to Perkins. His musical legacy will, I'm certain,
acquire greater respect, especially given that his earnest, plaintive voice
and startingly expressive guitar had acquired a deeper lyricism with age
(as the solo in Ringo's "King of Broken Hearts," the singing
guitar and impassioned vocal of "My Sweet Lord 2000" attest.)
- As I was writing this, I received an
e-mail from a reader that says, in part: "It was good to know he was
out there." That cuts to the heart of the matter. You didn't see George
perform often, except in the occasional music video or tribute to Perkins
or Dylan, or The Beatles' Anthology. You didn't hear from him often, his
last album of new songs coming in 1987, but you always knew he was. . .out
there. And it was good to know. Good to know that you shared living space
with a person of such grace and artistry, especially considering the daily
onslaught of savagery and hatred emanating from mass media. Knowing that
people like Harrison, and the other Beatles, and figures from Jane Goodall
to Muhammad Ali are "out there" is such a comfort. Even if they
are doing nothing more than, as Harrison did in his final years, living
quietly with family, gardening. . .
- George once remarked of Lennon's death
that it still felt like his old mate was around. As if he had just gone
off to New York, and had never come back. In that sense, maybe one can
think of Harrison as still being "around." He wasn't a personal
friend to most of us; he was a presence. Now the physical person has gone
away, as Lennon did from him, but so much evidence of the presence remains.
In song, film, interview, memory, and conversation.
- So, in a way, George Harrison is still
"out there." He has just changed suits, as he would say.
- I like to think that the new one shines
brightly. Every morning at dawn.