Ty Burr says he was the Beatle whose search for enlightenment -- both spiritual and musical -- lasted a lifetime

By Ty Burr
December 23, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Baron Wolman/Retna

Why the world will miss George Harrison

”I am not really ‘Beatle George,”’ he said once. ”’Beatle George’ is like a suit or shirt that I once wore on occasion, and until the end of my life people may see that shirt and mistake it for me.”

A churlish response to fame and fortune and fans? Of course not. Only four people ever knew what it was like to be a Beatle — to be, as John Lennon noted with ruinous accuracy, more popular than Jesus — and now two of them are dead. And while George Harrison followed his own path within that maelstrom from the beginning, everything he did, up until the moment that he died on Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles following a lengthy battle with cancer, was seen through the distorting lens of Fab Fourdom.

So is it surprising that he chafed and kept to himself, the ”Quiet Beatle” who, when asked during the post-breakup era if he had a message for Paul, hoisted his middle finger and said, ”Yeah, give him this”? And is it surprising that the musical roads Harrison followed on his own were pointedly individualistic, from the tumbling glories of Indian raga or the solo albums with their inward-pointing lyrics and crying guitarwork to the amassing of talented buddies for both charity (as in the Concert for Bangladesh) and amusement (as in the Traveling Wilburys)? Is it surprising that, of the four, George was the one who remained an open-hearted spiritual seeker to the end? Or that the first song he wrote for the Beatles was called ”Don’t Bother Me”?

When all is said and done, that may be the thing to remember about this man: that he was a very, very good songwriter who had the luck to be in a group with two of the all-time greats. Notice that I didn’t say whether that luck was good or bad; it went beyond that. But keep in mind that those other two songwriters could be hugely overpowering personalities; remember the recording-session scene from ”Let It Be” in which George bears up under Paul’s control-freak tendencies only to finally snap: ”Look, I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all. Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it!”

Harrison’s songs, likewise, bristle with a tart sense of self that had nothing to do with Lennon and McCartney. They could be deeply caustic, even chiding — ”Piggies,” ”Taxman,” ”Think for Yourself” — and they could also be deeply, simply emotive: ”Here Comes the Sun,” ”While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” ”I Need You.” His immersions in Indian music reflected an uncynical passion for spiritual release that fed into his pop work. Witness the glorious supernova guitar explosions of ”It’s All Too Much” on the ”Yellow Submarine” soundtrack. (And remember that song’s lyric: ”Show me that I’m everywhere/And get me home for tea” — George always was the most stalwartly British of the group.)

In fact, to listen to Harrison’s fretwork over the course of the Beatles’ seven-year career is to hear the emergence of not only a solo-guitar sound that would dominate pop music for years (and, yes, he was goosed by Eric Clapton, his longtime rival in love and war) but also a personal voice. That’s why George’s towering musical moment remains the somberly gorgeous ”All Things Must Pass” set: The wide-view world-weariness that he felt as he stood in the ashes of the Beatles reflected the exhaustion that EVERYBODY felt in 1971, and his gently weeping guitar solos finally spoke what he’d been keeping to himself for years.

Harrison once told a lovely anecdote about the first time he ever heard a rock & roll song: ”I can even see exactly where I was when I heard that,” he recalled. ”There was this little place near where I was born called Wavertree, a district. And right at that point there’s a thing called the Picton Clock Tower, this tower in the middle of the road with this clock on it, and then nearby there used to be this old art-deco cinema called the Abbey. I was just walking across the road there when I heard Fats Domino. ‘Yes, it’s me and I’m in love again!’ It must have been on a radio or a record player somewhere. And it touched somewhere deep in me.”

Like so much that was great about George Harrison, that memory fuses rock & roll noise with a more private enlightenment to create something far too big to fit in a Beatle suit.