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Good-bye, George

By Lawrence Henry
web posted December 3, 2001

Comes the news on November 29, oh boy, early on the BBC. George Harrison has died of cancer at the age of 58, "at a friend's house in Los Angeles."

"It hits you with your own mortality," my wife said, "somehow even more than the death of one of your parents."

It's true this time. When John Lennon was shot, it felt like a world had been blown apart. Maybe it still feels that way for some people. For me, looking back on how that incident destroyed me, I feel a little embarrassed.

I've grown up a lot since. Now it's just sad. Unlike some other aging rockers, George had dignity, and seemed to accept who he was and how time had passed. If anybody deserved a ripe old age, he did.

The Beatles
Back: Ringo Star, John Lennon
Front: George Harrison, Paul McCartney

He was the guitar player, the young flatpicking hotshot John brought along to meet Paul. Just a kid, but he could play. "Give us 'Raunchy,' George," John used to say, and George would obediently play the Duane Eddy twangy classic. He was fourteen.

He was borne along on John and Paul's ambitions, ambitions now clear, looking back, as big and egotistical as those of a politician or movie star or fighter pilot or captain of industry. Screw the lovey-dovey hippy stuff.

"First, I wanted to have the best rock and roll band in Liverpool," John said, years later. "Then, I wanted to have the best rock and roll band in England. And then…"

Two of a kind, John and Paul propelled the band, with George always pushed a little to the side, always a little younger, always the sideman. Years later, in a snippet of the miles of film exposed during the making of Let It Be, George, in exasperation, says to Paul, "I'll play anything you want me to. If you don't want me to play at all, I won't play at all."

Still, George was a fan favorite. "He's got pussycat," as one female George fan said to me long ago.

Pushed out of the songwriting spotlight by Lennon's and McCartney's blazing genius (and blazing egos), George contributed songs like "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," "I Need You," "Taxman," "Within You, Without You," "Something," and "Here Comes the Sun."

In A Hard Day's Night, George steals a scene. A poncy marketing type shows him a shirt he's supposed to endorse. "You'll like this," the marketeer informs him. "It's fab, it's gear, and all those pimply hyperboles."

"I won't," George informs him bluntly.

"What?"

"I won't. It's grotty."

With the Beatles, he was always in earnest, sometimes embarrasingly so. Who knew he was laughing, "all those years ago," as he put it in a song? Perhaps we found out what George really thought when he financed the production of Eric Idle's glorious sendup, "The Rutles."

George HarrisonRavi Shankar, in a melancholy coincidence, played his farewell concert a few days ago, retiring from music at the age of 81. "It's hard to leave the performance," Shankar said. "When you play for people, and they love you, there's nothing like it." The NPR story on Shankar mentioned Shankar's collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin. But of course no one influenced the Western world to listen to Shankar as much as George did when he went to study with the Indian master.

"There were two or three students who he (Shankar) said were maybe going to be good," George recalled of the classes he took with the sitar master. "And I wasn't one of them, so I knew where I was right from the kickoff."

That was George, too. He never though he was any better than he was. From about Sergeant Pepper's onwards, he regularly invited his pal Eric Clapton to play on Beatles albums, which Clapton did so often it's now hard to figure where George's contribution ended and Clapton's began. Eric played better.

Simple as that.

So now there's only Ringo, a nice old gentleman who hangs around in West Los Angeles, and Paul, with his chrome-plated show biz carapace still intact.

In his final illness and in his death, George did what he had done for a number of years: He kept to himself. He gave his youth to the public.Every now and then he'd come out and do something, like the Concert for Bangladesh or the Traveling Willburys. But mostly he kept his maturity for his own.

For us, he'll be forever young. Goodbye, George.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Inspiration or substitute heroes? by James Hall (December 3, 2001)
    George Harrison's death has prompted James Hall to ponder whether celebrities have taken the place of true heroes
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