11/30/01

George was always my favorite Beatle.

As a young child, as young as four, I found his face the most intriguing among "England's Phenomenal Pop Combo". The other three men were easy to define by their public images and their vibes. John was my dad, Paul was my mom, Ringo was me, but George...I could never quite pin down. He projected such a serious exterior shield, dictated by the most authoritative eyebrows known to mankind, that just dared you to mess with him. When he sang "Don't Bother Me", he meant it, Goddammit. Inside lay a cool confidence and a dry sense of humor, but also a childlike flair for fun that burst through his armor the instant he cracked a smile. Even his wide-mouthed grin was one that screamed "I'm part of something really special". Not something elite, mind you - if the Beatles were anything they were classless, but definitely exclusive, and it was that exclusivity that made us all want so desperately to get in.

It's ironic that Don't Bother Me was the first tune that George penned by himself, for it would be a central theme of his persona for the rest of his life, every bit as much as his spiritual declarations of later years. He begins his hypnotic meditation piece, Within You Without You with the words "We were talking...", which makes us feel as though we've intruded on a private conversation...about us. Through While My Guitar Gently Weeps, he is looking out at the rest of us from inside his aura, marveling at the damage we've inflicted on our global village while he was in the studio minding his own business. Indeed, Harrison was lucky to see the world from an angle at which few have ever stood. At a time when he was working so hard to release his illusions of control, how distressing it must have been at times to watch the rest of society treadmilling on an endless cycle of manipulation.

That sort of disenchantment was no doubt reinforced by those inside his own camp. Being a creative force in The Beatles meant dealing with two of the biggest egos in show business. Although they were close and loving friends, Lennon and McCartney were nearly impossible to compete with for attention to songs in the studio, and they were often hard to please when working on their own precious tracks. But it is to Harrison's credit that so many Beatle albums flow as well as they do. Revolver is dominated by George's unprecedented three tracks on the disc, placed strategically apart to add a healthy dose of pepper to Paul's sugar and John's vinegar. His acidic "Taxman", the group's first political statement, is the perfect leadoff track because it best conveys the album's intended message: that the Beatles were dissatisfied with merely being fab and were ready to be ferocious. He practically saves Abbey Road, not only by contributing the two most positive, loving and successful songs on the record, but also by providing the last bridge between a polarized John and Paul, whose songwriting partnership by now existed only on paper. It was Harrison, in fact, who first addressed the issues of peace, spirituality and a deeper understanding of love on the Beatles' records. But it was John and Paul who knew how to distill those ideas into simpler form for mass consumption. For that reason, George's songwriting skills remained upstaged and under-appreciated until the group's demise. It was no wonder, then, that Harrison's first solo effort was a triple album waiting to happen. The hugely successful All Things Must Pass included several songs that had been rejected by his old partners, perhaps because they told the truths that no one wanted to hear at the time.

"What's it like to be a Beatle?" George was often asked. His reply was usually "What's it like NOT to be one?" The argument can be made that of all the former Fabs, George took the most advantage of his freedom from the group. Not only did his songwriting style change more dramatically than any of the others, but so did his vocal and guitar playing styles, the latter making him one of the most in-demand slide guitarists in the industry. He seldom hesitated to take the spotlight on himself and shine it on others, from Ravi Shankar and the Rhada Krishna Temple to starving families in East Pakistan. He was the first Beatle to launch a separate career outside the record business, with the well-respected Handmade Films production company. And of course, 1971's Bangladesh fundraiser made him the pioneer of the all-star benefit concert.

The underlying force behind all of Harrison's post-Beatle achievements was a deep sense of humility. Since his first exposure to Eastern culture in 1965, he had felt a growing desire for a means by which to transcend his ego and feed his soul. The previous goals of money and fame had proven themselves shallow and unfufilling in a short time. There had to be something else. "It's not something you just stumble upon," he said. "You have to search for it."

Unfortunately for George, his continuing quest for a higher state of being didn't guarantee him a long and peaceful life. Not even the best home security system in the world could prevent an attempt on his life by a psycho in 1999. But George was always matter-of-fact about everything, including death. He remained firmly grounded in the now, but he also believed that there is a balance of gains and losses in everyone's life, and his were most likely the result of something he did in the past. Though devoted to the search for God as he was, he always stopped short of holding God accountable for human events. He laid the blame for his lingering cancer battles squarely at his own feet. However, his untimely death carries a deeper significance than cancer awareness.
A lot of us knew that 2001 would be a year in which human spirituality was placed not only in the spotlight, but also under the microscope. The battle for our souls is being fought with the most outrageous of weapons, and also with the most serene prayers. This year we are all being forced to evaluate our beliefs and re-address the role of faith in our lives. The passing of George Harrison will hopefully generate more than just a boost in his record sales. With a little luck, his life can inspire us and help direct our focus deep inside ourselves. Perhaps then, we can see that we're really only very small, and life flows on within us and without us.

Thanks, G!

D

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