The day George Harrison passed away (Friday, Nov. 30) my brother sent me an email: “The Beatles are halfway to a reunion.” It was a sad joke, not a cruel one.
The back of George’s “Beatles Color Card” (his was number three) has the vitals: Born in Liverpool, Feb. 25, 1943; height: 5’11”; weight: 142; favorite music: hillbilly; likes: drive-in movies; favorite type of girls: friendly; favorite activity: going to drive-in movies with friendly girls. (I made that last one up.) Just for comparison, Paul (card number two) liked “sleeping,” and his favorite type of girl was 11 any.” (That one is real.)
George (you can’t call a Beatle by his surname, can you? I mean, “Harrison” would have to be Rex, or Benjamin, or William Henry) escaped death a couple of years ago, when a crazed fan entered his home and, for reasons best known to himself, started stabbing him. Such, perhaps, is the effect of being just “George” to several billion people. During the attack, George shouted “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna” at his attacker. Then his wife brained the guy with a poker, which proved a more effective defense. The verdict was”not guilty by reason of insanity.” According to the testimony of a psychiatrist, the assailant “believed his actions were justified. The actions were ordained by God. . . . ” No wonder President Bush is in favor of trying terrorists by means of military tribunals.
Early Saturday morning, I turned on VHl and watched a couple of hours of George tributes. There was a lot about what he did after he stopped being a Beatle, but the most striking thing about all the Beatles’ post-Beatles work is how utterly mediocre it is. Maybe you could put together a good album out of the Wings’ body of work, but you have to balance that with gems like “The Girl Is Mine” and “Let ‘Em In” (“Somebody’s knockin’ at the door; somebody’s ringing the bell . . . la la la”). Lennon’s Double Fantasy received high praise because it achieved the milestone of Doesn’t Totally Suck.
George was no exception to this pattern. As an early Beatle, his output was a song every album or so, and his contributions were solid, right from the first album’s highly underrated “Don’t Bother Me,” whose complete lack of vocal harmony I’ve always found surprising for a Beatles song (okay, there’s a hint of harmony while the song’s fading out). His songs from the early Beatles years had to share vinyl with the extraordinary output of John and Paul, but they were significant; and in the middle years, his songs improved.
The sitar-laden “Love You To” and “Within You, Without You” were interesting experiments, and the libertarian “Taxman” was strong enough to start what is now regarded as the Beatles’ best album, Revolver. You can’t argue with the lyrics:· “Should· five percent appear too small, be thankful I don’t take it all … Don’t ask me what I want it for, if you don’t want to pay some more … Now my advice for those who die, declare the pennies on your eyes, ’cause I’m the TAXMAN!” Then there’s the terrific bridge:
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat
If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet
I always thought the Batman theme you know, – da-da-da-da-da-da BATMAN!” was taken from “Taxman,” but I just checked on the World Wide Web and it’s the other way around. They couldn’t put it on the Web if it weren’t true. That time, George escaped copyright trouble, although he wouldn’t· be so lucky later on.
George reached his songwriting peak in the late Beatles years, when John and Paul were busy disappearing up their own assholes (the White Album and Abbey Road). Churl that I am, I’ve never much liked “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” or “Here Comes the Sun,” but they are well-crafted songs with fine melodies. Sinatra claimed that “Something” was the best love song in 20 years, and I’m skeptical of George’s reported amusement at Sinatra’s giving writing credit to Lennon/McCartney. The person.who wrote that song also had pride in his work.
The three full decades of post-Beatles work (I can hardly finish the sentence after writing that) had a few interesting moments. 1 don’t care whether “My Sweet Lord” was plagiarized; it’s good song, and every musician steals. “Give ‘Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” was a modest song that met with modest, success. Then there were the less purely musical events. George’s “Concert for Bangladesh” is supposed to have been the first big rock charity concert. He did benefits for England’s Natural Law Party. In the first half of the ’80s, he produced films, including Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
But as his career went on, the hits got worse. See “Crackerbox Palace” for an example of how bad early music videos were (and for George’s striking likeness to Weird Al Yankovic), chart-topping “Got My Mind Set on You” for over-the-top poppiness (thanks to co-writer Jeff Lynne, of ELO fame), and “When We Were Fab” and” All Those Years Ago” for nothing-better-than-average tributes (the second, and the better, of these two was’written after Lennon’s death). George teamed up with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty to form the Traveling Wilburys. Though Petty’s never been the same since, they did get Orbison, who had one of the saddest, most beautiful voices in the world, to sing again before he died.
George was a modest, thoughtful man. He and Ringo had the courtesy to show up when the Beatles were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. John was dead, and Paul … well, he died a long time ago. George’s last interview, about three years ago, with a “VJ” as host, featured an impromptu concert thanks to a staffer’s friend, who happened to have a guitar with her. After an acoustic version of II All Things Must Pass,” George was asked why, with all the other trouble in the world, he chose to stage.a benefit for Bangladesh. He replied, “A friend asked me if I would help out.” Can you imagine Paul or John giving such a simple, self-effacing answer?
With his longtime musical and spiritual partner Ravi Shankar at his side, the quiet and sincere Beatle spoke quietly and sincerely about life and death. His short summation showed why he was not only the Quiet Beatie but also the Dark Beatie: “The most important thing is why we die. After that, nothing else matters.”