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Remembering George Harrison

More than a year after his death, the Quiet Beatle's legacy starts to take shape.

By 1.13.03

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Near the end of The Beatles Anthology, a television retrospective of the group's history first broadcast in 1995, the band members were given the chance at a last word. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the Beatles least conflicted about the group's career, closed with statements of pride and nostalgia. The late John Lennon, from an earlier interview, was characteristically irreverent and disingenuous: "It's just a pop group that split up. It's nothing important. You have the old records if you want to reminisce." And George Harrison, in the understated way he had throughout the group's career, poured some cold water on the whole enterprise: "They gave their money and their screams. But we gave our nervous systems, which is a more difficult thing to give."

At the end of the long and adulatory documentary, Harrison's words were a bracing dissent from the celebration. From the very beginning, when he was tagged the Quiet Beatle, Harrison stood apart from Lennon and McCartney and the comedic Starr, who was beloved by fans for his cheery, uncomplicated embrace of fame and fortune. Harrison's first song for the group was called "Don't Bother Me," and it stands virtually alone within an early Beatles catalog that otherwise revels in romance and youth. Later additions to his canon of ambivalence included "Think for Yourself," "If I Needed Someone," and "You Like Me Too Much." Near the end of the Beatles' career, he wrote "I Me Mine," which he described as the "the 'ego' problem" in song. It was also a concise expression of the self-involvement and distrust among the Beatles that was tearing the group apart.

In 1980, ten years after the group disbanded, Harrison published I Me Mine, an autobiography of sorts (Chronicle Books, 399 pages $24.95). It offers barely 60 pages of Harrison's musings, which come from transcriptions of conversations with Derek Taylor, the Beatles' longtime press agent. The remainder of the book, nearly 300 pages, consists of song lyrics from Harrison's Beatles and solo careers, and his notes on the songs. The book has been reissued with a new introduction by Harrison's widow, Olivia.

Given his long devotion to the Hindu religion and its instructions to release oneself from the Ego, I Me Mine is "a sly paradox of a title," as Taylor notes, "chosen by a man concerned for many years and for many reasons to send his ego packing." Yet as Harrison himself admits in the book, getting free of the ego is a constant struggle, and one might opine that including 300 pages of song lyrics is hardly an ego-less act. (The songs only go up to 1980, and were not updated for the new edition.)

In a sense, I Me Mine is the perfect complement for Harrison's solo albums, which usually contained items of interest but were ultimately either half-hearted or impenetrable. But Harrison's restless intelligence is never far from the surface. The autobiographical section of I Me Mine contains compelling glimpses into his past that waft away almost as soon as they come into view. Harrison's description of the dreariness of schooling in Liverpool -- "That's where the darkness began...You would punch people just to get it out of your system" -- makes the reader hungry for more. At one point the headmaster of Harrison's school writes his father, "I cannot tell you what his work is like because he has not done any."

Harrison's recollections, as brief as they are, do not come uninterrupted. Derek Taylor frequently editorializes between sections, and though this is sometimes necessary to set up the next narrative fragment, it is also intrusive. Still, it's worth hearing what little Harrison is willing to say. His telling of the group's nightmare tour of the Philippines in 1966, when they ran afoul of Ferdinand Marcos and actually feared for their lives, has the unmistakable immediacy of one who was there. It's a shame that Harrison did not have a chance to expand on the hodgepodge biography of I Me Mine; the book clearly demonstrates his ability as a storyteller, and his austere, pleasingly sour take on celebrity culture is timely and satisfying.

Harrison's notes on his songs are generally more interesting than reading the lyrics themselves. To an extent, this is unavoidable, since no rock lyrics are particularly compelling on a page, divorced from their musical context. But Harrison saves his most expansive comments for his most forgettable songs. He is pithy when remembering some of his best work, but writes small dissertations on "The Lord Loves the One That Loves the Lord" and "It Is 'He' (Jai Sri Krishna)." The paradox is why more of his songs weren't as interesting as he was.

The book's catalog of songs does serve a useful purpose, however: it is a reminder that the Beatles were not just Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Anyone stuck in a group with talents like those would find it difficult to gain acclaim, and Harrison's contributions were all the more impressive for their invisibility. He was the group's lead guitarist and a much superior musician to Lennon. His celebrated inclusion of the sitar on Lennon's "Norwegian Wood" made a good song otherworldly, and in a figurative sense made him its co-author. "It just needed something," he said years later, and indeed he had an instinctive sense of what Beatles songs "needed" musically. His playing was devoid of excess and embodied a concept mostly alien to rock: taste. He was not a "guitar hero," he was a guitar player.

Though Harrison's embrace of Indian mysticism and its subsequent appearance in Beatles music had a huge impact on countercultural trends -- the Woodstock generation's pursuit of all things Eastern, the rise of New Age philosophies and lifestyles -- he never fit the role of hippie guru. Coexisting with his desire for spiritual insight were a passion for privacy and a crotchety willingness to complain, even within a pop culture that generally expects its celebrities to be grateful for their fame. The best example on record is Harrison's immortal "Taxman," a song that has since become something of a libertarian anthem:

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...

'Cause I'm the taxman
And you're working for no one but me...

Needless to say, reading it on the page doesn't do it justice.

Harrison's last two songs for the Beatles, "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun," are justly recognized as classics. His late-blooming success as a songwriter spurred great expectations for his solo career, and initially he outpaced both Lennon and McCartney in sales and critical acclaim. His first solo effort, All Things Must Pass, retains an atmospheric majesty.

Much has been made of the treasure trove of songs he had written that were kept off of the group's albums, but even in 1970 Harrison had few great songs, as I Me Mine makes plain. Lennon and McCartney, more gifted songwriters, didn't exactly set the world on fire as solo artists, either. But they did have a deep need to prove themselves on their own, however embarrassing the results often were. Careerism of the kind exemplified by McCartney meant little to Harrison, though, and he seemed comfortable with the waning of his solo career as the 1970s and 1980s wore on.

When he in late 2001, he was putting the finishing touches on his first new album in over a decade. Even allowing for the excesses of praise that generally greet posthumous releases, Brainwashed (released last November) is his best album since All Things Must Pass, and may ultimately stand up better. At long last, Harrison manages to communicate his Hindu convictions in a genuine way, without the kind of hectoring, superficial holiness that dulled his music for so long. He plays gorgeous slide guitar on almost every number, and manifests two qualities not often on display in his solo work -- humor and warmth. It seems too easy to say that imminent death could have inspired this quantum leap in his songwriting, but Brainwashed provides good evidence for that argument. The album sure sounds like a summation.

Predictably, the rock world responded to Harrison's death with lavish tributes, lauding both his solo music and his spiritual wisdom. Those less disposed to the excesses of celebrity mourning or the youth culture that the Beatles ushered in can remember him with more grace and honesty, as a man of some talent who labored hard to maintain his dignity within a maelstrom. To paraphrase his old friend Bob Dylan: he was in a whirlwind, now he's in some better place.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.