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Memories of ‘The Quiet One’

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

And now there are only two.

George Harrison was a distinguished guitarist, songwriter and humanitarian. Above all, however, he was a Beatle--and that’s how we will remember him.

In the title of his first solo album, Harrison, who died Thursday (see obituary in section A), warned us that all things must pass, but somehow we never imagined it would pertain to the members of the Beatles.

Rock’s greatest group arrived in America in 1964 not only with wonderful music, but also with a free, uplifting spirit that made everything seem possible and everyone feel as if they would live forever.

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The group’s albums took the raw energy and excitement of ‘50s rock and turned it into an art form, expressing the hopes, doubts and social attitudes of a generation. In the process, they inspired thousands of other musicians to join bands, forming a chain that stretches all the way to Nirvana and U2 today.

We don’t mourn just for Harrison, but also for the Beatles--and our own mortality.

For the ‘60s generation, the evening of Feb. 9, 1964 was a defining moment--the first time we saw the Beatles. It was like Elvis all over again, only there were four of them.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” had just gone to No. 1 on the singles chart, and they sang it and four other songs on Ed Sullivan’s television show. Seventy-three million people tuned in--the most ever for a TV show at the time--and half of them surely were teenagers.

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Just months after the assassination of President Kennedy, the Beatles’ cheerful, optimistic music and manner were the ideal tonic. Overnight, they were part of our lives.

But our lives are a little emptier after Thursday.

Harrison, of course, isn’t the first member of the Beatles to leave us. John Lennon was taken two decades ago by a madman’s bullets, but that was a moment of insanity that could be explained away--a tragedy as unlikely as the plane crashes that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, or the self-destructiveness that ended the lives of Presley and Janis Joplin.

It’s not as easy to dismiss Harrison’s death, of cancer, as a freakish moment. Coming just three years after Linda McCartney, Paul’s wife of nearly 30 years, died of breast cancer, his passing is the most sobering reminder to anyone who sang along to “Penny Lane” or “Hey Jude” that, indeed, all things must pass.

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If Harrison spent much of the last 31 of his 58 years in the shadow of his life with the Beatles, it wasn’t a new position for him. In the band itself, attention was commanded by the songwriting mastery and more outgoing personalities of Lennon and McCartney.

Exhibiting little hunger for fame, Harrison didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t the one usually chosen as favorite Beatle by teenagers in the ‘60s. Paul was the cute one. John was the rebel. Ringo was cuddly.

And George?

“I don’t have much to say ‘cause I’m the quiet Beatle,” he said during his acceptance speech when the quartet was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, good-naturedly referring to the most common label for him.

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But that modesty belied the Liverpool native’s considerable contributions to the Beatles. He wrote some memorable works, including “Something,” a love song so graceful that Frank Sinatra and Presley both recorded it. Sinatra even called it the greatest love song of the last 50 years.

Harrison also contributed to the exquisite Beatles vocal harmonies, but his main talent was lead guitar, and his frequently compelling solos, licks and runs leap out if you listen again to the Beatles’ albums. “All My Loving,” the first song they performed on the Sullivan show, was one of my favorite early Beatles numbers, and I always thought of it as Paul’s because he sang it. But my favorite part of the record is the country-tinged guitar break--and that was all George.

Drawing from the influence of such ‘50s rockers as Presley, Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and Carl Perkins, the Beatles’ celebratory sound was based primarily on the guitar, which meant Harrison had a central role, especially in the band’s early days.

You still feel your spirits soar when Harrison injects the energy, affirmation and sensuality of his American rock heroes into “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and you marvel at his role in scores of other recordings. His playing inspired thousands of teenagers to take up electric guitar.

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As the band’s ambition expanded over the years, Harrison kept pace, playing with a discipline and authority that were rarely flashy but always provided the ideal seasoning. And of course he also added the exotic sitar touches to “Norwegian Wood” and other songs.

These musical contributions were vital parts of the magic of the Beatles. Without Harrison, the Beatles would still have had the excellence of the Lennon-McCartney songs, but there is no way the music would have sounded the same.

Still, Lennon and McCartney ruled the Beatles, and Harrison was frustrated. Not only was there little room for his songs on the albums, but Lennon and McCartney sometimes took over lead guitar on their own compositions.

When the Beatles broke up in 1970, Harrison took advantage of his new forum by making “All Things Must Pass,” a massive, three-LP affair. It was highlighted by the spiritually edged “My Sweet Lord,” which featured gorgeous slide guitar passages. The album held the top spot on the U.S. chart for seven weeks, more than any other ex-Beatle’s solo album except Lennon’s “Double Fantasy.”

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When Harrison returned two years later with “Living in the Material World,” it also went to No. 1. Both albums reflected the devotion to Eastern religion that he had adopted during his time with the Beatles.

In between, Harrison was joined by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and others in “The Concert for Bangla Desh,” an album recorded at two 1971 New York benefit shows organized by Harrison that served as an inspiration for such future humanitarian affairs as Live Aid.

As with the Beatles, Harrison played on his own recordings with an economy and taste that always served the needs of the song rather than overshadowing it.

Harrison’s playing earned the respect of his peers, including Eric Clapton, but his understated approach separated him from the explosiveness that would turn some of his contemporaries, including Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, into rock guitar gods.

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That approach seemed rooted in Harrison’s personality.

“I’m really quite simple,” he said in 1980. “I don’t want to be in the business full time because I’m a gardener. I plant flowers and watch them grow.”

If the tasteful restraint and philosophical devotion of his post-Beatles music were embraced by longtime Beatles fans, the unevenness of Harrison’s songwriting made him a target for critics who measured him against the standards of Lennon and McCartney. Some of my own words were so harsh that at one point Harrison, promoting a new album, made it clear to executives at Warner Bros. Records that he would do an interview with anyone at The Times except me.

That tension made things ticklish the night in the late ‘70s when I was urgently tracking down a rumor about a Beatles reunion at a charity concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. I first tried sources close to Lennon, McCartney and Starr, each of whom I had interviewed several times. But the calls proved fruitless, and I was forced to search for Harrison. A friend gave me his home number.

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When a woman answered, I identified myself and asked to speak to George. She put her hand over the phone and, presumably, passed along the message.

To my relief, he graciously took the phone and laughed at the rumor. There would be no Beatles reunion concert, he said, adding that I could use the same quote the next time the rumor came up. It would save me the trouble, he joked, of having to track down his home number.

I was touched by his willingness to forgive and forget--and I was also pleased by his answer. Too many bands have tarnished their legacies by coming back for a final hurrah. I didn’t want to see it happen to the Beatles too. The idea of a partial reunion after Lennon’s murder seemed even more distasteful.

But recently I found myself wavering after McCartney announced the New York benefit concert for the relatives of the emergency workers who were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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There were already reports that Harrison was gravely ill, and this would be one time all of us could use a touch of the Beatles’ idealism and comfort. It would have been good to see the three of them again.

But it didn’t come to pass--and now there are only two.


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