He could have been Charles Dickens’ idea of a rock star, a dry-witted gentleman whose faith, and fate, left him isolated but satisfied, living his own way, rejecting society’s expectations and expecting precious little of the world other than to be left alone with his money. And what was the chance of that? There’s an arrogance to believing in one’s right to exist, and George Harrison clearly didn’t give a fig for others’ opinions of him. (“Think for Yourself” he sang on “Rubber Soul,” having previously offered “Don’t Bother Me” and “You Like Me Too Much.” He later attacked egotism head-on in “I Me Mine,” mockingly attaching the same title to a pricey book of lyrics, autobiography and commentary he first published in 1979.) He never took the rock star bait — where was the indulgent rich-and-famous lifestyle, the carefully contrived image, the corporate marketing department, the affairs with young actresses? Other than nutty recluses, drug burnouts and Greta Garbo, few artists of his stature have gone about their business with so little fanfare.
George Harrison’s short life in the material world was never, it seems, entirely to his taste: He enjoyed the Beatles’ stardom far less than his older band mates, rarely mounting its social platform and declining the seduction of its pleasures, turning his back on it quicker than even the loudly principled John Lennon. The publicity that might have aided his causes was too intrusive for his comfort, so he shunned it. Rather than exploit his fame, Harrison held fast to his convictions and quietly followed his passions away from the spotlight. Music was only one aspect of his creative existence and, in recent years, scarcely a part of it at all.
Even before a crazed intruder stabbed and nearly killed him two years ago, Harrison’s dedication to peace and love couldn’t insulate him from the world’s venom. His legal battles must have pained him deeply, involving as they did honesty and character as much as money. When the band that came together to sing “All You Need Is Love” discovered just how greatly they needed lawyers to go their separate ways, Harrison turned his disgust into “Sue Me, Sue You Blues.” The ruling that he had “subconsciously plagiarized” the melody of “My Sweet Lord” (a judgment easily confirmed by a listen to the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”) turned one of the most pious pop hits ever lofted into a sullied casualty of commerce. As a consolation prize to himself, Harrison wrote “This Song” to air his grievances, ruefully noting “… this song came to me/ quite unknowingly.”
Even HandMade Films, a company he set up to produce such weird and wonderful English cinema of the ’80s as “Time Bandits,” “Mona Lisa” and “Withnail and I,” ended up in court, with Harrison successfully suing his business partner of 20 years. (London’s PeopleNews.com recently claimed that Harrison nixed the use of Beatles music on the soundtrack of the forthcoming Sean Penn film “I Am Sam” as elephantine punishment for “Shanghai Surprise,” a disastrous 1986 project that starred Penn and Madonna.)
There’s no shortage of irony to be found in the land of George, a man who could sincerely devote himself to a life of pacific spirituality, do charitable deeds on a massive scale (his 1971 New York concerts for Bangladesh began the practice of rock superstar social-conscience fundraising), write idylls like “Here Comes the Sun” and obsess over what he viewed as fiscal persecution. With a catalog that includes the viciously sharp “Taxman” as well as “Only a Northern Song,” a wry, almost actionable ditty about a hated music publishing company, one can only surmise how heavily such matters weighed on him. Even his belated reflection on the Beatles, 1987′s trivial “When We Was Fab,” grouses that “income tax was all we had.”
He was the lead guitarist in a band that didn’t really need one. Despite the Beatles’ influence in every other aspect of pop life, it was Eric Clapton — who, for a time, alienated the affections of Harrison’s first wife (the delectable Pattie Boyd, first encountered as an extra in “A Hard Day’s Night”) and crafted a hit single, “Layla,” in the bargain — who really made flashy solos the essential instrumental voice of ’60s rock. (To his credit, Harrison wasn’t one to let a woman get between guitarists; the two icons of passive-aggressive superstardom remained close friends to the end.)
Never really abandoning the Beatles’ recognition of songwriting’s primacy, Harrison was prone to keeping his six-string commentary humble and pungent. He had Clapton play one of the most prominent and potent solos on a Beatles record, paradoxically because of long-simmering frustration about his creative place in the group. Harrison shrewdly invited Clapton onto “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” so his chronically unenthusiastic band mates would consider recording the song. A lifetime later, McCartney — speaking to reporters immediately after Harrison’s death — referred to him, eight months his junior, as “my baby brother.” Families never change.
While it was the songs and voices of Lennon and McCartney that led the Beatles to enduring influence, Harrison’s embrace of Indian music added a welcome, if wholly unexpected, note to the proceedings, instantly and forever changing Western awareness of the Asian subcontinent. Not coincidentally, the entrancing light drone of sitar became the heavy drug drone of psychedelia — the exotic instrument Harrison gingerly introduced on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” in 1965 circled around and became the extravagant, mind-bending rock blur of his own “It’s All Too Much” barely four years later.
In between those markers, Harrison created the song that most clearly articulated his devotion, both artistic and philosophical, to India. “Within You Without You,” his sole compositional contribution to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (employing no other Beatles and no rock instruments), pairs worldview and personality in lines that now seem prophetic.
“The people who hide themselves Behind a wall of illusion Never glimpse the truth Then it’s far too late When they pass away.”
Whether he was warning others or testing his own conviction, the admonition stands. “The time will come when you see we’re all one/ And life flows on within you and without you.” Life will flow on without him, but on a course for which one is in George Harrison’s debt.