Without you

George Harrison could be surly and cantankerous, but without him the Beatles would never have been themselves.

Published December 1, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

We can say it for sure now: Any day a Beatle dies is a bad day.

George Harrison is gone at 58, lost to cancer, an illness that has affected most of us in some way, either directly or indirectly. And yet it's no more comprehensible than John Lennon taken by a bullet.

After we lost Lennon, many of us wondered (to ourselves if to no one else), How will it feel to lose any of the remaining ones? Although most of us have always had a favorite, the idea of the Beatles as a broken set just feels all wrong, and the 20 years since Lennon's death haven't made it any more penetrable.

We had convenient tags for each Beatle, but each meant something only in the context of the others: John was the brilliant and difficult one; Paul was the charming and ingratiating one; Ringo was likable and good-natured.

George was the tall, quiet one. He was also the youngest of the four, the one who liked puns and disliked fame, who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell, who could be surly and cantankerous. George was the one you could never quite be sure of. He seemed to hold himself apart from the others, somehow, and yet without him, the Beatles would never have been themselves.

He was the most unreachable, the one who most adamantly refused to belong to us. But whether he liked it or not, he did belong to us. Whether he wanted our love or not, he got it -- and has it still.

Facing up to George Harrison's death isn't something any Beatles fan can do adequately in the space of a day. There have always been people who clamored to defend his solo work; I'm not one of them. But at the same time, it's crucial to say that the handful (in relative terms) of songs that Harrison wrote in his time with the Beatles represents a body of work that any songwriter should be proud of -- they simply had the misfortune of being overshadowed by the work of the much more prolific (and, yes, unabashedly brilliant) Lennon and McCartney.

Right now it would just seem right to spend a whole day basking in the delicate tracery of "Here Comes the Sun," its lacy guitar work a potent metaphor for the evanescent beauty of pop music: "Here Comes the Sun" has all the poetry of a glittering spider web in the moments before the sun warms it dry.

When Frank Sinatra recorded Harrison's "Something" in the early '70s, he said it was the greatest love song written in 50 years. Sinatra credited John and Paul, but it makes sense that it was George -- the quiet one. "Something" is a song by a man standing apart from his love; that's the only way he can really see her as she is, and that's what makes the song so heartbreakingly generous. It's as if he's asking himself for the first time what she means outside the context of himself: Can he love her forever? He doesn't know. But this moment is about her only, a creature whose beauty and innate composure have nothing to do with him -- as attributes of the soul, they will outlive him and the body he lives in. "Something" is mournful and celebratory at once, a delicate meshing of complicated and seemingly contradictory feelings. It's the kind of song that only a very private man could write.

Some people don't feel comfortable acknowledging the flaws and foibles of the dead, but I prefer to think that coming face to face with them is the surest expression of love. Harrison often complained, quite vocally, that the public robbed him of his privacy, and of a part of himself. He didn't like being famous. Even if, as rumor has it, he was plagued by money problems in later years, there's no denying that the public's love helped buy him a rather nice house in the English countryside.

And by all accounts he was damn cheap. But what do we, his fans, have to complain about, provided we've never had to split a restaurant bill with him? His thriftiness has made for some terrific stories. In "Shout!" Philip Norman's marvelous and touchingly sympathetic history of the Beatles, the band has dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Wales. The Maharishi had come to the U.K. for a visit; in attendance were Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. "After a long and noisy meal, it was discovered that no one among the assembled millionaires had enough money to pay the bill. In London, they were never allowed to pay. Chinese waiters in a North Wales town clearly did not understand this. At last, with the waiters growing restive, George Harrison pried open his sandal-sole and produced a wad of £10 notes."

Harrison was generous where it counted. He donated money and time to various philanthropic projects, including the organization of a 1971 concert to aid refugees in Bangladesh. And in his later years, especially, he faced some pretty rough challenges: He was troubled by health problems, and in late 1999 was stabbed by a maniac who had broken into his home. At the time, it seemed like the last thing Harrison, bitter enough about the suffering his fame had brought him, needed.

But the story of the way his wife cracked the guy over the head with a lamp became the stuff of legend -- an example of the strength that women can summon when they need to protect a child, or their man. Her ferociousness represented something many of us feel: I'm sure there are millions of women (and men) worldwide who would wield a lamp to save a Beatle.

Even in ill health, Harrison maintained his lanky good looks. In later pictures or TV footage of him, it was always easy to see the gauntly handsome youngster he used to be; the image of him tapping a foot in those incredible Cuban-heeled boots is iconic.

And his exquisitely dry humor, like the love he took and made, will live forever. Whenever my husband and I pass a weird bit of mangled metal masquerading as modern art, invariably one of us turns to the other and says, quoting George's great line from "A Hard Day's Night," "You don't see many of those anymore." Now he's gone, too, and we'll never see his like again. He was fab, he was gear, and forget that story about the way he hid money in his shoe: In his role as a Beatle he was generous to a fault, and we're as rich as kings because of it.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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