November 30, 2001
GEORGE HARRISON 1943-2001
He was the brooding, quiet Beatle, not the pretty one (that was Paul), not the poet (that was John) and not the clown (that was Ringo). But all that was yesterday.
Now, more than 20 years after an assassin's bullet took the life of John Lennon, half of the most successful music group in recording history is gone. George Harrison, 58, died at a friend's home in Los Angeles Thursday, after a lengthy battle with cancer.
"He left this world as he lived in it: conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends," the Harrison family said in a statement. "He often said, 'Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.'"
"I am devastated and very, very sad," Paul McCartney told reporters outside his home near London on Friday, according to the Associated Press. "He was a lovely guy and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humor. He is really just my baby brother."
The guitarist-songwriter had been waging a battle against claims about his imminent demise since January 1998, when he was treated for throat cancer. He had first detected a lump on his neck in 1997 and had attributed his illness to years of smoking. Up until this latest fight, Harrison's closest brush with death came in 1999, when a deranged fan broke into his suburban London estate and stabbed him in the chest, puncturing his lung and nearly killing him.
But it was cancer that claimed him. Earlier this year Harrison was treated at a Swiss clinic, reportedly for a brain tumor. Prior to that, he checked into Minnesota's Mayo Clinic for surgery on a cancerous lung. In July, British tabloid Mail on Sunday quoted former Beatles producer Sir George Martin as saying Harrison "knows he is going to die soon, and he's accepting it perfectly happily." Martin subsequently denied having made the statements, and Harrison's lawyers stepped forward to dispute the article, saying their client was "active and feeling very well."
Then, in November, reports arose that Harrison was treated as an outpatient at New York's Staten Island University Hospital, where he reportedly received an innovative form of radiation treatment called "stereotactic radiosurgery," a procedure aimed at reducing tumors. These stories were followed by reports that Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and other friends and colleagues had visited Harrison at that hospital.
The son of a bus driver who had once been a seaman and a housewife from an Irish family, Harrison was born on Feb. 25, 1943. He "had a happy childhood, with lots of relatives around," he is quoted as saying in the 2000 compendium, The Beatles Anthology. Home was Liverpool, England, on the Mersey River, "which was very prominent with all the ferry boats and the big steamers coming in from America or Ireland," Harrison recalled.
Known as a rebel in school, Harrison was frequently sent home for wearing jeans or sporting hair that was too long. "I didn't really like school," he admitted. When Harrison was 13, his mother bought him his first guitar, for about $8, "a real cheapo horrible little" model, he said.
Harrison became enamored with a local skiffle band (skiffle is Britian's answer to jug band music) called the Quarry Men, which featured teens John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Harrison cornered McCartney (nearly a year Harrison's senior) on the school bus, and the two bonded over a shared love of music.
"I discovered that he had a trumpet," said Harrison," and he found out that I had a guitar, so we got together." With a guitar manual in hand, they worked out the chords (Paul switched to the guitar himself when he realized that he couldn't sing and play trumpet at the same time, according to Harrison). Though Harrison was never formally inducted into the Quarry Men, he became a fixture.
The Quarry Men soon changed their name to Johnny and the Moondogs. Among the first gigs performed by John, Paul and George was at Harrison's brother Harry's wedding.
Soon, however, the group got a taste for the limelight. By 1960 the Quarry Men became the Beatles, with Ringo Starr replacing previous drummer Pete Best in 1962. Harrison, the youngest of the four, was only 17 when the group did a stint playing at rough-and-tumble clubs in Germany ("I never showered," recalled Harrison, who was eventually deported for being underage), and 21 when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. By then the group was an international sensation and Britain's most popular export.
Though Lennon and McCartney were responsible for composing the best-known Beatles material, Harrison also was a prolific songwriter. The first Beatles song written by Harrison was "Don't Bother Me," released on the 1963 record With the Beatles; among the well-known titles from the Harrison canon were: "Here Comes the Sun," "While My Guitar gently Weeps," "Taxman" and "Something." Some considered Harrison the most serious and talented musician of the four.
Harrison was also a spiritual person, responsible for the Beatles's interest in Indian music and Eastern religion, which featured prominently in some of their well-known recordings and high-profile travel to India. (The song "Sexy Sadie" was a dig at the spiritual guru Maharishi Mashesh Yogi, after the Beatles became disillusioned with him.)
After the Beatles broke up in 1970, Harrison was the first to release a solo effort, that year's All Things Must Pass. In 1971 he led fellow rock legends such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton in two live performances at New York's Madison Square Garden to raise money for UNICEF's efforts to help Bengali refugees from the war between India and Pakistan. With "The Concert for Bangladesh" performances and live record, Harrison is credited with creating the concept of using rock concerts to raise funds and awareness for causes, later represented by efforts such as Live Aid.
Harrison also enjoyed success as a film producer, most notably with Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979 and 1986's critically acclaimed cult film Mona Lisa, which established actor Bob Hoskins as a star. There were setbacks as well: Harrison's 1974 tour in support of his album Living in the Material World was panned by critics. And in 1986, though Mona Lisa was well received, his other producing effort, Madonna's Shanghai Surprise, was a flop with critics and audiences alike.
Harrison's career rebounded in 1988, when he recorded an album with the Traveling Wilburys, which included fellow rock superstars Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. But after a second Wilburys album in 1990, Harrison essentially retreated to meditate and garden at the 120-room mansion near London that he shared with second wife Olivia, the Mexican-born beauty he married in 1978, and son Dhani (Hindi for "rich man"), born in 1978. The family also owned homes in Hawaii and on Hamilton Island, Australia.
Harrison's first marriage to model Pattie Boyd, whom he married in 1966, ended in divorce in 1977. Though she left Harrison for his friend Eric Clapton, the three remained close.
"In the big picture," Harrison once said, "it really doesn't matter if we never made a record or we never sang a song. That isn't important. At death, you're going to need some spiritual guidance and some kind of inner knowledge that extends beyond the boundaries of the physical world . . . it's what inside that counts."
-- STEPHEN M. SILVERMAN