When I was a kid, I thought John Lennon was my favorite Beatle. Then I grew up and realized that Beatles aren’t ice cream flavors, and each one was a musician and human being in his own right – though I wouldn’t be opposed to Ben and Jerry coming out with a pint of Ticket to Pie, or Savoy Truffle (I mean, the name is right there – it could be creamy tangerine ice cream with sugared ginger and pineapple chunks, as well as little chocolate Rickenbacker guitars). So while it wouldn’t be fair to make a statement like, “George Harrison was the best Beatle,” he really was a remarkable person, brilliant musician, and an immense influence on my life.
And when I say that, I mean I have known his music for almost all of my cognoscente life. It has that rare quality of being layered in a way that I find myself hearing something new even on the 500th listen, and gleaning new meaning as the songs age with me. And I’m not just talking about Beatles songs. If anything, George Harrison’s contributions to the White Album, more than any other Beatles record, were a foreshadowing of the band’s imminent dissolution, because the man should have already been cutting his own albums.
Sometimes it seems like certain Beatles songs are so embedded in our auditory vocabulary, that we associate them with cliché experiences and take them for granted. If you listen to them, though, really listen and put them in the context of words from one person to another put to music, the songs are extraordinary. Except for ‘Good Night’ (White Album), that one’s just kind of creepy (sorry Ringo). But if you listen to a song like, ‘Savoy Truffle,’ it’s thrilling to think of the decades of music that were yet to come from George Harrison.
Those decades made up the most beautiful search for God and spirituality you can find in pop music to date. I could compare their soulful quest for meaning to John Lennon’s social activism and other ism oriented compositions, or Paul McCartney’s silly love songs, but by the time George had left the Beatles, he was an accomplished musician of his own accord, drawing his greatest influences as much from outside the band as its historic songwriting duo. If you’ve ever heard Cloud 9, or gotten lost in the second record of All Things Must Pass, cried to 33 1/3 or danced to Brainwashed (and vice versa), you know what I mean. The man could play a heart string like it was a Rickenbacker while simultaneously affirming the meaning of life.
In late November of my senior year in high school, a friend, then my English teacher, mentioned that George Harrison was seriously ill. It was a couple of months after 9/11, and between the instability of the world at large, as well as my own little, college application strewn, new york hopes-filled universe, I almost believed that the overwhelming grief I felt over George Harrison was a reflection of everything else.
The day he passed away (or rather, the day it was made public), I walked into school to find that there had already been a box of kleenex set aside at reception with my name on it (it was a small school). As the day neared lunch and I realized I was out of tissues, it occurred to me how I could feel so devastated by the loss of someone I didn’t even know directly. The meaning and lessons in his words taught me things no school could, an understanding that could only be conveyed with the subtext of instrumentation. I found myself in his music as much as I did in the pages of literature about him. After years of abandon and inspired by his lifelong passion for the instrument, I picked up a guitar again. I soon found myself doodling 12-strings in the margins of notebooks in classes that took up the hours of my day I wasn’t spending hacking my fingers to bits on steel strings.
I understood his passion for the instrument, even if I couldn’t do with it anything even remotely close to what George Harrison could. I understood the meaning of an instrument as a conduit, now both from the listener’s and the player’s perspective. It has been over ten years and I still play guitar often, though I have yet to overcome the shyness of doing so in public. I still glean new meaning from his music, and still find comfort in his ideals when I struggle with purpose and intention in my life or the world at large. As much as the work of George’s life prepared me for my own, the grief of his death prepared me, in a way, to face the grief of losing loved ones and friends in years to come.
Despite his lack of physical presence, he is still serving the world and making it more habitable for those of us still struggling in it. Happy 69th, George, from all of us down here in Crackerbox Palace.
I couldn’t help including this video of Dhani Harrison (George’s son), with George Martin and his son Giles as they explore the various layers of Here Comes the Sun and find an incredible guitar solo that never made it into the final track.