Harrison, who died last Thursday at the relatively young age of 58, exemplified what it was to be a Beatle: quick-witted and charming, yet at the same time easily bored with the intricacies of international superstardom. Following the band’s breakup, Harrison’s retreat from the public eye often cast him as a Howard Hughes-like recluse. However, Harrison had simply tired of being a celebrity. “The nicest thing is to open the newspapers and not to find yourself in them,” he once said.
Despite the Beatles’ break-up, the label never left Harrison. Harrison had to fight for respect throughout his career. He had to persuade the more established John Lennon and Paul McCartney to allot room for his songs on Beatles’ albums, then worked to prove himself as a credible talent in the eyes of a society who viewed Harrison as simply the younger brother of the Lennon-McCartney duo. Frank Sinatra once introduced Harrison’s ballad “Something,” one of the Beatles’ most successful singles, as his favorite Lennon-McCartney composition. Harrison spent much of his career residing complacently in the long shadow cast by his famous bandmates.
Yet, it was Harrison who “quietly” penned such legendary Beatles songs as “Something,” “Taxman” and “Here Comes the Sun.” It was Harrison’s underestimated work on lead guitar that served as the backbone for most of the band’s offerings. It was Harrison’s cover of Carl Perkin’s “Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby” that introduced a rockabilly twang to the music of the British Invasion and it was his experimentation with the sitar in songs such as “Norwegian Wood” and “Within You Without You” that brought Indian music and culture to mainstream America.
After the band broke up, it was Harrison who released the first solo album to be completed by an ex-Beatle. He readily admitted that 1970’s “All Things Must Pass,” his unheard of triple-album, was so long because he had a backlog of songs built up which Lennon and McCartney had failed to find room for on the Beatle’s later albums. It is telling that the album is still considered to be the finest solo album released by a Beatle.
Harrison was not just Lennon and McCartney’s guitar player. As the years passed, Harrison’s contributions to Beatles’ albums became greater, although he was still perceived as a secondary member of the Fab Four. In the 1970s, free of the roadblocks that for so long had bound him creatively, Harrison was able to establish himself once and for all as a musical force. However, by the end of the decade, sick of the monotony of the music industry and the lawsuits and bad blood that had resulted from the Beatles’ stormy demise, Harrison opted to fade into a quiet, domestic middle age.
Throughout the last two decades of his life, Harrison surfaced from time to time, attaining success each step of the way. Despite a tempestuous relationship with Lennon, Harrison recorded a tribute song, “All Those Years Ago,” with McCartney and Ringo Starr soon after Lennon was murdered in 1980. The key line in the song was “I always looked up to you.”
Harrison took celebrity slowly, never allowing it to get to his head or cause him to compromise his principles. When the end of the Beatles appeared imminent, Harrison stayed out of the way as Lennon and McCartney quarreled over musical direction and business decisions, arguments that eventually made their way to the courts. Harrison never allowed these professional difficulties to interfere with the things that he cherished most: family, spirituality, inner peace and music.
The Quiet Beatle left this world in the only manner fitting: in a friend’s home surrounded by family. Despite a long battle with cancer, Harrison never complained publicly or allowed his illness to unfold through the media. Not surprisingly, he was able to joke about it up until the very end. With the Beatles’ most recent greatest hits collection still on the charts, and McCartney having just released a critically acclaimed new album, Harrison was able to quietly exit the stage. However, the outpouring of grief in the last week has shown that he maintains a position in the hearts of several generations of fans.
With Harrison’s death, we must take the time to recognize the passing of an extraordinary human being and an immensely talented musician. While his work was often overshadowed during his life, today it comprises a legacy of the immense musical variety with which he experimented, and the enduring mix of creativity and enthusiasm that he always brought to the table. Hopefully, with his passing, the world will finally acknowledge that Mr. Harrison was not simply the guitar player for the greatest band in the world, but that he was an incredibly gifted performer.