George Harrison R.I.P.

George Harrison, the youngest Beatle, and the least comfortable with the band's renown, died November 29 at 58, following a battle with cancer. Harrison, one of rock's most distinctive guitarists, was also a songwriter and singer of the first water. It could be said that it was his misfortune to be the third songwriter in a band that featured the two most significant tunesmiths of his era. On the other hand, without Harrison's unique, exquisitely tasteful, musically wide-ranging guitar playing—which, in its consistent submission to the requirements of the individual songs, rarely drew attention to itself—Lennon and McCartney might have just been another band.

In a 2000 interview, Harrison said, "I think we were, the four of us, individually bigger than it [the Beatles] was." Most observers would disagree—somehow the combination managed to dwarf all of them as individuals, and it was Harrison's contributions to the dialectic that tempered the eternal tension between John Lennon's and Paul McCartney's egos. In many ways, he was the truest to their craft.

He was certainly the most accomplished musician among them when he joined Lennon's and McCartney's The Quarry Men in 1958 at the age of 15, adding, in the words of Ian MacDonald, "an incongruous sheen of professionalism to the group's slap-happy ambience." As the band's best musician, he taught John Lennon the rudiments of guitar.

Even his most ardent fans tend to underplay Harrison's importance in shaping the sound of the Beatles. In his first recorded solo with the band, "I Saw Her Standing There," Harrison's reverb-saturated 16-bar verse/chorus rave-up stole the show and gave the song—and the band—an electric raunchiness like nothing else on the British pop scene.

A list of Harrison's finest moments as a guitarist almost equals the roster of great Beatles songs. His breadth was amazing—he could range from the raw blues overdrive of a Clapton for his solos in "Helter Skelter" and "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" to the rockabilly strut of Carl Perkins ("Honey Don't") to the tightly wound sexual squawk that later gave punk its edge ("Got To Get You Into My Life") to the delicate acoustic filigree of "Here Comes the Sun." It could even be argued that several of the Beatles' less perfectly conceived songs, such as "Nowhere Man" and "Fixing a Hole," were salvaged by Harrison's incisive Stratocaster solos.

Harrison's influence on the group was obvious in other ways as well. It was he who discovered what he termed "Krishna consciousness" and convinced the band to visit the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. His interest in and adoption of classical Indian music flavored such Beatles songs as "Norwegian Wood," "Love You To," and "Within You Without You." His commitment to Eastern philosophy and meditation never waned.

And it was Harrison who, dissatisfied with the quality of the live shows, insisted that the band quit touring in 1966 and devote themselves to the studio.

Harrison's early songs, "Don't Bother Me" and "I Need You," suffered in comparison to the level of craft achieved by his bandmates, but his later efforts, such as "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Something," and "Here Comes the Sun," were incontrovertible masterpieces. And, of course, Harrison had the last word as a Beatle: The final song the band recorded was Harrison's bitter philippic against the egotism that splintered the group, "I Me Mine."

Harrison's solo career got off to an auspicious start with the 1970 three-LP All Things Must Pass, a project whose sheer mass, some fans claimed, was proof of how the other Beatles kept him down. The album was more popular in the United States than it was in the UK, where its price was prohibitive for many fans, and it generated a huge hit in "My Sweet Lord"—a song for which Harrison was later sued for "unconsciously plagiarizing" the melody of "He's So Fine."

In 1971 Harrison organized a relief benefit concert, The Concert for Bangladesh, which set the template for such charity concerts. Featuring a star-studded band and generous sets from himself, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, and individual band members, the project was spun off into a film and a three-LP recording—all calculated to raise money for the cause. Unfortunately, much of the money raised went to taxes and years of legal wrangling rather than to the flood victims it was intended for. The whole affair deepened Harrison's distrust of the "suits" who managed the record business, but he continued to give generously to the charities that moved him. He gave a substantial sum to the City of Liverpool for the restoration of the Palm House at Sefton Park, a childhood favorite of his, with the strict proviso that there be no publicity.

He also started his own record label, Dark Horse, which released his solo outings, as well as albums by other musicians, such as Ravi Shankar, and pop bands he admired, such as Splinter, Stairsteps, Attitudes, and Jiva. Most of the Dark Horse material is currently unavailable, but Harrison is said to have been working on remastering his output on the label at the time of his death, so it will probably see the light of day once again.

In 1979, he financed the production of The Life of Brian by his friends, the comedic group Monty Python, essentially, he admitted, because he wanted to see the movie. Harrison enjoyed being a film producer and established Handmade Films, a production company responsible for an impressive run of 27 films that included The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa, Time Bandits, Withnail and I, and Shanghai Surprise—a disastrous flop starring Sean Penn and Madonna, which is said to have cost Mr. Harrison a "noticeable" portion of his fortune. He sold his interest in Handmade Films in 1994.

In 1988, he formed the Traveling Wilburys with Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison, possibly the most casual "supergroup" ever to exist. Harrison was an active participant in the Beatles' Anthology project and also helped supervise the release of the singles collection 1 last year.

George Harrison married Olivia Arias in 1978. It was his second marriage. During the 1990s, Harrison battled throat cancer, a malady he blamed forthrightly on his smoking. He spent most of his time secluded at his home at Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, where he passed his time gardening—a long-time enthusiasm. It was there he was attacked and stabbed last year by a deluded intruder, whom Ms. Arias "subdued" with a brass lamp. It was a bitter irony that the Beatle least comfortable with the adulation of his fans was, like his fellow bandmate John Lennon, a victim of one.

In July of this year, after having been told he was cured of throat cancer in 1998, he visited a Swiss clinic for treatment for lung cancer and a brain tumor. When fans heard the news, the reaction was frantic. Typical of the man, he issued a statement requesting that they not worry about his cancer. He died at the home of a friend, in the presence of his son, Dhani, and wife, Olivia. "He left this world as he lived in it," said a formal statement released by the family, "conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends." Olivia Harrison has requested that people devote a minute to meditation at 4:30pm EST on Monday December 3.

His countless fans will undoubtedly look to his own works for solace. I know I will:

"Beware of sadness
It can hit you
It can hurt you
Make you sore and what is more
That is not what you are here for."

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