Within George, Without George
Such foolishness in man
I want no part of their plan
The telephone rang over two hours before sunrise, awakening me from a deep slumber in the early hours of 29 November 2001 - ten years ago today. It was my brother Pete on the other end. "George Harrison is dead", he told me.
I heard the news today, oh boy.
Unlike the death of John Lennon twenty-one years earlier, this was no jarring shock. We knew that he was mortally ill and that the end was not far away. Within a half hour, Pete called me back, telling me that he was at Strawberry Fields in Manhattan, the Central Park monument to Lennon's memory. The place was deserted - except for him and a small news crew from ABC. He told me that he was about to be interviewed and asked me to videotape it for him. For the first couple of hours on the morning that George Harrison died, brother Pete Degan was the spokesman for bereaved Beatles fans all across the planet earth.
Sunrise doesn't last all morning
A cloud burst doesn't last all day....
It's not always gonna be this way
All things must pass
All things must pass away
Every time I reach a ten-year milestone, the decade that has just transpired seems shorter than the last. It is almost inconceivable to me that George Harrison has been dead for this long.
He might have survived his final illness. He might still be with us today. George was being treated for cancer in 1999 when on New Year's Eve of that year, he was attacked and stabbed several times by a deeply disturbed person who broke into his house in the middle of the night. He was only saved by the quick action of his wife Olivia who was able to subdue the attacker with a fire poker. Olivia and their son Dhani both believe his severely weakened condition as a result of that assault hastened his death less than two years later. I don't doubt it. Two of the Beatles are dead today because of mindless violence. The cruel irony is that these two men are most associated in the public mind with peace and love. Whenever I see a film or video of that band performing all those years ago, I am always somewhat haunted by the image. Gone forever is the pure, undisturbed joy of watching the Fab Four perform. When I watch those films today, always lurking at the fringe of my consciousness are the tragedies that awaited John Lennon and George Harrison.
I've got no time for you right now
Don't bother me
Almost from the very beginning when they were introduced to the British public in the autumn of 1962, he was known as "the quiet Beatle". Those who knew him best would laugh at that description. According to close friend and Monty Python alumni Michael Palin, he was many things - "quiet" was not one of them. The fact is, George Harrison was never comfortable being a public figure and guarded his privacy very rigorously. I am what you might call a Beatles Scholar. I have spent many years researching and reading about them. But I know next-to-nothing about George's life outside the recording studio. I only recently discovered that for many years he battled alcoholism. I had no idea! In the almost forty years he was in the public eye, glimpses into his private world were rarer than a lunar eclipse. He was - and remains - enigmatic.
He seemed to show so much promise when he, John, Paul and Ringo went their separate ways in 1970. His debut album, "All Things Must Pass", was by far the finest record of that year. But the sad truth of the matter is that George Harrison's career subsequent to the Beatles' breakup is disappointing in many ways. Although he would have more-than-a-few moments at the mountaintop, a number of his recordings as a solo artist are mediocre at best.
The absolute creative rock-bottom of his career would be 1981's "Somewhere in England". I have played that record twice. The first time was when I purchased it; the second time was twenty years later on the evening he passed away. On that night, I decided that I would give the album a second chance. Maybe George Harrison was reaching a new plateau in his musical evolution that I just couldn't comprehend in 1981. I was correct in my initial assessment. Somewhere in England is beyond awful. In fact (and it hurts like hell to say this) it is unlistenable. Spell Check is informing me that "unlistenable" is not even a word. It is now. There is no other word to adequately describe that record. The followup LP, a forgotten relic from 1982 called "Gone Troppo", is almost as bad. He would not release another recording for five years.
He finally reemerged in 1987 with a minor masterpiece called "Cloud Nine". George Harrison was back and better than ever! His admirers all over the world waited in anticipation, wondering what he would come up with next. We waited....and waited....and waited. Nothing. Not until the very end of his life would George produce an album of new material. We shouldn't complain though, He owed us nothing. We owe him a lot.
As nothing in this life that I've been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying
Do you believe me?
And then there were two....
I am old enough to remember the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 - a long time ago when they was fab. On that night, the eldest member of the band was twenty-three. Ringo Starr turned seventy-one last July. Paul McCartney turns seventy next June. Four years ago, on the fortieth anniversary of the release of the Sgt. Pepper LP, I wrote a piece on this site called, Why the Beatles Still Matter:
"In 1995, the night the video "Free As a Bird" premiered on national television (the first "new" Beatles song in over a quarter of a century) I watched it with a young woman who was born in 1970, the year they broke up. Hearing them sing together again - Paul and George sounding strong and clear; John, by that time long dead, his voice transferred from an old and faded cassette tape, sounding as if he were singing from far, far away - was a very moving experience. When she noticed my reaction, she laughed and said, "Oh, Tom! What's the big deal"? I told her that no one who didn't live through that turbulent era, could possibly understand what that band meant to their troubled generation."
Yeah, I'll fess up - I get awfully sentimental when it comes to the subject of the Beatles. On the night George died I remember pouring my heart out over the telephone to my friend Terri Sager. I admire her patience. She listened gently while I waxed inebriate on the news of his passing, and what a drag it was that two of the Beatles were now dead, and how this was possibly the end of the world, and blah blah blah....But it moves me to realize that today the two survivors are elderly men, and that eternity is now beckoning them. When I was a boy, John, Paul, George and Ringo were the undisputed princes of the planet earth. They seemed to be invincible. The passing of the decades reminds us that the Beatles were as frail in their mortality as any of us. They really were a bit like you and me.
When you've seen beyond yourself
Then you may find, peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we're all one
And life goes on within you and without you
I imagine I'll be spending a good part of this fine Autumn day listening to the Beatles in general and George's music in particular. I might even scoot up to the mall in Middletown and purchase the new Martin Scorsese documentary on George's life, Living in the Material World. Whatever the medium, this is a good day to reflect on his legacy.
I miss George Harrison.
All Things Must Pass (1970)
The Concert for Bangla Desh (1971)
Living it the Material World (1973)
Thirty-Three and a Third (1977)
George Harrison (1978)
Cloud Nine (1987)
Here's a link to listen to George Harrison from 2001. It is one of the final recording sessions of his life; a great rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea:
When George left this world he was tappin' his toes!
Here are some other Beatles-related pieces I've written on "The Rant" through the years:
A splendid time is guaranteed for all.