Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Continuing the all-Beatles, all the time theme I've got going here lately, and also because I'm too darned lazy to write something new today, here's a column from the vaults: My Dec. 6, 2001 column back when I was editor of the Sierra Sun in Truckee, Calif., with my memories of George Harrison.

Our Sweet George; 1943-2001
I was a few years away from being born when the Beatles broke up.
So one wouldn't have pegged me as being in their target audience, perhaps, but in a backwards kind of way, it was actually the late George Harrison who pointed me toward the majesty of the Beatles.
Back in 1987, I was a fidgety high school freshman bombarded by synth-pop music such as Wham!, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode. Then, for some weird reason, MTV and the radio started playing this weird tune by this OLD guy named George Harrison, "Got My Mind Set On You." The so-lame-it's-cool video, with Harrison sitting in a country lodge hunting den strumming a guitar, was in heavy rotation.
"Got My Mind Set On You" was an oddly catchy ditty, and I ended up getting a copy of the cassette (yep, it was the '80s) somewhere along the way. That latest Harrison album, "Cloud Nine," was a lush and elegant collection of catchy pop tunes.
I vaguely knew that he was a "Beatle" once, but while I was of course aware of the Beatles in the way that any semi-sentient life form would be, I didn't know too much about them. After listening to "Cloud Nine" over and over with increasing appreciation, I figured it might be good to find out more about this guy Harrison and his history.
The first Beatles album I bought was the one everyone tells you to get, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." From there it was off to the races, and today I own pretty much every Beatles CD and a great deal of their solo albums. In my own conceited little way, I've always felt that if you can't appreciate the Beatles, you're missing something fine and wonderful in your life. The Beatles helped crack open a world of music to me, and paved the way for me to discover artists from Peter Gabriel to Guided By Voices, from R.E.M. to the Velvet Underground.
And I wasn't even born when they broke up.
Harrison always came in third behind Lennon and McCartney in the Beatles' popularity race, and even goofy ol' Ringo tended to get more press than George did. But Harrison arguably was the backbone to the Beatles sound – as their lead guitarist, he put the "pop" into some of Lennon and McCartney's finest songs, unifying their very disparate lyrical visions with one voice, and even throwing in some classics of his own along the way.
George was less the "quiet" Beatle than he was the inscrutable one. A deeply religious man, he chose to get off the fame merry-go-round after the Beatles broke up, only releasing a dozen or so albums in the 30-plus years since – and what would be his last major release, "Cloud Nine," came out in 1987, 14 years ago now.
George Harrison's death isn't as savage and shocking as John Lennon's assassination, and thank God for that because we've all had enough tragedy lately on this earth, haven't we?
I'm a little bit sad that George Harrison is no longer with us, but if anyone was prepared for death, he was. He wrote a song back in the '70s from "All Things Must Pass" called "The Art Of Dying," where he wrote this fine little line:
"…As nothing in this life that I've been trying
Can equal or surpass the art of dying
Do you believe me?"
Fifty-eight is neither quite old enough or too young to die at, but even if he was cheated out of his later years by cancer, by any measure George Harrison led a fine, full life, and one we can all be grateful for.

Here's a primer of some of George Harrison's best, if you happen to not know what all the fuss is about:
Ten of George's finest moments, chronologically
1. "Norwegian Wood" - Although Lennon sang the lead, it's the eye-opening twang of George's sitar in this song from "Rubber Soul" that really marked the Beatles' metamorphosis from teen pop stars to something far more.
2. "Taxman" - This angry, bleak song Harrison penned for "Revolver" was one of the Beatles' only "socially relevant" tunes, taking on England's stratospherically high tax rates.
3. "Within You, Without You" - Probably the best example of George's trippy Hindu mysticism as he brought it to the Beatles, sacred and secular at the same time.
4. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" - You saw versions of this title used in countless headlines last week mourning Harrison's death; that's because it's probably the finest song he ever wrote, and one of the best Beatles tunes ever.
5. "Here Comes The Sun" - Charming as a child's lullaby, this song from "Abbey Road" pulls off the tricky business of being sweet and innocent without seeming cloying.
6. "My Sweet Lord" - Forget the misguided plagiarism lawsuit this song inspired, claiming Harrison "unconsciously plagiarized" the melody from the cheesy Chiffons hit "He's So Fine." Just relax and listen to one of the most forthrightly religious mainstream rock songs ever recorded, a tune that works for almost any faith.
7. "Got My Mind Set On You" - Harrison's remake of a '50s rockabilly song is catchy and fun, with no higher goal than just making you tap your toes and hum along.
8. "That's What It Takes" - This sweet tune from "Cloud Nine" has always summed up to me what Harrison was – a man full of faith and optimism, always struggling with his inner cynic and trying to reach a higher plane.
9. "Handle Me With Care" - Harrison's 1989 collaboration with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys is an underrated treasure. This song really captures Harrison's sheer joy of music-making and, you'd be hard-pressed to find more music legends cutting loose on one record.
10. "Free As A Bird" - From the 1995 Beatles anthology, this tune fusing a lost Lennon demo with new input from the surviving Beatles is a little eerie, a lot nostalgic, but hardly the Beatles at their best. Yet the sweet chime of Harrison's guitar at the very beginning and throughout the song is a perfect example of how a few chords can sum up an entire band – that sound "is" The Beatles. How sweet it was.

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