The following article appeared in the December 14, 2001 issue of Entertainment Weekly. This article was written by Chris Willman. Additional reporting by Rob Brunner, Jeff Chu, and Caris Davis.
Maybe it's out fault for saddling him with a sobriquet like "The Quiet Beatle." For the better part of his last few decades, George Harrison seemed all too happy to live up to the tag-in public, anyway, even if in private, as his friend Michael Palin recently joked, it was hard to shut the guy up. Since 1982, the singer-guitarist had released only one studio album, the well-received Cloud Nine. It was almost as if he'd slipped out on us years before he actually slipped away.
Now this most reluctant of rock stars is utterly quiet. Which, if you're to believe his lyrics, is just the way he would have preferred it. "I hope to get out of this place/By the Lord Sri Krsna's grace/My salvation from the material world," sang the man who wrote the book on spirituality in pop music, in one of dozens allusions to peppering his work. On Nov. 29, the moment he'd anticipated so often, and with such seeming cheer, finally came to pass. Good old George-immaterial at last.
The blow for those left behind and bereft in the material world was softened, a little, by the fair warning. Unlike John Lennon, Harrison, who was 58, succumed to natural causes, if you can call cancer natural. Still, the loss hurt like hell, and not just because any Beatle's death diminishes us all. He was a singular talent as well as one fourth of the fabbest godheads. And it was a universally accepted truth that in a business that makes bastards out of boys who hit the toppermost of the poppermost less quickly or massively than he did, George was one of the good guys, a kind and gentle-if sometimes caustic-soul who never succumbed to his own press.
Mourning fans had a hard time picking a proper place to set up a shrine, which is presumably just as the privacy-craving legend wanted it. In London, the wake settled around the studio gates at Abbey Road. In New York, the faithful gravitated toward Strawberry Fields, the clearing in Central Park that was turned into a tribute to Lennon after he was shot to death across the street in 1980. In Los Angeles, no one was about to hold a vigil outside the home of security guru Gavin de Becker, where Harrison and his family reportedly went to spend his last hours. And ther was no gravesite to visit, since officials from Hollywood Forever mortuary were called to the home within an hour of Harrison's passing to take the body away for cremation, per Hindu custom; his ashes were due to be scattered by his wife, Olivia, 54, and son, Dhani, 23, in India's holy Ganges River. That left the Beatles' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as a gathering point for the grieving. Over the weekend, dozens of fans congregated at any given time around the star, buried under a sea of bouquets, sun-shaped balloons, tear-streaked messages about guitars and hearts gently weeping, and signs proclaiming "Heaven = 2 Beatles, Earth = 2 Beatles" and "Say hi to John!"
This is very Sgt. Pepper, isn't it? said Kim Bockue, quietly surveying the collage-like assemblage. George was her favorite Beatle because "he had the guts to pursue the mysterious. He was one of the first seekers to go to the East. Having grown up in the '50s, that was significant to me, because that time was so insular." But she loved him even earlier, when she saw the Ed Sullivan appearances. Within the pandemonium, "the aura of mystery he had was very attractive to me." Even in death, that quiet thing gets the girls.
Paul McCartney stepped outside his London home the day after Harrison's passing to share his feelings-perhaps to atone for the notorious ""It's a drag, innit?" remark he's shot at reporters after Lennon's death. "I am devastated and very, very sad," said Macca, who, along with Ringo Starr, had recently sat bedside with Harrison in a New York hospital. "He was a lovely guy and a very brave man...He is really just my baby brother."
Enlisted into the Beatles (then called the Quarry Men) at 14 by fellow Liverpudlian Paul, George was always the baby of the band-described by biographer Hunter Davies as the member with the least personal stake in being a Beatle, even at the height of their popularity. That didn't spare him an inferiority complex when he felt the group's two warring leaders had patronized his burgeoning songwriting. As Harrison told me in a 1987 interview "John and Paul had already been writing together, and whenever it was-'62 or something-I thought, Well, if they can write tunes, I'm gonna write them, too. But it's quite nerve-racking, really, when you've got Lennon and McCartney..." But after a few token slots in the early albums for middlin' Harrison songs like "Think for Yourself," he came into his own with 1966's Revolver, debuting a wicked sardonicism in "Taxman" and rock's first real raga in "Love You To." British Invasion, meet the Indian incursion.
Having conquered the planet, the group, at George's behest, mae their infamous trek to India to humble themselves at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. For the others, it didn't take. But Harrison was on a path he wouldn't abandon, and his music would soon usher in a new age where the spiritual could be a part of pop, too, to the delight of seekers everywhere and the chargrin of anyone convinced that rock was better off as the devil's music.
Davies remembers a moment in 1967 that sums up Harrison for him. The Beatles were in north Wales, just back from their visit to the Maharishi, and starved. The entourage had taken off at the railway station, leaving the band to fend for themselves. "We went out to a Chinese restaurant in Bangor and ate on our own-just the Beatles, myself, maybe one or two others. When the bill came, we could't pay," Davies recalls. Nobody admitted to having any money, except Davies, who had only a 10-pound note. "The Chinese waiter amazingly didn't recognize them, and he was afraid we were going to do a runner. Suddenly, George put his bare foot on the table and opened the sole of his sandal, where he had hidden a 20-pound note. The Beatles were like the royal family. They didn't have money. The didn't use money. But George had this 20-pound note there just for this sort of situation." The anecdote reminds Davies that "George always had a foot solidly in reality," however immsersed he may have seemed in the ethereal.
The last album the Beatles recorded, Abbey Road, had Harrison's "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" as its two most enduringly popular tunes. That ninth-inning success provided a confidence-boosting segue into a solo career that got off to a triumphant start with 1970's three-LP All Things Must Pass, an improbably perfect blend of three unlikely ingredients: Krishna Consciousness, New Morning-inspired country rock, and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. It's almost like All Things Must Pass was the next Beatles album," says XTC's Beatlemaniac Andy Partridge. "I'll stick my neck out here and say that is was probably the best Beatles solo record."
Despite the artistic freedom, there were reasons to sing the blues in the '70s. His smoking-ravaged voice was hoarse before he went out on his sole American tour in '74; it had sounded shot even on that year's Dark Horse, an album that lost him some favor with fans. In 1976, a landmark lawsuit claimed-sucessfully-that "My Sweet Lord" was too close to "He's So Fine" for comfort. He became estranged from his model wife, Pattie Boyd, years before they divorced in 1977, and later claimed that rather than being mad at Eric Clapton for writing "Layla" about her, he was relieved when Slowhand took her hand in marriage. But by the end of the decade he seemed back on track. In 1978, Harrison wed longtime girlfriend Olivia Arias, who'd worked as a secretary at A&M when his failed boutique label, Dark Horse Records, was set up there.
By that point, Harrison was spending most of his time at Friar Park, his 120-room Victorian Gothic mansion outside of London, where the recording of albums like 1976's Thirty Three & 1/3 took place. Along with a handful of musicians, engineer Hank Cicalo moved to the manse for six weeks to record that album, and still remembers the convivial atmosphere. "The meals were always vegetarian, but then [pianist] Richard Tee showed up, this hulking, six-foot-plus guy, and there was no way he was gonna go for that," Cicalo says. "So George made sure they got some ribs for Richard that night. He said, 'We've never had meat in this house since I bought the place!' But that's how hard he tried to be accommodating. He was a very sweet and loving guy-just a joy to be around."
The joy didn't always translate to Harrison's spotty late-'70s and early-80s output. But after a five-year layoff, he won the world's heart back with the Jeff Lynne-coproduced comeback Cloud Nine, which sparked a No. 1 U.S. hit in "Got My Mind Set On You," followed in close succession by two equally savvy sets from the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup he formed with Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan. And after that comeback...nada. Former Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker says he never strong-armed Harrison to pump out more albums. "As engaging and fun as he was, there were certain things you knew not to do. So you could pressure him in a joking kind of way, but that was all."
Harrison, for his part, didn't feel like doing the work necessary to sell the records. "If I was just starting out now...I'd accept what you have to do, but having gone through 25 years of it, it is a little bit silly, promoting yourself," he said in 1987. "How do you draw the line between being a sensitive musician and just some ruthless businessperson who want to sell a hundred million albums?"
Whitcher George, in the '90s? We may not have heard much of him, but those lawn gnomes seen on Harrison's album jackets enjoyed plenty of his company on Friar Park's 34-acre spread on the outskirts on Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. Sir Jackie Stewart, the Scottish racing car champion and a friend of Harrison's since the 60s, describes Friar Park's Alpine rock garden, its giant greenhouses, and-something that he says was "very George"-its series of caverns and grottoes, which form a navigable waterway. In recent years, Harrison would plunk rowboats into the water and take guests on tours of the caves. He also loved to do his part of the weeding and planting, despite a team of a dozen gardeners. Geoffrey Clements, founder of Britain's Natural Law Party, says that "George had very good taste for seeing beauty. He was a tranquil person, and the garden was a place you could feel that."
Let's see...a peaceful rowboat ride around the back 40, or a fierce battle with the Spice Girls for charm domination...Mystery solved.
The tranquility was shattered when, in 1999, a disturbed Beatles fan invaded the grounds and drove a knife an inch into Harrison's chest. Even after Lennon's assassination, Harrison claimed he did without bodyguards, but it was a telling measure of how self-protective he became after the stabbing that Gavin de Becker was the "family friend" with whom he sought his final solace. In 1998, he had received treatment for throat cancer; it was inoperable brain cancer that finally felled him. But in the middle of his travails, he did plenty of recording on the sly. His longtime drummer, Jim Keltner, has indicated there may be as many as 25 tracks in the can.
"I saw him about a month ago in Switzerland," says Gary Wright, "and I felt that his end was near, but I was hoping for a miracle...We talked about death a lot. He told me he was gonna be ready when he was ready to go. I knew he would be." The "Dream Weaver" maker had signed on to Eastern religion himself in the '70s, after Harrison gave him the book Autobiography of a Swami. "George's consciousness was deeply absorbed in God, and it was a very beautiful experience, I'm certain, for him. I'm sure he wasn't frightened to let go...He was tested sorely and had a lot of brutal things that happened to him. But he was brave right to the very end."
The family and others who attended Harrison's bedside, including his mentor Ravi Shankar, had pulled a veil of secrecy over his final days. Shankar's daughter, Anoushka, did tell CNN that he was whispering "Hare Krishna" shortly before his death. But we also know that as of October, at least, Harrison-the only guy who could claim the Maharishi and the Monty Pythons at intimates-wasn't letting his spirituality get in the way of his gallows humor. It was then that he and his son cut one last song, "Horse to the Water," for a compilation album released last month in the U.K., with the publishing company for the tune listed not as Harrisong but...Rip Ltd. 2001.
Guitar hero? Guru? Harrison had enough impact in one lifetime for several incarnations. If anything, we should've called him the integrated Beatle: He could be the funny one, the biting one, and the cute one at any given moment. but, asked about his legacy, Lenny Waronker simply recalls those famous choppers, and his gaze. "he had this wonderful smile which put you at complete ease," he says. "It was like he wa looking through you and only at the best parts." Here's looking at you, kid, wherever you are.