Horse" Beatle, at age 58 ends an age that began when the band mate he despised, John Lennon, died 21 years ago. Every baby boomer is old --much
older -- now.
Harrison died in Los Angeles after a long battle with lung cancer. He died as he had lived, bravely, with dignity and a quiet, understated wisdom about life and death.
His death was no surprise; he had made no secret of the seriousness of his condition, for which he had been treated. The profound way in which it is striking scores of millions of people around the globe may come as a bigger shock.
Harrison, the son of a Liverpool bus driver, had played lead guitar for The Beatles, the Fab Four who remain the most successful and fabled rock band of all time. He was himself one of the most gifted and influential guitarists in the history of rock music.
After his passing, his friend Sir Bob Geldof, former leader of the Dublin group The Boomtown Rats, told BBC Radio, "I doubt there is a person listening to this show that cannot remember each one of his guitar lines. Almost uniquely, everything he played was a hook line."
Harrison, who seethed during his years in the Beatles at the way his own musical contributions were overlooked and underrated, in the end produced a far more substantial body of work than Lennon or even Sir Paul McCartney.
And in a remarkable number of areas his contributions to Western cultural life proved lasting and profound.
His favorite description for himself was "Dark Horse." It was the name he gave to a record company he founded after the Beatles broke up in 1970 and to his exceptionally successful 1974 solo album.
It was fitting. He seemed to have a natural taste and grace in both producing popular culture and acting as the benefactor of others. He introduced the Indian musical instrument, the sitar, to Western popular music in the classic "Norwegian Wood." The great Indian sitar musician Ravi
Shankar owed much to Harrison popularizing him in the United States and throughout the West.
In 1970, Harrison pioneered the format of raising multiple millions of dollars for charity through colossal rock gatherings with his two "Concerts for
Bangladesh" at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
He became a film producer renowned for reaping remarkable financial success from quirky, quality movies that bigger, older, more staid and stupid studios passed up. He was responsible for the making of the classic Monty Python satire on religious fanaticism, "Life of Brian." It was an enormous hit.
Later, his Handmade Studios made such acclaimed movies as "Mona Lisa" and "The Long Good Friday." Both of them starred Bob Hoskins and are regarded as two of the finest gangster noir movies ever made. They were especially rare standouts in the British film industry during an era of insecurity, loss of nerve and contraction.
In the 1970s, Harrison's work was largely overlooked critically during the great popular success of McCartney with his "Wings" group. But almost no "Wings" music is now played or remembered. Harrison produced more classic solo songs and albums than any other single Beatle after the group broke up.
Lennon's songs with the Beatles and afterwards featured driving, repetitive beats and harsh, cynical, revolutionary, even nihilistic lyrics. Lennon despised all mainstream religious belief and glorified the Soviet Union with the naïve and even infantile lyrics of his famous "Back in the USSR."
Harrison, like Lennon, abandoned the mainstream Catholic Christian faith in which he was raised. But he became a lifelong and passionate devotee of
Indian mysticism. He introduced the Beatles to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s and became a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement. He was widely derided and ridiculed, even hated, especially by religious fundamentalists for this. But his music, in contrast to Lennon's, was filled with love of God, humanity and the physical creation.
"My Sweet Lord" became one of the most popular devotional pieces around the world and remains so to this day. Frank Sinatra called "Something" the
greatest love song of all time.
In his 40s, Harrison teamed with fellow rock legends Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynn and Bob Dylan to form The Travelling Wilburrys. Once again, as he had so often before, he struck out in a completely original and unexpected direction and achieved astonishing popular and critical success. The albums the Wilburrys produced were not only among the all-time bestsellers but they are still regarded as among the very best works of their kind ever produced.
Their success was particularly appreciated by the Texan Orbison whose career had long been in eclipse and who would die shortly afterwards.
Harrison was no stranger to tragedy and grief in his own life. His first wife, Patti Boyd, left him for fellow rock guitar master Eric Clapton. Harrison survived a bout of throat cancer that he attributed to his earlier heavy cigarette smoking. In 1998, he was stabbed in the lung and nearly killed by a psychotic intruder at his home in Henley-on-Thames in England. Only prompt action by his wife, Olivia, in beating the assailant off with a poker saved his life.
The contrast with Lennon's death 21 years ago is striking. Lennon had produced nothing of cultural value in many years before he died and little indeed after leaving the Beatles. Then he was murdered by a deranged fan. He died as he had lived -- histrionically, bizarrely, in an incident filled with wild fear, terror and tasteless, black wit, like "King Lear" re-imagined as an episode of "The Simpsons."
Harrison died in peace, his wife and son by his side. A statement issued by his family said, "He left this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death and at peace, surrounded by family and friends."
Harrison's family, friends and innumerable admirers are understandably grieving that he was taken from them too soon. But he left behind an astonishing body of original work of lasting value. He funded the work of others in movies and popular music and played a huge role in raising religious consciousness, tolerance and mutual understanding around the world. He even revolutionized the use of popular culture to raise enormous funds for charity.
He liked to say of his own life and career, "Just take the music, the goodness, because it's the very best."
And it was. And we will.
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