The long, long, long goodbye

George Harrison remembered as he really was

In the mad rush to tribute, the media has been feeding us half-truths over the past week: that George Harrison was the one consummate musician in the Beatles. That he was first to integrate Indian sounds into a pop song, having been taught sitar by Ravi Shankar himself. That he wrote dozens of the Beatles' hits. That he was quick to put the Beatles era behind him, and move on to an impressive solo career which saw his songwriting flourish. Most of all, that Beatle George Harrison died Nov. 29, 2001.

Says who? Harrison — at least, Beatle George Harrison — checked out more than 30 years ago. Paul McCartney was the only consummate musician in the group. The Yardbirds used an Indian sitar player in the studio six months before "Norwegian Wood," and Shankar was so appalled at George's amateur twanging on Lennon's song that he claims he didn't even realize it was sitar. (Shankar and Harrison finally met in 1966.) George wrote just one of the 28 hits on the Beatles' recent compendium, 1, and was still vocal and bitter about being overshadowed well into the '90s (his 1979 autobiography all but airbrushed Lennon out of the Fab Four story). Yet Harrison continued to revisit that territory, such as on the Beatles pastiche "When We Was Fab" in 1987. His solo career did get off to a brilliant start with 1970's All Things Must Pass, but quickly floundered and never recovered artistically.

That's not to diminish Harrison's extraordinary contributions to the best pop group the world has ever seen and to our culture in general. George was not an instinctive musician, as demo tapes and live footage make clear. But he was a tireless craftsman, whose determination led to some of the most memorable and influential guitar lines in pop. His use of a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar induced the Byrds' Roger McGuinn and many lesser imitators to adopt the instrument. George was the first Beatle to want out, as early as 1966. He was the first to look East, and the first to go there. He was the first to become a vegetarian, and the only one to hold his interest in Indian mysticism to the end.

Of the almost 200 Beatles songs, Harrison penned about 20, but half of those were among the band's very best. Often overlooked today is George's subtle Moog synthesizer colorations on Abbey Road, the final Beatles recording, a good year before progressive rock groups beat that instrument to death.

All Things Must Pass was crammed with first-rate songs that were largely forged in the white heat of the Beatles' last days. Influenced by gospel and soul music, his admiration for the simplicity and honesty of The Band, and his friendships with Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, the album tackled some weighty issues, from the the-Beatles-have-left-the-building message of the title song, to "What Is Life?" and "The Art of Dying."

The next year, Harrison invented the concept of the large-scale all-star benefit with the Concerts for Bangladesh, in which he used his fame to project the plight of that fledgling nation into Western consciousness. He also contributed a stunning guitar solo to Lennon's brilliantly acerbic anti-McCartney rant, "How Do You Sleep?," from Imagine.

But from here on in, the music was downhill all the way. Freed from competition with Lennon & McCartney, his songs became insipid and uninspired. Even his guitar playing lost its luster, and his trademark slide work too often sounded cliche. The promise of better material arrived with 1987's comeback album, Cloud Nine, and its dubious chart-topping single, "Got My Mind Set On You," as well as with his subsequent work with the Traveling Wilburys. But it was all a far cry from the quality one hoped for.

Far more significant was Harrison's role in Hand Made Films, a company he co-founded and funded in the late 1970s to help Monty Python complete and release their controversial Life of Brian. This film concerned the perils of fame and its trappings, unthinking hero-worship and idolatry, topics which were near to Harrison's heart. It was a natural progression from the Python-related parody, All You Need is Cash (in which Harrison also played a role), which still stands today as the best "documentary" ever made about the Beatles (albeit thinly disguised as The Rutles). Hand Made Films helped revive a flagging U.K. film industry with two dozen offerings, including Mona Lisa, the gangster classic Long Good Friday and a slew of offbeat items.

Humor is what many will remember Harrison for: his cheeky retort to producer George Martin at their first recording session (When Martin said, "If there's anything you don't like, just tell me." Harrison quickly responded, "Well, I don't like your tie for a start."); his assessment of the intruder who almost knifed him to death two years ago ("He wasn't auditioning for the Travelling Wilburys"); his "RIP Ltd. 2001" publishing copyright on the recently released song "Horse to Water."

Humor and grace: Few celebrities die in public view with such gentle resignation and serenity. The Dark Horse may live up to his self-imposed nickname one last time: He struggled to complete a full album of new songs as he battled his illness. Let's hope it's as direct and refreshing as Paul's recent Driving Rain. Given Harrison's typically jokey working title, Portrait of a Leg End, it just might be something we can all tap our toes to. u

Research assistance by Joel Bellman and Roger Richards.??