The Quiet One from beyond

aka, and then there were two

It's been 33 years since two of the biggest acts of the 1960s issued their final albums and suffered seemingly irrevocable splits. The parting of Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles signaled the end of an era: one of innocence and discovery, as well as extraordinary creativity. Of the individuals involved, only Paul Simon managed to come up with a body of work to stand beside his 1960s output. But George Harrison came close, solely on the strength of a double album's worth of songs from 1970, All Things Must Pass, produced (at times over-produced) by Phil Spector, he of recent Hollywood homicide charge fame.

Whatever Spector's guilt on the murder rap, he has never disputed charges leveled at him for his role in the Beatles penultimate album sessions, recently reissued to great fanfare as Let It Be ... Naked. The specter of Phil has been successfully airbrushed out of this idiotically titled, poorly designed and missequenced CD — whose abundant shortcomings would have been made less obvious had it started with John Lennon's "Across the Universe" and ended with Harrison's "I Me Mine" (coincidentally, the first and last recorded tracks here, which span two years and not the one month claimed). But it's on three other releases from 2003 that one finds far more satisfying mementos to the Fab Four.

The Ed Sullivan Show Featuring the Beatles DVD puts it all in context, by showing how incredibly far ahead of their contemporaries the Beatles were 40 years ago, and how fast they grew in just a year or two (four shows from 1964 and 1965 are presented in their entirety).

The DVD reissue of The Beatles, the massive video telling of the group's own story, contains fascinating, previously unreleased footage of Paul, George and Ringo jamming together at the time of the overdubbing of Lennon demos for the two dubious faux-Fab "Beatles singles" from the mid-'90s. More touchingly, the three of them lounge on the grass in George's back garden looking uncannily like they did in the final Beatles photo shoot from a quarter of a century earlier. George and Ringo seem totally at peace with the world, but Paul appears ill at ease. You can see the sadness of John's absence in his eyes.

The best Beatles reunion of all, however, was put together from beyond the grave by the man who insisted there never would be a reunion (as long as John Lennon was dead): George Harrison. That's the feeling one gets from watching the Concert for George DVD (also available as a double CD), a tribute staged at the Royal Albert Hall in November 2002, one year to the day after the Quiet One Who Never Stopped Talking (to paraphrase Edic Idle) left this world.

The concept is simple: Have your finest songs given the royal treatment by your best friends, most of whom had played on the original recordings anyway. Hire Eric Clapton as emcee, and a stellar cast ranging from Paul and Ringo, Ravi Shankar and Billy Preston to Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, backed by some of the tightest old rock 'n' rollers on the planet (most of Monty Python is there too). Only Dylan is missing. Shankar observes that George is most certainly present, and it's easy to believe given the vibrancy of the music, and seeing Harrison's son Dhani — looking eerily like a young George — on stage.

Hearing Paul's loving ukelele version of "Something" morph into the full-throttle Beatles arrangement will bring a lump to many a throat. Billy Preston almost steals the show (twice), with his considerable fiery organ work and infectious charm. Ringo's "Photograph," a song innocently co-written 30 years earlier with George, now resonates in ways previously undreamt. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" sounds every bit as powerful as the original, amazingly, from McCartney's piano opening to what is probably Clapton's most famous guitar work. Paul takes the lead on two Harrison songs from the infamous Let It Be sessions, including (with multiple levels of irony) "All Things Must Pass." Harrison's pre-Beatlemania buddy Joe Brown sings a touching farewell, and exits gracefully with Harrison's widow on his arm.

It's as happy an ending as one could ask for under the circumstances. Maybe the reunion pressure is off Paul and Ringo finally, freeing these old friends to tour together now if they wish. Even Simon & Garfunkel confounded the pundits and went on the road again. As the crowds filed out of their Philips Arena gig the Saturday before Christmas, Harrison's anthemic "What Is Life" played on the PA. It makes a man think.


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