By Patrick Beach
Cox News Service
AUSTIN, Texas – Of course he slipped away without our knowing it. He had a tendency to step into the light only to step out again. Burst into the foreground with a solo, then disappear. If he had a regret in life, it was probably that he wasn’t born translucent.
George Harrison never would have been a star except that he was a Beatle. The Quiet Beatle. Later the Mystical Beatle. Paul’s glass was half-full, John’s half-empty. Ringo said “glass” and made it sound like a joke; George stared mutely at the glass, wondering if it could ever transcend its physical state and achieve a higher state of cupness.
His death – Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, of a collection of cancers – seems common. Strangely, John Lennon’s death in 1980 made some kind of sense because we could grasp it with the animal portion of our collective brain: Nothing but an unthinkable act by a deranged man could snuff a Beatle. But this, a doom written in Harrison’s DNA, or a product of environmental causes and habits, or some combination – this is something with which many of us are or will be, sadly acquainted.
His exit, then, seems one of the few mundane occurrences in a life at turns remarkable and ordinary. He lived more of life as a not-Beatle than he did in the band, and did that living behind hedges, behind signs that asked fans to please stay away. Lennon had a respectable solo career before his second career as a househusband. McCartney has reached a point in his career when he can bask in a warm and largely uncritical retrospective of his other band. Ringo? Whatever. But after the Beatles, George Harrison came and went, dabbled in whatever pleased him, lived the life of the reclusive patrician, racing cars, finding God, eating mushrooms, becoming a Traveling Wilbury, jumping on stage with Deep Purple (Deep Purple?), playing unannounced sets in his local pub, appearing on a season premiere of “The Simpsons.”
At least that’s the perception. In fact, Harrison was busier than most people realize in his post-Beatle days, but those activities weren’t quite as newsworthy as the Beatles’ bloodless conquering of America had been. Which is how he liked it.
It wasn’t just that he didn’t covet the frontman’s spotlight, it burned him when he stood under it too long. Anything more than a sporadically successful solo career wasn’t to be.
His longtime friend Eric Clapton (so deep was their bond that even a love triangle involving Harrison’s wife could not get in the way) grew into a frontman while Harrison remained a congenital collaborator, both during and after the Beatles. (It was Clapton, remember, whose frayed solo makes “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” a masterpiece.)
The concert for Balgladesh was a collaboration for Harrison, not to mention a template for other fund-raising concerts. Helping get “The Life of Brian” produced was a collaboration. The Wilburys seemed to enjoy collaborating as much as fans enjoyed listening to them.
But, at times to his seeming regret, he was always a Beatle. We froze him in whatever era we chose, “Help!” or the White Album, while he groped toward whatever came after that. He got older, got sick, endured a horrific attack at the hands of a madman, got sicker, died.
So here’s what’s less than comfortable to say at such a time. George Harrison wasn’t just the Quiet Beatle or the Mystical Beatle.
He was the Average Beatle.
That’s why in polls he turned out to be everyone’s favorite Beatle. In any other context, such an assignation would be a comic underestimation of his gifts, but in the presence of two blazing talents such as Lennon and McCartney, Harrison’s contributions and persona made him the one with which we most identified because his gifts were by comparison modest and as such most identifiable. Most of us are no more likely to produce songs matching the brilliance of the Lennon-McCartney songbook than we are to master string theory or sprout wings and fly. But maybe – we like to think – we’re at the very least theoretically capable of coming up with one or two good tunes per album. Or knowing that the solo to “A Hard Day’s Night” would be worthless without those last four notes. His was the work of a craftsman, which is no less noble than the work of an artist. But craftsmen are rarely made stars.
Of course, this Beatle we might have thought we knew best turned out to be the one who wanted to be known least, especially in declining health. Which is why he died as he did.
Quietly, and as a commoner.