By Tony Sokol
This article originally appeared in Daily Offbeat on Nov. 29, 2014,
George Harrison, the mystical songwriting guitarist of The Beatles and acclaimed offbeat filmmaker, died thirteen years ago today, on November 29, 2001. Harrison’s death, coming months after the Twin Tower bombings of September 11, was not met with the same worldwide outpouring of grief that followed the senseless assassination of John Lennon. Perhaps that was more fitting, as George was all about internal growth.
Though not as celebrated a songwriter as his counterparts Lennon or Paul McCartney, Harrison produced classics. Harrison wrote so fluidly that when Frank Sinatra sang “Something,” he said it was his favorite Lennon/McCartney song. Michael Jackson, in the audience during a televised performance, could be seen, Harrison once joked, cursing himself for not owning that part of The Beatles’ catalog. Harrisongs are only northern songs, but it’s okay, he wrote them like that.
Harrison’s songs had depth, mixing spiritual ideology with his inborn Liverpudlian cynicism. Songs like “My Sweet Lord” or “The Light That Has Lighted the World” speak of a universal celebration of mystical truths, while “Taxman,” “Piggies,” “Sue Me Sue You Blues” and “This Song” mock the material world. Countered against these were the lighthearted ditties like “Crackerbox Palace” or “Savoy Truffle,” a song about Eric Clapton’s rotting teeth (“You’ll have to have them all pulled out”).
Harrison could move into harmonies that were dark and slightly out of key, but his ringing Hawaiian slide was always perfectly in tune both musically and emotionally. His guitar not only wept, it laughed, it mocked, it sneered (listen to Harrison’s lead on John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” where it does all three).
In keeping with Daily Offbeat’s obsession with all things offbeat, including music that defied mathematics, Harrison is acclaimed for his rhythmic proclivities. Stray beats and moving time signatures added to Harrison’s otherworldly chordal knowledge to transform his songs into masterful compositions. But The Beatles could make a four man band sound like an orchestra even when George Martin didn’t book strings and horns for sessions.
George adapted many of these time signatures to rock because he was studying the music of India. Along with John McLauchlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Harrison explored semitones and hemitones and hemi-semitones like no western guitarist since maybe Django Rheinhart. Maybe. Though Django was doing it with three fingers.
Harrison, and the Beatles in general, never called attention to the fact that the songs veered from the straight four and occasional waltz of most rock and pop. The music always served the performance. You probably didn’t know that there were dozen time signature changes in “Here Comes the Sun” until you read the fake books. Admit it. Even the handclapping was perfectly offbeat.
Not content with mastering musical forms, Harrison also produced films for a laugh. Quite literally, actually. George produced Monty Python’s Life of Brian just because he knew it would be funny and he didn’t care if he was the only one who got the joke or heard the joke, that joke was worth telling. He hocked his house for that. He got it back, of course.
Harrison was a natural comedian, as evidenced in any of the Beatle films, even Let It Be, the documentary of the breakup of the band. If he had lost it all to finance the film, he would have been the first to see the humor in it. He was, after all, the first Beatle to try and cash the check the band was offered to play Saturday Night Live.
Harrison also invented the rock benefit with his Bangladesh concert, film and album.
You know, he wasn’t a bad gardener either.
Olivia Harrison said that when George finally dislodged himself from the material world that she experienced a spiritual anomaly of a most mystical kind. Some fans have felt that through his music. We all may miss him, but there is a sense that he’s not that far away.
Remember the death, but celebrate the life.
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