It was 19 years ago Sunday (November 29th, 2001) that George Harrison died after a long battle with cancer, at age 58. Harrison, the first of the Beatles to embrace Eastern philosophies and culture, will also be remembered for his humanitarian efforts, such as his 1971 Concert For Bangladesh for famine relief. November 29th also marks the 18th anniversary of the all star Royal Albert Hall tribute show for Harrison, The Concert For George. The concert, which was organized by Eric Clapton, featured heartfelt performances by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Jeff Lynne, and Billy Preston, among many others.
Harrison's son, Dhani Harrison, supervised the recent release of the box set, The Apple Years: 1968-'75, which features such beloved solo works as Wonderwall Music (1968), Electronic Sound (1969), All Things Must Pass (1970), Living In The Material World (1973), Dark Horse (1974), and Extra Texture (Read All About It) (1975). The collection, which came 10 years after the release of the first Harrison box — The Dark Horse Years 1976-92 — features an exclusive DVD with “several video pieces, including a new seven-minute film with previously unreleased footage, an exclusive perfect-bound book with an introduction by Dhani, new essays by award-winning radio producer and author Kevin Howlett, and rare and previously unpublished images.
In 2012, the Martin Scorsese HBO documentary George Harrison: Living In The Material World snagged two awards at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony held at L.A.'s Nokia Theatre. The critically acclaimed doc won the prizes for Outstanding Nonfiction Special and Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming.
Following George Harrison's death, an obviously distraught Paul McCartney met the press outside his Sussex, England home and spoke lovingly about his original friend in the Beatles: “He was a lovely man, I love him dearly. I grew up with him and I like to remember all the great times we had together in Liverpool and with the Beatles and ever since, really. Great sense of humor — I was lucky enough to see him a couple of weeks ago and he was still laughing and joking. Very brave man, and I'm just privileged to have known him, and I love him like he's my brother. It's a very sad day for me and for a lot of people, but I think he would have wanted us to get on and be loving and remember him as the great man he was.”
After the Beatles split in 1970, Harrison's solo career kicked off with the Number One hit “My Sweet Lord” and the Number One album All Things Must Pass. He was also responsible for organizing 1971's The Concert For Bangladesh, which was the first major rock fundraiser, which paved the way for countless other music-supported benefits over the years.
Harrison wrote such Beatles classics as “Don't Bother Me,” “I Need You,” “You Like Me Too Much,” “Think For Yourself,” “If I Needed Someone,” “Taxman,” “I Want To Tell You,” “Love You To,” “Within You, Without You,” “Blue Jay Way,” “It's Only A Northern Song,” “It's All Too Much,” “The Inner Light,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Piggies” “Long, Long, Long,” “Savoy Truffle,” “I Me Mine,” “For You Blue,” “Old Brown Shoe,” “Something,” and “Here Comes The Sun,” among others.
Other solo hits included “What Is Life,” “Bangla Desh,” “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” “Dark Horse,” “You,” “This Song,” “Crackerbox Palace,” “Blow Away,” “All Those Years Ago,” and his 1987 comeback single “Got My Mind Set On You,” which is the last solo Number One single by any former Beatle to date.
In 1971, Harrison produced Ringo Starr's initial solo singles “It Don't Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo,” as well also co-writing Starr's first Number One hit “Photograph” with him in 1973.
Shortly after his return to the spotlight in 1987, Harrison co-founded the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. In 1991 he undertook a brief tour of Japan with Eric Clapton and his band.
His widow Olivia Harrison has led a successful reissue campaign of the Harrison solo catalogue, including a recent box set of the Traveling Wilburys material. An upcoming collection featuring highlights of Harrison's sole North American solo tour from 1974 is said to be in the works for the near future. Olivia also served as the executive producer for the Living In The Material World documentary.
HARRISON ON HARRISON
George Harrison admitted that he felt that it was all downhill for the Beatles as a band following their early Hamburg days: “In the Beatles, I think the sad bit came when we got famous. Because before that, we played all them clubs, little clubs all over the place and in — particularly in Germany, we played months and months in these nightclubs. We played eight hours a night. Then it was good, cause you were just. . . everybody was just dancing and drinking, the band was up there just drinking and playing and, y'know, there was no big emphasis on how groovy you were.”
Although Harrison was thought to be a bit of a hermit during his post-Beatles years, he explained that nothing could be further from the truth: “I just didn't go places where the press hang out and there was no point doing interviews because there was nothing really to say. That's how I got that Howard Hughes sort of image, because they just thought, 'Oh, well, he never goes out.' They said, 'He never goes out' — but I go out all the time. I just don't go out and hang out in the nightclubs or wherever the press go.”
Harrison was so turned off by the critical slamming he received for his lone solo North American tour in 1974, that he didn't hit the road again until 1991. Harrison shed some light on the back-story to the legendary trek: “I hadn't finished my album, with the rehearsal, my voice was going — you pick up a guitar and start singing eight to 10 hours a day. . . It was tough, I was, like, getting behind myself, and that's just the way it happened. But it was still brilliant because that band was unbelievable. And I've got live stuff of that and I play it to people and they say, “Ah, that's great!'”
Harrison chose to sit out a substantial part of the '80s, letting half a decade lapse between 1982's Gone Troppo and 1987's Cloud Nine. He admitted that for the most part, the sounds of the new decade turned him off: “There's certain music and sounds and music which I like and there are certain things I can't stand. I can't just tell you what it is that I hate, but there's a lot of clatter going on. We call 'clattering and banging' that's been going on musically, y'know, for a while.”
Upon his return to the charts in 1987 Harrison revealed why he had abandoned recording for a five-year-stretch: “Y'know, the record business goes through all kind of different stages, and last time I made an album, they were so busy getting opinions from people on the side of the street on what's supposed to be a hit song. Y'know, that's what they tell me: 'A hit single is love lost or gained between 13 and 21-year-olds.' Now, what kind of chance does that give me? So I, y'know, I'll just go gardening for a bit.”
Harrison explained that the late-'80s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys came to be almost by accident — with help from Jeff Lynne — when his record label demanded a new B-side for his latest single: “I was in Los Angeles and he was producing Roy Orbison and we were having dinner one night and I said, 'I'm gonna have to write a song and just do it',' y'know? And we were saying 'Where can we get a studio?' And he said, 'Well, maybe Bob' — 'cause he's got this little studio in his garage. And it was that instant, y'know, we just went back to his house, phoned up Bob, he said 'Sure, come on over.' Tom Petty had my guitar and said, when I went to pick it up, he said, 'Ah, I was wondering what I was gonna do tomorrow,' and Roy said, 'Well give us a call tomorrow if you're gonna do anything, 'I'd love to come along.'”
After his 1999 stabbing by a delusional assailant from which he suffered a collapsed lung, among other injuries, in this clip featured in the new Living In The Material World documentary, Harrison spoke candidly about facing his own mortality: “I had an experience, where, y'know, if you have something happen to you physically, then people can go in hospital or have something wrong with them, or have a shock or something like that, and then you think, 'Wow, yeah, I could be dying now.' Now if I was dying now, what would I think? What would I miss? If I had to leave my body, y'know, in an hour's time — what is it that I would miss? I think, 'I've got a son who needs a father, I have to stick around for him as long as I can.' But other than that, I can't think of much reason to be here (laughs).”
FAMILY & FRIENDS REMEMBER GEORGE
We asked Olivia Harrison if George ever felt hurt by some of the negative reviews his solo work garnered due to much of it dealing with God and religion: “I don't know. I don't think he cared. He wrote what he felt, what he wanted to write. And recently I heard an interview (and) he said, 'Y'know, sometimes you mention God, or you mention the word 'Lord' and it makes people's hair curl.' And he said, 'Maybe I served some useful purpose (laughs).'”
We asked Olivia how she thought George would have made sense of the post-9/11 world: “Y'know he died in 2001, in November, and you know what events took prior to that, and he was pretty horrified and very sad. And I think his solution to everything was to go inside and be part of the solution. And he used to say, 'For a forest to be green each tree must be green.' And I think he'd really taken to keeping his own house in order.”
The Harrisons' son, 40-year-old Dhani, is now a musician in his own right and has also teamed up with singer/songwriters Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur to form the “emo” supergroup, Fistful Of Mercy. He also fronts his own band thenewno2 (PRONOUNCED: “The New Number Two”), and has recently released his first proper studio set, titled In Parallel. Dhani has gone on to become the only “Beatle kid” to take an active interest in the Beatles' company Apple by spearheading the production of the recent Beatles: Rock Band game. He told us that he doesn't feel being the son of a Beatle is in any way a burden, and that his father influenced the way he feels about most things — especially music: “I wouldn't change my life for anything, I love being who I am. And I feel a lot of my dad, the way I sound now to myself, the way I whine on about stuff and bang on about the music industry, and this that and the other — I sound just like my dad. And now I know why he was so bitter about (laughs). . . because having seen what my dad showed me, he was just so not impressed by anything (or) anyone that was anything but real.”
In 2007, Harrison's first wife Pattie Boyd published her memoir on her marriages to Harrison and Eric Clapton titled Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton And Me. Boyd was amazed at what a loving and supportive family Harrison had away from the madness of “Beatlemania”: “They were so warm as a family and really were most inviting and kind to me, and I was very fond of them. And I'm still in touch with Harry, George's eldest brother. And so I had spent a lot of time with him and his wife Irene, and with (his brother) Pete and his wife and their children. So. . . we all grew up together.”
Boyd says that Harrison's infatuation with Hinduism, spiritual topics, and Indian music was his attempt to seek out the “bigger picture”: “He had a bit of difficulty understanding why he — this little boy from Liverpool — had been selected to be so famous. And he didn't understand the fame and he thought that maybe Eastern philosophy could give him some sort of idea or clue as to why he had been chosen.”
Boyd explained to us that she needed to write an honest warts and all portrayal of her marriage to Harrison: “I couldn't actually write a book and pretend I wasn't married to George — or, also pretend that things were so wonderful in our lives you would wonder why we split up. I don't think I've been cruel, I think I've been realistic. We were under 30, y'know, we were really young. And also the pressure of George's fame and beauty; all these things came into our lives and it was difficult. Y'know, it was difficult for him, difficult for me to sustain this original fun that we used to have together.”
It was at John Lennon's urging that George Harrison receive his first original Beatles A-side with 1969's “Something” — which shared double A-side status with Lennon's own Abbey Road classic “Come Together.” Prior to the album's release in September 1969, Lennon was full of praise for “Something”: “I think we’ll probably put ‘Something’ out as a single out there (in the U.S.) I think that’s about the best track on the album, actually — George’s track. And they had it. . . Y’know how they always get our records before they’re out over there, somehow, and they were playing ‘Something’ so much. They had an advance thing of it. They’re red hot for it over there, so we’ll probably release it over there as a single. I don’t know what’ll happen here.”
Badfinger's Joey Molland spoke of what a solid contributor Harrison was in the studio when producing the band's 1971 Straight Up album — and their Top 10 hit, “Day After Day”: “Y'know, the ideas he had were ideas that we liked, so it wasn't difficult to get in line with him. He wasn't afraid to pick up the guitar, George, and work on it himself, y'know — right with you, right there in the studio.”
Longtime Beatles confidante and solo session bassist Klaus Voormann says that he was never more proud of Harrison than when he took charge of The Concert For Bangladesh concert at the urging of friend Ravi Shankar: “I really appreciated in later days that he actually went in front of that audience on the Bangladesh concert, because he did it for his friends. That he actually went up there and talked to an audience. I think it must've been about the first time that he's ever done this. Y'see, a few things in English, or a few things in German on a stage where it didn't matter is a big difference than to an audience where he knew it's going to be filmed and it's going to be used to talk to an audience.”
One of Harrison's closest friends, Eric Clapton, was on hand to witness the birth of one of Harrison's greatest Beatles-era classics: “It was one of those beautiful spring mornings, and I think it was April, and we were just walking through the (laughs) garden with our guitars — and that, I don't do that! Y'know, I only ever do. . . This is what George brought to the situation. He was just a magical guy and he would show up with his guitar, get out of the car with the guitar, and come in and you'd start playing. And we walked around the garden and sat down at the bottom of the garden, looking out and the sun was shining and it was a beautiful morning and he started to sing 'Here Comes The Sun.' The opening lines, y'know?”
Clapton said that it might have taken Harrison's death to show people just how great he really was: “The best thing that came out of his passing was that we all got to remember exactly what he'd contributed, y'know, as much as any of the other guys — and maybe more so, because it was an individual achievement. Y'know, Lennon and McCartney's one thing and Paul's one thing and John's — I think George, in my opinion, I found his work the most accessible and strongest for me to tune into.”
Around the time of the Wilburys' debut set, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison talked about how the album's closer “End Of The Line” came about: (Jeff Lynne): “George actually came up with the idea for it, like, the main chord sequence and we all contributed words to it. Little bits were put in by other people, like Tom (Petty) and Bob (Dylan) put a few of the chords in, as well. But George came in with the original idea of it.” (George Harrison): “Just the (sings) 'jing-jingy-jing' — I mean, back to my roots, skiffle, really (laughs). But, also, I mean, I was trying to think of. . . well, that's the good thing when there's other people in a group. And I was trying to think of the song that would feel a bit like something of a Bob Dylan tune, so naturally, I got on 'D'– the chord 'D' — all the guitar players know will know that, and you go (sings) 'jing-jinga-jing'”
Not long before his recent death, Tom Petty credited George Harrison for teaching him how to play the ukulele during the 1988 sessions for the first Traveling Wilburys album: “Yeah, he taught me to play and gave me a ukulele years ago. And, of course, we were close friends for a lot of years, and we did a lot of ukulele playing. It was kinda fun. They're really fun little things, which I, I never would've known if it weren't for George. I'm still grateful that he taught me how to play it.”
Toto guitarist Steve Lukather recalled developing a dream-come-true friendship with Harrison in the 1990's while out in California: “He started calling me all the time, like every time he was in L.A. He played me 'Free As A Bird' way before it came out, and he would tell me stories of all the Beatles stuff from his point of. . . As a matter of fact he signed a thing for me, he signed all the Beatles names, he goes, 'That's what we all used to do.' So a lot of the Beatles' signatures are all one guy doing everybody's signatures — they all learned how to do everybody's signature because back in the early days that had to sign thousands and thousands of things.”
Olivia Harrison told us that George learned to balance his often hectic and surreal life through spirituality: “Y'know, he was a wild guy too. He was spiritual and he was living in the material world too. And whether he was bad or good or crabby or happy — whatever he was, he always tried to do it with a consciousness that would keep him safe.”
Ringo Starr spoke about his final meeting with Harrison only weeks before his death: “The last weeks of George's life, he was in Switzerland and I went to see him — and he was very ill. Y'know, he could only lay down. And while he was being ill and I'd come to see him, I was going to Boston, 'cause my daughter had a brain tumor. And I said, 'Well, I've got to go, I've got to go to Boston,' and he goes (laughs, holds back tears) — it's the last words I heard him say, actually, and he said, 'Do you me to come with ya?' (Laughs tearfully) I thought, 'God.' So, that's the incredible side of George.”
Olivia Harrison spoke about the ultimate moment of George's passing: “There was a profound experience that happened when he left his body. It was visible. Let's just say, you wouldn't need to light the room if you were trying to film it. He just. . . he just lit the room.”