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The Inner Light of George Harrison
Brothers in Stereo are preparing this week for the acoustic George Harrison tribute that opens our Rockhouse gig this Saturday night. Last night before going to meet the band at rehearsal, I had my laptop open and guitar in hand going over songs from the set. My eight-year-old son Max came into my music room, recognizing the songs from his Beatles Lullaby CD that’s been putting him to sleep since he was a baby. As the photo montage of Harrison scrolled across the Youtube screen, I said to Max: “Did you know that George Harrison was only 57 years old when he died?” Max replied, “Wow, dad….he didn’t even get to retire.” I stifled my amusement as told him that Harrison was a superstar musician and that was his job. He said, “No, dad, his job besides music.” I smiled, realizing that Max was comparing Harrison to me. I told him that Harrison’s music made him millions and that dad’s music didn’t quite yield the riches of a Beatle. Therefore, dad teaches for a living along with his music.
As Max meandered out of the room and back to his Legos, I sat there staring at the pictures of Harrison as they slowly appeared in succession on the video: Mop-top George, hippie George, meditative George, happy George, serious George.
Taking in these various images of Harrison, I began to ponder something that has always bothered me about George’s passing in 2001. The truth is that it didn’t affect me that much at the time, despite being a huge Beatle fan. Perhaps after Lennon’s untimely death I had steeled myself for the loss at any time of a musical superhero. But there was something more to it than that. I remember being actively nonchalant about it, almost as if I refused to let myself think of it as a big deal. After all, he was the third-best writer in a band that contained the two best songwriters of the twentieth century. I convinced myself that it wasn’t a huge loss compared to Lennon’s death; I always thought I’d identified more with Lennon anyway, whose rebel stance and outspoken manner has always been an inspiration to me. However, something has always unsettled me about my apparent capacity to almost shrug off Harrison’s death.
Several years later when the Concert for George was released on DVD, my brothers and friends would gather and watch all George’s friends pay tribute to his wealth of great songs. This opened my eyes a bit further to Harrison’s important legacy, but still it wasn’t a huge revelation nor did it helped me to come to terms with my odd attitude about his death.
About a month ago I realized that George’s 70th birthday was coming up on February 25. I thought this would be a timely opportunity for Brothers in Stereo to pay musical tribute to him in some way. So we decided on a set of tunes and started learning them to play at our reunion show that was coming up March 2. With guitar in hand last night, I was instantly transported back in time to my Mount Pearl bedroom in1983. There in my childhood home on 38 First Street I had spent countless hours with Beatle albums, putting the record needle back to Harrison solos and learning them in the old-school painfully slow style (before tablature and Youtube videos became popular). George Harrison solos were the first I’d learned of any famous guitarist. Everything I knew about soloing came first from George – mostly because his solos were straightforward and usually easy to figure out. Perfecting them was another story. I never quite got to that stage. His touch was nuanced in a way that it was almost watermarked, like money. No one could quite reproduce it.
Thinking back upon this experience with The Beatles’ records in my bedroom, I finally realized something important about my ambivalence concerning Harrison’s death: although the songs were mostly Lennon and McCartney compositions, it was George whom I was most actively engaged with in those early days of learning guitar. In many ways it was the most significant death out of all my musical heroes who had died up until this point. And for that very reason, I buried it under a pile of fake indifference. I wouldn’t allow myself to grieve his death because I was afraid to face the truth that someone whose influence was so imbedded in me was gone forever.
I’m thankful that this process of re-learning George’s material has reconnected me with him and the impact he’s had on my life and music. It’s allowed me to figure out why my initial reaction to George’s death never sat well with me throughout the past decade. I’d always assumed that the main songwriters in the Beatles were my heroes; however, my principal connection with this band predates by many years my own emergence as a songwriter. Therefore, as a guitarist in the ‘80s I identified with George the most. Somehow I’d mentally misplaced this connection throughout the years, and I was initially afraid to confront it when Harrison passed away.
It feels good to revisit his material in light of this upcoming show, and it’s amazing to see my son singing the lyrics as he sketches cartoons or gets himself ready for bed. Harrison must never be underestimated as a game-changer in popular music. I will never neglect or downplay Harrison again in my mind, nor let him be obscured by the shadow of his legendary bandmates. He is too much a part of how I play guitar and who I am as a musician.