Jonathan deBurca Butler
When George Harrison passed away 10 years ago today, he did it in the manner that he seemed to do everything – quietly. In keeping with his spiritual beliefs, there was little fanfare surrounding his death. There was no ceremony; just a cremation in a cardboard coffin in Los Angeles at a cost of less than $500.
The 58-year-old, who was the youngest Beatle, had been ill with cancer for some time and although his death was not unexpected, there was a worldwide outpouring of grief.
Harrison, was, of course, born and raised in Liverpool. His maternal grandfather, John French, was from Wexford however, and had moved to Liverpool in the early 20th century when his family’s small- holding was sold off. Harrison and his mother Louise were close and it was she who encouraged his love of music. She also made sure he remembered his roots.
“Of all The Beatles, it was George who had the strongest Irish connections by far,” says Damian Smyth, co-author of The Beatles and Ireland. “George had cousins living in Drumcondra [North Dublin] and he made a point of visiting them when they came over to play in 1963. But even before that, in the late forties and early fifties, the family would get the ferry from Liverpool to Dublin to stay with the cousins and go to places like Malahide Beach; I have photos of him there and [of him] walking down O’Connell Street with his mother. So there was a strong connection from the family point of view.”
Physically small and slight Harrison, who was no great student, immersed himself in guitar and ukulele. In the early days of the Quarrymen, Paul and John would come to George’s house to practise. George would later remark how his “mother was a real big fan of music and was always happy to have the guys around”. From early on Harrison was a facilitator and for most of the Beatles early history he lived in the shadows of the band’s two main songwriters, only emerging in interviews with the odd witty one-liner. Musically however, Harrison’s input into the band was immense. Opening riffs on tracks such as Day Tripper, Drive my Car and Paperback Writer are still instantly recognisable and sent fans into a spin when they were played at concerts during Beatlemania. But it was not until the 1966 album Revolver that Harrison’s talent for songwriting came to the fore with the pulsating album opener Taxman. Harrison’s contributions were sporadic but often of the highest quality. But even then, he did not always get the credit he deserved. Famously, Frank Sinatra said that Something, which was penned by Harrison in 1969, was “the greatest love song ever written”. But it was not until the late 1970’s that Sinatra stopped crediting Lennon and McCartney with its writing when he covered it at concerts.
Something was written for Harrison’s first wife, model Pattie Boyd, who he had met during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night and to whom he remained married right throughout his time with the fab four. Boyd eventually left Harrison for his friend and musical collaborator Eric Clapton, who himself had written Layla for her. In a recent interview Clapton said that Harrison was “quite cavalier about it. He just said ‘take her’”.
Harrison’s second wife Olivia has hinted that when it came to women Harrison was himself no angel.
“He was a free person,” she says in Martin Scorsese’s recent documentary film Living in a Material World. “He didn’t like to be bound by rules but he did like women. That was always a challenge.”
The couple remained married right up to the day he passed away.
With The Beatles split in 1970 Harrison found himself free to record the huge backlog of songs he had written for but never recorded with The Beatles. He drafted in producer Phil Spector and the result was All Things Must Pass; a three disc album which included the number 1 single My Sweet Lord and which is seen as Harrison’s masterpiece.
My Sweet Lord’s lyrics invoke the spiritual world with which Harrison had become increasingly interested in since first visiting India in 1966.
“Personally, I think he was after some kind of inner peace if you like,” says Smyth. “He was a very spiritual guy. He was reared as a Catholic but became very disillusioned with organised religion. He couldn’t really comprehend the business of, this is how it is and don’t question it. And then when he discovered the eastern and Indian philosophies in the mid-sixties it was like a light bulb coming on.”
It was apt therefore that he should be the one who financed Monty Python’s The Life of Brian; the most glaringly satirical take on organised religion ever made. Harrison may not have always looked on the bright side of life but those who knew him said he always saw the funny side of it.
Harrison’s exposure to and championing of Indian philosophies opened up a new world of music not just to Harrison but to the rest of the world.
Was his sitar on Norwegian Wood the moment that 1960’s counter-culture began? Who knows, but it certainly added some much needed colour to Western living.
“Certainly one of his legacies is exposing us to that type of music,” says Smyth. “And he was absolutely passionate about it. Up to then everything was just guitar and drums but he blew the lid on it.”
This is a version of a piece that appeared on the 29th November in the Irish Examiner. The pictures are courtesy of Damian Smyth the author of The Beatles and Ireland and show George with his mother and older, taller brother on O’Connell Street and George on a visit to Ireland where he met up with Donovan.