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Remembering the Forgotten Beatle

Even to Martin and Sinatra, George was quiet

December 5, 2001 12:00 AM ET

A decade after the Beatles split, kids in my grammar school still had a favorite Beatle -- and they still debated the merits of their choices. And, to this day, my nieces and nephews -- who were born more than a decade after the Beatles split, and were subsequently forced-fed Rubber Soul before eagerly watching the Anthology TV series -- have their own choices.

The favorite Beatle debate is a pretty much a John vs. Paul affair, a circular discussion in which opposing forces try to champion/denounce the band's original driving force, its passionate soul and rock & roll rebel at the expense of/in favor of the band's most gifted melodist, instrumental virtuoso and undeniably "cute one." Only occasionally, someone speaks up for Ringo, the band's underrated timekeeper and resident Marx Brother, or George, the mild-mannered and somber tertiary tunesmith who gave the band its signature guitar sound -- not to mention its occasional Eastern influences.

In the decade before his death -- yesterday, at the age of fifty-eight -- more people have been speaking up for George Harrison, a man who was never comfortable speaking up for himself. Celebrated indie rocker/eventual Academy Award nominee Elliott Smith made it known that he didn't mind his melancholic melodies described as "Beatlesque," as long as the Beatle in question was George Harrison. Three years ago, I saw Smith close a San Francisco show with Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)," much to the delight of black-garbed club-goers.

For me, Harrison's songs -- from "Taxman" to "Crackerbox Palace" -- are in heavy rotation in my childhood memories, and the striking image of Harrison in Help! once even prompted me to charge out into the snow wearing a top hat. However, like most Beatles fans, George was never the focus of my Fab Four fixation, but an essential part of it.

George wrote the Beatles' rainy day songs, minor-chord exercises like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or flights of fancy like "Blue Jay Way" that linger in the shadows behind McCartney's glee and Lennon's grit. And Harrison kept the lowest profile, often appearing glum during those early press conferences (or, as another Beatles disciple Robyn Hitchcock once quipped, "Poor George, he had to be in the Beatles") and later repeatedly disappearing from the stage and studio for years at a time. Even his guitar wept, but only gently.

When I spoke to Beatles producer George Martin last year about the Beatles' 1 anthology, even he admitted to ignoring George, whom he described as a "loner." "I chastised myself a little bit that I didn't pay more attention to him in the earlier days," Martin said. "But then, see, when I was dealing with a couple characters like Lennon and McCartney, who could blame me for concentrating on them? . . . And George made it eventually, despite all the lack of encouragement I should probably have given him."

By "made it," Martin was referring to Harrison's later compositions, like "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something." "It took my breath away," Martin said of the time Harrison first played him "Something" -- "mainly because I never thought that George could do it . . . It was a tremendous work and so simple."

Frank Sinatra was so moved by "Something," the only Beatles song he ever recorded, that he replaced "Strangers in the Night" with it in his Seventies live set. But even Ol' Blue Eyes managed to slight George by erroneously introducing what he called the "greatest love song ever written" as being written by "Lennon and McCartney."

After much morbid press speculation (ourselves included), Harrison's death hardly came as a surprise, but, true to form, he waited until the uncomfortable media focus was off of him to actually die.

And whether George was your favorite Beatle or one you wished you appreciated a little more, as long as songs like "Something" are in the air, we will never forget him.

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