Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Few Words on Today's Birthday Boy

George Harrison would be 71 years old today.

Imagine waking up and you’re 21 years old and the lead guitarist for the biggest band in the solar system. That was George Harrison 50 years ago today. Keep in mind that it was just weeks ago his band had assumed ownership of the US—and the world—on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not bad for a kid who drew pictures of guitars while in class and disappointed his parents by slagging off vocational school and joining a band with that smooth-talking older boy he rode the school bus with. (Today that boy is known as “Sir Paul.”)

Portrait of the artist as a young punk. As a council house-
raised son of a bus driver, George Harrison was even more
authentically punk than son-of-foreign-service, upper middle-class
poser Joe Strummer.Yeah, George had that going on, too.
Wrap your head around the fact that George joined John and Paul’s band at age 14, based on the simple fact he could outplay both of the older boys on the guitar. He would later go on to introduce the world to the sitar and the Mellotron, and though he labored in the shadow of two of modern popular music’s all-time greatest songwriters, it was he who wrote Frank Sinatra’s all-time favorite song, “Something.” (In a sour twist, Sinatra believed the song to be written by Lennon and McCartney. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.)

In later years George would form a band based on an impromptu singalong during the recording a track at Bob Dylan’s Malibu beach home. George would later crow, “I’m in a band with Roy Orbison!” And he was. (Keep in mind the Beatles’ first hit, “Please Please Me,” was John Lennon’s attempt to write a Roy Orbison song. Producer George Martin suggested the band speed the song up, which they did.) George was also in the band with Bob Dylan. And Tom Petty. And the guy from Electric Light Orchestra. The Traveling Wilburys were a supergroup model that’s been imitated, but never successfully, and certainly absent such a cleverly assembled lineup (Dylan and Petty singing backup together was genius). 

Oh, and George also invented the concept of the benefit concert. He got the notoriously cranky Dylan out of semi-retirement to surprise the hell out of everyone and play a set of his classics at the Concert for Bangladesh.

You’d think John Lennon would have been the one who connected with Dylan, but, no. That was George. The man who gave Monty Python millions of dollars so he could see the end of The Life of Brian, because he’d read the partially completed script and thought the concept hilarious. Of all the Beatles, George had the most fascinating network of friends and co-workers.

George has been gone for going on 13 years now and it’s just as well he beat the rush. The surviving giants have shrunk in their old age, as old people are wont to do. He lived a hell of a life in a hell of an age. Today I raise a toast, not to absent friends, but to missed glory.

Of course, as his bandmate John pointed out, we’ll always have the records. This is my favorite George Harrison song from his time with The Beatles. It opens with an even more jarring guitar than “A Hard Day’s Night,” then gets psychedelic with the Mellotron and more layered guitars. “It’s All Too Much” is one of The Beatles’ most delightfully weird recordings—and it was one of the throwaway tunes that ended up on the original Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

Happy Birthday, George. You are missed.