Bye, George

By Charles Kaiser
from The New York Observer

If you fell in love with him, as I did, because he was beautiful, hugely talented, beguilingly understated and, for eight long years, perpetually in the shadow of two others who were really his equals; if you were part of my cohort — and there are many of us — you cringed whenever George Harrison's talents were marginalized by the legions of rock critics mesmerized by the songwriting talents of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

You winced when The Times called John and Paul the ones "who counted" the day after John was killed, and you minded again last weekend when Paul remembered George (undoubtedly with the warmest of intentions) as "really just my baby brother."

John and Paul preceded George into the Quarry Men, but they knew they had to let their "little brother" in as soon as he demonstrated the talent both of them lacked: At 15, he actually played the guitar well enough to imitate the solos on the American rock singles which were their inspiration. And right through the final chords of Abbey Road, he continued to play better than they did, insuring him the lead guitar spot despite the consistently stingy attitude of his partners.

How stingy were they? Early on, they set the pattern of usually allowing George no more than two songs among the typical 14 that graced each of their British LP's. In fact, John and Paul wouldn't even agree to record "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" until George brought Eric Clapton into the studio to play it with him. Only then did it become the transcendent achievement of that eclectic and fiercely uneven (remember "Revolution 9"?) collection dubbed The White Album. It's true that George was much less prolific than they were. But his melodies had to be the equal of theirs to fit so seamlessly into all those Lennon and McCartney tapestries╦ťand he always had to do it all by himself.

The Beatles were a triumph of craft, collaboration and cross-cultural pollination. While Paul and John were luminescent in the spotlight, George and Ringo had an equally important, though much less readily identifiable, talent: They were the masters of fitting in. Each of them was always trying to push the group into something new. George made the crucial contribution in this department when he spotted a Bob Dylan album in a record store while they were performing in Paris early in 1964. Their competition with Dylan was critical in the second half of their careers, producing landmarks like "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Norwegian Wood."

Then there was another brilliant stroke of serendipity, when George spotted a sitar in an Indian restaurant where they were filming Help! That quickly led to his infusion of Eastern mysticism into the fine strains of Western rock 'n' roll. Without that influence, the transcendental magic of Sgt. Pepper would never have been possible.

It was only after the breakup that George was finally able to demonstrate the breadth of all of his talents. "In fact," said Sir George Martin, "when the Beatles broke up, he became the strongest one." With All Things Must Pass, he became the only one to produce music that was just as powerful as what the four of them had produced together╦ťsomething John and Paul were almost never able to do again without each other.

The secret of George: His latter-day success lay in his choice of collaborators. While Paul chose Linda and John chose Yoko, for All Things Must Pass George teamed up with Dylan, Klaus Voormann, Billy Preston, Dave Mason and Phil Spector. In the late 80's, he chose just as well when he melded Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and himself into the Traveling Wilburys. Their first album together was another sublime achievement — the closest we'll ever come to knowing what the Beatles and Dylan might have sounded like together inside the same studio.

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