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George Harrison: Living in the spiritual world

“Sunrise doesn’t last all morning,” George Harrison told us in a song in 1970 — half a life ago, in his first blush of life in the post-Beatles world, after years as one of the four men riding a wave of adulation the world had never seen before, even then a man with a love of life’s rich pageant, and a knowledge of its fragile brevity. “All things must pass away.”Harrison, who died T
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“Sunrise doesn’t last all morning,” George Harrison told us in a song in 1970 — half a life ago, in his first blush of life in the post-Beatles world, after years as one of the four men riding a wave of adulation the world had never seen before, even then a man with a love of life’s rich pageant, and a knowledge of its fragile brevity. “All things must pass away.”

Harrison, who died Thursday in Los Angeles at the age of 58, after a long bout with cancer, was a bundle of contradictions. He was “the quiet Beatle,” a man of moody, enigmatic countenance whose relative silence was transformed on the guitar into passionate, sometimes exotic, wholly original music, sounds that blazed from Harrison both as a Beatle and as a solo artist.

He was a songwriter whose music could switch from smart, acerbic, just-shy-of-heartless comments on the human condition to unabashed declarations of love, hope and personal tranquility — in effect, a vote of confidence in that same human condition.

Never at peace with fame

Of all the Beatles, Harrison was arguably the one most inwardly directed, the one least impressed with the trappings and hysteria of celebrity. Cerebral and seemingly aloof, Harrison would come to appear to the world after the Beatles as a moneyed, reticent loner who never fully made his peace with the frenetic adulation that was his destiny.

Despite a penchant for privacy and eventually cultivating an almost misanthropic mien, Harrison was a groundbreaker almost in spite of himself, ever the restless sonic adventurer.

It’s often overlooked that Harrison — and not John Lennon — played lead guitar for the Beatles, and, in fact, that he taught Lennon guitar in the pre-Beatle years. Harrison was a devoted student of the instrument, cutting his teeth on the “skiffle” music of postwar England. He was the first of the Beatles to explore, and embrace, Eastern mysticism.

King of firsts

Harrison was the first of the Beatles to score a chart-topping success after the band broke up; the descendant of Duane Eddy, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins was the first of the band to investigate alternate palettes of sound, with experiments on the sitar that lent an exotic spice to the Beatles recordings, and in some ways anticipated the attention to world music in the coming years.

Harrison, just as singularly among the Beatles, was the one most at home with spiritual discovery outside the relatively narrow cultural confines of working-class postwar Liverpool, England — “so gray and sooty and old-fashioned,” observed Norman, “and, above all, so utterly without glamour.” Harrison transcended that gritty background, then transcended the band that emerged from that background, and went on the quest he’ll be also remembered for: a search for peace in life’s turmoil, a way to perfect the art of living, and of dying.

‘Don't bother me’

While musicianship was in his soul, fame did not rest easily on Harrison’s head. One got an early sense of his role as a sometimes prickly figure from a song on the Beatles’ second album: Harrison’s contribution — the song “Don’t Bother Me.”

Now my advice for those who die


Declare the pennies on your eyes


It may have been just as well that such sour sentiment was rarely aired. In the Beatles’ early years, Harrison’s songwriting was hemmed in by the Lennon-McCartney songwriting machine, and the hysteria that accompanied its success. His style surfaced on “Rubber Soul” (1965) with the song “Think for Yourself,” a tune that championed emotional self-reliance, albeit in a characteristically flinty fashion.

For years, Harrison was relegated to one or two songs per Beatles album. In later years with the band, though, Harrison would move into his most creative phase as a songwriter. First there were his previous flirtations with the sitar, which became more serious, especially after his 1966 meeting with Ravi Shankar, the instrument’s virtuoso.

A more prominent role

On the Beatles’ timeless “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967), and all Beatles albums from then on, Harrison assumed a more prominent role as a composer. On the album “The Beatles,” the 1968 release known as “the White Album,” his songwriting talents took full wing.

It’s not a little ironic that Harrison was breaking through the one-song-per-album rule just as the Beatles were winding down, but Harrison was moving on. As were the other Beatles.

‘All things must pass’

By 1969, all of the Beatles were chafing creatively and personally; perhaps the strain of marriages, managers and the impact of having spent much of the previous eight years together were taking their toll. The title of Harrison’s first solo effort conveyed well the sentiment of his own resignation: “All Things Must Pass.”

That album, released in November 1970, was Harrison’s first mainstream bid for acceptance as his own creative entity, and as such it touched many musical bases: from Harrison the balladeer to Harrison the tireless rocker.

That album, Harrison’s most singular statement as a solo artist, produced “My Sweet Lord,” “What Is Life” and “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).”

A prayer for peace

The songs, coming as they did in the throes of both the Cold War and the horrors of the Vietnam War, struck a chord with a public and dovetailed with a popular mindset of a hope for peace in a world ravaged by war.

Maybe that was too much to expect for anyone. For Harrison after the Beatles, his later achievements sometimes appeared to be the work of a rich, antisocial dilettante.

Harrison developed a film company and occasionally produced movies; he created albums of uninspiring music that were indifferently received; he could afford every recording indulgence, and often overreached; the economy and invention of his Beatles-era songs largely eluded him as a solo artist.

Beyond these things

His voice, never the greatest, was nonetheless distinctive; nobody sang like Harrison did. His voice had a broken, fragile, threadbare quality, that of a man unafraid to own up to need, to reveal the depth of a passion. With that instrument, Harrison crafted songs whose emotional nakedness, whose search for something of value beyond the preoccupation of our own lives, mirrors our own. In 1970, on his breakthrough album “All Things Must Pass,” Harrison observed:

“Nothing in this life that I’ve been trying

Can equal or surpass the art of dying.”

But Harrison, particularly in the calmer turmoil of his later years — lawsuits, recurring illnesses, a crazed knife-wielding intruder in his own home — showed he had a good handle on the art of living as well.

In Thursday’s statement from Gavin De Becker, a long family friend, De Becker recalled that Harrison “often said, ‘Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait....” Such was George Harrison’s destiny: Living in a material world, but always trying, with music — sometimes silly and preachy and didactic, more often raw and poetic and honest — to attain the spiritual, in his too-short hour upon the stage.