As a longtime George Harrison fan—I am surely one of the five or six people in America who bought his 1982 turkey Gone Troppo upon its release—I studied with special care the reactions to his death last November. Most of the obits described his years with the Beatles, noted his early success as a solo performer, and then fast-forwarded to his painful final days. This was a way of not speaking ill of the dead, for it meant skipping over most of Harrison's discography.
Behind Sad Eyes: The Life of George Harrison, by Marc Shapiro (St. Martin's), and Harrison, an anthology of Rolling Stone articles (Simon & Schuster), follow the same basic format. In doing so, they underscore the fact that, as a musician, Harrison had passed away decades before he succumbed to cancer. Hence, the final entry in a 2002 Rolling Stone piece detailing "25 Essential Harrison Performances" is a squib about the 1973 hit "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)."
The new books also combine to tell a cautionary tale about dissipated creativity and vitality. In his musical career, if not in other parts of his post-Beatles life, Harrison turned from a seeker who brought new sounds and ideas to his audience to a didact quick to dismiss both indifferent listeners and newer artists. "Grow or die" may be a hoary business maxim, but it's an aesthetic imperative as well.
Who would have predicted such a trajectory? Though never as strong a songwriter as John Lennon or Paul McCartney, Harrison's better Beatles tunes show great range. Still, his real contribution to the group had less to do with composing and more to do with experimentation, sonic and otherwise.
Harrison enriched the band by bringing new sounds into the mix, most famously the sitar, which he used to memorable effect in the song "Norwegian Wood." (To be sure, it's far from clear that the sitar on balance has benefitted rock—skeptics need only point to most other Beatles songs that feature it, not to mention tunes such as the Animals' hilarious "Winds of Change," a droning, semi parlando history of music.)
More important than the Indian instruments was the Eastern mysticism they symbolized. It was Harrison who introduced his bandmates—and their fans—to Hinduism, transcendental meditation, and other exotic elements that helped define the '60s as a liberatory period. Harrison similarly led the way in terms of drug use, particularly "mind-expanding" psychedelics. Indeed, Harrison helped to expand massively the set of cultural resources and identities available in the West. Through his public (if often tedious) spirituality and his key role in the first superstar benefit concert, he also helped redefine the modern pop star as a messiah.
When the Beatles broke up, it was Harrison who scored the first massive solo success, 1970's All Things Must Pass, which included the hit, "My Sweet Lord," that would later cause him legal problems. He followed that up a year later with the well-received The Concert for Bangladesh, which featured prominent performances by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. Then began a long, slow decline in terms of sales, critical acclaim, and relevance.
What changed? Many things, but perhaps none more important than his relationship to his audience, which grew from one of engaging spiritual guide to hectoring high priest. His albums became less adventurous musically and his lyrics became increasingly self-absorbed. 1973's Living in the Material World managed to top the charts even as it garnered mixed reviews for bland songs about the Beatles' breakup and holier-than-thou sermonettes about the fallen state of the world.
Touring in support of 1974's muddled Dark Horse, Harrison insisted that the Ravi Shankar Orchestra play a long opening set and then lashed out at bored audiences and weak notices. Before one of the concerts, Shapiro writes, Harrison ranted, "You know, I didn't force…anybody at gunpoint to come and see me….And I don't care if nobody comes to see me. I don't give a shit."
There would be later musical successes, most notably 1987's Cloud Nine. But by then, Harrison's output had been indifferent and erratic for long enough that he was viewed more as a nostalgia act than as a thriving artist, a sentiment furthered by his participation in the high-end novelty group the Traveling Wilburys and various Beatle-related projects. In a 1997 interview with Le Figaro, Harrison haughtily dismissed two popular, Beatles-influenced bands. Oasis, he sniffed, was "not very interesting"; its music was "nice if you're 14 years old." He pointedly asked, "Will anyone remember U2 in 30 years?"
In such moments, Harrison sounded just like the sort of old fart who had all those years ago declaimed the Fab Four as a passing fancy. He seemed both threatened by and hostile toward the world around him, feelings that had worked to undermine his solo offerings. The man who had once sung "all things must pass" might have been writing his own musical obituary.