“I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me,” George Harrison once said. “The real me is something else.”
Harrison was many things; he was one of the most famous men in the world, but he loathed superstardom. He preached piety and simple pleasures, yet he lived in a 120-room mansion and collected ultra high-end cars. He veered between periods of intense meditation and heavy partying, and ultimately retreated from the limelight of the mop-topped artifice of the Fab Four early on in his life only to have an unbelievably fruitful solo career that spanned ten albums.
Harrison wasn’t really the quiet Beatle, in fact, many of his closest friends — Clapton, Petty, Dylan — would say that he would never shut up. Known for his undying sense of humor and quite possibly being the best hang ever, he was also the most stubborn Beatle, the least showbizzy, even less in thrall to the band’s myth than Lennon. He was an escape artist, forever evading labels and expectations. He challenged Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting primacy; almost single-handedly introduced the West to the rest of the world’s music through his friendship with the prolific Ravi Shankar; became the first person to make rock & roll a vehicle for both unabashed spiritual expression and, with the Concert for Bangladesh, large-scale philanthropy; had the most Hollywood success of any Beatle; and debunked his rep as a solitary recluse by putting together the Traveling Wilburys, a band that was as much a social club as a supergroup.
At first loving the sharp turnaround from local talent in Liverpool to full-blown Beatle stardom, Harrison embraced the stages of success in a sort of teenage way: the painstaking process of developing his own country-and-R&B-inflected guitar style; the beginnings of Beatlemania; the fame, the money, the girls, the tight bond among the Fabs. Yet fighting for his place in the band, and his songs’ place on its albums, was exhausting. So was just being a Beatle. “Sometimes I felt a thousand years old,” said Harrison — who was 27 when the Beatles ended. “It was aging me…. It was a question of either stop or end up dead.”
Harrison became friends with Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, and his time with the two solo artists showed him a way forward. As the Beatles imploded in 1970, he stepped up with the triple album All Things Must Pass, letting loose his storehouse of songs. He also became progressively less interested in any conventional career arc, doing only what he wanted and placing no value on rock stardom at all.
In a few simple words, George Harrison was no ordinary man.