III. The Renaissance Of George Harrison

While Prince was busy crowning himself king and U2 was laying their own claim to the mantle, while synth pop and hair bands continued to assault and insult the radio waves, while Elvis Costello was single-handedly keeping rock and roll music alive with the two-headed monster of ’86, the former lead guitarist and de facto guru of The Beatles was quietly beginning his artistic renaissance with Jeff Lynne and Cloud Nine. I did not know this at the time, nor did I understand it with the watershed Traveling Wilburys releases or the double live album with Eric Clapton. No, not until right now, upon listening to the beautiful Brainwashed, a work of depth, meaning, and fun that completes the evolution of one of the great artists of post 1960 popular music. Yes, he was a great guitarist, ensemble player and singer, the only person who could make it work inside the MacLen juggernaut and still come out the other side with valid work of his own. He created five of The Beatles' best songs/records; yes, he made All Things Must Pass from the leftovers of that period; he invented a style of electric slide guitar playing that ranks as one of the most original instrumental voices in all of recorded music… But I never fully grasped how great this guy was/is. Now I do.

I’ve always loved him. I know his Beatles work inside and out and find it more rewarding as the years roll on. The innocent yet knowing cynicism of "Don’t Bother Me" or "You Like Me Too Much," the bite of "Taxman" and "Love You To," the beauty of "The Inner Light," the mastery of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and the twin triumphs of Abbey Road. I know his ‘70’s output, and aside from the All Things Must Pass album and the monumental "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)" single, I’ve never been too keen on it. He seemed to have lost his way after ’73. And save for the occasional charming single ("Crackerbox Palace," "All Those Years Ago"), he was all but done by ’81. But then something happened. He made a comeback album with Jeff Lynne and invented a new kind of pop music, one that sounded right on the radio in the late ‘80’s and gave birth to a humble revolution with the image-conjuring buddy system of The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1. So popular was this invention it not only put George back on the map, but the great Roy Orbison. There is no question that this masterstroke not only reinvigorated George, Jeff and Bob Dylan, but gave younger brother Tom Petty ten additional years to his career. At first, it seemed a somewhat weird thing to do. But one chorus into "Handle With Care" and you knew that something fun was happening in rock music in 1988. It is the one thing Paul McCartney should have done this late into his career, but didn’t have the humility or sense of humor to do so. Just imagine what a supergroup with Pete Townshend and Elvis Costello might have spawned. The proof is in the McCartney/MacManus demos from the same time. But this is the greatness of George. Ever the team-player, the happy sideman/slide guitarist, the dry wit. Within the setting of a band once again, he blossomed to the enjoyment of millions.

And then, in the mid-‘90’s, he started dying. It was surely a frightening undertaking. At the beginning stages of it, he reunited once more with the band that started it all for everyone, and in the process, gave light to many an issue within that epic saga and helped create two more gems for the world to swoon to. His slide work on "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" are a testament to his talent. He was an open and inspired ensemble musician. Which flows in to his final statement, the lovely Brainwashed. So calm, cool, and at ease with himself and his imminent fate. A group of songs amongst his strongest and most effortless. He has achieved zen with this material, a flow, an understanding, an acceptance. It’s powerful and moving music and commanding performances from a man who did it all, gave it up, and came back to do it all again. This is the work of a deep thinker and feeler. It’s quite the swan song. The guitar playing alone places it in the upper echelons of recorded pop music. The singing is assured and sensitive. The melodies are sweet, sad and very much alive. It’s a shame he had to go out this way, considering how high a crest he was riding. What a joy. What an achievement. What a record. God rest you George. You damn well earned it.

Nov. '02

I'm a Pisces fish and the river runs through my soul.