At 5:00 a.m. last Friday, November 30, I was still not asleep. I turned on the TV and started changing channels, stopping on the unlikely sight of George Harrison on VH1, playing and singing "All Things Must Pass" on solo acoustic guitar. He was seated uncomfortably on a couch, flanked by his friend Ravi Shankar, a woman in a sari, and some faceless VJ. I caught the last minute or so of Harrison's performance, which I assumed had been taped recently. During that minute, I felt a drowsy relief; it occurred to me that George must be feeling better, that he was beating his cancer and making a public appearance to refute the rumors of his imminent demise. In that same minute, I was struck by what a rare pleasure it was to see him on TV, and singing. The song soon ended, and the words "George Harrison, 1943-2001" faded up over his familiar abashed grin. A brace of tears came instantly, reflexively, as I realized I'd been watching an obituary. My stomach seized. I said "no" aloud.
George is dead? George, too?
One's impulse is to grant Harrison in death what he'd spent the last 31 years of his life trying to assert: an individual identity. He was an occasionally great songwriter whose best songs are among the best songs ever written. He was a consummate player—I can't think of a rock guitarist whose leads are as instantly recognizable or as reliably tasteful. He was generous—his only apparent interest in fame was to barter it for the advancement of humanist causes (the starving people of Bangladesh) and fellow artists (Ravi Shankar, Monty Python). He was good. He was funny. He made some excellent records. He produced some excellent films. He raced cars. He was stabbed by a lunatic fan and survived. He had a beautiful voice. He meant what he sang. Best of all, he was humble: a member of the cultural firmament, one of the four most photographed humans of the 20th century, who resisted vanity and self-mythology to the last.
But he was also a Beatle; he was mainly a Beatle. Up to now, the experience of Beatle mortality has been tempered by tragedy and outrage. George's death of cancer at age 58 registers far lower on the scales of injustice than John's murder, but it still demands a reckoning. It feels less unjust, but no less unfair. And no less unimaginable. When measuring out the elements of the Beatles' irreducible greatness, George is the factor that pushes them from band to cosmology; he was their left brain and third eye. He was also their conscience, facing down the maelstrom of fame, glory, and ego with transcendental humility and moral conviction. Though his songs indicate a peace with death, his legacy is a resounding affirmation of living. He was called "the quiet one"; he was, in reality, the one whose human-ness rang the loudest. By necessity, Harrison's death hastens the ultimate passage of the Beatles into mythos, and signals the beginning of a fundamentally different reality. The world is diminished both measurably and immeasurably by his absence.
At 2:00 p.m. on November 30, I went out into the dismal afternoon with the discordant piano bit from "I Want to Tell You" lodged in my head. I walked past Seattle Central Community College, where more than 100 cops and a rabble of sign-wielding demonstrators were gathered in commemoration of the WTO protests. Tears came again, as they did throughout that day and those that followed, in quick clutches of irrational, implacable sorrow. As I passed the congregation—shivering on the wet bricks, ready to march—I thought, but didn't shout, "What the fuck are you people doing here? Don't you know George Harrison is dead?!"