They wouldn't have been the Beatles without him.
It's a terrible death.
John Lennon's death was dreadful too, of course: violent and shocking and senseless. But in an odd way, it was saved from significance, as a death, by those very qualities. It bore no symbolic freight. A crazy person assaulted a famous person. It can happen to a pope, to a prime minister, to a senator, to a 23-year-old Tejano star. It can happen anywhere, at any time.
But George Harrison died of natural causes. Yes, his end was clearly hastened by years of cigarette smoking, but still … he was 58 years old. The youngest of the Beatles was approaching—had reached—the terminus of even the most liberal definition of middle age. His death came early but not so early as to be an actuarial anomaly. For baby boomers, therefore, it's a shocking and profoundly unsettling event. We thought we'd be young forever. We thought we'd live forever. We were wrong on both counts.
In the ecology of the Beatles, George Harrison's role was somewhat cryptic; in most departments, he was eclipsed by at least one of his bandmates. He was physically attractive, but less attractive than Paul McCartney. He had a cynical humor, but it paled by comparison with John Lennon's. He seemed to have an everyman's sort of skeptical common sense, but not to the degree of Ringo Starr. He was a talented songwriter, but not nearly as talented or original as Lennon and McCartney.
Nevertheless, he played an indispensable role. His spirit was the most questing, and he was the most willing to do the hard, serious work necessary to extend his natural reach. One needn't feel any special sympathy with Eastern spirituality to respect the earnestness with which he approached it. And his study of Indian classical music—which included mastering its notation, something he never bothered to do with Western music—was not the dabbling of a dilettante.
And although his songwriting was subtly constrained by his senior partners, he still managed to write some wonderful songs. The melodies of "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" are equal in beauty to the best work of Paul McCartney, the most natural melodist of the Beatles, and perhaps of that entire generation. (Frank Sinatra described "Something" as the most beautiful song of its decade, but he then of course mistakenly attributed it to Lennon and McCartney.)
Harrison was also the most rhythmically inventive Beatle, a quality for which he never received sufficient recognition. Listen to the opening stanza of "If I Needed Someone," almost every note of which refuses to land solidly on a beat. Or the guitar lick following the words "It's all right" in "Here Comes the Sun," a pattern of such intricacy that Ned Rorem, a distinguished American composer who had studied under the rigorous Nadia Boulanger, confessed he was unable to figure out how to notate it. Songwriting didn't come as easily or naturally to Harrison as it did to Lennon and McCartney, but application and hard work eventually paid off.
He was also crucial in defining the Beatles' sound, as one might expect of a lead guitarist. His characteristic style is instantly recognizable; no one else played like that. His solos were always just a fraction of a tone sharp, deliberately, in order to cut through the surrounding music and give even his most plaintive melodic turns a nervy, speedy edge. It's there on almost every track; it's as defining an aspect of the band's personality as McCartney's bass lines and Ringo's drum fills. For all Harrison's personal recessiveness, the Beatles would not have been the Beatles without him.
His death doesn't hit us the way Lennon's did, as a sudden blow. We had advance warning, for one thing; his illness was not a secret. And besides, as a creative force, he's been largely absent from our lives over the last three decades. But still, the sadness we feel is deep, and the disquiet pervasive. He was one of us. For those of us who belonged to his generation, his was one of those exemplary lives whose progress we followed along with those of our closest friends. It's almost impossible to grasp that it's over.