There has always been a division among Beatles fans between "Paul People" and "John People."
Paul People love the Beatles for their music. While mindful of both the extraordinary songwriting symbiosis between Paul McCartney and John Lennon and the lesser contributions of George Harrison and Ringo Starr, they rightly focus on McCartney as the only undeniable musical genius of the foursome--the wellspring of its versatility and charm.
John People love the Beatles for their message. They, too, treasure the Paul-John songwriting tandem, but for them the Beatles' big things are John's lyrics (a strange mix of the earnest and cynical) and John's lifestyle (a strange mix of the cool and countercultural). It is Lennon we think of when we think of a Beatles Way of Being.
Leaving aside screaming Beatlemaniacs in thrall to the idiosyncrasies of sex appeal, there were never any George People or Ringo People. But George Harrison's death from cancer Thursday at the age of 58 reminds us that there ought to have been. If any of the four could be called "typical" of the group, the most Beatle-y Beatle, the heart of the Fab Four, the means of bridging Paul's appeal and John's, and thus the glue that held the band together, it was George.
He was not the best lead guitarist of his time. He was not even the best lead guitarist his first wife ever married. (She left Harrison for Eric Clapton in 1974.) But he had as distinctive a guitar sound as any musician rock has produced--a siren-like, American-influenced, Carl Perkins-y twang. And from a distance of three decades, the songs he wrote--"Something," "Here Comes the Sun," and "I Want to Tell You"--stand up honorably alongside those of Lennon and McCartney.
In fact, it looked for a long time as if Harrison had been stunted by the group. Only 13 when he joined Lennon and McCartney's "skiffle" band, and only 26 when the Beatles stopped recording forever, he appeared to be locked in a perpetual little-brother relationship. There were some spectacular battles in the days before the band's breakup--namely, John and Paul's over music, management, and Yoko. But there was a less spectacular reason why Harrison didn't do more to keep the band together--namely, that a kind of creative class system had developed among the four. While Leonard Bernstein was comparing Lennon and McCartney to the great classical songwriters, Harrison and Starr were disappearing. When Harrison's solo album "All Things Must Pass" sold 3 million copies in 1971, his artistic ambitions appeared to have been vindicated.
It's also largely to George that we owe our sense of the Beatles as a blue-collar group. Harrison was the only one among them without claims to be either middle-middle class or lace-curtain Irish. Paul may have written one great ballad of Liverpool ("Penny Lane") and John another ("Strawberry Fields"), and John may have gone on to write "Working Class Hero," but George appears to have had a deeper sense of his working class-ness. (In "Yellow Submarine"'s "Only a Northern Song," for instance, which has stranger charms still, like its seagull sound effects and its trumpet improvisations by McCartney.) John Lennon's aunt found Harrison's thick-enough-to-cut-with-a-knife Scouse accent revoltingly lower-class, and he seems to have reveled in club thuggery. In one late interview he spoke of the band's first days in the late 1950s: "The most popular tune to fight to," he recalled, "not only in Hamburg but in Liverpool, too, was 'Hully Gully.' Every time we did 'Hully Gully,' there would be a fight. In Liverpool, they would be hitting each other with fire extinguishers."
The obituaries are calling him "the Quiet Beatle," but if anything, what kept his fan base small was the perception that he was the "Weird Beatle." The group's visits to India in the mid-1960s were Harrison's idea, and it was he who did all the work over there, learning the sitar from the raga musician Ravi Shankar--and injecting it into rock music, no small feat. But Harrison's fascination with Eastern religion was bound to alienate potential listeners. To the seriously religious (those Beatles fans whose favorite song, presumably, is "Because"), Harrison's embrace of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's transcendental meditation and his flirting with Hare Krishna must have smacked of dilettantism. To the anti-religious (those Beatles fans whose favorite song, presumably, is "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"), it must have smacked of Muggeridgean pomposity.
You either like this sort of orientation or you don't. His family certainly did, and I suspect all of Harrison's mourning friends did, too. At his death, his widow and son recalled something Harrison said years ago: "Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait." At any rate, he turns out to have been right.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.