George Harrison, or "The Quiet One" as you've read countless times already, was the secret weapon in The Beatles. He was one of the most underrated guitarists in rock, a guy would never do anything flashy but delivered some unbelievable solos (listen to "The End" on Abbey Road for proof). Why do you think he and Eric Clapton were such good friends? It's because they were the best guitarists of their time. If I were putting a fantasy band together and could pick any musician from any time, George would be near the top of my list of lead guitarists, ahead of Clapton, Page, Beck, Hendrix, Richards (way ahead of Richards, actually), Perry and Van Halen. His playing was so melodic, his guitar practically sang -- I'll avoid the inevitable joke about his guitar weeping, if you don't mind -- and his solos were a lot more complicated than they seemed.
But never mind the technical proficiency of George's playing. His playing had style, something those so-called guitar gods of the 1980s were almost completely lacking. Harrison is one of the few guitarists, along with Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, where you could play Name That Guitarist and would only need a single note to spot him. That takes skill, people, and George had it in spades. He was so comfortable with his ability that he never once felt the need to show it off. He did whatever was best for the song, whether it meant doing a four-measure solo or stepping aside for the band to bring in a trumpet player.
George's accomplishments in the Beatles were always graded unfairly, I thought. He was about a year and a half younger than Paul and John, and as a result his songwriting chops took a little longer to develop. When Paul was lights out during Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, George was still finding his voice (though his contributions to Revolver, "Taxman," "Love You To" and particularly "I Want To Tell You," were all solid tunes). He hit his stride, ironically, on Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles recorded. His contributions? A little-known ditty called "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something," one of the best love songs ever. Which, by the way, has a great guitar solo.
And yet, despite his abilities as a songwriter and a guitarist, it was his voice that I liked the most. John and Paul were better singers, of course, but George's voice seemed to have more personality. My favorite vocal passage on "Free As A Bird," the questionable reunion single from 1995, is George's line. Ditto "Handle With Care" by the Traveling Wilburys. Here he was, surrounded by Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the golden-throated Roy Orbison, of all people. And it was George who stood heads above the rest to my ears.
George was also silently crucial to the Beatles staying together as long as they did. Without the Zen-like calm of George around them, Paul and John would surely have come to blows and split up sooner than they did. (Make no mistake; it was not Yoko Ono who broke up the Beatles; John and Paul did that all by themselves, thank you.) George even left the band once, while making what would be Let It Be, and the rest of the band begged and pleaded for him to come back. Why? Because they could never replace him. Remember those age-old rumors that the Beatles would get back together, and Julian Lennon would fill in for his pop? Well, that rumor was officially put to bed on November 29, 2001. Julian would have been a perfectly acceptable replacement for John, but there is no one, absolutely no one, who could replace George.
Forget about George Harrison being The Quiet One. George was really The Cool One. Paul started writing silly love songs, John flipped out with his bed-ins and doing naked photo sessions with a woman who never looked like she truly loved him, and Ringo was, well, Ringo. George, meanwhile, became the most unassuming, anonymous rock god there ever was. You never heard any stories about him with 12-year-old groupies and twenty pounds of coke (though he did smoke like a broken stove, which is what wound up killing him). To paraphrase the line in "Heist," George Harrison was so cool, when he goes to sleep, sheep count him.
I don't want to get too sentimental about this. After all, the vultures started circling around him back in June, so I've had some time to prepare for this. Besides, George himself would be the first to tell you that life flows on within you and without you. But he really was a woefully unappreciated musician and singer, and he was a Beatle, for crying out loud. How is that even possible?
George Harrison was one of the good ones. He will be sorely missed.