The New York Times


December 1, 2001

With a Beatle's Death, Mourning for Every Family


With news of George Harrison's death on Thursday, Strawberry Fields, the Central Park memorial to John Lennon, yesterday became a place for hundreds of people to mourn two Beatles and the aging of a generation. On the circular mosaic that spells "Imagine," fans with eyes red from crying placed candles, photographs, flowers and a miniature guitar emblazoned, "My Guitar Gently Weeps . . . Thanks guys!" Nearby, a circle of musicians strummed Beatles songs, and fans young and old sang along.

Fans gathered by the score from Los Angeles to London, claiming a kind of kinship with Mr. Harrison. They gathered at the Beatles' star in Hollywood's Walk of Fame and in front of Abbey Road Studios in north London to leave flowers and candles. The elders shared memories of George Harrison and the Beatles, the younger fans paid tribute with songs they had only heard on recordings.

They were mourning Mr. Harrison, the Beatles, the 1960's, the passing of time and more private losses.

Bob Carpenter, 61, who visited Central Park said: "It's about our own mortality. You want everything to go on forever, and it doesn't. You see your parents dying, and the people you love dying, and it doesn't seem hopeful anymore. The 60's was a time of possibility. There was a possibility of peace, of change. Now we're going backward. When he died, when any of our peers dies, a part of us dies as well. It stinks."

Edward Keating/The New York Times
Adam Perle, seated, and Jim Boggia, left, mourned George Harrison with their guitar music at Strawberry Fields in Central Park on Friday.

At his home in London, Paul McCartney called Mr. Harrison his baby brother. Fans felt the same way, even some long removed from the Beatlemania of the 1960's. "George was like a member of my family," said Karleigh Koster, 22, a student at New York University.

Courtney Jordan, 20, said: "My parents were Beatles fans, and they raised my sisters and I to the songs of the Beatles. Every major event of my life, the background was always Beatles music. When you grow up with them, they are part of you. My aunt passed away from cancer as well, and it just makes you reflect. It's so sad that the people you look up to the most are taken away from you first."

As a surrogate family, the Beatles took on archetypal roles. Paul was the nice, parent-pleasing eldest son, John the brilliant rebel clamoring for attention, Ringo an amiable middle child and George became the introverted youngest child, quietly determined to find his own path.

That path was a grandly contradictory zigzag through personal predilections and generational changes. Although "Something," a love song, was Mr. Harrison's best-known song for the Beatles, most of his other songs for the group oscillated between sour, materialistic warnings, like "Taxman" and "Piggies," and pleas for universal love, as in "Within You Without You" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

After the Beatles broke up, Mr. Harrison's music continued to veer between prayerful songs like "My Sweet Lord" and "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" and more down-to-earth material like "All Those Years Ago," his 1981 tribute to John Lennon, which reminisced about when "they treated you like a dog."

Within the Beatles, with Lennon and Mr. McCartney as his songwriting competition, Mr. Harrison's usual place was as the band's lead guitarist. He completed and perfected his partners' songs with the twangy succinctness he learned from rockabilly guitarists, particularly Carl Perkins.

His fans were proud of his supporting role. "I guess we all see a little of ourselves in him," said Roger Reece, 42. "He was in the background, and maybe we all do little great things in the background in our own lives."

Mr. Harrison soon looked beyond basic rock 'n' roll. He was also drawn to a different kind of twang: the elaborate microtonal inflections he heard in Indian ragas performed on the sitar. He played a sitar on "Norwegian Wood" in 1965 and studied with the great Ravi Shankar. Mr. Harrison also experimented with some of the earliest electronic synthesizers. "He was able to make the crossover between art and pop," said Richard Bilwas, 45, a pianist. "Today people use popularity as a limitation, but George used it to have an impact."

Hardly alone in his generation, Mr. Harrison looked east for answers to more than musical questions. "It was my sitar and Indian music which connected me to George in the beginning, but very soon our relationship went beyond that," Mr. Shankar said in a statement yesterday. "He was a friend, disciple and son to me. George was a brave and beautiful soul, full of love, childlike humor and a deep spirituality."

Mr. Harrison's faith, which he called Krishna Consciousness, never completely overpowered his pragmatic side. He was the musician behind the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, raising humanitarian aid for refugees in what became the model for all-star rock benefit concerts. But he was also the backer for the raucous slapstick of Monty Python movies.

And throughout his songwriting career, high-minded invocations to love were countered by wry complaints like "Sue Me Sue You Blues." Even as the baby brother, Mr. Harrison refused to be pushed around.

At Strawberry Fields, Candy Adams, 48, was wearing an "I H George" pin she got when she saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1966. She didn't hear them there; the screaming was too loud. "I never thought he'd grow old," she said, "so maybe it's the way it was meant to be. He was the youngest Beatle, and now he's forever young."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company