(Popular, as distinguished from traditional music - which, being older and more dependable, was more or less authorized. Popular music, by contrast, has always been suspicious; as in, watch out: You never know what's going to happen when you let young people just play whatever they want.)
A record came on that my cousins said to listen to; it was supposed to be something different, and it was. Catchy and commercial, but with something slightly rough and subversive, particularly on its final minor-chord harmony - what today we would call "edgy." The song was "She Loves You" by the Beatles, whom I'd never heard of. But like a few million other young people, it got my attention.
George Harrison, the youngest member of the Beatles, was around 21 then. When he died Thursday, a couple hundred notable records later, he was 58, and still too young to leave us.
Even in this age of international celebrity, it's impossible to overstate the significance of the Beatles, or of George Harrison, who played lead guitar for the band. They were so far off the chart of conventional stardom that every hindsight description sounds like hype. But it's all true.
Singlehandedly, the Beatles resuscitated the spirit of youth and optimism that had died with John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The country needed something to feel good about, and we found it in the Beatles. Their debut on Ed Sullivan's show the following February made them more famous, more quickly, than any other act before or since. By April 4, all of the top five records on the American charts were by the Beatles. No one will ever do that again. Like younger generations that have rediscovered the Beatles' music (among other achievements, George wrote "Something" on the Beatles One disc that everyone gave their kids last Christmas), we original fans didn't know as much about George as the other three. Paul was cute; John was outrageous; Ringo was the clown. By default, they called George "the quiet one."
But that's misleading. Hard-core music fans have a right to complain about mega-acts that can't sing, play, or write, yet still manage to sell millions. But the Beatles could truly do it all, and George's musicianship was an integral part of their success. Lennon and McCartney wrote most of the songs, but George's musical curiosity and quiet spirituality helped lead the band from that matching-suit-and-haircut saleability of the early years through the rock iconography of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and into history.
Through the Beatles, through his own solo albums, through his distinctive, unmistakable slide-guitar playing for a dozen other artists, George Harrison had a genuinely amazing run.
George wasn't only a pop star and a musical innovator, he was also a thoughtful human being - something not always present in big time rock 'n' roll. He organized the Concert for Bangladesh, the first major rock benefit. He brought Eastern instruments such as the sitar to Western music. His "My Sweet Lord" will undoubtedly remain the only pop single whose lyrics include a Sanskrit prayer.
Those of us who remember George Harrison from the beginning will feel his passing deeply. He was young when we were young, and that is a shared experience we can only take personally.
George Harrison's music will live on, to be listened to by my kids, and by theirs. I'll play some of it this weekend. Maybe you will too.
Copyright 2001 Newrite, Inc. All rights reserved. GLW's on WGN Radio AM 720 and (http://www.wgnradio.com).