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American Morning

Beatles Biographer Speaks on George Harrison's Life and Music

Aired November 30, 2001 - 08:37   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: If you're just joining us, we have been talking all morning long about George Harrison losing his long battle with two kinds of cancer.

And right now we turn to Martin Lewis who has written extensively on the Beatles and is considered one of the leading authorities on the Fab Four. He joins us this morning in our New York studios -- welcome.

MARTIN LEWIS, BEATLES BIOGRAPHER: I'm sad to be here on this day, but to honor George Harrison's memory and what he brought to the world, I'm happy to speak.

ZAHN: What do you want people to remember about George Harrison, his life and his music?

LEWIS: George Harrison was something of a renaissance man. We first, of course, became aware of him because he was one of the Beatles. And a lot of people think, oh gosh, well the Beatles, John and Paul were the songwriters, what part did George play? George was an integral part of the Beatles. One of the things that he did was he was very responsible for their sound. In the early days, his guitar work as the lead guitarist.

But it wasn't just that, but as his musical adventurousness grew, he went to India to study under Rabbi Shancoff (ph) to learn to play the sitar. Nobody had done that in popular music before. And so their music became more and more sophisticated, and he was a very important part of that. They went from being just entertainers to artists.

ZAHN: He was a very talented songwriter too.

LEWIS: Yes, he grew up in the -- in the big shadow cast by John and Paul, but in a sense, the sibling rivalry made him a better songwriter. He strove to equal them. And by the latter days of the Beatles, he did equal them. He wrote the song "Something," which Frank Sinatra called the finest love song of all time. He wrote "Why My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun." He wrote some very, very beautiful songs, so he was able to contribute in that way as well.

ZAHN: People this morning have been talking about how he never really enjoyed the media spotlight, that he was just as comfortable spreading fertilizer in his garden as just about anywhere else. Describe to us the dynamic of George Harrison as a separate entity and then how he fit into the Beatles and where he fit into the Beatles.

LEWIS: Well these days, of course a lot of folks, young kids go into music because they want to become famous. How can I become famous, I'll be a pop star. In the days of the Beatles, and George in particular, he was driven by his passion to be a musician. It wasn't how can I become famous, it was how can I play music, what can I do that will give me pleasure. So when the fame came with the music, initially it was great, of course, lots of people were listening to the music. But among the Beatles, he was the one who enjoyed least all the mass adulation and the frenzy did not give him pleasure.

What he did get pleasure from was the way that people reacted to the music and the message behind the music. The early days, the Beatles were like an N'Sync of their time. They were pop entertainers. But when they grew more sophisticated and the messages they were carrying were about awareness, self-awareness, love, improving the world, that pleased George immensely.

And another thing about him was that he had a wonderful sardonic dry sense of humor. He was the one who when they first met George Martin, they were very in awe of this producer, he was having an audition for them and they needed to impress him. Well listen, chaps, I'm going to do some music -- record your music now, let me know if there is anything you don't like. And George Harrison, only 19 at the time, says, well for a start, I don't like your tie. And George Martin was instantly smitten. He said their music wasn't very good in those days but their personality, their charm and the humor, particularly of George, touched him. And this is indicative.

And you see, George Harrison took his music very seriously but he didn't take himself seriously. He would always be happy to send himself up. He once appeared on Saturday Night Live when they were asking about a reunion of the Beatles. And he went down and said, look, I'm here on my own, give me the money.

And other time (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

ZAHN: He was honest too.

LEWIS: Oh absolutely. So there was always that kind of humor coming from George.

ZAHN: He, in the end, separated himself from the rest of the Beatles and, did he not, and left -- led a completely independent life.

LEWIS: Well all of the Beatles at the end of -- when the breakup occurred, they'd been together, John, Paul, George and -- John, Paul and George had been together that time for 13 years. They needed some distance. So they all chartered their independent solo careers.

George did not just excel -- didn't just excel in music, he did a couple of things that he hasn't had much credit for. We rightly gave and applauded Bob Geldof when he got the knighthood for his wonderful work for Ethiopia Live Aid. But George Harrison had been the first rock musician to put together a concert that was a charity fund raiser. In 1971, the Concert for Bangladesh brought together Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan and Leon Russell -- big rock stars of that day. He was the first -- the pioneer of that sort of thing.

In the late '70s, he had a love for comedy and a love for film, he formed a film company that produced many films such as "Monty Python's Life of Brian" and "Time Bandits" and other great films. And he almost single-handedly reinvigorated the British film industry.

So he really was a true renaissance man in that his interests encompassed a lot of areas but he never went screaming for the credit. He didn't run and say oh interview me, aren't I the big guy. He was happy to do the work and see the results.

ZAHN: I think the most impressive thing I've heard this morning came from his oncologist, a man who he consulted treatment for just as recently as I guess two or three months ago. And he said that he was such a spiritual man that he didn't fear death in any way. And I know you have a really poignant story to talk about how he was helping other people through these (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

LEWIS: Indeed. A mutual friend of ours, the great singer Harry Nelson (ph), passed away a few years ago, and I was invited, as was George, to the funeral. And afterwards, I remember George comforting Una Nelson (ph), Harry's widow, and George said, he said, Harry's not gone. Harry's with us. He -- George believed so passionately that the spirit lives on and he said to Una, no, Harry's spirit is still with us. He's living on. He's absolutely here. And George believed that passionately from a very young age.

And I know that for all of us, those who have listened to the music, and it's not just aging baby boomers like myself, the Beatles music and the music of George Harrison has touched young people. They're as enthusiastic about the Beatles.

ZAHN: Are you kidding, my 4-year-old plugs in that disc every night. She's...

LEWIS: That's what...

ZAHN: I mean a lot of little, little kids love the sound of the Beatles.

LEWIS: Yes, and well I host these Beatles fan conventions, and to my surprise and joy, 75 percent of the people who show up are 25 and under. I mean the Beatles were broken up when they were born. So it's not about nostalgia or baby boomers. You say with your daughter it's the music of the Beatles. And what George Harrison brought to it engages with the mobilist (ph) part of the human spirit, the part that yearns to make ourselves better and to make the world better, and he has left that legacy. And in what -- in the words that he said to Harry Nelson's widow, his spirit lives on absolutely.

ZAHN: And the music clearly endures.

Martin Lewis, thank you for spending some time...

LEWIS: Thank you.

ZAHN: ... with us this morning.