NEVER UNDERESTIMATE the Quiet Ones. They always get the last laugh, the best revenge, and, in the end, even the girl.
While Bill Gates made it hip to be square, George Harrison remains the original Quiet One. Long before Gates made millions out of computer code, equally geeky Harrison—a gangly teen, all ears, Adam's apple, and crooked teeth—held the keys to being cool in his nimble fingers. He was a Quarryman, a stoic sideman to John Lennon's snide rebel rocker. And then a Beatle, one quarter of the best band ever—and an inspiration for Quiet Ones everywhere. The youngest (Harrison was 58) and still quietest ex-Beatle died on Nov. 29 following a battle with cancer.
But being a Beatle wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Not for Harrison, at least. Overshadowed as a songwriter, musician, and wit, Harrison would not shine until late in the group's career. By then, he'd introduced his mates to Eastern mysticism, the Maharishi, the sound of the sitar, and songs called "Something," "Here Comes the Sun," and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." However subtle or striking, Harrison's influence, in many ways, shaped the end-period Beatles.
Along the way, Harrison got one girl (the beautiful Pattie "Layla" Boyd who left him for his friend Eric Clapton); and found inner peace, marital bliss, and fatherhood with another girl (second wife Olivia Arias). And he was the Beatle who produced, arguably, the finest post-Beatles album, All Things Must Pass, the lead single from which became the first No. 1 song by a solo Beatle following the breakup.
With the 1970 release of the three- album set and the success of that single, "My Sweet Lord," Harrison blossomed. While Lennon and McCartney waged war on vinyl, Harrison stayed above the fray and emerged emancipated. Although he might never again match what has been called the album's "sprawling greatness," the Quiet Beatle, however briefly, became a master of the musical universe.
IT MUST APPEAR cruelly ironic to Harrison, his fans, and all of Beatledom that the Quiet One's death came less than a year after the rerelease of his milestone musical achievement. Remixed, remastered, and repackaged for the occasion of its 30th anniversary, All Things Must Pass continues to receive critical praise. Unfortunately, however, it's better known for the long plagiarism and copyright infringement lawsuit surrounding "My Sweet Lord" and the Chiffons' 1963 hit, "He's So Fine."
To the untrained ear, the songs have nothing in common. Compare "He's so fine/doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang" with its brash, unadorned girl gusto to the subtle chanting and slide guitar work of "My sweet Lord/hallelujah" and "My sweet Lord/Hare Krishna."
While the temperaments of the two songs may be continents apart, the notes of key passages are much the same. Had either Harrison or his producer Phil Spector (famous for his "wall of sound") recognized the similarity between the two songs, the albatross of the dispute that plagued him may have been averted. Harrison had said he could have easily changed a few bars. Instead of a footnote, the case became a cancerous sidebar in itself, drawing attention away from Harrison's otherwise landmark masterpiece.
Viewed in the context of precedent-setting legal cases, the controversial lawsuit is nevertheless a fascinating, if complicated and protracted, story with enough plot twists and greedy characters to generate a movie-of-the-week miniseries, if not a book.
"There's definitely a book," Harrison said in a 1996 interview with the CD-ROM magazine Undercover, "because, now with any kind of law pertaining to infringement of copyright, they always quote this case."
The colorful cast of characters includes a financially unstable music publishing company gasping its last breath; the incorrigible Allen Klein, the manager whose business practices are widely blamed for the breakup of the Beatles; a fleet of attorneys who made careers out of the long-running case; and, of course, Harrison himself, who at one point offered to give the song away rather than suffer either the indignity of being labeled a plagiarist or, more likely, the frustration of defending a song he had hoped would become a spiritual mantra for peace.
Klein eventually relinquished the copyright for "He's So Fine" to Harrison in the early 1990s. Through his appeals, Klein was granted negligible interest on royalties from "My Sweet Lord" during his stewardship of the song, but ultimately ended up with little more than he had paid for—rights to the song and a mountain of legal expenses.
Harrison—by then resurfacing on the charts after a spate of spotty albums with such efforts as Cloud Nine and his role as a "Traveling Wilbury," the supergroup featuring Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne (of ELO fame)—was relieved, but still haunted by the case.
"It's all over with," Harrison told interviewer Paul Cashmere in 1996, "and the result of it is I own 'My Sweet Lord' and I now own 'He's So Fine,' and Allen Klein owes me like $300 thousand or $400 thousand 'cause he took all the money on both songs. It's really a joke. It's a total joke."
The Quiet One got the last laugh, but the belief that he ripped off "He's So Fine" remains a common misconception. "I still don't understand how the courts aren't filled with similar cases," Harrison wonders in his book I, Me, Mine, "as 99 percent of the popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other."
In an attempt to shed some "light comic relief" and to "exorcise the paranoia about songwriting that has started to build up in me" at the time, Harrison wrote "This Song," which begins, "This Song has nothing tricky about it/This Song ain't black or white/And as far as I know don't infringe on anyone's copyright."
Ironically, the Chiffons, no strangers to capitalizing on the episode, recorded "My Sweet Lord" in 1975, an effort that fell flat. Perhaps they were emboldened by the 1972 English rerelease of their 1966 hit, "Sweet Talkin' Guy," which became the group's highest-charting single.
Fans will also be happy to note that Harrison's dark sense of humor remained intact. Last month, he released a new song, "Horse to the Water," under the publishing credit of "RIP Ltd. 2001."
EVENTUALLY, ALL Beatles must pass, but the band's legacy—and each member's significant contributions to the world of popular music—continue. While legal textbooks coldly arrive at the fact that Harrison was guilty of copyright infringement, it is hardly the proper epitaph. George Harrison has been many things: Beatle, solo artist, husband and father, spiritual seeker, Formula One race car driver, and movie producer.
As a National Public Radio music producer and commentator so eloquently put it during a discussion of the rerelease of All Things Must Pass in January: "So, George Harrison, the one denied his rightful share of the spotlight blazing on the world's biggest band, the man stabbed by a crazed fan in 1999, the one who insisted on chanting Hare Krishna when it would have been easier to sing silly love songs—George Harrison has survived. And though perhaps his greatest work is All Things Must Pass, the album and its title song tell us otherwise. Some things remain constant—like the transforming power of this music."
A longer version of this article first appeared in the C-Ville Weekly.