Cancer Claims George Harrison

Ex-Beatle had blamed longtime smoking habit

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By
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Nov. 30, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- George Harrison, whose classic song contributions helped transcend the Beatles from a rock band to cultural icons, died of cancer Thursday at age 58.

The end came quietly at 1:30 p.m. at a friend's home in Los Angeles, according to a statement from the friend, security consultant Gavin de Becker. Harrison's wife of 23 years, Olivia, and their son, Dhani, were at his side.

The Beatles' lead guitarist succumbed to his third bout with cancer, a disease that he blamed squarely on a smoking habit he developed in Liverpool as a teen-ager.

Harrison disclosed in 1998 that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. "I got it purely from smoking," the London newspaper The Guardian quoted him as saying. "I gave up cigarettes many years ago, but had started again for a while, and then stopped in 1997."

Since then, he had to fight physical problems both from within and without.

After former bandmate John Lennon was murdered in 1980, Harrison, by nature the most reclusive Beatle, built a sprawling home -- a fortress, really -- in Oxfordshire, England. Despite heavy security, a deranged man who saw the Beatles as "witches" broke into the home on Dec. 30, 1999, and nearly stabbed Harrison to death.

Harrison, who had just been diagnosed with lung cancer, tried to ward off the intruder by screaming, "Hare Krishna!" while his wife attacked the man with a lamp. The assailant, Michael Abram, was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and British authorities apologized to Harrison for letting Abram slip through the cracks of the mental-health system.

While he was recovering from the attack, the cancer spread to Harrison's brain. He was treated in Switzerland and at the Mayo Clinic, and repeatedly denied reports he was dying. "I'm feeling fine," he wrote in a statement last summer. "I'm a little more short of breath than I used to be, so I don't see myself on stage lasting a full 14 rounds."

"In his final stages of life, he did an interview," said Joann Schellenbach, director of media relations for the American Cancer Society. "He knew that his health problems were entirely related to his smoking... We were very impressed that he advised young people not to smoke."

Schellenbach recalled an anti-smoking video the actor Yul Brynner made shortly before his death of lung cancer in 1985. She hopes Harrison's words will have a similar impact. "It's tragic, and perhaps avoidable," she said, "and hopefully it will have an impression."

Harrison, born Feb. 25, 1943, was the son of a bus driver and the youngest of the "Fab Four." He had chronic throat problems long before his first cancer scare. "I always used to get tonsillitis," he wrote of his childhood in The Beatles Anthology.

His ailments led to his first guitar. When he was 12 or 13, yet another sore throat led to a bout with nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys that landed him in the hospital. There, he realized he wanted to play the instrument, and his mother agreed to buy him "a real cheapo, horrible little guitar" for only three pounds and 10 shillings.

Within a year, he met Paul McCartney on a bus coming back from school. Before long, inspired by early U.S. rock stars Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard, the two joined a band called the Quarry Men. Harrison and McCartney would sneak out of school at lunchtime and join Lennon, who was slightly older, at an art institute Lennon attended. "We could go in there and smoke without anyone giving us a bollocking," Harrison recalled.

The group that eventually became known as the Beatles gained initial success in Liverpool and especially in Hamburg, Germany. But Harrison's recurring throat problems almost made him miss out on the band's biggest moment: the appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in February 1964. Tonsillitis forced him to miss most of the rehearsals and the pre-show publicity shots.

Although praised by other musicians, Harrison never thought of himself as a great guitarist. "I was never a technical guitar player," he said. "There was always a better player around."

Lennon and McCartney did the vast majority of the group's songwriting, but Harrison's contributions to the band were undeniable. At first he rarely sang; he'd just play lead guitar and teach Lennon how to play the guitar better. Eventually, a Harrison song would make it onto an album, or a Lennon/McCartney song would have a Harrison influence -- such as his Indian-inspired sitar playing on "Norwegian Wood."

"Taxman," from the 1966 album "Revolver," was Harrison's songwriting breakthrough. It was the album's first track, a flat-out rocker that mocked government officials who tax rich people heavily.

His writing talents emerged during the band's later years, with such hits as "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Old Brown Shoe." Still, the Beatles' producer, George Martin, admitted that Harrison's work was often overlooked.

But that changed forever once the Beatles recorded their coda, 1969's "Abbey Road." Harrison wrote the album's biggest hit, "Something," a love ballad that was eventually covered by more artists than any other Beatles song.

"It was a great song, and frankly I was surprised that George had it in him," Martin said. "Super song."

It turned out to be Harrison's only No. 1 single with the Beatles, although he wrote another hit, "Here Comes the Sun," for the same album.

Still, he would remain stuck in the long shadow of Lennon and McCartney. Even Frank Sinatra, who hated rock and roll when it first appeared, did a cover version of "Something," and when he sang it on stage he would mistakenly thank Lennon and McCartney for writing it. Michael Jackson, who would later buy the rights to the Beatles' music, also thought it was a Lennon/McCartney number.

"It's interesting that George was coming to the fore and we were just breaking up," drummer Ringo Starr said.

After the band split up acrimoniously in 1970, Harrison released a critically acclaimed, three-album collection called "All Things Must Pass." It contained a huge hit, "My Sweet Lord," but Harrison was sued years later for infringing on a copyright of the Chiffons' song "He's So Fine."

In 1971, he headlined a concert in New York City, also featuring Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, that was a benefit for the impoverished people of Bangladesh. The live album of the concert won a Grammy award.

Harrison went on to have several hits, including "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" and "What Is Life." He also helped produce some of Ringo Starr's post-Beatles music and co-wrote the hit song "Photograph" with Starr.

He also tried his hand at producing movies, with some successes such as "Monty Python's Life of Brian."

In the 1980s, he was part of a band called the Traveling Wilburys, a let's-get-together-for-the-hell-of-it collaboration with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne (of the Electric Light Orchestra) and Tom Petty.

"I love him like he's my brother," McCartney told the BBC today. "In a way, it probably was a blessed relief. George has been through a lot of problems recently. I understand the end was very peaceful."

"He left this world as he lived in it," his family said in a statement. "Conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends."

What To Do

Harrison was the first to admit that his smoking led to his demise. If you're inspired to quit the habit, visit the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout page. The cancer society also has plenty of cancer statistics.

Read more about Harrison's work from this fan's Web page at MIT.

SOURCES: Interview with Joann Schellenbach, national director of media relations, American Cancer Society, New York; The Beatles Anthology; British Broadcasting Corp.; The Guardian; EMI/Capitol Records photo

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