Aired on WAMC, Albany public radio, on December 12, 2001
George Harrison’s Passing / NYC after Sept 11
When George Harrison died, I lost one more connection to a magical time, but I didn’t mourn. Harrison’s death wasn’t sudden like Roy Orbison, or accidental like Buddy Holly, or tragic like John Lennon, or shocking like Marvin Gaye. I had known of his battle with cancer for some time. Besides, it’s hard for me to be sad for someone who got to be a Beatle for 43 years. In reality, I know little about George Harrison, the way I know little about Toni Morrison, or JD Salinger, or Bob Dylan, or Sandy Koufax, yet they’ve all had intense influences on my life. So, when I heard the news that day, I didn’t mourn for Harrison—I left that to his friends and family.
But, while I did not mourn, I was struck by the loss of another of my generation. I wept gently for the passing of one more member of a great generation—Phil Ochs, Martin Luther King, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Kennedy, Janis Joplin, Jack Kerouac, John Lennon, Allen Ginsburg, and the list goes on. I was saddened by the loss of yet another piece of the foundation of how I see myself and how I would like to see the world. I feel slightly more outnumbered now. I imagine that World War II veterans feel similarly about the passing of anyone of their generation.
The Beatles did not hit the beaches at Normandy, they did not liberate the concentration camps, or crawl their way through the Pacific. They fought their battles with dreams and hopes and vision. The commitment to make the world a better place for everyone is a struggle that is noble and difficult and often dangerous. It is a struggle against single mindedness and close mindedness. Most people who participate in that struggle do not receive the rewards that Harrison did. But most people who achieve the success that Harrison had, do not make the commitment to spiritual and social searching that he did.
Is it naive and simplistic to think that music can make a difference against terrorism? I know we can’t sing away anthrax. But without music, without art, we don’t have a soul, and without a soul we have nothing left to defend. Music has the power to inspire social change. George Harrison, as a Beatle and on his own, proved this over and over.
I grew up in New York and in many ways I never left. I love the sounds and rhythms of New York City streets. My boys feel that part of their identity comes from that city and we all felt the events of 9/11 personally.
As we have done for several years, my family and I went to New York City for the Thanksgiving weekend to visit family, friends, and watch the parade. It was our first visit since September 11. As I drove over the Throgs Neck Bridge from the Bronx into Queens, I got a clear view of the Manhattan skyline. I was looking for nothing and I saw it. The space that had been the World Trade Center was part of the crisp, clear November horizon. Later, when we emerged from the subway at the World Trade Center site, that empty space came into view. I was not prepared for the incomprehensible pile of debris and devastation at Ground Zero.
Since September 11, I have often turned to music to remind me of what is important. I am inspired by new bands that do their part to promote community and compassion over consumption. When I was teenager, Harrison came to town to tell the world about tragic events in Bangladesh. It was the kind of benefit concert, that’s directly linked to the Concert for New York City that Paul McCartney organized to give aid to the victims of the attacks. I watched that concert on TV as police, rescue workers, and firefighters sang and swayed along with the music and I am sure that spirits were refilled.
It’s still a pity, that we cause each other so much pain. Very serious minded people with ultra-serious jobs like to laugh at the dreamer and their dreams. Fortunately for so many of us, George Harrison never let them stop him. Because in the end, as another British rocker, Elvis Costello once sang, “What’s so funny about peace love and understanding?”