Unlike earlier mumbling rockers, the Beatles had opinions and a disdain for bullshit. They spoke out about the war in Vietnam, moribund religions and their experimentation with psychedelics. Though dubbed the Quiet Beatle, Harrison was pretty damn outspoken: while John Lennon was apologizing for his 1966 remarks about waning Christianity, Harrison responded to the record burnings and death threats by saying that any religion that couldn't tolerate questioning deserved to fade.
Harrison had himself embraced meditation and Hinduism. He stuck with that throughout his life and truly became the Quiet Beatle: he claimed his post-'60s focus was on trying to quiet the karmic ripples that the Beatles' gigantic splash had made. (I write about this and Harrison's life aplenty in a piece you can find at www.msnbc.com, if you like.)
The spiritual themes of his solo albums, with titles like All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World, suggest Harrison wasn't concerned with how he charted. The success of those records regardless indicates just how deeply he and his fellow Beatles had changed the expectations and concerns of listeners. That some vestige of those deeper matters remains in music today—when CDs aren't so much made as marketed, and we are all dubbed "consumers"—is also part of Harrison's legacy.
He was among the first in the '60s to discern that the better world they sang of might be slow to arrive. Touring San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district in 1967's Summer of Love, he was stridently disgusted by the sloth and drug-addled attitudes he saw there.
The Beatles themselves dissolved in a fractious, litigious mess, while their idealistic business, Apple Corp., was a shambles. Harrison's 1971 concerts for Bangladesh raised $15 million for starving refugees, only to see the money locked up in a tax dispute.
It's no wonder that Harrison pursued a quieter life. He'd done his part, and a lot of people didn't get the message. Charles Manson interpreted Harrison's "Piggies" as the call to jump-start Armageddon; Lennon was spied on by the FBI and shot dead by a demented fan; Harrison was knifed two years ago by another fan. Who needs it?
And, it bears noting, the world remains ruled by fear rather than love. The killing of innocents begets the killing of more innocents. Leaders imagine ever-new weapons rather than a world without them. The gap between rich and poor grows wider than the one between Bush's teeth. Security has replaced trust. Much of our culture is dumbed- and dampened-down, shutting out anything too new, deep or questioning.
Despite the Beatles ruling the charts in the '60s and again in recent years, they are rarely played even on oldies radio. I suspect it's because programmers fear that Harrison and his fellow Beatles' music means too much, that it is too sad to hear it so many years later, still so far from the better world that beckoned in those songs.
How much remoter might we be, though, had Harrison and his partners' magic never been there? I've had many occasions when I've seen audiences of developmentally disabled or brain-damaged persons—many who can't tie their shoes or are barely cognizant of their surroundings—brighten with joy when they hear a Beatles song, singing along into their combs. They get it. That is a genuine and abiding part of Harrison's legacy, and it's still there for any of us willing to hear it.