George Harrison was always known as "the quiet Beatle," but these last few years, he's been really quiet.
Rumor had it that Harrison wasn't interested in ever recording an album again.
His last effort, 1982's "Gone Troppo," wasn't just drubbed, but virtually ignored. It didn't help that Harrison--already alienated from the record business--spent his time gardening, meditating and producing movies rather than hitting the road to promote the album.
But Harrison, 44, is speaking up. He's doing a series of interviews in connection with the release next month of "Cloud Nine," his first album in five years. And he speaks with renewed affection about his days with the Beatles and a new-found confidence in his music now.
About his five-year pop withdrawal, he says: "I did get a bit fed up with the way everything was going back at that time.
"I've never been that good at being a promoter of myself, doing TV interviews or whatever. Consequently, I tended to just put my records out--give it to the record company, and that's it."
The timing couldn't be better for Harrison's new album. Two factors this year have led to a resurgence of Beatlemania: the release of all the Beatles LPs on compact disc and the 20th-anniversary celebration this summer of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," widely regarded as the best rock album ever made.
"I didn't plan to come out after the Beatles' CDs and the '20-years-ago' mania or anything like that," he says, "You know, sometimes you can do something and try your hardest, but it's like you're going against the tide. And other times there seems to be a natural flow that's helping you."
The five-year layoff has certain disadvantages. Some young rock fans might not even recognize Harrison as the bearded man on the cover of the current issue of Rolling Stone. But the break from the pop scene could work in his favor when it comes to longtime Beatles fans.
"The 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' kind of thing may or may not be true," he says. "I think people are a bit more interested if they haven't heard from you for five years, but at the same time, the record still has to be good. Maybe they'll notice you more, but whether they'll go out and buy it, I think, is still determined by if it's a good record."
Harrison has an imposing look nowadays--with shorter hair and a gray-flecked beard, he looks more the distinguished author or university lecturer than pop star. His image as an Eastern mystic adds to the somber expectations.
Looks are deceiving, though: A talkative Harrison is more relaxed than stoic, his good humor a reminder that this is the man who co-founded a movie production company (Handmade Films) because he was a big Monty Python fan and wanted to see "Life of Brian" get made.
One of the subjects that Harrison is chatty and amiable about--surprisingly--is the Beatles.
That stems in large part from the fact that "Cloud Nine" is an album that makes deliberate connections between past and present.
A certain indicator is the fact that Harrison hired Jeff Lynne as the album's co-producer and frequent co-writer--the same Jeff Lynne who, as the mastermind behind the Electric Light Orchestra in the '70s, has been one of the great Beatles recyclers of all time. "It is a bit ironic, I know," said Harrison, "but that's one of the reasons I asked him."
Beatlemaniac that he is, Lynne no doubt savored the chance to help Harrison concoct a droll, nostalgia-invoker called "When We Was Fab," complete with patented Ringo Starr drum fills and a cello part almost right out of "I Am the Walrus." It's a sure sign that Harrison's perspective on those days has lightened up, to say the least.
"The space helps," said Harrison. "Not just for us, but for anybody: If you've just gone through a row, the last thing you want to do is talk about it. But if it's been a few years in between, or a day even, then it's much easier to look at.
"We went though so many things that we started thinking only of all the aggravation. I put it in 'When We Was Fab': 'The microscopes that magnified the tears / Studied warts and all.' Well, it was like that. Now, all the time that's gone between means we remember the good things as well as the bad, and even the bad things we can see in perspective.
"We really helped each other through an unbelievably heavy period by giving each other support and strength and all that, and we had a great laugh, really, when we were good friends, though we were like caged animals for most of the time.
"I think that was always the best bit about being in that band, rather than like Elvis, who, being just one Elvis, consequently suffered things on his own. Even though he had 29 fellows with him all the time, there was only one Elvis. But there were four of us; that pressure would have been too much for us individually."
And what does Harrison think now about "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" after all these years?
"It does stand out a bit, because '67 was a pretty crazy year for most people who were growing up at the time. But there's about half the tracks I like, and the other half I can't stand. . . . I prefer 'Rubber Soul' and 'Revolver,' actually. Even if it's all wrong, what they're saying about it being the greatest record of all time, I'm glad they're saying it about one of our records and not about one of somebody else's."