George Harrison died nearly 15 years ago, but you may have spotted him at a show in recent months. From the ethereal glow of illuminated smartphones raised overhead, Harrison’s visage has recently graced concerts from Oakland to Santa Cruz.
I first saw Harrison’s beaming face in April at the Cocoanut Grove in Santa Cruz. While I waited for electronic musician Panda Bear to take the stage, two young men held up the same close-up candid of Harrison flashing a toothy smile. Before I could process this poor man’s Tupac hologram, four other phones joined with the same image, a legion of Harrisons aloft.
Normally, illuminated screens at a concert invoke nothing but contempt from me, but Harrison’s guileless face seemed to be teleported from a simpler, analog time. And while attempts to replace the lighter of yesteryear with a lit-up phone are largely unsuccessful, this Harrison synchronicity brought the crowd closer to a shared experience.
I soon learned from 23-year-old San Francisco resident Ernie Houk that he had witnessed the same phenomenon at a Tame Impala concert at Oakland's Fox Theater in November of 2014. “People do a lot of dumb things at concerts to get attention,” explained Houk, but he, too, felt this was different.
Not sure whether it was a meme dug up from “the bowels of Reddit,” Houk was initially confused, and then amused, by the 20 Harrisons popping up around him at the Fox Theater. At the Cocoanut Grove, I was similarly curious, so after the show I made a beeline for the stage to track down the initiator: 19-year-old Russell Cowick.
Cowick explained that he uses the image of Harrison from the cover of Let it Be as a way to test crowds at concerts. Testing for what, you may ask? “In some of my classes at the University of San Francisco," Cowick explained, "there wasn’t a single person who knew the name of a single Beatle.”
Let’s just let that soak in for a minute. There are students in college, in San Francisco, who cannot name a single Beatle. And even if they were able to name one Beatle, what are the chances it would be Harrison?
Luckily for Cowick, the estimated hundred-plus participants in his social experiment prove that the memory of Harrison persists. How else would fans be able to pull up a picture of Harrison on their phones, after all, if they couldn't remember his name on sight?
This Millennial ode to Harrison comes from a sincere love of the Beatles, and Cowick doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. “I'll continue to do this forever until I can't go to concerts anymore, and then I'll tell my kids to do it. Hopefully, when I'm 64, there will still be a couple people left that will shoot me a George back,” Cowick added.
When asked if he would hold up a picture of Harrison at future concerts, Houk said, “I would if it meant a kid who didn’t know who the Beatles were decided to listen to them for the first time.” Considering the recent study showing hip-hop to be more influential than the Beatles on today's music, if you see Harrison at a concert near you, remember that the Beatles’ ubiquity can no longer be taken for granted.