Two public figures I admired, journalist Donald Woods and musician George Harrison, died of lung cancer in 2001.
I remember my reaction the first time I heard "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on the radio. I had just turned 13 years old. Popular songs of that time like "It's My Party" didn't do anything for me, and the R&B artists that influenced the Beatles, such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and the Isley Brothers, didn't get any air play in my small town. The Beatles came up with something completely different to my young ears, and it was just the message I was looking for. 37 years later, I still want to drop what I'm doing and turn up the volume when I hear a song like "In My Life".
I remember purchasing the "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" LP when it was first released, and listening to it over and over again. Prior to the release, pundits had started to make comments about the Beatles getting left behind by better-trained musicians, and the Beatles suddenly raised the stakes with the first "concept" rock album, which drew from a wide variety of musical influences. One of the songs on "Sergeant Pepper's", "Within You, Without You" was written and sung by George Harrison. Harrison also played a sitar on it; he learned this instrument at the feet of Ravi Shankar.
A couple of years later, "Revolution", a song penned by John Lennon, was a hit record. As a student of political science, I was exposed to great political thinkers like Machiavelli, Burke, and Bentham, but the compressed political messages in "Revolution", such as "We'd all love to see the plan" and "when you want money for people with minds that hate/All I can tell you is brother you have to wait" had a greater influence on my ideas.
In 1971, Harrison and Shankar got together again, at the Concert for Bangladesh. Harrison was the organizer of this event, and it was the first ever rock music mega-fundraiser.
I remember watching a Monday night football game on December 8, 1980. I heard Howard Cosell say, "Remember, this is just a football game" and proceed to announce that John Lennon had been shot and killed. A few years after Lennon's death, I went to see the film "Cry Freedom" and went home from the theatre thinking that the real hero of it was South African journalist Donald Woods. Over the next few months, I read several books by Woods, including his biography, Asking for Trouble.
Woods earned the wrath of South Africa's government by writing about the cover-up of Steven Biko's death in a prison. Wood's death in 2001 was an example of another type of cover-up that has become all too frequent.
The Vancouver Sun ran a lengthy obituary for Woods, but there was no mention of the cause of his death: lung cancer. The Sun was far from alone in doing this. Peter Ucko of South Africa's National Council Against Smoking sent this letter to South African newspapers:
"Donald Woods lived a life of wonderful achievement, contributing to freedom and democracy which benefitted all South Africans. Two years ago he had a cancerous lung and kidney removed and three weeks ago it was discovered that the cancer had spread to his liver. He was reportedly 'very upset that he wasn't going to see his grandchildren grow up'."
"Donald Woods was a heavy smoker. What a great pity that his grandchildren have been robbed of a grandfather who might well have lived another 20 years had he never smoked. Another life cut short by tobacco with suffering heaped on a family."
George Harrison's death did not have the same emotional impact as Lennon's did 21 years earlier, because Harrison's death came as no surprise. This time around, the press had difficulty avoiding mention of the cause of his death because of his age (58) and his public acknowledgment at the time of his original diagnosis: "I got it purely from smoking. Luckily for me, they found that this was more of a warning than anything else. I'm not going to die on you folks just yet - I am very lucky." The Vancouver Sun still managed to put a du Maurier ad in section D of the same issue that had Harrison's death on the front page. An editorial tribute toward the back of section A simply listed the cause of death as "cancer".
Donald Woods was not done in by his white supremacist enemies, and George Harrison was not murdered by a fool who spent too much time reading The Catcher in the Rye. They were done in by people who wear suits, belong to country clubs, and send their kids to private schools, and these people in suits know exactly what they are doing. The press should stop covering up for them. George Harrison's guitar no longer weeps, gently or otherwise.