All things must pass. George Harrison dies of cancer at 58

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The Independent Culture

The death of George Harrison saddened the world and prompted reactions yesterday from the Queen, the Prime Minister and President Bush in addition to the surviving Beatles.

His death at the age of 58 did not cause the global shock and distress that the murder of John Lennon caused 21 years ago. Harrison's death from lung cancer, diagnosed four years ago, was expected. Indeed the former Beatle, with the same caustic, irreverent wit that was a trait of the group in its early days, published his last song under the title RIP Records.

He had sought radical cancer treatment in New York. When Sir Paul McCartney left Harrison's hospital ward in tears just over a week ago, it was clear that he had only days to live.

Harrison died at a friend's house in Los Angeles on Thursday night with his wife, Olivia, and son, Dhani, 24, at his side. A statement from his family said: "He left this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends. He often said, 'Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.'" He had suffered from lung and throat tumours.

Sir Paul paid tribute, saying: "I am devastated and very, very sad. We knew he'd been ill for a long time. He was a lovely guy and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humour. He is really just my baby brother." His fellow Beatle, Ringo Starr, added: "George was a best friend of mine." He said he would miss George for "his sense of love, his sense of music, and his sense of laughter".

John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, said: "Thank you George. It was grand knowing you."

The Prime Minister recalled that his generation had grown up with The Beatles. "The music and personalities of the band were the background of our lives," he said. "People will be very sad at his death. I think it's worth pointing out that he wasn't just a great musician and artist. He did an immense amount for charity as well, so he will be very sadly missed by people right round the world."

The Queen was said to be "saddened" and outside Buckingham Palace the Coldstream Guards played a Beatles medley during the Changing of the Guard ceremony. In Liverpool, the Union flag was at half mast on the town hall and condolence books were opened.

Like all the Beatles, Harrison seemed to have lived through several incarnations – the cheeky mop-top, the hippie who embraced Indian mysticism and briefly had a generation exploring it, the successful film producer who funded Monty Python, and the recluse who cultivated the garden of his mansion, where he was savagely knifed and almost killed by a mentally-ill man two years ago.

As a Beatle, Harrison was one of the most adored and best known faces in the world. Yet 10 years after the group's demise, he showed how his preoccupations had changed by dedicating his autobiography "to gardeners everywhere".

Harrison's relationship with The Beatles was an ambivalent one. He was the youngest member of the band and was key to shaping their sound, but he felt his songwriting abilities were overlooked and was never comfortable with Beatlemania. For a time after the group split up, he distanced himself from Beatle talk, before concluding some years later in his sardonic way: "If you're going to live, die and be in a rock and roll group, it might as well be The Beatles."

Roger Daltrey of The Who said: "To me, he was the spiritual centre of The Beatles, kept them grounded, and never had the recognition he deserved within the band."