There are at least a half dozen new biographies of George Harrison listed on Amazon, including one by his older sister, and one by his first wife. Other Harrison bios include a lovely coffee table book based on the well-made but rather safe HBO documentary by Martin Scorsese, and others with titles like ‘Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography of George Harrison’, and ‘Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison’. I’m not even counting the various kindle-only editions and reissues of older books. If the quiet Beatle knew how his past was being picked over, he’d be annoyed. His first song written for the Beatles, after all, was titled ‘Don’t Bother Me’.
‘Behind the Locked Door’ by Graeme Thomson is probably as good as it gets when it comes to documenting George Harrison. Then again, how do we know? Beatle books have a sameness to them, and by now, more than 50 years after the band hit America, the stories are developing a cut and paste feel. I could read five or six George bios, and probably patch together a reasonable bio on my own, without having to visit Liverpool or interview some elderly sound engineer who could offer such tidbits as ‘Well, George always wore nice shoes, you know.’ The vaults, I believe, are empty. Any author attempting a Beatle bio is going to need a spectacular voice and a hell of a point of view to make his work stand out. Thomson succeeds on most fronts, giving us a more developed and three dimensional Harrison than the one we usually get, including the one Scorsese gave us.
George, we learn from Thomson, was a bit of a rebel, though a good lad at heart. He was fond of his mum and dad, and once he became a famous Beatle, his mum would invite scores of adoring female fans into the Harrison home to show off her son’s old bedroom. Now and then they girls would help her with the laundry. She was a smart ol’ gal, this Louise Harrison. It’s funny to imagine a house full of little female Beatle fans, dutifully helping Louise iron George’s socks.
George discovered the guitar at age 12, and would cling to it like a life raft for most of his life. Harrison mastered many styles, from Chuck Berry to Chet Atkins to the heavy slide playing that dominated much of his later playing. Though a recent memoir by Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick, described Harrison as a fumbler who struggled with his instrument, Thomson portrays Harrison as a careful craftsman who made each note count. It’s also of interest that more than one musician quoted in the book says that Harrison always sounded better when he was just mucking around with his guitar in a hotel room or at his home, than he did in a recording studio.
The problem, of course, was that George was the youngest of the Beatles, stuck in the role of little brother for the band’s duration. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were not just older, but they were brilliant songwriters and singers. George’s guitar was a significant part of the group’s sound, but songwriters get the royalties, not guitarists. Hence, George tried to write songs, often with forgettable results. Lennon and McCartney could write a hit on their lunch break. Harrison, meanwhile, spent months on a tune, and would only write about things that were deeply personal. With workmanlike diligence, he gradually learned the craft. By the time the Beatles broke up, he’d written some of their most beautiful songs. That he went from singing Carl Perkins’ ‘Matchbox’ to writing and singing ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is one of the most impressive creative arcs in the history of rock music.
Thomson, who has written for various music publications in the U.K., gives us the edgier aspects of Harrison, too. George was a bit of a womanizer, and a drinker, and despite his yearning for spiritual growth, could be as selfish and demanding as any spoiled rock star. He wasn’t always generous about giving credit where it was due, and his treatment of some Moog representatives in the late 1960s was deplorable. He was so sheltered that he didn’t know how to use a locker or a pay phone. He claimed that being a Beatle had been a nightmare, yet he never hesitated to play the Beatle card when trying to seduce a woman or get a good seat in a restaurant. He could be surprisingly kind, yet casually cruel.
And, of course, there were his friendships with Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, which actually seemed more emotional and volatile than anything he may have had with his fellow Beatles. Clapton fell in love with Harrison’s first wife, Patty Boyd, and there ensued a decade long game of sexual one-upmanship between the guitarists. Harrison’s friendship with Dylan is less fiery, but just as interesting. It’s as if Harrison wanted to replace Lennon and McCartney with the one man who might have been a greater songwriter, and become his pal to boot. According to Thomson, Harrison would record hours of himself covering Dylan tunes in his home studio. Could there someday be a CD of Harrison doing Dylan?
Yet, this uneducated Liverpool boy, “a real wacker” as Lennon called him, would go on to be a galvanizing entertainment force once the Beatles had ended, first with the wondrous recordings on All Things Must Pass, then with his epic Madison Square Garden charity concert for Bangladesh, then as a movie producer and head of Handmade Films, and again in the 1980s as the founder of the Travelling Wilburys, a dream group featuring Harrison, Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne.
Thomson covers all of these victorious moments, and also the defeats, such as Harrison’s troubled 1974 tour of North America, the plagiarism lawsuit around ‘My Sweet Lord’, and his struggles for commercial success in the era of disco and punk. He sees Harrison as constantly toiling, even as he was beset with a creeping fogeyism; by age 34, Harrison was content to putter in his garden and sneer at the new sounds he heard. Thomson suggests Harrison could have enjoyed greater success in the 1970s, if only he’d given his fans a bit of what they wanted. “Had he popped up on Top of the Pops,” Thomson writes, “wearing his Krishna hat, a smile and a pair of bright trousers he might have scored a few more brownie points.”
Then, there was Harrison’s interest in Eastern religions, which either made him a source of fascination or a subject of derision, depending on your take. It’s been forgotten by now, but there was a time when Harrison was perceived as a pious ‘holier than thou’ type shoving that dreary Indian music down our throats, especially by critics at Rolling Stone. But the disdain of critics was nothing compared to the eternal battle raging within Harrison, as he “would ping pong back and forth between the sacred and the profane, going slightly further in either direction each time.”
Thomson structures the book as if Harrison’s career reached a pinnacle with the Bangladesh concert, and that everything to follow was an anti-climax. There’s some accuracy in this, and no doubt Thomson makes it seem as if the concert, where Harrison rallied a dozen or more of his pop star friends to help raise money for monsoon victims, was a truly heaven-touched event. “Forty years later,” he writes, “it shines like a beacon of practical, clear-headed, empathetic activism amid the bed-ins, bagism and myriad woolly gestures of the age which generated lots of heat but very little light.”
I like Thomson’s writing. It never takes off on any wild flights of inspiration, but in a plain-spoken and quite effective manner he tells the tale he sets out to tell, that of a boy who dropped out of school to join a band with his much older mates, a boy who “was far from stupid, but by comparison his creativity and intelligence was much rougher around the edges, a little less consciously artful.” The boy grew up to seek God, and struggled mightily as he bounced back and forth between the material world and the spiritual. Thomson also deserves credit for writing about Harrison’s interest in India in a way that never bores. Harrison’s sad end, which included a home invasion attack by a demented Beatles’ fan (Harrison’s worst nightmare, dating back to the 1960s, had come true), is handled tastefully, with just enough attention to detail to satisfy.
The more we know about the Beatles, the bigger the puzzle grows, and there will always seem to be missing pieces. In ‘Behind The Locked Door’, Lennon comes off as distant, and two-faced. McCartney comes off as a hurricane creative force, but a bully. Ringo Starr seemed to be a friend, and according to one chapter, was still supplying Harrison with drugs well into the 1980s. George? I ended up liking him. Sure, he was prickly at times, but by the book’s end he seemed to become a decent fellow, a man with the courage of his convictions, even if it took him years to reach that point. I particularly liked reading about how he treated the ‘apple scruffs,’ those loyal young girls who hung around the gate of Abbey Road studios hoping for a glimpse of their heroes. George would occasionally bring them tea, or stop to say hello. How his attention must have thrilled them!
Yet, he may have seen something of himself in those girls, wide-eyed and slightly innocent, yearning for something more meaningful than what existed on their own side of the gate.