Elevating George Harrison’s Place in Pop’s Pantheon

Elevating George Harrison’s Place in Pop’s Pantheon

A review of Philip Norman’s “George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle” by Senior Editor Brad Hundt appears in Beatlefan #265. Hundt found the book to be “eminently readable,” but also a “by-the-numbers biography” and concluded: “Everyone who already is familiar with Harrison safely can take a pass on it.” Below is a mixed — but somewhat more enthusiastic — appraisal of Norman’s book. …

How swell at last to have a major biography of that most aloof of all rock stars, George Harrison, by respected pop music historian Philip Norman, and how sobering to learn that the reclusive rocker’s feet were all too completely made of clay.

Though this book is quite detailed and very well written, what is still a worthy biography could have been splendid if not for several shortcomings.  

Perhaps the book’s top theme is George Harrison’s remarkable cornucopia of contradictions, something he alluded to in the “Pisces Fish” song on his superb last album, 2002’s “Brainwashed” — “Sometimes, my life it seems like fiction / Some of the days it’s really quite serene / I’m a living proof of all life’s contradictions / One half’s going where the other half’s just been.”

A Linda McCartney shot of Harrison from the latter days of The Beatles.

Massive contrasts define Harrison’s story. With bomb craters from World War II still decorating his neighborhood, he grew up in a crowded little Liverpool apartment with no bathroom, whose only heat came from a “small coal fire,” and where the weekly bath was in a backyard bucket. But massive musical success would earn him enormous wealth.

Harrison was the Beatle most in the background, whose growing songwriting abilities largely were ignored by the group’s leaders, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But after the Fab Four’s 1970 breakup, the lead guitarist stunned everyone with his astonishing “All Things Must Pass” triple album, becoming the most critically and commercially successful Beatle of the early 1970s.

It is comforting to learn how Harrison usually was kind, caring and giving. Not only did he co-write “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo,” two of Ringo Starr’s biggest solo hits, but he also did not ask for a (quite lucrative) songwriting credit for either.

George Harrison in his later years.

Even when sick in bed, dying of cancer, he offered to visit the drummer’s ailing daughter.

But Harrison was a stubborn loner who often was moody and brutally blunt. As Ringo put it, “There was the love and bag-of-beads personality and the bag of anger. He was very black and white.”

Indeed, when Lennon queried his bandmates on what they thought of his girlfriend and future wife, Cynthia Powell, Harrison remarked she had “teeth like a horse.” While the second Mrs. Lennon, Yoko Ono, conceded “George was very nice,” she still complained how “very hurtful” his caustic comments could be, to which John would shrug, “That’s just George.”

And on a long flight, when a stewardess asked the softly chanting Hindu convert if she could get him anything, Harrison snarled, “F— off, can’t you see I’m meditating?”

The supposedly most spiritual Beatle, who publicly sang warnings about “Living in the Material World,” privately luxuriated in a 25-bedroom gothic mansion. And the Beatle purportedly most at peace as a devout Hindu nevertheless smoked lots of marijuana, drank loads of liquor, snorted copious quantities of cocaine and chain-smoked French cigarettes.

He also was an inveterate adulterer, who cheated in his own house (when his first wife Pattie was home) with Ringo’s wife Maureen. This was a conquest too far even for John, who denounced it as “virtual incest,” and the affair led to the Starrs divorcing the next year.

“That’s just George.”

Surprisingly, the composer of so many beautiful love songs, including the classic “Something,” did not appear to be all that romantic. He betrayed both of his spouses, and he did not seem to mind losing his first wife to Eric Clapton — who remained his best buddy.

While Harrrison enjoyed most of his time in the world’s biggest band, and all the easy camaraderie, by the latter 1960s he firmly rejected any more concert tours and had grown deeply bitter that more of his compositions were not allowed on Beatles albums. Later calling himself “the economy-class Beatle,” he felt liberated when the group finally broke up, and he never sought a reunion.

Asked to help Sir Paul perform “Let It Be” at London’s 1985 Live Aid Concert, George’s typically tactless retort was that McCartney “didn’t want me to sing on it 10 years ago, so why does he want me now?”

Despite his enduring shyness — during his Beatle days, Norman notes, “no more private person can ever have trodden a stage more mercilessly public” — George organized the massive Concert for Bangladesh at New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1971, spurred by his friend, sitar player Ravi Shankar. Although he was so nervous backstage that he suffered bouts of diarrhea and vomiting, Harrison’s pair of concerts were rock music’s first and possibly best benefits, and the album featured Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Badfinger, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, George, Ringo and many more. Harrison also worked hard to make sure the proceeds actually went to hungry Bangladeshis.

He would continue to be very charitable, ultimately providing $45 million to UNICEF projects in Bangladesh and elsewhere, as well as giving substantial financial support to Romanian orphans.

Likewise, George was generous with family and friends, buying houses for his mother-in-law and a Beatles staffer. He made major contributions to Hindu charities, and even risked losing his beloved Friar Park estate by putting it up as collateral to finance his Monty Python buddies’ controversial 1979 big-screen comedy “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

A man of contradictions.

Yet he was embarrassingly cheap with his own loyal staff, and the megamillionaire dissolved his first marriage by paying his most important muse a paltry £120,000.

He was the “Quiet Beatle” in public, but wouldn’t stop talking in private settings, where he was much more comfortable. Still, while he could be pleasantly social and even play host at a party, Harrison much preferred gardening to people, since, as he explained in his frank fashion, “the flowers don’t answer back.”

Norman’s book is unusually well-written, especially for a rock star biography, and it is likely not a coincidence that the author also is a novelist and playwright. Harrison’s life is told chronologically in extraordinary detail, especially concerning his growing up and his time with The Beatles. It was a revelation to realize just how materially deprived George’s childhood was, but how comforting to learn what a close, loving family he had. This makes his moody cynicism all the more mysterious.

Norman’s narrative reveals a magnificent musician who, despite often being tone-deaf to others’ feelings, did not just mean well, but (usually) did well by his friends and so many strangers through his considerable philanthropy.

The author appears especially partial to Harrison’s dry and even gallows humor. It is remarkable to read of his being carried out of his house on a stretcher in late 1999, having almost been killed by 40 stab wounds from an insane intruder, and him asking a pair of new housekeepers, “What do you think of the job so far?”

Likewise, he named his last album “Brainwashed,” because of his terminal brain cancer, and published its songs under the name of R.I.P. Music Ltd.

From his charity concert in aid of the people of Bangladesh.

But Norman’s apparent fondness for his subject does not inhibit him from pointing out painful facts. Likewise, the biographer is balanced and fair covering all the major players in Harrison’s orbit.

Having written an earlier book about The Beatles, as well as biographies of Lennon, McCartney, Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Sir Elton John, the author has an encyclopedic knowledge of many of pop music’s major players from the 1960s and 1970s.

Indeed, the Harrison biography sings best when telling of George’s time with the famous Fabs. He was in what would become the world’s biggest band from when he was not quite age 15 until he was 27; these were the most dramatic and important years of his life and critical to his development as a person, musician and composer.

The book brims with compelling descriptions of each of The Beatles and their relationships with one another, as well as the staff within the group’s growing empire. Norman also provides plenty of memorable observations about the larger London pop scene, conveying the cultural context on which the band fed and, to a considerable extent, led.

In light of how strained the foursome’s internal dynamics would become by the late 1960s, it truly is touching to learn what extremely close friends they were for most of the dozen years they were a team. It also is reassuring to read how well they ultimately overcame their differences, as their Beatles past became an ever more distant blur in the rearview mirror.

But what could have been an outstanding biography is not one, due to several needless drawbacks. One of the most tiresome is when the book occasionally burrows way too deeply into utterly irrelevant minutiae about not just Harrison’s Beatles days, but trivial players from that time, about whom only the most fanatical fans care. Who buys a George Harrison biography for mundane details about long obscure local Liverpool bands from 1960?

George with first wife Pattie.

And although the author bemoans how Lennon and McCartney ignored Harrison too much, he spends an excessive amount of time on The Beatles’ dynamic duo. Having written biographies of each, he might have found their pronounced personalities more interesting than that of the self-effacing Harrison.

As captivating as this biography generally is when recounting George’s formative and Beatles years, just 153 of the book’s 440 pages address the period after The Beatles — the majority of his life — and his last two full decades are crammed into a mere 55 pages.

So, Norman fails to devote remotely enough attention to the 31 years of Harrison’s life when he finally enjoyed the freedom to be completely who he wanted to be.

This is all the more regrettable because George made a remarkable number of excellent albums of his own during this period, as well as with the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup he formed with Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne. Indeed, Harrison appears to have enjoyed being a Wilbury more than being a Beatle, since his second band was genuinely democratic and egalitarian.

George also did much as a film producer and philanthropist. In fairness, Norman does touch on all of this, but not enough for the reader to develop a full understanding of any of it. Instead, when covering Harrison’s later years, the book reads like it is just hitting the big news events, with little analysis.

That brings us to the biggest flaw of the biography: After reading it, I now know far more about Harrison, but I doubt I really understand what shaped his character and drove him.

The Traveling Wilburys.

Though Norman’s book is full of intriguing, fun and sometimes unsettling anecdotes, I still cannot say I truly appreciate why Harrison acted as he did. And the book ends without even attempting to draw any conclusions about its protagonist.

This is a shame, particularly considering Norman’s considerable research and writing talents.

A final quibble concerns the embarrassing number of missing words, typographical errors and misspellings in the text. It is stunning how big publishers now are comfortable putting out works riddled with basic writing errors.

Nevertheless, “George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle” is, overall, a very well-researched and well-written biography that boasts loads of fascinating facts. Most importantly, it brings attention to an extraordinarily talented artist who never has gotten the respect he deserves, due to being overshadowed by the greatest songwriting partnership of the 20th century.

Norman has made a significant contribution to elevating Harrison’s place in the pop music pantheon, which is a very welcome development.

Douglas Young