If the title of Philip Norman’s biography makes you wonder why anyone would be reluctant to be a Beatle, the first few chapters provide the answer. Coming from a loving, supportive, working-class family in Liverpool, George Harrison was 14 when an amiable Paul McCartney invited him to join a loosely congregated skiffle group called the Quarrymen. To which the group’s acid-tongued 17-year-old leader John Lennon responded: “Who’s that bloody kid who’s always hanging around?”
Did it get better for that bloody kid once he was officially a Beatle? No, it did not. So quiet that one early associate remembered him as “the Invisible Man”, Harrison was routinely subjected to all manner of indignities — he lost his virginity in a Hamburg bunk bed while John, Paul and the band’s original drummer Pete Best looked on; and when he vomited on the floor of a Hamburg flat in a drunken stupor one night, the other Beatles christened his puke of shame “the Thing” and decorated it with matchsticks.
Given this early treatment, you can see why it was so hard for Harrison to be taken seriously by his tormentors in the years to come. It meant that however good his songs were — and few can argue that “Isn’t It a Pity” and “All Things Must Pass” are not profound, moving highlights of the hippie era — Harrison was forever struggling to get them onto Beatles records.
He must have felt his moment had come when All Things Must Pass, his triple album released in November 1970 in the wake of the Beatles falling apart, stamped all over the others’ solo efforts by going straight to No 1. Yet, like an older brother who knows how to twist the knife, Lennon even cut that down. “Every time I put the radio on, it’s ‘Oh my Lord,’” Lennon said of “My Sweet Lord.” “I’m beginning to think there must be a God.” Lennon appraised Harrison’s signature spiritual singalong with a demeaning “all right”, claiming that Harrison only ever managed to bash out a tune in the first place because “he was working with two f***ing brilliant songwriters and he learnt a lot from us”.
Norman has fashioned an authoritative portrait of Harrison that leaves you liking and feeling sympathy for his subject while being fully aware of the tetchiness — quite common among people aiming for a higher state of consciousness, funnily enough — that was never far away.
However good his songs were, George Harrison was forever struggling to get them onto Beatles records.
As Ringo Starr observed: “There was the love-and-beads personality and the bag of anger.” The first really did blossom in India, whether it meant putting in the hours to learn the sitar under the great Ravi Shankar or finding tranquility in Rishikesh in the company of the Maharishi. The problem with the spiritual pursuit is that it can be mistaken for a quick road to enlightenment, particularly among Westerners discovering Eastern traditions, and Harrison proved to be no more rapidly enlightened than the next would-be yogi. The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor recalled a transatlantic flight on which Harrison was chanting his mantra. When a concerned flight attendant asked if everything was all right, he snapped: “F*** off. Can’t you see I’m meditating?”
One person who did understand Harrison was his first wife, Pattie Boyd. She lived with him in a Gothic mansion near Henley called Friar Park, filled with Hare Krishnas and rockers, leading her to ask Harrison’s assistant Chris O’Dell: “What’s he got in his hands today, the prayer beads or the cocaine?” Boyd made up a third of the most famous love triangle in rock history, with Eric Clapton not only writing “Layla” about her, but also consulting the New Orleans musician Dr John, who he suspected of having voodoo powers, about casting a spell to make Boyd fall in love with him. After Harrison caught her canoodling with Clapton in the garden of Robert Stigwood’s house, Clapton announced, in the faux-casual argot of the era: “I have to tell you, man, I’m in love with your wife.” Harrison dealt with it the only way an emotionally constipated former Beatle knew how: by challenging Clapton to a guitar duel.
All of this is imparted in an affectionate but detached tone, leading to an impression of a man who, although burdened with an apparent inability to lighten up, generally sought to do the right thing. His 1971 Concert for Bangladesh started the trend for charity rock endeavors and collected together everyone from Bob Dylan to Shankar in what Rolling Stone magazine called “a brief incandescent revival of all that was best in the Sixties”. He funded Monty Python’s Life of Brian by actually betting the house on it, negotiating a bank loan secured against Friar Park.
“What’s he got in his hands today, the prayer beads or the cocaine?”
By the time he settled down with his second wife, Olivia, and their son, Dhani, he seemed to have arrived at some kind of actual peace rather than just the prayer bead-wearing sort. He reconciled with McCartney while working on the enormous Beatles Anthology project in the mid-Nineties and rediscovered his sense of humor too. In 1999, after a mentally ill intruder at Friar Park stabbed him repeatedly, Harrison announced that the intruder “certainly wasn’t auditioning for the Traveling Wilburys”.
Norman is something of a one-man Beatles industry. In 1981 he published the million-selling Shout! The True Story of the Beatles before continuing with biographies of Lennon and McCartney, but hopes of writing one on Harrison were dashed in November 2001 after a mean-spirited obituary he wrote ensured he would receive no cooperation from Olivia or Dhani.
In the event it doesn’t seem to have mattered too much, with Boyd in particular helping to fill out the story of a sensitive man and the part he played in late 20th-century life. Harrison doesn’t come across as a reluctant Beatle as such, more a normal guy who found himself in extraordinary circumstances and, lacking McCartney’s professionalism or Lennon’s cynicism, didn’t know how to handle it. The quiet Beatle, only 58 when he died, was simply trying to work it all out, just like the rest of us.
Will Hodgkinson is the chief rock-and-pop critic for The Times of London and contributes to Mojo magazine