A new biography of George Harrison has just been published. Journalist MIKE ROWBOTTOM, a big fan of the Beatles, found it a moving and well-researched account of his life, with some new insights.
ALMOST 400 pages into Graeme Thomson’s mammoth account of the so-called “Quiet Beatle” I welled up. I couldn’t stop myself, it was at the point in the story when George Harrison was saying his last goodbyes and Paul McCartney was among them.
It was in New York “some 45 years after they first met in Speke on the top deck of an 86 bus. They held hands, laughed and wept, and parted in love,” writes Thomson, adding that George died in Sir Paul’s home in California.
The tears nearly spilled into my porridge. Maybe not a rational response from a reporter who has worked on four continents, but a genuine one, and I would be surprised if anyone picking up this book didn’t experience a similar involuntary emotion.
I was assigned to cover George’s passing for TV. George had made a big and important impression in Henley. The town regarded him as theirs and the town council had even ordered the Union flag to be flown at half-mast. Everyone had something to say — except his closest circle of friends. They knew how George disliked media hype and they weren’t about to betray his memory by adding to it.
Thomson takes us from George’s birth on Merseyside to his death in Beverly Hills, via the gathering of four young men who liked to play music, to Hamburg, the insanity of Beatlemania, the discovery of Ravi Shankar and Eastern spirituality, the acrimony of the Beatles break-up, a search for inner peace and George’s 30 years at Friar Park where he built his life away from the madness of London.
There he had his circle of loyal friends and judging by the content of the book, that is how they have remained.The “Henley Mafia” is present in the story but barely quoted. Musicians like Joe Brown, Herbie Flowers, Keith Relphs, the late John Lord and the late Gary Moore appear to have kept their own counsel, as they did when he was alive.
George Harrison had two families — his blood relations and the Beatles. No matter how he might have wanted to disown them they could never be truly unwelded because the band had been forged in a ferocious fire.
George and Paul did not really see eye-to-eye after the Beatles broke up, but with his storytelling skill the author describes the close relationship of their early days together.
Paul and George were pupils at the elite state grammar school, the Liverpool Institute and they travelled in from Speke together long before Lennon appeared on the scene. We hear of how they played music together and how little accidents like that led to the formation of the most powerful pop/rock group ever to tune their guitars.
George was not academically-minded and hated his time at the institute, but he was determined, thorough and — bearing in mind the punishing criteria to get into the institute — very, very bright. He reacted against the regimen of school and emerged with nothing. But his natural abilities had already made him into a strong, clean and accurate guitar player. If anything he suffered for being precocious because he was a year younger than Paul and three years younger than Lennon. He was always the baby of the group, even as a grown man.
Behind The Locked Door is a huge undertaking, pulling together a myriad of primary and secondary sources. It’s clearly and compellingly written with hundreds of anecdotes, quotes and insights. It may be that the early history — including the link with McCartney — is documented somewhere but I had never seen it until this point, despite being pretty well-read on the Beatles.
The author has scoured every available source and has some impressive primary interviews as well, including George’s two wives. In some ways it tells us what we thought we already knew, but in such detail that it seems fresh. What emerges from early on in the story is that George was a sinner who didn’t necessarily want to be a saint. He wanted enlightenment, but was happy to run that in parallel with his material world. He enjoyed fast cars, friends, drink, occasionally drugs... and women.
The book makes no attempt to hide George’s appetite for women and details some of the affairs while married to either Patti Boyd or his widow, Olivia. But that’s not new and is already well-documented — in fact sometimes sourced by those two important people in his life.
Half of the book is about the Beatles and their formation, the other half details the rest of George’s life. It’s hard not to know the Beatles’ story but until now we haven’t always had it from George’s perspective. Some things are repeated, but others — like his attitude to Apple, his contributions to songs and albums and his status within the group — may not have been so clear.
What we learn is that he was a man addicted to detail and getting it right. One of the reasons for the Beatles’ success was his excellent playing. While other guitarists bashed out a few simple chords, George was learning inversions, jazz techniques and accuracy. That attitude remained with him and made him into one of the great rock guitarists.
You can hear it in the early albums — clean lines, sometimes recorded in one take, inventive riffs, song-defining solos. Think about Nowhere Man and And I Love Her for instance. He had a lifelong love of Indian music and played it and listened to it to his last days. He applied himself to learning the sitar hoping it would lead him to enlightenment and to see his God. From what we gather, he got there.
His life in and around Henley is mentioned continually with stories of how he and the “Mafia” would sometimes roll up at the Crown at Pishill to play. By the way, they would also do that at the Crooked Billet in Stoke Row but that tended to remain within those walls.
We know he fought for the old Regal cinema and stood in the protest lines which can’t have been easy for him. And he would forever be making music with someone — latterly his son, Dhani. Because in the end all he wanted to do was be in a band. He didn’t seek the limelight and didn’t like it being thrust upon him. He liked the fellowship and camaraderie of playing with a bunch of mates, be they John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Badfinger, Delaney and Bonnie…. or a bunch of ukulele strummers.
Everything which can be documented is mentioned in this packed, efficient and highly readable book.
In the end the conclusion of Thomson’s epic journey is that George was a relatively ordinary man who had brilliance thrust upon him. He responded to that by giving us some of the most enduring art of the last century.
And if there’s any doubt about that, next time you drive past Friar Park, take a look at the gates. I’m willing to bet that 12 years after his death there’s a one-in-three chance that someone will be taking a photo.
* George Harrison, Behind The Locked Door by Graeme Thomson is published by Omnibus Press and costs £19.95.