How swell to at last have a major biography of that most aloof of all rock stars. The book is George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle, by respected pop music historian Philip Norman. And how sobering it is to learn that the reclusive rocker’s feet were all too completely made of clay. The biography is very detailed and well written. It would 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.
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.
Still, Harrison was the Beatle most in the background. His growing ability as a songwriter was largely ignored by the group’s leaders, John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney. But after the Fab Four’s 1970 breakup, the lead guitarist would stun everyone with his astonishing All Things Must Pass triple album to become the most critically and commercially successful Beatle of the early 1970s.
It is comforting to learn that Harrison was usually kind, caring, and giving. Not only did he co-write “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo,” two of Beatle brother Ringo Starr’s biggest solo hit songs, but he did not even ask for a (certainly very lucrative) songwriting credit for either. Even when in bed, dying of cancer, he offered to visit the drummer’s ailing daughter.
Harrison 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 Harrison was a stubborn loner who was often 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, Mr. Curt 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 was also an inveterate womanizer who committed adultery in his own house when his first wife was home and even cheated with his closest Beatle brother Ringo’s wife. This was a conquest too far even for licentious Beatle brother John, who denounced it as “virtual incest.” The affair led to the Starrs divorcing the next year.
Surprisingly for the composer who wrote so many beautiful love songs, including the classic “Something,” George did not appear to be all that passionate or romantic. He not only routinely betrayed both of his spouses but did not seem to mind losing his first wife to Eric Clapton — who remained his dearest friend.
While enjoying all the easy camaraderie with his bandmates and being too shy to perform on his own, by the latter 1960s Harrison firmly rejected any more concert tours and was deeply bitter that more of his compositions were not allowed on Beatle albums. Later calling himself “the economy-class Beatle,” he felt liberated when the group finally broke up, and would never seek a reunion. Asked to help Sir Paul perform “Let It Be” at London’s 1985 Live Aid Concert, George made the typically tactless retort that Paul “didn’t want me to sing on it ten years ago, so why does he want me now?”
Despite his enduring shyness — Norman notes that “no more private person can ever have trodden a stage more mercilessly public” — in 1971, spurred by his friend and fellow sitar player Ravi Shankar, George organized the massive Concert for Bangladesh at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Though so nervous backstage that he suffered bouts of diarrhea and vomiting, Harrison’s pair of concerts would produce rock music’s first and possibly best benefit performance and album, featuring Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Badfinger, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, George, Ringo, and many more — and he worked hard to make sure the proceeds actually went to hungry Bangladeshis. Harrison 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.
He even cheated with Ringo’s wife. This was a conquest too far even for licentious Beatle brother John, who denounced it as “virtual incest.”
George was likewise generous with family and friends. He bought houses for his mother-in-law and a Beatles staffer. He not only made major contributions to his fellow Hindus but even risked losing his beloved Friar Park estate by putting it up as collateral for his Monty Python buddies’ 1979 controversial comedy, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Yet he was embarrassingly cheap with his own loyal staff, and he dissolved his first marriage by paying his most important muse a paltry £120,000.
“The quiet Beatle” in public “wouldn’t stop talking” in private settings, where he was much more comfortable. But while he could be pleasantly social and even host a party, he much preferred gardening to people, since, as he explained in his frank fashion, “the flowers don’t answer back.”
Philip Norman’s book is unusually well written, especially for a rock star biography, and it is likely not a coincidence that the author is also a novelist and playwright. Harrison’s life is told chronologically in extraordinary detail, especially his growing up and his time with the Beatles. It was a revelation to discover how materially deprived his childhood was, but comforting to learn what a close, loving family he had. This makes his moody cynicism all the more mysterious.
Norman clearly likes his subject. His narrative portrays a magnificent musician who, despite being tone deaf to others’ feelings, did not just mean well but (usually) did well by his friends and sometimes to strangers. Norman 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 died of forty stab wounds from an insane intruder, and asking a pair of new housekeepers, “What do you think of the job so far?” 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.”
Norman’s fondness for his subject does not inhibit him from pointing out painful facts or from being fair to the major players in Harrison’s life. Having written an earlier book about the Beatles, as well as biographies of Lennon, McCartney, Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Elton John, Norman has an encyclopedic knowledge of many of pop music’s major players from the 1960s and 1970s and may well be the world’s top Beatles scholar.
It is remarkable to read of his being carried out of his house on a stretcher, having almost died of 40 stab wounds from an insane intruder, and asking a pair of new housekeepers, “What do you think of the job so far?”
Indeed, the Harrison biography sings best when telling of George’s time with the famous fabs, which lasted from when he was not quite 15 until he was 27. 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. It provides memorable observations about the larger London pop scene, conveying the cultural context that influenced and was influenced by the band.
In light of how strained the foursome’s internal dynamics would become by the late 1960s, it is touching to learn what extremely close friends they were for most of the dozen years they were a team — and good to know how well they ultimately overcame their differences, as their Beatle past became an ever more distant blur in the rearview mirror.
Now for the drawbacks to the book — needless drawbacks. One of the most tiresome is its burrowing far too deep in the weeds of utterly irrelevant minutiae, not just about Harrison’s Beatle days but also about trivial players from that time, people who matter only to the most fanatical fans. Who buys a George Harrison biography for mundane details about long obscure local Liverpool bands, c.1960? While bemoaning Lennon and McCartney’s tendency to ignore Harrison, Norman spends far too much of his own time on those two. Having written biographies of each, he may have found their pronounced personalities more interesting than that of the self-effacing Harrison.
Just 153 of the book’s 440 pages address his life after the Beatles — the majority of it. His last two full decades are crammed into a mere 55 pages. So Norman fails to devote remotely enough attention to the very 31 years of Harrison’s life when he finally enjoyed the freedom to be completely who he wanted to be.
The work is full of intriguing, fun, and sometimes unsettling anecdotes, but I still cannot say I know why Harrison acted as he did.
This is all the more regrettable since George made a remarkable number of excellent albums of his own during this period, as well as with the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup he shared 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, as I mentioned, a philanthropist. Norman touches on all this but never devotes remotely enough space to develop a full understanding of any of it. When covering Harrison’s later years, the book reads like something that’s just hitting the big news events, but with little analysis.
This highlights the book’s biggest flaw, which I find throughout: while I now know far more about Harrison than I did before, I doubt that I really understand what shaped and drove him. The work is full of intriguing, fun, and sometimes unsettling anecdotes, but I still cannot say I know why he acted as he did. Norman ends without even attempting to draw any conclusions about its protagonist. That’s a shame.
Finally, a quibble: there is an embarrassing number of missing words, typographical errors, and misspellings littering the text which reminds me of other books I have reviewed over the past year by political entertainers Greg Gutfeld and Kat Timpf, as well as Chadwick Moore’s biography of Tucker Carlson. It is stunning that big publishers are now comfortable putting out works riddled with basic writing errors. So is Norman sloppy or can a major publisher somehow not afford a decent editor? This is a genuine mystery, worthy of an answer.
Nevertheless, George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle brings attention to an extraordinarily talented artist who has been overshadowed — understandably but unjustly — by the greatest songwriting partnership of the 20th century.
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Review of George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle, by Philip Norman. Scribner, 2023, 440 pages.