New George Harrison Bio Stretches Well Past the Beatle Years

International rock star or park flasher? A somewhat dour looking George Harrison in an Apple Records ad for his 1974 "Dark Horse" LP.
International rock star or park flasher? A somewhat dour looking George Harrison in an Apple Records ad for his 1974 "Dark Horse" LP. Apple Records Trade Ad/WikiCommons

George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door
By Graeme Thomson
Overlook Press, 464 pp., $19.95

Recent years have seen plenty of new and “definitive” bios — some doorstop size — on John, Paul and even Ringo. Now, George gets his own entry with this U.S. paperback reissue of a recent UK effort by music journo Thomson, who also conducted dozens of fresh interviews with friends, collaborators and exes.

Outside of the music, compellingly, the reader can’t help but come away realizing what a….sourpuss George Harrison was. No member was more reluctant and perturbed by Beatlemania than the group’s youngest member (who – in one of many dichotomies – nonetheless enjoyed and pursued all the perks that being a mega celebrity had to offer). And it often came across in his songwriting. After all, just look at even his early efforts: “Don’t Bother Me,” “If I Needed Someone,” “You Like Me Too Much.”

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Book cover courtesy of Overlook Press
Later, he could also be especially pious (other Beatles came to call him mockingly “His Holiness”) and cruel to underlings and employees, often to wife Pattie Boyd. Dishearteningly, readers find out that “Something” – perhaps the Beatles’ greatest love song and one of rock’s finest – was written not for Boyd but for God! Harrison purportedly altered the lyrics for “he” to “she” lest anybody think him a poof.

He struggled all his life to balance the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane. He preferred to keep Boyd cloistered in his mansion with a staff and controlled comforts, while he drove around in expensive sports cars (so much for the Hare Krishna belief of living in a non-material world). Thomson also writes of a cavalier attitude toward women and Harrison's seeming assumption of access to them. He would have affairs with the wives of Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and even Ringo’s wife, which was devastating to the drummer. And, of course, the George Harrison-Pattie Boyd-Eric Clapton troika is the stuff of rock legend, even as the men were downright amiable about it.

One has to have some sympathy for him musically, though, as Thomson makes no bones that John Lennon and Paul McCartney often treated him as a sort of kid brother and only tolerated his attempts at songwriting and presenting material for consideration, which did no favors for his fragile ego. So when his first proper solo album came out, All Things Must Pass was a three-album regurgitation of held-back and repressed material, much of which John and Macca previously poo-poohed. It’s still perhaps the best Beatles solo album; okay, at least two-thirds of it….

Thomson also delves into the making of All Thing Must Pass, the Concert for Bangladesh and the disastrous 1974 Dark Horse tour, where an ill, sour and hectoring Harrison confused listeners with a show that he only performed half of, turned in lackluster performances and did everything he could not to let on he was ever in That Other Band, trotting out only a paltry three Beatles tunes. He never mounted another major tour, a handful of 1991 gigs in Japan with Clapton along for moral support his only non-special-event return to the boards.

For the ensuing decades, Harrison would emit the occasional album of varying quality, have a hit (the Lennon elegy “All Those Years Ago,” ’50s cover “Got My Mind Set On You”), find some real joy with the Traveling Wilburys in the studio, and indulge in passions for auto racing and filmmaking.

He also came to terms with his Beatles past with the somewhat whitewashed Anthology film, book and record project and reunited with McCartney and Starr (along with a recorded Lennon) for some “new” tracks. Though, as Thomson details, the project was fraught with dissension, ego battles and dismissiveness from the “Threetles” for much of its production. And while he survived a vicious knife attack in his own home from an intruder, Harrison (a lifelong smoker) ultimately died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 58.

That’s not to make it seem that this bio — the most comprehensive ever on Harrison — is a downer. And there’s plenty of discussion and dissection of his estimable musical contributions. But it also is a fascinating look at the most private, “Quiet” of the Beatles, and a must-have addition to any Beatles Bookshelf.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero