Insightful biography of George Harrison, the ‘recovering’ Beatle

The former Beatle George Harrison in India in 1972. Tekee Tanwar / AFP
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Like Under the Ivy, his much-acclaimed study of Kate Bush, the title of the latest music biography by the Edinburgh-based writer Graeme Thomson promises revelation. While fresh gen on any Beatle is difficult to unearth and would be hard to quantify without scaling the Everest of pertinent books already published, one can certainly affirm that George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door is an insightful, rigorous and beautifully written atomisation of the youngest Beatle's life.

Timed to coincide with what would have been the year of Harrison’s 70th birthday, the book is affectionate, but never hagiographic. Thomson airs myriad acute quotes from scores of fresh interviewees, and as he maps Harrison’s path from Liverpool to Allahabad, India, where the guitarist’s ashes were strewn after he succumbed to lung cancer in 2001 at the age of 58. The author demonstrates that his subject was the most conflicted and enigmatic of the Fab Four; a man torn between a great spiritual yearning and more earthly pleasures.

Thomson's book also employs a neat little trope: the "Be Here Now" sections that briefly footnote each chapter beam us down into a specific, always-revealing moment in Harrison's life. The entry for September 1987, for example, finds "recovering Beatle" George dressing down the wife of a photographer who has playfully – and naively – asked one of the most press-fatigued and personal space-zealous musicians on the planet, "Don't you want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone?" Harrison's lengthy, acerbic reply gives both barrels to an innocent bystander. "Can I possibly tell you how little that means to me?" it begins.

Happily, there are numerous counterbalancing examples of Harrison's warmer side, and Thomson cites 1971's The Concert For Bangladesh, Harrison's greatest single act of philanthropy, as a structurally flawed but ultimately successful undertaking that paved the way for Live Aid and led some to see Harrison as "a new breed of emotionally evolved rock star for a new era". Elsewhere, a little snapshot of ukulele devotee George making pal Bob Dylan sit through six consecutive plays of George Formby's When I'm Cleaning Windows also warms the cockles.

From the outset, Thomson is careful not to get bogged down in the kind of slavish recitation of “born here”, “went to school there” facts that burden so many rock biographies. Instead, he is quick to put flesh on bones, detailing Harrison’s severe mood swings and “child-like sense of mischief”, and dispensing small, resonant details.

We learn that the teenage George covered his spots with panstick; that he believed he had been an Indian in a previous life; and that his harmonically advanced guitar-playing – as evidenced by that ringing Fadd9 chord that opens A Hard Day's Night – might have owed something to Len Houghton, the family friend and Django Reinhardt fan who once gave George guitar lessons.

The madness of Beatlemania is sketched with a light but vivid touch. That the route of a motorcade through Adelaide in 1964 drew about 300,000 fans and there was a death threat to Harrison before the group played Japan’s Nippon Budokan Hall in August 1966 says it all. It’s little wonder that Harrison – a born worrier who had feared for his own mother’s life after the tragically early deaths of Paul’s mother Mary and John’s mother Julia – became increasingly paranoid. And with good reason, of course.

Seasoned Harrison fans will appreciate how Behind the Locked Door cares so deeply about its subject. Thomson is good at teasing out things that set Harrison apart from his bandmates. For instance, while John wrote Strawberry Fields Forever about a Salvation Army children's home he'd loved as a child, and Paul immortalised Liverpool's Penny Lane, George, Thomson writes, "stubbornly resists deification of his home city".

The author also notes that, while Lennon and McCartney's lyrics were often given to third-person flights of fancy, Harrison's Beatles songs include a number of curmudgeonly critiques of band life written in the first person. Don't Bother Me, the first Harrison original the band recorded, could hardly be more direct, and later came Taxman and Only a Northern Song, the latter later described by Harrison as his "personal denunciation of The Beatles' music publishing business".

If the fluffy, cartoonish image of The Beatles was usually given short-shrift by Harrison, Thomson is able to show that the group's scrabbled-over business affairs and Lennon and McCartney's patronising attitude towards George's songwriting — only around the time he wrote Something does he begin to command respect — were a factor. Not that Harrison was averse to playing the Beatles card when it suited him. Towards the end of the book, Steve Ferrone, sometime Harrison drummer in the early 1990s, recalls he and George riding in a limousine to a Prince show at Wembley Arena sans tickets. "George rolls down the window and says, 'It's OK, it's me!'" recalls Ferrone. Needless to say, the gates parted.

Elsewhere in the book, we’re reminded that Indian spirituality and music changed everything for Harrison. His interest in transcendental meditation, his new-found dedication to the sitar and his valued friendship with the instrument’s leading virtuoso Ravi Shankar – all of these things deepened when he and his then-wife Pattie Boyd travelled to India in September 1966, just two weeks after The Beatles played Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California, their last ever show. In February 1968, when Harrison returns to Rishikesh, India, to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, his fellow Beatles are with him. “Finally, his interests were not just being taken seriously,” says Thomson, “they were driving the narrative of the band.”

Bookended by his undisputed masterwork, 1970's All Things Must Pass, and his good-humoured, late 1980s output with Anglo-American supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, Harrison's solo years are otherwise light on remarkable music.

He's off the radar mostly by choice, but certain philanthropic gestures still make headlines. When Harrison's company HandMade Films bankrolls Monty Python's The Life of Brian to the tune of about US$4 million (Dh14.6m) simply because it's a film George "would like to see", the Python's Terry Jones calls it "the world's most expensive cinema ticket".

As a musician, George is adrift for much of the 70s and 80s, however, and Thomson avers that the pious spirituality of some of his music proved a difficult pill to swallow against the lighthearted backdrop of glam and the irreverent glamour of punk. “He [Harrison] often appeared to be a man who had seen a glimpse of heaven and was pulling the ladder up behind him,” notes the author, memorably.

The knife attack that Harrison suffered after a psychotic fan broke into his home at Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, on December 31, 1999, makes for a tremendously moving climax to the book. When fellow Traveling Wilbury Tom Petty learns of the attack, the dryly humorous telegram he sends bigs-up Harrison’s second wife Olivia, who had somehow summoned the courage to attack her husband’s assailant with a poker: “Aren’t you glad you married a Mexican girl?” it reads.

Two years later, when Dr Gilbert Lederman, a director of radiation oncology, all but forces a pitifully weak Harrison to autograph a guitar for his son just weeks before the Beatle’s death, the imposition seems almost as gross as the attack at Friar Park.

Olivia Harrison notes that her husband had long-since “maxed the planet out, looking for solitude”. It’s a neat summary of Harrison’s inability to escape his past.

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.