SUNDAY DECEMBER 02 2001
George Harrison was the shy boy who became a superstar. But he had a side that was not so sweet, says Beatles biographer Philip Norman
Few people have paused to marvel that the guitarist in a pop group that broke up 30 years ago could make world headlines by his death from cancer last week. That is because the Beatles' music and magic are timeless. Even people not born in their 1960s heyday are captivated by the cultural phenomenon of which George Harrison was a part.
Harrison was never the world's greatest guitarist, vocalist or songwriter. But he was as essential to the Fab Four formula as John Lennon's rebellious smile or Paul McCartney's great cow eyes. He was "the quiet one", the serious musician who held the beat together while John and Paul were skylarking at the mike. Beatles fans who screamed for George were a curious but dedicated minority, like those who pick the green ones in packets of wine gums.
I first saw Harrison backstage at a Beatles concert in Newcastle upon Tyne at the height of Beatlemania, back in 1965. Lennon, McCartney and Ringo Starr were immediately friendly and forthcoming, McCartney even handing his violin bass guitar to me to try. Only Harrison stayed in the background, his pale face cupped in a black polo-neck. I thought at the time that he looked a bit of a miserable git, but I did not dream how right I was.
Harrison's misanthropy was as well hidden as McCartney's two-facedness and Lennon's general disgust with the whole Beatlemania experience. It was not what the world wanted to hear about their beloved mop-tops and probably still isn't. But Beatle insiders knew about it for decades. As one of them recently confided to me, "I think George was born bitter."
Harrison's grievances began from the moment he joined the Quarrymen, the skiffle group that was to metamorphose into the Beatles, as a 15-year-old schoolfriend of McCartney's in 1958. The story goes that they let him in only because, unlike the others, he knew how to tune guitars and he happened to know how to play a then popular instrumental number called Raunchy.
Lennon, the group's founder, was three years his senior and at first used to make scathing remarks about "that bloody kid hanging around". Years later, when they were both multimillionaires and modern legends, Harrison would complain that was how Lennon still regarded him.
Harrison was lead guitarist, traditionally a starring or co-starring role. But in his case it would be neither. From the very first the band was dominated by Lennon and McCartney, by their energy, their rival sex appeal and their increasingly prolific and brilliant songwriting.
Harrison's main role was painfully mastering the guitar riffs to the Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly numbers that padded out their early albums. Shy, self-conscious and undemonstrative, he found himself relegated to an inner "second division" with Starr. Ringo resigned himself to it, but George never could.
In the recording studio he suffered further downgrading from the band's producer, George Martin, who had no high opinion of his rather ploddy guitar style and sometimes condescendingly spelt out on the piano the solo he wanted Harrison to play. "I was always rather beastly to George," Martin once admitted to me.
Although Harrison, too, soon began writing songs they were always doomed to be eclipsed by Lennon and McCartney's torrential output. On early Beatles albums there would usually be only one "George" song against a dozen by John and Paul. Even then one noticed a rather sour, hectoring note in Harrison titles such as Don't Bother Me and Think For Yourself, and the line in Love You To about "people standing round who screw you in the ground".
His greatest influence within the Beatles came during their "Indian" period of 1966-68, when they became converts to transcendental meditation and disciples of the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. According to Richard Lester, director of their 1965 film Help!, Harrison's conversion happened in a moment that could almost have been an extra scene from the movie. They were shooting a sequence on a beach in the Bahamas when, seemingly out of nowhere, an Indian rode up on a bicycle and handed George a book on meditation. From that chance encounter an obsession was born.
Harrison took up the sitar, became a pupil of the instrument's greatest living maestro, Ravi Shankar, and brought a twangly Indian feel to Beatles tracks such as Within You Without You and Norwegian Wood. As Martin later remembered, it gave him an authority in the studio that he'd never had before. "Whenever a lot of barefoot Indian musicians walked in, you knew George had taken charge."
He won the esteem and affection of fellow guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards (then Richard) of the Rolling Stones.
Harrison was among the guests at Richards's Sussex cottage on a famous weekend when it was raided by police, although he had left shortly before the swoop. The story goes that the officers waited for him to depart before pouncing, it then being inconceivable to bust a Beatle. Yet he still felt under-used and under-appreciated by his Beatle colleagues, particularly Lennon. A revealing moment came in 1969 after Harrison had contributed two magnificent songs, Here Comes the Sun and Something, to Abbey Road, the last album that the Beatles were to record.
Lennon, intending to be complimentary, remarked how Harrison had "come on" as a songwriter. Harrison retorted tartly that he'd been writing songs like those for years but had never been given space on albums to include them.
He also fell out with McCartney — who now claims him to have been his "baby brother" — on the unhappy sessions for Let It Be, the album recorded before Abbey Road but eventually released as the band's farewell. A film sequence from the Let It Be session shows McCartney, like Martin before him, telling Harrison exactly how his solo ought to sound and Harrison reacting in cold fury. "Look, I'll play whatever you want me to play," he snaps. "Or I won't play at all. Whatever it is that'll please you, I'll do it."
His resentment against McCartney remained for the rest of his life. In a Radio 2 interview a couple of years ago, he was heard complaining, "Paul McCartney ruined me as a guitarist."
Certainly Harrison was overshadowed by Lennon and McCartney. At the same time they stimulated him to try to reach their standard. His best song, Here Comes the Sun — an elegy containing all the blissed-out, sun-soaked false optimism of 1969 — could have been written by either John or Paul.
The band's break-up, an unofficial fact by 1969 although not officially ratified until 1971, had little to do with Harrison, being predominantly a fight to the finish between Lennon and McCartney over money, leadership and their respective new wives, Yoko and Linda. Like Ringo, George was mainly a bewildered spectator on the sidelines longing for the band to be over but powerless to administer the coup de grace.
During this period I spent several weeks hanging out at the band's Apple house in London's Mayfair, where their idealistic dream of hippie-inspired commerce was sinking under the weight of thieves and freeloaders.
I happened to meet Harrison on the day it was discovered that Post Office messenger boys had been stripping the lead from the building's roof. How had Apple come to this, I asked him. He replied rather touchingly: "It was like a game of Chinese whispers. We said one thing, but what came back to us was completely different."
The band's break-up seemed to plunge Harrison into depression, even though he said that creatively speaking it was like recovering from "an eight-year dose of constipation".
For a time he even took to kerb-crawling and picking up "Apple Scruffs", his nickname for the girls who haunted the doorstep of the Beatles' Mayfair office. One of them invited him back to her bedsit, but Harrison made no advances to her. Like other Beatles, he had picked up more than one dose of the clap during the band's early 1960s residency on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg and remained terrified of sexually transmitted disease. This Apple Scruff, an outspoken American, prophetically warned him to expect trouble if he went on chainsmoking at his present rate.
To cheer him in this dark period, his great friend Eric Clapton invited him out on tour as a support guitarist to Clapton and the American hillbilly-rock duo Delaney and Bonnie. I was along on that tour and can remember Harrison standing at the back of the stage in flowing beard, buckskin jacket and Stetson, rather like some modern reincarnation of Buffalo Bill Cody.
One day at lunch in a motorway cafeteria — where he had sent back the mushroom soup, fearing it might contain meat — Harrison admitted he'd been so nervous on stage with Clapton that he'd forgotten even basic guitar chords such as D and G7. "But playing live's a gas, isn't it?" he added, as if the scream-rent Beatlemania years had never existed and this had been his first time.
Ironically, in the immediate post-break-up period Harrison's solo career seemed to leap ahead of both Lennon's and McCartney's. His triple album, All Things Must Pass, released in late 1970, was a massive British and American hit. With it came an international number one single, the mantra-like My Sweet Lord. A year later he conceived the two charity Concerts for Bangladesh at New York's Madison Square Garden, persuading superstar friends such as Clapton, Bob Dylan and Leon Russell to perform gratis for the famine-stricken millions of former East Pakistan.
One tribute last week called him "a great humanitarian"; if that was putting it rather strong, the Concert for Bangladesh undoubtedly gave rock its first inkling of social conscience, paving the way for Live Aid and similar events in the 1980s.
Passing time, however, revealed the awful truth. All Things Must Pass consisted of songs that Harrison had written while still in the Beatles and for which there had never been room on their albums. Without Lennon and McCartney to stimulate as well as frustrate him, he would never produce such quality material again.
To make matters worse, My Sweet Lord was accused of plagiarising a 1960s song called He's So Fine by an American female group, the Chiffons. The resulting litigation took a bizarre turn when Allen Klein, the Beatles' sacked manager, acquired the copyright of He's So Fine, seemingly just for the satisfaction of prolonging the lawsuit against Harrison.
Even more bizarre was the conclusion, reached years down the line, after a British court had decided against Harrison and he had been obliged to pay a six- figure sum in compensation. He himself acquired the copyright of He's So Fine and so was free to plagiarise it or not as he chose.
After its dynamic start, his solo career went into tailspin. His albums were critically panned and sold in decreasing quantity. He began to alienate concert audiences by his self-importance and heavy-handed attempts at lecturing and preaching. His 1974 American tour was a failure so resounding that he never again went on the road in the United States nor in any other western country.
In 1966 he had married Patti Boyd, a snub-nosed blonde fashion model who was to prove much more than just a pretty face. She became one of the first fashionable converts to transcendental meditation and introduced the Beatles to the Maharishi in 1967.
Like all the other Beatles at that time, Harrison was an unreformed male chauvinist. "He treated Patti terribly," a close friend of the couple told me. "He'd make her cook a whole big meal for him. Then he'd turn round and say he didn't want it." According to Peter Brown, a former Beatles aide, Harrison was a serial philanderer who had even seduced Starr's first wife, Maureen.
Patti's unhappiness was to produce one of rock's strangest love triangles. Harrison's great friend Clapton was in love with her but felt honour bound not to start an affair with her. Clapton's classic song, Layla, is about Patti and his own tied hands. "I tried to give you consolation," he sings, "when your old man let you down . . ."
When Patti finally did leave Harrison for Clapton, in 1974, the two men somehow managed to stay friends. Harrison even went to Patti and Eric's wedding. "If my wife's going to run off with someone," he said, "I'd rather it was with a guy that I love."
Thereafter Harrison seemed to content himself with the life of a landed gentleman-hippie, retreating into Friar Park, the 120-room gothic mansion near Henley that he had bought for a knockdown £200,000 in 1970. The house, built by an eccentric named Sir Frankie Crisp, would have made a perfect alternative school for Harry Potter with its myriad sooty turrets, grotesque gargoyles and light switches fashioned like monks' skulls.
Harrison went on releasing albums but devoted himself mainly to restoring Friar Park's vast grounds, which encompass a lake with stepping stones set near the surface so that one can enjoy the feeling of walking on water. He also began a relationship with Olivia Arias, a secretary with his American record company A & M. They married in 1978, a month after the birth of their only child Dhani.
Lennon's murder in 1980 had a devastating effect on Harrison although — like McCartney — he was unable to comment on it at the time with more than inappropriate 1960s flipness. He said that a late-night telephone call had woken him with the news; he had gone back to sleep, "and when I woke up next morning it was still true".
Of the surviving Beatles he was the only one to record a tribute song, All Those Years Ago, sung at the anomalously cheerful tempo of a Scouts' campfire chorus. The main effect of Lennon's murder was to increase his reclusiveness and suspicion. "Before John's death," a friend of his told me, "the front gates of Friar Park always stood wide open. Afterwards, they were always shut and locked."
In the early 1980s a wholly unexpected new career beckoned thanks to Harrison's friendship with Michael Palin and other members of the Monty Python team. The Pythons were in the midst of making their hilariously sacrilegious Life of Brian film, but suddenly had the plug pulled on them by their backers. Harrison stepped in, mortgaging Friar Park to raise enough for the film to be completed.
It was the basis of a production company, HandMade, part-owned by Harrison, which led the British film renaissance of the 1980s with memorable productions such as Mona Lisa and The Long Good Friday as well as some out-and-out stinkers such as Madonna's Shanghai Surprise. One of the more surreal moments in that era was seeing Madonna appear at a press conference with ex-Beatle Harrison — once a king of press conferences the world over — as her silent minder.
With HandMade prospering, he also enjoyed a minor musical renaissance with a surprise hit single, Got my Mind Set on You, and as a member of the Traveling Wilburys band, with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, playing laid back country-rock that was rather unkindly called "skiffle for the Eighties".
But Harrison lacked the Midas touch of his old colleague, Sir Paul McCartney. He fell out with his partner in HandMade Films, Dennis O’Brien, and ended up losing millions through the company. Indeed, it was his dire need of cash that helped to bring about the Beatles’ comeback in the mid- 1990s when they reunited in the studio as back-up band to the ghost voice of Lennon.
Interviewed in the accompanying serial documentary — an almost Stalinist production that airbrushed out every Beatle wife but Yoko Ono — he proved the least gracious of the three survivors. Most bitterly did he resent the fact that the Beatles had received no honour higher than their MBE each in 1965 — although it was an unprecedented honour for a pop group then.
“After all we did for Great Britain, selling all that corduroy and making it swing,” he said, “they gave us that bloody old leather medal with wooden string through it.”
His recreations were eclectic. He followed Formula One racing and also became an obsessive fan of the 1940s musical entertainer George Formby, who used to sing in a squeaky northern accent, playing a ukulele. Harrison took his own Formby-style ukulele with him wherever he went and frequently attended conventions of Formby soundalikes, although he always shunned equivalent gatherings of Beatles fans.
Although private and publicity shy, he never became a recluse in the Howard Hughes mould, often attending F1 race meetings and even dropping in at the pub that stands close to his front gate. In latter years he looked less like a former pop idol and more like Worzel Gummidge in his old parkas and shapeless gardening hats. Although beady-eyed about money he could be generous to friends, notably Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ former publicist, whom he helped to buy a mill house in Suffolk.
His greatest asset proved to be his marriage to Olivia, not a rock star’s cipher wife but a woman of character and compassion who became deeply involved in charity work to help orphans in Romania.
The marriage, clearly, was not all roses. A few years back a Los Angeles prostitute known only as Tiffany identified Harrison as one of her clients, alleging that while a sexual service was performed for him he was playing his ukulele and singing a George Formby song. But Olivia stood by him, becoming — in one insider’s words — “the bedrock of his existence”. Together they proved model parents, raising their son Dhani in comparative normality out of the media spotlight.
On December 30, 1999, the replay of Lennon’s death that Harrison had so long feared nearly came to pass. Late that night at Friar Park he was almost killed by a knife-wielding intruder. In a horrible near-reincarnation of Mark David Chapman, Lennon’s assassin, a twisted Beatle fan named Michael Abrams broke into the house believing himself to be on “a mission from God” to murder Harrison.
Harrison later recounted how his first reaction on seeing the intruder was to shout his old 1960s peace mantra, “Hare Krishna”. As the two grappled at the foot of Friar Park’s main staircase, 34-year-old Abrams stabbed the ex-Beatle four times in the body with his knife. “I felt my chest deflate and the flow of blood to my mouth,” Harrison said later. “I truly thought I was dying.”
So he certainly would have done but for his wife who went for Abrams with a poker and the base of a lamp while her husband lay, bleeding and helpless, on the ground. The struggle continued — among the cushions on which Harrison would sit and meditate — until police arrived and overpowered Abrams. “I should have got the bastard better,” he remarked as he was led away.
At the time the Beatles’ company Apple played down the seriousness of the attack. Not until Abrams’s trial at Oxford Crown Court, 11 months later, was its full horror revealed. Those who had expected Harrison to appear in court were disappointed. Still seemingly traumatised by his ordeal, he was allowed to give his evidence by written statement. After Abrams had been sentenced to be detained indefinitely in a secure psychiatric unit, a statement was read on Harrison’s behalf by his son Dhani, now 22 and an almost eerie lookalike of his father at the same age.
Harrison’s ordeal inevitably deepened his paranoia over personal privacy. Security at Friar Park was strengthened. Guard dogs and, it was rumoured, ex-para bodyguards were added to the existing razor wire fence, electronic front gates and video surveillance system that had failed to stop Abrams entering the house.
His stable-door security mania even extended to the police officers who had rescued him from Abrams. PC Matt Morgans, who had cradled Harrison in his arms until medical help arrived, later gave an interview to the local newspaper, the Henley Standard. Harrison was so incensed by the interview that he threatened an official complaint against his rescuer.
According to Sir John Mortimer, Harrison’s Henley neighbour, there was a sick aftermath to the episode — one which shows how far we have travelled as a society from the loving, peaceful 1960s. A car full of people drove past Friar Park’s gates, loudly cheering because Harrison had been attacked. Other anonymous sickos sent flowers to his would-be killer in hospital.
Harrison’s death — after the wasting illness foretold so long ago by that Apple Scruff — is a tragedy for his family and many friends. But it has produced some extraordinarily overblown tributes. Paul Gambaccini on Radio 2 called him a towering 20th- century icon. Jim Capaldi, the ex-Traffic drummer with whom Harrison had been working, compared him to Jesus Christ for the first line of his song While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
Harrison was no giant. But he was the indispensable limb of a giant — the most powerful engine for creating human happiness that the entertainment world has ever seen. He was a Beatle, one of only four who were ever made or will be made. The pity is that it was never quite enough for him.
Philip Norman is the author of Shout! The True Story of the Beatles, soon to be republished by Sidgwick & Jackson AP PA
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
December 2, 2001
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