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Marvellously melodic but mercurial: a review of Philip Norman’s George Harrison: the Reluctant Beatle

Douglas Young reviews George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle

How swell to at last have a major biography of that most aloof of all rock stars, George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle, by respected pop music historian Philip Norman, and how sobering to learn that the reclusive rocker’s feet were all too completely made of clay. Though this book is quite detailed and very well written, I now know far more information about Harrison than his underlying motives. Alas, what is still a worthy biography could 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 neighbourhood, 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. Harrison was the Beatle most in the background whose growing songwriting abilities were 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 how 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 (quite lucrative) songwriting credit for either. Even when sick in bed dying of cancer, he offered to visit the drummer’s ailing daughter. 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 Beatle brother John 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 adulterer who cheated in his own house when his first wife was home and even 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,” and the affair led to the Starrs divorcing the next year.

Surprisingly for the superb 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 his closest friend, Eric Clapton – who remained his best buddy. While enjoying most of his time in the world’s biggest band for 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 had grown 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’s typically tactless retort was that his Beatle brother “didn’t want me to sing on it ten years ago, so why does he want me now?”

Despite his enduring shyness – of his Beatle days, 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 diarrhoea 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 with the unfortunate, ultimately providing $45 million to UNICEF projects in Bangladesh and elsewhere, as well as giving substantial financial support to Romanian orphans. George was likewise repeatedly generous with family and friends, such as buying 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 to finance his Monty Python buddies’ 1979 big screen controversial comedy, Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Yet he was embarrassingly cheap with his own loyal staff, and the mega-millionaire 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, Harrison 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 concerning his growing up and time with the Beatles. It was a revelation to realize just how materially deprived George’s childhood was, but how comforting to learn what a close, loving family he had. This makes his moody cynicism all the more mysterious. Norman clearly likes his subject since his narrative reveals a magnificent musician who, despite often being tone deaf to others’ feelings, did not just mean well but (usually) did well by his friends and so many strangers through his considerable philanthropy. The author also appears especially partial to Harrison’s dry and even gallows humour. It is remarkable to read of his being carried out of his house on a stretcher in late 1999, having just almost died of forty stab wounds from an insane intruder, and his asking a pair of new housekeepers, “What do you think of the job so far?” Likewise, 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.”

But Norman’s fondness for his subject does not inhibit him from pointing out painful facts. Likewise, the biographer is balanced and fair conveying all the major players in Harrison’s orbit. Having written an earlier book about the Beatles, as well as biographies of Lennon, McCartney, Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Sir Elton John, the author has an encyclopaedic knowledge of many of pop music’s major players from the 1960s and 1970s and may well be the world’s top Beatles scholar. Indeed, the Harrison biography sings best when telling of George’s time with the famous fabs. Since he was in what would become the world’s biggest band from not quite age 15 until 27, these were the most dramatic and important years of his life when his development as a person, musician, and composer were critical. 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. Norman likewise provides plenty of memorable observations about the larger London pop scene to convey the cultural context from which the band fed and to a considerable extent led.

Particularly in light of how strained the foursome’s internal dynamics would become by the late 1960s, it is truly touching to learn what extremely close friends they were for most of the dozen years they were a team. It is also reassuring to read how well they ultimately overcame their differences as their Beatle past became an ever more distant blur in the rearview mirror. But what could have been an outstanding biography is not due to several needless drawbacks. One of the most tiresome is when the book occasionally burrows way too deep in the weeds of utterly irrelevant minutiae about not just Harrison’s Beatle days, but trivial players from that time who only the most fanatical fans care about. Who buys a George Harrison biography for mundane details about long obscure local Liverpool bands from 1960?

Though the author bemoans how Lennon and McCartney ignored Harrison too much, Norman spends an excess amount of time on the Beatles’ dynamic duo as well. Having written biographies of each, he may have found their pronounced personalities more interesting than that
of the self-effacing Harrison. As captivating as this biography generally is when recounting George’s formative and Beatle years, just 153 of the book’s 440 pages address his life after the Beatles — the majority of it – and 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.

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 a Beatle since his second band was genuinely democratic and egalitarian. George also did much as a film producer and philanthropist. In fairness, Norman does touch on all this, but never devotes remotely enough space to develop a full understanding of any of it. Instead, when covering Harrison’s later years, the book reads like it is just hitting the big news events, but with little analysis.

This highlights the biggest flaw throughout the biography which is that, while I now know far more about Harrison, I doubt I really understand what shaped his character and drove him. Though full of intriguing, fun, and sometimes unsettling anecdotes, I still cannot say I truly appreciate why George Harrison acted as he did, and the book ends without even attempting to draw any conclusions about its protagonist. Particularly with the considerable research and writing talents of Philip Norman, this is a shame.

A final quibble concerns the embarrassing number of missing words, typographical errors, and misspellings littering the text. Like with other books I reviewed this year by political entertainers Greg Gutfeld and Kat Timpf, as well as Chadwick Moore’s biography of Tucker Carlson, it is stunning how big publishers are now comfortable putting out works riddled with basic writing errors. So is Norman sloppy or can a major publisher like Scribner somehow not afford a decent editor? This is a genuine mystery worthy of an answer.

Nevertheless, George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle is an overall very well researched and written biography of by far the most secretive Beatle that boasts loads of fascinating facts. Most importantly, it brings attention to an extraordinarily talented artist who has never gotten the respect he deserves due to being overshadowed by the greatest songwriting partnership of the 20th century. That Philip Norman has made a significant contribution to elevate George Harrison’s place in the pop music pantheon is a very welcome development.

Dr. Douglas Young is a political science professor emeritus who taught government and history for over 33 years and whose essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in a variety of publications in America, Canada, and Europe. His first novel, Deep in the Forest, was published in 2021 and the second, Due South, came out in 2022. His next book, This Little Opinion Plus $1.50 Will Buy You a Coke: A Collection of Essays, is about to be published.

11 comments to Marvellously melodic but mercurial: a review of Philip Norman’s George Harrison: the Reluctant Beatle

  • Steven R

    Harrison had the most reason to be bitter at the Beatles in my opinion. The Lennon-McCartney team simply wouldn’t let him grow and contribute the way he needed. It’s no wonder he was kind of snarky about McCartney asking him to sing at Live Aid. By the end they all might have still loved each other, but I can see where Harrison could be at the point that he just couldn’t stand being around them and just wanted the Beatles to end so he could go do his own thing without being overshadowed by John and Paul, something that he would always be so long as the Beatles existed.

    I have the new Mal Evans biography “Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans” by Kenneth Womack in my pile of books to read in 2024.

  • DiscoveredJoys

    “That’s the funny thing about heroes” (she said) “Some people love them, but a whole lot of people hate them.”
    ~ Shiver me witches by A A Albright.

  • MC

    I was under the impression that you cannot convert to Hinduism, you are either born a Hindu or you are not one.

  • Fred Z

    Why are apparently sane people pontificating about members of the Marching Band, as wossname properly described them in American Pie? And wossname was no better.

    Tinkle, tonkle, 4th rate untalented amateurs, I loathed them then and I loathe them now.

  • bobby b

    “But Harrison was a stubborn loner who was often moody and brutally blunt. . . . when Beatle brother John 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.” . . . 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?””

    Having just read Hammer Of The Gods, I do get a kick out of the examples listed here that illustrate what a nasty rebel Harrison was. Sort of like ” . . . he spoke loudly once during a theater production, and at times neglected to send thank-you notes for gifts!”

  • Paul Marks

    That this person, the late Mr Harrison, was famous – shows that the decline of the West is not a recent thing, it goes back a long way.

    This is also obvious in the visual arts – painting, sculpture and (most blatantly) architecture.

    The beautiful towns and cities that existed when my father was born are now horrible to behold. In some countries this is blamed on war – but in the United States there was no destructive war. At least not in the sense of the bombing of cities – there was a war in the souls of human beings, and just looking around shows that evil won that war.

    One can see the same thing in many of the towns of England – including my own home town.

    The attractive town that used to exist is gone – as are the kindly people that local historian Tony Ireson, wrote about.

    There was no attack by enemy bombers or anything like that – the war was in the souls of human beings, and the defeat is terrible.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    George Harrison was also a big fan of Formula One motor racing and pal of Gordon Murray, the designer for McLaren. But of a petrol head, in fact.

  • William H. Stoddard

    I used to be an employee of a very large scientific publisher. My corporate tenure ended when they decided that in-house copy editing was no longer necessary, and outsourced all of their copy editing, the majority of it to firms in India and Lithuania. Since then I have been a freelancer for publishers that still want copy editing by native English speakers. I don’t know if this is the case also at more commercial publishers, but it would hardly surprise me if it were so.

  • Beedle

    That this person, the late Mr Harrison, was famous – shows that the decline of the West is not a recent thing, it goes back a long way.

    What? ‘This person’ was actually rather a good musician!

  • Wandering Yid

    The greatest songwriting team of the twentieth century? Maybe—if you never heard of Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin and Gershwin, Fields and McHugh, Irving Berlin standing before a mirror.

  • Paul Marks

    “Old Kettering and its Defenders” by the late Tony Ireson (full disclosure – he used to live near me, but I do NOT gain financially by anyone buying or borrowing this work) is well worth reading – not because Kettering is an exceptional story, but precisely because the cultural decline here is typical of towns and cities in the land.

    The arts, including music, have also declined – and the decline started more than a century ago.

    The West has been in decline for a very long time indeed.