Monday, November 25, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door


While everyone knows who the Beatles were and can rifle off their names with ease, not many people know who the four guys were behind the band. In particular, while John Lennon and Paul McCartney are the most famous and well-known of the four, by virtue of their unmatchable output as the songwriters for 95% of the band's output, as well as the primary lead vocalists, and Ringo Starr is one of the most influential drummers of all time, as well as a friend to all, fellow musicians and actors alike, there has always been one Beatle who has been apart from the other three both in terms of his view on their legacy and how well the public knows about him. That Beatle is, of course, George Harrison, and quite obviously, he is the subject of this excellent new biography by author Graeme Thomson.

***I'd like to give special thanks to Charlie at Midas PR and Omnibus Press for sending me a review copy of this book!***

To most fans, casual or hardcore, George was the quietest of the Beatles, publicly (but as we all know, he was *not* "The Quiet Beatle," that moniker being incorrectly bestowed on him by a clueless press early on that unfortunately stuck with him his entire life). More than that, however, he was certainly the most private and guarded of all four, and also the most complex. Even more so than John Lennon, who certainly had his issues, George was the most complicated, conflicted, and deepest of all Beatles; he was someone who was ambivalent if not downright resentful of his fame, yet happy to partake in the riches he accumulated because of it, and someone who was looking for a higher spiritual path beyond the mortal world, alternately preaching that we should all resist earthly temptations while at the same time he succumbed to many of them himself (women, drugs, alcohol, money, possessions, etc). However, in order to understand how George got to be the way he was when he tragically passed away from cancer at the all-too-young age of 58 in 2001, Graeme Thomson endeavors to dig beneath the layers and, to use the title of one of George's post-Beatles songs, go "behind the locked door" (hence the book's title) to chronicle just who George Harrison was and why he was that way.


The book starts with a prologue consisting of a snapshot of George's mega-successful Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and reminiscences on the event from fellow musicians and friends, most notably Ravi Shankar, who was not only George's sitar instructor but his lifelong friend and spiritual advisor. It's a nice bit of foreshadowing for the remainder of the book, in which it truthfully and in bittersweet fashion demonstrates how during that year, only one year after the break-up of The Beatles, George had hit his commercial and critical peak and would spend the rest of his career and life in slow, steady, and (mostly) irreversible decline, at least in musical terms. 

(Before I continue, I should mention that in between chapters there are little 1-2 page interludes, all titled "Be Here Now," (after one of George's songs) that set up each subsequent chapter with a snapshot of a certain forthcoming event in his life. I found these to be very clever and enjoyable, and I commend the author for using this device to great effect). 

Once the book properly starts, we are led chronologically through George's life, from birth and his youth in Liverpool to, of course, his meetings with Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and the formation of The Beatles. I won't get into all of the Beatles' history in this review, and Thomson does a good job assuming that most readers of his book are familiar enough with it that he doesn't dwell on band details. Rather, he spends more time focusing on George's life, thoughts, and growth during the most famous part of his life. We learn that as soon as the touring stopped in 1966, George no longer considered himself a Beatle, that he has very little fondness for the "Sgt. Pepper" album (either during the sessions or subsequently), and that he was actually completely on board with Paul's concept for the ill-fated "Get Back" project until the atmosphere in rehearsals became too much (and contrary to conventional wisdom, most of his beef was with John and Yoko, not Paul). As with the rest of the book, there are no great revelations of previously unknown details, but rather little bits of new information that help flesh out what we all knew (or thought we knew) about George. While many quotes and citations will be instantly recognizable to most Beatles fanatics (myself included), they are augmented by many new interviews the author conducted for this book, and the book never feels like a simple rehash of magazine articles and interviews (contrast this with the newest Blur biography, which I reviewed here and criticized for this very reason, among others).

The first hundred pages or so take us up to the end of the Beatles. After that, George's solo career and eventual death in 2001 fill out the rest of the book. As the years go by and he hits his commercial and critical peak in 1971 (although his 1973 album "Living in the Material World" is arguably as good as 1970's "All Things Must Pass"), what becomes more striking to the reader is how George was not really cut out for fame. A recurring theme throughout his whole life is the complicated dichotomy between his devout spirituality and shunning of the material world, and his indulgences in that very world (mainly women, money, fast cars, and houses) and all the riches fame bestowed upon him. Since his first visit to India in 1966, George was on an increasingly spiritual path, questing toward enlightenment and understanding, mainly through Eastern religions and his love affair with all things Indian. While this was certainly admirable, at the same time he became increasingly intolerant of anyone else in his orbit, be it his first wife Pattie, his fellow Beatles, family, friends, musicians, the press, or his fans if they failed to understand just what it was that he was going on about. There is no clearer example of this attitude of his than his ill-fated 1974 US Tour, where he seemingly purposely set out to destroy as much of the Beatles myth as he could by changing lyrics to the few Beatles songs he played, forced Indian music down the crowd's throat whether they wanted it or not*, and showed a general disdain for the fans who wanted to hear more George and less of his bandmates (many of whom, like Billy Preston, took solo spots at various points during the shows). Snide onstage comments to the audience and press didn't help, either.

*(While I personally do enjoy some Indian music and have always admired his relationship with and loyalty to Ravi Shankar, it can't be denied that, as the first Beatle to tour the US since 1966, the vast majority of fans understandably wanted to hear George play his music, and were not too happy to have to sit through a half-hour set of Indian music before George even took the stage)

As his musical decline continued and he increasingly withdrew from the music industry, his Friar Park mansion became more of a fortress in which he holed himself up in more and more, to the detriment of his first marriage, his career, and many friendships. The author does a good job showing just how out of touch with the real world George became in this period. Furthermore, while he increasingly became very bitter toward the outside world, his former bandmates (save Ringo), and those who didn't "get" his ceaseless evangelizing, he always fell back on playing the "Beatle" card to gain favor where most normal people could not, and certainly indulged himself via the vast wealth accumulated from the fame he so endlessly railed against. Eventually, he was able to make peace with himself and his lot in life via his new wife Olivia, son Dhani, and a reconciled relationship with Paul McCartney (he never got back on good terms with John Lennon, remaining estranged from him from 1974 until his tragic murder in 1980). Apart from brief critical rebirths in the late 1980s (his 1987 album "Cloud Nine" and the Traveling Wilburys), George went into semi-retirement apart from the "Beatles Anthology" project in the mid-1990s, (of which he was reluctant to do and only agreed to participate due to financial crises precipitated by his former friend and advisor, Denis O'Brien). However, it is quite enlightening to realize that, regarding the 1999 home invasion attack by a deranged intruder who nearly killed him and his eventual death from cancer in 2001, there was perhaps no one more suited and comfortable with passing from this mortal coil than George Harrison. While it was certainly sad to read of his passing (even though, going into the book, everyone knows that is what will happen), there is also solace and comfort in realizing that he was secure and confident enough in his lifelong spiritual journey and faith such that he died at peace. My one and only minor complaint with this book is that I feel it seemed rushed toward the end. From the "Beatles Anthology" until George's death was a little more than fifty or sixty pages, and it just felt a bit rushed to me. However, given George's attitudes toward his past and life and death, it also is probably appropriately fitting; he made very little fuss over the deaths of loved ones like Brian Epstein, his parents, and John Lennon, choosing to focus on the continuation of their souls leaving their physical bodies and continuing on into another life. He had the same attitude toward his own death, and, wherever his soul now is, probably looks kindly on the author for not making too much of a deal over his passing in this book.

While there weren't a ton of new revelations (some small ones, but not a lot) in this book, it is still one of the best musician biographies I've ever read.  Part of this is down to the author's style, which is eminently readable and enjoyable. Also, he strikes the perfect balance that so many have trouble finding, coming across as a real fan but at the same time writing dispassionately enough that he is fair in his assessments. Thomson is not afraid to point out where George was flawed or to paint him in a negative light when it's warranted. At the same time, he also seems a fan like the rest of us when he describes one of George's many triumphs, whether musical or personal. As an entire piece of work, this book does a fantastic job pulling all of the disparate bits of George's life and personality into a cohesive narrative that paints a more comprehensive picture of the man. While there wasn't a lot I learned (in terms of facts) that I hadn't known beforehand, I feel as though I've learned more about George overall, as both a musician but more importantly, as a human being, because Thomson does an expert job putting everything into the proper context and perspective such that the whole (George Harrison) becomes much greater than the sum of his parts (all of the individual events and facts about him). Additionally, with numerous citations and footnotes, it's clear Thomson did a lot of research for this book, and any reader can be confident that what they're reading is the most accurate chronicle of this very complicated, conflicted, and mysterious musician and man.

In concluding, "George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door" is a fantastic biography of the most enigmatic, complicated, and misunderstood member of the most famous band in the history of music. Readable, engaging, enjoyable, interesting, and a book to go back to and read periodically...these are all my descriptions of this book, and I cannot recommend it enough.

MY RATING: 9.5/10

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