Prayer beads or cocaine? Chasing the Beatles’ dark horse

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George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle
Philip Norman
Simon & Schuster, $39.99

The closest I ever got to a Beatle was at Abbey Road in ’93. Producer George Martin was conducting some Fab media event when the other George strode in waving a shield of incense. He reminded us with that lop-sided smirk that “all you need is love”, then strode out before the adoring strangers who had blessed and cursed his life could mob him.

Oh well. Never meet your heroes, goes the fanboy’s rule. And after slogging through these 500 pages, I’m no closer to breaking it.

Fab Four: (from left) Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison in 1968.Credit: AP

Philip Norman is the author of the classic 1981 Beatles bio Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation – dubbed Shite! by their maligned bassist, Paul McCartney – as well as tomes on John Lennon, McCartney, Eric Clapton and other rock gods. He expands his prior research here without significant gains to a legend that long ago yielded everything George Harrison’s fans will ever know.

That said, should less Beatlemaniac readers harbour the curiosity, they are in for a ripping yarn with a seam of tragedy that grows ever more profound as rock’n’roll itself loses its once-untouchable lustre, and fame turns out to be as cheap and nasty as an Instagram post.

On the face of it, the youngest Beatle had the most charmed upbringing. He was poor but loved; spared the parental losses that darkened Lennon and McCartney’s childhoods and the illness that plagued Richard “Ringo” Starkey. A rebel and a failure at school, he nonetheless had to quit a decent job in a Liverpool department store to follow his elders to the topmost of the you-know-what.

Norman is to be admired for his stamina in retracing every leg of this exceedingly well-worn journey, even if dozens of references to his own books indicate substantial cut-and-paste. My first shag … with John and Paul and Pete Best all watching is the name of one chapter that blew its saucy punchline many retellings ago.

His other sources dip heavily into the public record too, not least Harrison’s 1980 memoir I Me Mine and his monologues in the Beatles’ Anthology, and Wonderful Tonight by his confessed “doormat” first wife, Pattie Boyd. Absent are first-hand testimonies from George’s widow, Olivia, and son, Dhani, from whom the author asks forgiveness for his poorly researched and much reviled obituary upon George’s death in 2001. Ouch.

In other crimes, Norman’s quaint phrasing and faithful recitation of hackneyed facts can conspire to read more like scripture than journalism. “Peter Blake’s cover was an artwork such as had jacketed no ‘LP’ before,” he intones of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, before noting that George was pictured holding the smallest instrument.

This theme of the diminished and underappreciated little brother remains key to the fable but as always, until the songwriter’s frankly limited blossoming with Within You, Without You, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Something, Norman presents little evidence to indicate injustice in the face of Lennon and McCartney’s superior craft.

A George Harrison key ring, on sale at the Beatles gift shop in Liverpool on December 1, 2001, a few days after Harrison’s death.Credit: AP

Within a few years, his blockbuster solo arrival with My Sweet Lord, All Things Must Pass, and the Concert for Bangladesh bookends his brief window of critical and commercial acclaim – at least until the Traveling Wilburys’ late-’80s splash.

And so the last third of the book invites us to rattle around a 65-acre, 25-bedroom gothic mansion with a moody recluse alternately toying with music, film production, racing cars and gardening while wishing we’d all leave. Harrison’s endless quest for peace behind gated walls in Oxfordshire and assorted tropical islands, craving spiritual validation while relishing the decadent spoils of showbiz, comprises the main drama of his life.

His daily conflict is neatly captured in one scene recounted by personal assistant Chris O’Dell, apparently one of the few women who resisted the quiet Beatle’s “several moves on her”: “Pattie would say to me in the morning, ‘What’s he got his hands in today, the prayer beads or the cocaine?’”

The serial adulterer’s callous treatment of Boyd, not least the appalling horse-trading arrangement with his best mate Clapton, has been laboriously documented. His affair with Ringo’s wife Maureen, it can now be revealed, was under both cuckolds’ noses, in one of those 24 empty bedrooms. Classy.

“F—in’ big bastards, that’s what the Beatles were,” John Lennon once confessed. We forgive them, mostly, because of the joy they gave us. But the further they recede into history, the more clearly we see the lives of clueless privilege we foist upon them, and the cost of all that happiness.

Harrison survived the horrific stabbing by an adoring fan in his own home in December 2000, but it fatally compromised his battle with cancer. One could argue that, like his infinitely more celebrated bandmate 20 years earlier, it was fame that really killed him. Whether or not you call him a hero, there’s an awful lot there to process.

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