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George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

Who's your favorite Beatle? Are you into winky, cutesy Paul? Is John's politicizing where it's at? Or maybe you're a Ringo person...if you're 5 years old. Let's face it though - by any possible means of measure, George was the coolest Beatle. He might not have been the best songwriter of the four but he did write Something, which has been covered by everyone from James Brown to Willie Nelson to Frank Sinatra (who supposedly called it his favorite Lennon-McCartney tune). When Paul was escaping to his farm and John was shuttling between New York and L.A., Harrison purchased the 120-room gothic mansion Friar Park, which included extensive gardens and underground tunnels - UNDERGROUND TUNNELS!!! And while Ringo brought us the Thomas the Tank Engine TV show and McCartney birthed the woeful film Give My Regards to Broad Street, Harrison was responsible for producing Monty Python's greatest film, Life of Brian!

If I haven't convinced that Harrison was the coolest Beatle then you really owe it to yourself to pick up the new biography George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson. If you already love the man then you definitely need to read the book. It's a comprehensive warts-and-all look at "the quiet Beatle" that at 400 pages does not overstay its welcome.

Despite being with the Beatles from the very beginning, George's status as the youngest Beatle seemed to define his relationship with the others. A strong guitarist who was more comfortable playing set parts than improvising, George found himself in one of the most popular bands in the world by 21. At an age when most of us were looking for our first post-college jobs, George was one of the most recognizable people on the planet. As his songwriting progressed, he found it hard to convince the others in the band of his skills - somewhat understandable when he was competing with the likes of Lennon and McCartney to get songs on albums. Many people don't realize that not only was Harrison the first to leave the band, over frustration with the other musicians' dominance (he'd soon return) but he was also the first to release a solo album, with the experimental soundtrack Wonderwall Music.

While Harrison may not have been the musical leader of the band, he was the one who initiated the spiritual quests of the Beatles, leading them on trips to India to meet the Maharishi and meditate. While Ringo had very little interest and John a little bit more, the effect of Indian religion on George lasted his whole life, influencing his outlook on life, death and celebrity. More noticeably to the rest of us it also affected his role in the Beatles music, with exotic sitar colorings bubbling to the top of their songs.

There are many well-documented reasons behind why the Beatles broke up and certainly the release of Harrison's monumental All Things Must Pass (the first triple album in rock) shows that he had more material available than The Beatles could ever handle. The rest of the book follows Harrison through a long career decline, as his limited writing skills became more evident. Following the charity Concert for Bangladesh event and his ill-fated 1974 Dark Horse tour he retreated, as he attempted to reconcile his fame with his desire for peace and quiet. He was able to launch a late career comeback with 1987's Cloud Nine and his Travelling Wilbury's supergroup but without a desire to tour and lacking any massive hits from a number of subdued and sometimes lazily produced albums, the late 1970s and early 1980s remained quiet musically. He claimed many times that he simply wanted to be a guitar player and not a Beatle.

Harrison died a tragically young 58, though arguably his spirituality allowed him to accept his cancer diagnosis as well as a person reasonably could. He had been quoted many times as saying that he saw no difference between life and death as far as the spirit was concerned. Be assured, however, that the book does not paint him to be an angel. The author makes us aware of many of the material world struggles that Harrison dealt with - from drugs and alcohol to interpersonal relationships - and it points out that while having a serene and accepting outlook on life he also had an acidic side.

I really enjoyed this look at Harrison's life. It's a comprehensive look at a private person thrust into celebrity and dealing with all that followed. Even more importantly, despite the author's reservations about the quality of certain Harrison releases, it did get me listening to some of his albums again and appreciating his unique slide guitar sound once again.

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