GEORGE HARRISON: RELUCTANT BEATLE
By Philip Norman (Simon & Schuster)
THERE IS NOTHING NEW to be said about The Beatles. Everybody knows that.
As the owner of several shelves worth of Beatles books – biographies, both semi-official and decidedly not official; interviews and lyrics; cultural studies and the minutiae of studio records; tenuously linked theories and deeply sourced defences – not to mention multiple versions of every album in every format, with DVDs, VHS box sets, walking and driving tours through Liverpool, and a few bobbleheads from the Beatles museum, I should agree.
However, the truth is just as with Bob Dylan (yes, I’ve got shelves of all that stuff as well), there are, perhaps inexplicably to some of you more sane people, still new ways to tell the stories and new ways to look at the material, if the writer is clever enough, funny enough, thorough enough, or innovative enough. That’s true whether it is Mark Lewisohn’s none-more-detailed series, Craig Brown’s irreverent repositioning, or a little further back, Barry Miles’ stand-in for Paul McCartney’s reclamation of the hitherto accepted narrative.
Philip Norman, who has a batch of Rolling Stones and Elton John biographies to his name, is no newcomer to the Beatles shelf. He already has substantial slabs on John Lennon and Paul McCartney (subtitled with some grandnesss … : The Life, and : The Biography), and a separate book on the band itself. And that’s not to mention, with relevance to this book, a biography of Eric Clapton (subtitled, for some variety … : The Life And Music).
Most of those books turn up as the bulk of the source material in the “credits”, along with interviews, some of them presumably new, of Beatles associates and relatives – but interestingly, none with George Harrison’s second wife, Olivia, or his only child, Dhani. Norman is, in other words, a man deeply immersed in the subject. Which is where the problems begin.
There’s a real sense of Norman being rather bored with the topic and nowhere near as fascinated by Harrison as he was by Lennon or McCartney. Every repetition of stock phrases and pallid descriptions you could find in any cut-and-paste newspaper article – musician Joe Brown who works with him in the ‘80s is described as a “boon companion”; the early romance with his future wife begins as “He continued seeing Pattie Boyd – in every sense of that tactful English term – still unbeknown to the most eagle-eyed Fleet Street Beatle-watchers” – emphasises this.
It’s not only that there isn’t really any new information, certainly not in the half covering the Beatles years and only occasionally in the post-Beatles half, but that the information he has he knows is well used so that sometimes (maybe to keep himself amused) he turns to little bursts of flippancy that undermine what value there might be in that knowledge, and at other points emphasises the inconsequential to suggest there is equal worth with the drier facts. Which would be perfectly fine if Norman was funny,
(George Harrison (left), with some friends.
Like Harrison’s very non-spiritual interest in/dislike of financial impositions such as taxes (from mid-60s pop gem Taxman to early ‘80s tax havens dreamed up by an accountant who would prove rather keen on accessing Harrison’s money for his own purposes) even a casual reader of Beatles history will know the stories of the trips around the north of England squeezed into Mal Evans’ van, the fetid rooms in Hamburg (and Harrison losing his virginity in one such tiny room while the rest of the band were inches away) and the growing interest in Indian music, instruments and spirituality.
The only way to enliven these yarns is some telling insight or some evocative writing, and neither of these is present here in perfunctory storytelling. Maybe Norman didn’t think there was anything there.
His general disdain for Harrison at first seems like a reflection for effect of the way the slightly older, more advanced in their writing and more confident in their presence, Lennon and McCartney saw Harrison. That is a key dynamic within the band as Harrison moves from mildly interested songwriter to a stifled talent bobbing about trying to get in on a three-footer while the two Alpha males commandeer the big waves.
And it is an even more important element in the veritable explosion of material Harrison released in the immediate aftermath of the band breaking up and the playing out of his swinging between love and bitterness on anything to do with the two songwriters. How he wrote, why he wrote, what he took from the writers closest to him, or from those he admired from a step away, like Dylan and the members of The Band, for a start, must surely be the basis of a biography of this musician.
But when you realise that Norman isn’t really going to explore any of these things, treating such detail as secondary, this book’s failings become solidified. The “quiet Beatle”, the “forgotten Beatle”, the “reluctant Beatle” gets short shrift again.
More detail, though no better insights or writing, is offered in the book’s partial deconstruction of a man often thought of as almost saintly because of his interest in mysticism, Maharishis, meditation, and helping Bangladesh. But Harrison’s selfishness – not least in sexual assignations which left victims like his first wife, Patti and Ringo Starr’s first wife, Maureen – and self-delusion, alongside generosity and a capacity for care, coupled with an unsteady balancing of insecurity and arrogance, finds him no better nor worse than most popstars of his time, or of any time.
Nonetheless, he wasn’t just any other popstar of his time. His status and that of the peerless band he spent just a decade in but which came to define his whole life, make George Harrison eminently examinable. But if you’re asking what lay at his core, spiritually, musically, intellectually? This isn’t the book to answer that.
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