This winter, I was expanding my knowledge of The Beatles. I watched the Anthology DVDs again, read a book about their post-fab solo output, picked up a couple of box sets, and attended Columbus’ annual 12-hour marathon of Beatles covers. Through all of this, I found myself most drawn to George Harrison, the so-called “dark horse” of the group. Maybe because he’s always been less lauded than John and Paul, maybe because I identify with his introverted nature, or maybe just because some of his music has been harder to come by for the past 30 years, he is the most intriguing to me, the most difficult to know.
I was surprised to find that no major Harrison biography had been published since his death in 2001, so I was excited about the release of Behind the Locked Door (The Overlook Press), Graeme Thomson’s comprehensive survey of Harrison’s life and work. Comprehensive is something of a relative term, of course. Mark Lewisohn’s recent Tune In is the first of a projected trilogy about the whole band. At 900-plus pages, it digs much deeper into the formative years of Harrison’s childhood than Thomson does—he spends a scant 35 pages on Harrison’s life before The Beatles got their name. Thankfully, Thomson manages to get to the second half of Harrison’s life (post-Beatles) just before the 400-page book is half done, making it the definitive volume (for the moment) on Harrison’s later years.
Most of what occurs in the first 180 pages is old hat to anyone who’s spent much time learning about Harrison’s old band. Furthermore, looking into the notes section, you’ll see how often Thomson quotes The Beatles Anthology, Harrison’s sort-of autobiography, I Me Mine, and the updated version of Hunter Davies’ The Beatles. Looking over the acknowledgments, there’s a notable lack of interviews with anyone named Harrison, McCartney, Lennon, Starr (or Starkey), or even Martin or Clapton. Suffice to say most of The Beatles-related anecdotes are very familiar. On the plus side, Pattie Boyd and Ravi Shankar were both included, so considerable detail is given to their relationships with George, and especially Boyd’s insights enable Thomson to present even well-worn stories through fresh eyes.
In discussing Harrison’s work, Thomson provides relevant and worthwhile analysis, getting beyond the sheen of The Beatles’ reputation to point out the crucial flaws even in their most beloved work. Writing specifically about Harrison’s songs, he repeatedly emphasizes their lack of humanity, calling them “more impressive than genuinely likable.” This makes for even an stronger case, then, when Harrison finally breaks through his limitations and writes genuine classics like “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” Thomson also provides a real service by spending time on Harrison’s least noteworthy compositions. Even Martin Scorcese’s 210-mintute documentary entirely skipped over the three albums Harrison released in the late ’70s, but Thomson gives them real consideration, drawing out their virtues and providing context for their difficulties.
The greatest theme of Thomson’s book is Harrison’s nagging duality. This, of course, is what kept Harrison tethered to the Earth despite his constant seeking of enlightenment. Whether it was his taste for the luxe life, the sense of entitlement that coming of age as a Beatle gave him, or his proclivity for indulging in earthly pleasures, there was always a side of Harrison battling for control of his spirit. Sometimes it’s Harrison’s very piety that gets in the way of his transcendence. Thomson does excellent work connecting the threads of Harrison’s determined spiritual quest with the dissolution of his many of his relationships, including those with his fellow Beatles, his first marriage, and his connection with his public.
What’s most notable about Thomson’s approach is the way he keeps himself at arms-length from his subject throughout the book. He clearly has admiration for Harrison’s accomplishments and worked hard to figure out George’s perspective on notable events. He also sees every situation critically, though, sometimes even cynically. This is no hagiography. The George Harrison he writes about is deeply human and deeply flawed. For example, in writing about Brian Epstein’s sudden death, Thomson paints a sensitive portrait of Harrison’s inarticulate attempts to deny his grief. It’s a sad, sad moment. Four lines later, though, Thomson is again criticizing his subject, unafraid to point out George’s possible insincerity in that same moment. While no one needs 400 more pages of Beatlemania, I occasionally had the odd feeling I was watching someone pick on his little brother.
Better that than the opposite, though. In the end, despite my sometimes irritation with Thomson’s attitude, I’m grateful that the book exists, and Thomson’s prose is polished, direct, and sometimes quite witty. The book is thoroughly entertaining, and it fills a real gap in the available literature about one of rock’s most important musicians. I seriously doubt Harrison will get any better treatment anytime soon.