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Book Review: George Harrison – Behind The Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

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By now, it’s almost a cliché to begin a Beatle book review with the question “How much is there really left to learn about this band?”.  “Not much” is the answer, so in a sea of Fabs-related tomes, why should Graeme Thomson’s new book about George Harrison deserve our attention?

Behind The Locked Door has two major factors to recommend it.  Firstly, the author is responsible for 2010’s Under The Ivy, an excellent book about Kate Bush, so he’s got a pedigree.  Also, historically, George Harrison has been poorly served on the biography front compared to his erstwhile bandmates John and Paul. 

Being the youngest Fab, in the early days of the band, George was the least worldly-wise of the four, and Thomson argues that his “inability to sing from too far outside his own direct personal experience or emotion made him perhaps the most soulful of all The Beatles”. It’s an excellent observation. Even as he got older, Harrison rarely wrote in character, unlike Lennon, and especially McCartney.  John is revered for his honesty in song, but George was equally, if not more, forthcoming about his private life.

Famously, he was a deeply spiritual man, dedicated to meditation and Krishna, and a life-long student of Ravi Shankar.  However, George was also a world-famous rock star prone to the decadent life that offers.  It’s clear that he found these disparate strands of his existence difficult to reconcile, telling friends “I’m only going to get to heaven on Ravi’s coattails, with this rock and roll life”, and like all the best artists, he was a bundle of contradictions.  On the one hand, he was “seeking the highest person within himself”, while on the other, he was drinking to excess, hoovering up cocaine, and behind both his wives’ backs, chatting up countless women by playing the “Beatle card”. 

Often described as “The Quiet One”, ol’ George was anything but, as this book makes clear.  Indeed, according to Behind The Locked Door, the nickname itself was attributed in error.  On the band’s first trip to America, Harrison was suffering from strep throat, and according to his sister Louise, “was told to use his voice as little as possible. That’s why at all the press conferences he was so quiet, and the press thought he was the quiet one”.  Regardless, this erroneous nickname hung round his neck for the rest of his life.  The “Quiet One” actually had a vicious tongue, and John Lennon’s wives often bore the brunt of it, whether it be Cynthia with her “teeth like a horse”, or Yoko Ono, who he “hated”.  Having neglected his own marriage to Pattie Boyd to the extent that she ran off with Eric Clapton, Harrison coldly described this turn of events as “convenient” for him. His love-hate relationship with Paul McCartney is summed up in an anecdote dating from the remaining Beatles’ reunion in 1994: While mixing tracks in the studio one day, Harrison is approached by McCartney who says “That sounds nice.  When did you learn to do all this?”, to which George witheringly replies “Remember me?  I was second on the right”.

Behind The Closed Door succeeds effortlessly in realising Harrison’s complex personality, and his various personal and career travails.  Unfortunately, as with many biographies whose subjects found fame early in their lives, Thomson’s book is top-heavy on the early days. Recent biographies of Bob Dylan (Ian Bell’s Time Out Of Mind) and Robert Plant (Paul Rees’ Robert Plant: a Life) prove that this does not have to be the case, and that the later years of an artistic life are often equally as interesting as the early ones.  Here, the years 1980 up to Harrison’s death in 2001 are rather glossed over, meaning that his comeback album “Cloud Nine”, The Traveling Wilburys, the Beatles Reunion, his horrific stabbing, and his eventual death from cancer between them merit a mere 100 pages.  All things considered, Behind The Locked Door is well worth a read – the extraordinary life of an ordinary lad who “just wanted to play guitar in a band”.

This review originally appeared in edited form in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post newspaper

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