George Harrison was a complex man; a man who enjoyed the luxuries of fame, but had great disdain for those who adored him; a man in the most popular band of the day, but who struggled to be taken seriously; a man of deep spiritual conviction who rejected materialism, but never said no to its excesses. Graeme Thomson‘s Behind The Locked Door offers an in-depth–and often unflattering–look into “the quiet Beatle.”
Growing up working class in Liverpool, Harrison was a young man of whom not much was expected. He was a mediocre student who was told at a young age that he would not amount to much–and he believed it. Like many his age at the time, he picked up the guitar, and though the opinion would change, he wasn’t a necessarily brilliant guitarist. Fame comes, and even though his band’s success would propel his bandmates into the pinnacle of popular songwriting, Harrison couldn’t cut a break. The first song he gets to put out, “Don’t Bother Me,” is a none-too-subtle song about him wanting his space and his privacy–which would become a theme throughout his life.
So, Harrison started to become his own man. He cultivated his own interests–most notably Krishna consciousness and Indian music–while enjoying the fruits of his success. Yet he was a man conflicted; always wondering “why me,” seeking answers to that question, and not always finding it. As the Beatles progressed, he still found himself in the pallor of Lennon and McCartney; great songs would be written and ignored, helping to create a seething resentment about it all.
When the band split, then, Harrison released the floodgates, in the name of 1970s opus, All Things Must Pass. It’s a deep, spiritual, overwhelmingly deep statement of intent from the neglected Harrison, coated in a bombastic Phil Spector sheen that gave already magical songs a powerful, emotional heft. It was a magical statement, a record that showed Harrison really was an underrated Beatles. He followed the album with 1971’s Concert For Bangladesh, noted for being the first rock and roll all-star benefit concert, came about from his friend Ravi Shankar. It also brought about the first glimpses of a spectre that would haunt him for the rest of his career: “will the Beatles reunite?” Sadly, the cynical nature would turn into an underlying bitterness. Harrison at times would be spiritual, caring, and altruistic, yet would also be materialstic,demanding, and selfish. He himself was aware of this conflict–an awareness that can help to create a spiritual emptiness and despair.
Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Harrison became less and less interested in the music business; solo albums would come and go. An ill-advised tour in 1974–undertaken against doctor’s orders, featuring only a handful of Beatles songs that often featured rewritten lyrics–sealed his opinion that he didn’t need to tour. He delved into his castle, Friar Park, and his gardening, coming out to make a record every now and then. He would soon take an interest in filmmaking–thanks in part to his friendship with the Monty Python cast–and auto racing. He seemed much more content to be anything but a musician.
The Eighties got off to a bad start, thanks to the murder of John Lennon. Harrison had always been more than ambivalent towards his fame and his fans; now, he became paranoid, virtually disappearing from sight. Yet he would rally now and then; his surprise hit album Cloud Nine would be followed up by his fun, off-the-cuff side project The Travelling Wilburys. And yet, he didn’t really seem to need it. It was all extracurricular for him; he was detached from the music world, and he didn’t care one bit.
Harrison didn’t seek the spotlight, but it had a way of seeking him out. When the Beatles “reformed” for the Anthology project, old animosities returned, even though things seemed cordial.
Business dealings related to his film company would soon turn out to be a debacle, with him being ripped off by the manager he thought was his friend. He developed cancer in 1997. His paranoia about deranged fans would be realized when, on the eve of the new millenium, he was brutally stabbed in his home, with several piercings to his lungs. The attack would weaken his immune system, and his cancer returned with a vengeance, and would pass away on November 29, 2001 from lung cancer.
Behind The Locked Door is an informative read, but it’s not easy reading. For some, reading about the cynical Harrison might be a tad bit bothersome, and though Thomson is not guilty of an Albert Grossman-style hatchet job, the truth about a beloved celebrity’s personality doesn’t always sit well. Still, the Harrison Thomson describes proves that behind that locked door lived a very, very complex man.