George Harrison 1987 Promo Photo

There has been a tendency in recent years to put George Harrison on a pedestal. As the most spiritually inclined of The Beatles and a genuinely humble superstar, he is an easy figure to admire. When I first heard Harrison’s signature solo track, “My Sweet Lord,” at the age of fourteen, I knew even then that the juxtaposition of “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna” in the lyrics was a bit hokey, yet I found myself moved, and even a little unsettled, by the intensity in his voice as he sang, “I really want to see you / I really want to be with you / I really want to see you, Lord / But it takes so long / My Lord.” As a Catholic school kid, I was no stranger to hymns; still, such naked devotion in a pop song surprised me.

For Harrison, “My Sweet Lord” was no anomaly. After undergoing a spiritual awakening in the mid-1960s, he told a journalist, “The search for God cannot wait.” He meant it. That search became the central focus of both his life and his music, straight through to his death from cancer in 2001.

It’s even there in “Something,” his iconic ballad from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. As he told friends at the time of the song’s recording, the romantic language in its lyrics functioned as a metaphor for spiritual union.

This is unusual stuff coming from a British pop star with working-class roots. Is it any wonder that portrayals of his life, from Joshua M. Greene’s Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison to Martin Scorsese’s documentary Living in the Material World have veered into the realm of hagiography?

Deconstructing a Myth

Clearly a corrective was in order, and that’s where journalist Graeme Thomson comes in. His recently published George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door is a master class in the art of clear-eyed, unflinching biographical writing. Here we have a life, in all its roiling contradictions and complexity, rendered in full. Those who wish to hold on to the saintly image of “Beatle George” might want to steer clear of this book. But for the rest of us, this is the one we’ve been waiting for: a carefully polished window looking in on a tortured soul that longed to both transcend, and wallow in, the material world.

Behind-locked-doorA key to understanding that soul comes early in the book via the ever-astute John Lennon. During the recording of his final album, Double Fantasy, Harrison’s former bandmate told a fellow musician, “You know, George is a frightened Catholic: God one day, coke the next. He gets so high he scares himself back to church.” Honestly, if you just want the gist of the story, you could stop right there.

Any Catholic with eyes to see will recognize in George’s life an all-too-familiar binge-purge cycle writ large: it’s Mardi Gras followed by Lent over and over again. And it matters not that Harrison moved on from Catholicism in his teens; those patterns get locked in early. As Thomson notes, “By then (1979-1980) ‘church’ was no longer the imposing physical edifice of his youth but a more fluid, internal connection to the spirit. And yet an attraction to some kind of God figure—and the accompanying confusions and contradictions it exposed—may well have been ingrained at an early age.”

In one sense, Harrison’s story didn’t truly begin until 1965, when the Beatles were already two years into their reign as the most popular rock band in the world. Harrison, the group’s lead guitarist, was all of twenty-two years old and hanging on for dear life. That summer, he consumed the then-legal hallucinogenic drug LSD for the first time, and it unlocked something in him. Prior to that experience he had been an affable “bloke” who showed little interest in intellectual or philosophical matters; afterward, he became consumed with the desire to unlock the mysteries of life and death.

He cultivated a friendship with the Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar, who became the young man’s musical and spiritual mentor. Shankar was quickly won over by his new student’s enthusiasm for Eastern music and philosophy, though he harbored misgivings about the hedonistic lifestyle the Beatles and their friends enjoyed. “I was a bit unhappy about one part of the whole scene,” Shankar told Graeme Thomson. “And that was drugs. All these dear, childlike people, all these young hippies, they were unaware and mixed up the whole thing. That’s where I was trying to tell them, not to mix our music and religion along with the drug thing.”

Harrison, to his credit, abandoned LSD in 1967, right at the apex of the so-called “Summer of Love,” when many of his friends were practically bathing in the stuff. For a time, God became his drug of choice, and it’s tempting to speculate on how his career might have gone had he stuck to this new path of (relative) sobriety. Sadly, by the early 1970s he fell under the spell of cocaine, an appetite he indulged at sporadic intervals over the next two decades to the detriment of both his music and his personal relationships.

Spiritually, Harrison followed an eclectic path. After his general introduction to Hinduism via Shankar, he fell in with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the “giggling guru” who sought to popularize meditation in the West. The Beatles famously attended the Maharishi’s Indian retreat in early 1968, during which they wrote much of the material for their subsequent “White Album.”

Thomson charts these various spiritual phases with the assiduity of a trained journalist, yet in one crucial aspect his account is lacking: for all of his penetrating psychological insight, he doesn’t quite seem to “get” the idea of religious devotion, or at least Harrison’s form of devotion. I must tread lightly here, for I don’t know what Thomson’s own beliefs might be. But I find the following passage to be telling:

The Beatles were never much given to sentiment, but this was something new: the distancing effects of spiritual elevation. As with money, drugs and fame, there existed the sense that for Harrison religion was just one more way of keeping stark reality at arm’s length, a suspicion which lingered right up until his own death.

That is certainly one way of looking at faith, and it is a view that was shared by at least some of Harrison’s more skeptical friends. It could be applied just as easily to any recovering alcoholic who “finds God,” or any lost individual that grasps on to religion as if it were a life raft. This is, truly, the “devil’s advocate” perspective, and it is one that Thomson returns to several times throughout the narrative. Yet Harrison, or any person of faith, would probably argue that religion is not an escape from life but a means of grappling with it. It’s a way of learning how to live. Harrison himself said, in his charmingly inarticulate way, “I know that when you believe, it’s real and nice. Not believing, it’s all confusion and emptiness.”


Mass Hysteria

We may wonder what the rich and famous Harrison had to worry about. Quite a lot, as it turns out. He perceived, more quickly than his three bandmates, that “Beatlemania” was reaching a dangerous fever pitch. The fans had gotten out of control, and Harrison both feared for his safety and mourned his vanished privacy.

It would be easy to write these concerns off as the paranoia of a privileged man except for the fact that his fears proved well-founded: ten years after the demise of the band that caused all the fuss, John Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan outside his apartment. Nineteen years after that event, Harrison was attacked by another crazed fan, in his own home, and literally came within an inch of losing his life. (One of the knife wounds barely missed a major artery.) For Harrison, then, religion, and the attendant practices of meditation and chanting, enabled him to keep his ever-present, and quite justified, anxiety in check.

Yet Thomson’s gentle skepticism on this subject is not quite the impediment it may at first seem to be. In one regard it is, in fact, an asset: it enables the biographer to call bullshit on an aspect of Harrison’s story that other writers and documentarians have mythologized. I’m talking specifically about the Hare Krishna movement.

What, you say? The Hare Krishnas? The peace-and-vegetable loving Hindu sect that welcomed our fragile hero into its community with open arms and whose philosophy inspired him to write several of his greatest songs, including “Something”?

Yeah, those guys. I’m sure the teachings of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada have merit, as they did inspire Harrison to new feats of creativity and, particularly later in life, gave him a centeredness he’d lacked during the heights of his Beatles fame. But as for the movement’s all-too-human practitioners, Thomson, with ample ammunition from Harrison’s non-Krishna friends, portrays them as a pack of freeloaders who saw in the Beatle an easy mark and pounced. Having picked up on Harrison’s Indian fixation via his songs “Love You To,” “The Inner Light,” and “Within You Without You,” the sect began aggressively courting him in the late 1960s, sending gifts and showing up unannounced at the Beatles’ London offices.

On paper the practice did not at first appear an ideal fit for the young hedonist. Its “Four Regulatory Principles,” which were mandatory requirements for all devotees, consisted of the following: (1) No eating of meat or eggs; (2) No sex other than between married couples and only for the purpose of procreation; (3) No gambling; (4) No intoxicants (including alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and other recreational drugs). At best, George would only ever be batting 50 percent. And if his friends came over for a poker game, he was down to 25 percent. As Thomson gently puts it, “Vegetarianism he could handle.”

But that’s where the “Beatle Card” came into play. Prabhupada himself gave Harrison a sort of celebrity exemption, releasing him from the obligation of the Four Principles and letting him off the hook regarding the sect’s recommended attire and grooming habits. “I have told him there is no need to change name or shave head. Just carrying on serving Krishna,” the Yogi said.

All right, then! The group was now free to take the Beatle’s money, and Harrison could go on having his cake and eating it too. In short order the rock star bought the sect a pristine new London headquarters, funded the worldwide publication of KRSNA Book, and invited several of the devotees to live at his Friar Park estate.

The fresh vegetables they grew on the premises were not quite enough to win the favor of Pattie Boyd—George’s first wife—who found their presence bothersome. “All these people,” she told Thomson. “I loved it initially, but the Hare Krishnas really got to me in the end.… I don’t know, it seemed to me that they were overstaying their welcome. George was slightly a soft touch for people in the Hare Krishna movement.”

Musician Bobby Whitlock put it more bluntly:

[George] wanted to do good and well for everyone, especially people that he assumed were of like mind and who would not use and abuse him—but they did, hand over fist, every time he turned around, at least in my estimation. They were just a bunch of moochers as far as I was concerned.… They were a lot of fun banging their drums, ringing their bells, but they were poor in spirit.… George didn’t need all of that. They weren’t contributing anything, all they were doing was sleeping all over the place and eating his food. I wasn’t buying it for a second!

Thomson describes three instances of children of the Krishnas almost drowning in the large fountain on the property. Each time, the Krishnas stood by mutely while George’s friends dove in and rescued the kids. When confronted by Boyd, the devotees responded, “Krishna looks after them.”

George’s practice, not surprisingly, was a bit more down to earth. He would never have let a child of his drown, and he was not above fighting for his life when he was attacked in 1999. (Though he did chant “Hare Krishna” during that incident in an attempt to calm the intruder. It had the opposite effect). Still, during his early years as a Krishna devotee he took on the insufferable zeal so common in a new convert to any religion. Paul McCartney, who was then attempting to extricate himself from the Beatles’ shared financial arrangements, later recounted their frustrating (though, in retrospect, hilarious) conversation on the subject:

I said, “Look George, I want to get off the label,” and George ended the conversation, and as I say it now I almost feel like I’m lying with the devil’s tongue, but I swear George said to me, “You’re staying on the f-ing label. Hare Krishna.” That’s how it was, that’s how the times were.

Harrison with Krishna devotees. © Mirrorpix

So why, exactly, was George Harrison’s heart captured so completely by these bald, brightly-robed people who used to crowd our airports? Part of it derives from the source material. The Bhagavad Gita—the classic Hindu scripture that served as the group’s foundational text—had already made a deep impact on Harrison when he read it under Ravi Shankar’s tutelage some years previously. To that, the Krishnas added a strong emphasis on chanting, which seemed to be the missing ingredient for George. He had immersed himself thus far in Indian classical music and meditation, but now he could sing his praises to God, and doing so brought him more happiness than drugs, sex, or any other transitory pleasure ever could. It was the kind of meditation that a musician could get behind.

Furthermore, the experience of chanting alongside the other Krishnas enabled him to forget, however temporarily, his odd position in life, and to become just another devotee. This was an illusion, of course, but for “Beatle George” anonymity proved the most intoxicating of all drugs, and the most elusive.

On balance, Graeme Thomson is to be commended for his clear-headed appraisal of Harrison’s relationship with the Krishna movement. If one wishes to know more about the inner workings of the guitarist’s daily spiritual practice, I would recommend reading Greene’s Here Comes the Sun. Despite its whitewashing of both Harrison and the Krishnas, it is a beautiful book that convincingly maps the contours of Harrison’s soul. Taken together, Behind the Locked Door and Here Comes the Sun provide a near-comprehensive portrait of the inner and outer man.

A Legacy in Need of an Advocate

But what of the music? Frustratingly, this is where both accounts, along with Martin Scorsese’s documentary, fail. The common perception is that Harrison peaked early with his first solo album, All Things Must Pass, and then went downhill from there. In one sense, there is some truth to that; he never again made a record as consistently satisfying as that first one. But scattered through the remainder of his catalog is a run of compositions that would make any songwriter weep with envy: “Learning How to Love You,” “Crackerbox Palace,” “Blow Away,” “Your Love is Forever,” “Life Itself,” “Sat Singing,” “Cheer Down,” “When We Was Fab,” “Heading for the Light,” “Stuck Inside a Cloud,” and others.

These are mostly quiet, subtle affairs, distinguished by Harrison’s sublime slide guitar playing and his Sufi-like tendency to blur the lines between spiritual devotion and romantic love. The older Harrison had moved beyond proselytizing for a specific religion and instead wrote of God in broad terms, and in doing so demonstrated his evolution from self-righteous zealot to quiet contemplative. It is almost criminal that Scorsese’s otherwise entertaining documentary ignores this work. Thomson at least gives it some ink, but it’s clear that, apart from “Blow Away” and some of the songs on Harrison’s final album, Brainwashed, he doesn’t take this material seriously.

Am I crazy to love these songs so much? I have included links to a few of them below so you can decide for yourself.

Despite the drawbacks, I give Graeme Thomson’s Behind the Locked Door my highest recommendation. The biographer has unearthed a staggering amount of new information and has succeeded in completely rewriting a story I thought I knew by heart. All the familiar elements are there, but rendered afresh: the Liverpool childhood, the formation of The Beatles and their subsequent worldwide success, the band’s bitter breakup, Harrison’s first tumultuous marriage to Pattie Boyd and his somewhat more stable second marriage to Olivia Arias, his complicated friendship with Eric Clapton, and so on.

Parts of Harrison’s life that had previously only been lightly sketched are now filled in, such as his second career as a film producer in the 1980s and his involvement in the world of Formula One racing. We learn that politically he “showed definite right-wing tendencies in several respects” (this was, after all, the author of “Taxman”), but was also a staunch environmentalist and humanitarian who never lost his loopy ’60s idealism.

Case in point: Harrison’s second and final charity concert, the clunkily named “The Natural Law Party Presents George Harrison & Friends — Inspiration to the Youth of Great Britain — Election is a Celebration,” sought to promote a group of Maharishi-sponsored candidates for the British general election whose platform included “self-pulse reading” and “Yogic Flying.” This event, a seeming throwback to John Lennon’s “Bed-In for Peace” and other Age of Aquarius-era stunts, occurred in the turbulent recession year of 1992.

Thomson’s admirable lack of sentiment throughout the book ensures that a few key passages toward the end detailing Harrison’s battle with cancer pack an exceptionally powerful punch. I’ll close with one concerning a longtime friend and surrogate brother with whom George had feuded, often bitterly, since as far back as 1965:

It was in New York that Harrison said a last goodbye to Paul McCartney, some 45 years after they had first met in Speke on the top deck of the 86 bus. They held hands, laughed and wept, and parted in love.

Some recommended George Harrison songs:

“Blow Away”:

“Your Love Is Forever”:

“Stuck Inside a Cloud”: