Thursday 26 April 2018

How George Harrison - who had strong Irish connections - was far from the quiet Beatle

Guitarist George Harrison may have lived in the shadow of friends John and Paul but he was far from the quiet Beatle, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler

The Beatles in 1966.
The Beatles in 1966.
George and his wife Olivia in Ireland in 2001
George Harrison with Pattie Boyd in 1966
George, his mother Louse and brother Pete in O'Connell Street, Dublin in the 1950s.
George (centre back) with his Irish cousins, parents, aunt and uncle, on holiday in Portrane, Co Dublin in the late 1940s
The Beatles and Ireland
George with musician Donovan at Castlemartin, Co Kildare in 1971

By the time The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, George Harrison was already on the lookout for other pursuits. What had started out as fun in nightclubs in Liverpool and Hamburg had turned into drudgery for the guitarist.

"They [the fans] gave their money and they gave their screams," he later said of the period. "But The Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems. They used us as an excuse to go mad, the world did, and then blamed it on us."

The band had gone from being cheeky chappies from Merseyside to the poster boys of teenage immorality. There were many, particularly in the United States, who simply didn't like them and what they supposed them to represent. Their concerts were picketed by the Ku Klux Klan, their records were burnt and death threats became the norm. On top of that was the fact that they couldn't hear themselves play.

"I always really enjoyed it, in our early days, before we got too famous, we used to play clubs and that kind of stuff all the time," Harrison once told an interviewer. "And it was fun... but then we got famous, and it spoiled all that, because we'd just go round and round the world singing the same 10 dopey tunes."

George and his wife Olivia in Ireland in 2001
George and his wife Olivia in Ireland in 2001

For George, being a Beatle was frustrating. From early on, his status as the youngest in the band hampered his creative output.

"How do you bring a song and show it to Lennon and McCartney?" he once asked.

Because of his relative youth and apparent shyness, the guitarist was quickly labelled 'the quiet one'.

He was anything but. Harrison, born 75 years ago, was an innovator and a maverick, yet his place in western culture remains under-appreciated.

Harrison, was born and raised in Liverpool but there were strong connections to this island. His maternal grandfather, John French, was from Wexford, and had moved to Liverpool in the early 20th Century when his family's smallholding was sold off. Harrison and his mother, Louise, were close; it was she who encouraged his love of music. She also made sure he remembered his roots.

"Of all The Beatles, it was George who had the strongest Irish connections by far," says Damian Smyth, co-author of The Beatles And Ireland.

George Harrison with Pattie Boyd in 1966
George Harrison with Pattie Boyd in 1966

"George had cousins living in Drumcondra and he made a point of visiting them when they went over to play in 1963. But even before that, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the family would get the ferry from Liverpool to Dublin to stay with the cousins and go to places like Malahide beach; I have photos of him there and [of him] walking down O'Connell Street with his mother. So there was a strong connection from the family point of view."

Physically small and slight, Harrison, who was no great student, immersed himself in guitar and ukulele. In the early days of The Quarrymen, Paul and John would go to George's house to practise. He later explained how his "mother was a real big fan of music and was always happy to have the guys around".

Harrison was a facilitator and for most of The Beatles' early history he seemed happy to live in the shadows of the band's two main songwriters, only emerging in interviews with the odd witty one-liner.

Musically however, Harrison's input into the band was immense. Opening riffs on tracks such as Day Tripper, Drive my Car and Paperback Writer are still instantly recognisable and sent fans into a spin during Beatlemania.

It was not until the 1966 album, Revolver, that Harrison's talent for songwriting came to the fore with the pulsating album opener, Taxman. Harrison's contributions were sporadic but often of the highest quality. Even then, he did not always get the credit he deserved.

Famously, Frank Sinatra said that Something, which was penned by Harrison in 1969, was "the greatest love song ever written". But it was not until the late 1970s that Ol' Blue Eyes stopped crediting Lennon and McCartney with its writing when he covered it at concerts.

George, his mother Louse and brother Pete in O'Connell Street, Dublin in the 1950s.
George, his mother Louse and brother Pete in O'Connell Street, Dublin in the 1950s.

Something was written for Harrison's first wife, model Pattie Boyd, whom he had met during the filming of A Hard Day's Night in 1964. At the time Boyd was in a relationship with photographer Eric Swayne but she and Harrison soon started dating. According to Boyd, Harrison proposed to her straight away. She rejected his proposal but accepted a dinner invitation. The couple's romance was intense and they determined to share as many experiences as possible. Their first time taking LSD was together after a dinner party with Cynthia and John Lennon, hosted by Lennon's dentist John Riley.

The story goes that Riley had laced both his and his guests' coffee with the drug. When it became apparent that something was not right, the dentist came clean and urged the group to stay with him. Annoyed that the dentist had spiked their coffee, the four left in Harrison's Mini Cooper and set out for a nightclub in London.

"We all thought there was a fire in the lift," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. "It was just a little red light, and we were all screaming, all hot and hysterical."

Harrison later recalled getting over the original panic and embracing the experience.

"I had such an overwhelming feeling of well-being, that there was a God, and I could see him in every blade of grass," he later said. "It was like gaining hundreds of years of experience in 12 hours."

Harrison soon gave up on LSD but it had triggered an interest in the metaphysical and led him on a path of continuous self-discovery through spiritualism and meditation that would bring elements of east and west together, not least musically.

"For me, it was like a flash. The first time I had acid, it just opened up something in my head that was inside of me, and I realised a lot of things. I didn't learn them because I already knew them, but that happened to be the key that opened the door to reveal them. From the moment I had that, I wanted to have it all the time - these thoughts about the yogis and the Himalayas, and Ravi's [Indian sitar player and singer Ravi Shankar] music."

Pattie played an integral role in encouraging the journey. It was she who persuaded The Beatles to meet the Indian mystic Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in London in August 1967, which resulted in a visit to the Maharishi's seminar in Wales as guests of honour.

The following year, The Beatles' visit to the guru's ashram in Rishikesh, India, drew international attention.

"Personally, I think he was after some kind of inner peace if you like," says Smyth. "He was a very spiritual guy. He was reared as a Catholic but became very disillusioned with organised religion. He couldn't really comprehend the business of 'this is how it is and don't question it'. And then when he discovered the eastern and Indian philosophies in the mid-sixties it was like a light bulb coming on."

Harrison's interest in Indian spiritualism had been piqued by the sitar, which he was first introduced to by David Crosby in 1965.

It made its first appearance on a Beatles album, Rubber Soul, on the song Norwegian Wood and would be used intermittently, some would say overly, on several albums between 1966 and 1968.

Whether Harrison's sitar on Norwegian Wood was the start of the counter-culture is debatable but it undoubtedly added some much needed colour to western living.

"Certainly one of his legacies is exposing us to that type of music," says Smyth. "And he was absolutely passionate about it. Up to then everything was just guitar and drums but he blew the lid on it."

The new philosophy of the east was adapted by many in the counter-culture movement to suit their own ends. Along with the pill, drugs and so-called women's liberation, the philosophical rejection of possession and ownership was just the excuse that the counter-culture needed to justify its sexual revolution. Harrison, the quiet one, was one of its greatest advocates.

His ideas on free love led to complications with Pattie. Alcohol and later cocaine meant that reconciliations were merely sticking plasters.

In the late 1960s, Harrison befriended guitarist Eric Clapton; it is Clapton's guitar we hear on Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps. As the musicians became closer, Clapton became obsessed with Pattie. Much of Clapton's 1970 album Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs was written with Pattie in mind, most famously the plaintive title track.

"We met secretly at a flat in South Kensington," Pattie later recalled in her 2007 memoir Wonderful Tonight. "Eric had asked me to come because he wanted me to listen to a new number he had written. He switched on the tape machine, turned up the volume and played me the most powerful, moving song I had ever heard. It was Layla."

That same evening at a party in London, George confronted the pair when he found them in the midst of what he concluded was a little more than a friendly chat.

Without batting an eyelid, Clapton declared his love for Pattie.

"George was furious," she later recalled. "He turned to me and said: 'Well, are you going with him or coming with me?'"

She went home with Harrison but by then the writing was on the wall. While Harrison's solo career took off in the early 1970s with the release of All Things Must Pass and its hit song My Sweet Lord, his private life was falling apart.

The final straw came when Pattie discovered Harrison in bed with Ringo Starr's wife Maureen. The Beatles had collapsed and now fuelled by alcohol and the dirty drugs of the 1970s, they seemed determined to tear each other apart.

"George used coke excessively, and I think it changed him... it froze his emotions and hardened his heart," recalled Pattie. By the mid-1970s the marriage was all but over. Clapton and Boyd would get together years later and eventually marry. The three remained good friends and Clapton and Harrison went on to later record and tour together.

"Even after we split he [George] was always my friend," said Pattie. "We'd still speak on the phone. And he came to see me before he died. If you love somebody you do that. And I think he always loved me."

Harrison indulged in a series of high-profile relationships before marrying again. This time to Olivia Trinidad Arias with whom he had a son Dhani, a successful session musician. That marriage also had its complications though the couple stayed together right up to the day he passed away in 2001 at the age of 58.

"He was a free person," says Olivia in Martin Scorsese's 2011 documentary film Living in a Material World. "He didn't like to be bound by rules but he did like women. That was always a challenge."

When The Beatles split in 1970, Harrison found himself free to record the huge backlog of songs he had written but never recorded with The Beatles. He drafted in producer Phil Spector and the result was All Things Must Pass; a three-disc album which included the No 1 single My Sweet Lord.

The song's success was bitter-sweet. In the months after the single's release it became apparent that it bore a striking musical resemblance to The Chiffons' 1963 hit She's So Fine. That song's American publisher took Harrison to court and after five years of legal wrangling, the court found in favour of the publisher. According to the judge, Harrison had "subconsciously" copied the song.

Litigation over damages continued until March 1998.

Indeed, the final years of Harrison's life were something of a struggle.

Months before the plagiarism case finally ended, Harrison had been diagnosed with throat cancer, something he put down to his years as a smoker. As he battled the illness, the world was shocked to wake up one morning and discover that he and his wife had been attacked in their home by a knife-wielding maniac who believed he had been sent by God to kill the remaining Beatles.

George survived the attack but he was unable to hold off the cancer.

His funeral was low-key and attended only by close family.

His ashes were taken to India where they were scattered on the Ganges on December 4, 2001.

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