March 24, 2024

FTV: George Harrison


     Being one of The Beatles was not the be all/end all for George Harrison.  Saying the name of the Fab Four usually sends people down Lennon and McCartney Lane, memory-wise.  Even Ringo managed to garner more attention than poor George.  Paul was always ‘the cute one’, John the ‘serious one’, and Ringo, the ‘fun one’.  George?  He was tagged the ‘quiet Beatle’ but much of that had to come from one simple fact:  with the other three around, it had to be hard just to get a word in edgewise.  Upon further examination, it should be noted that Beatle George (and the real George) had a lot more depth to him than he is given credit for in the Beatle world.

     George Harrison had a magnificent ability to remember details about, well, everything.  He had long thought about gathering what he called, ‘bits of paper with my song lyrics on it scattered about’ and assembling them into a book of some sort.  It wouldn’t end up being just a ‘book of lyrics’ or even a conventional ‘autobiography’.  In the Foreword to I Me Mine, (1980 Ganga Publishing, re-released in paperback form by First Chronicle Books, LLC in 2007), Harrison described how the book came to pass:  “Two drunkards cornered me in a hotel room near Heathrow Airport in July 1977 and showed me that if I did find the lyrics, they could be bound into a nice book.  In excruciating detail, just for you, at a price outside everyday experience, we offer the small change of a short lifetime.  It was to be called The Big Leather Job [in reference to an old leather bound book of a restored ship’s log the two drunkards had shown him as an example of how it could be done] but became known as I Me Mine for it could also be seen  as a ‘little ego detour’.  I have suffered for this book; now it’s your turn.  George Harrison – Somewhere in England.”

     I Me Mine evolved to include three parts.  Part III gathered together the promised lyrics in handwritten form on any form of paper he had handy;  envelopes, hotel stationery, and son on.  The lyrics also appear in a typed format and anecdotes, some more detailed than others, accompany each song.  A couple of his earliest works that were discarded before he started saving them were hand printed anew for the sake of the book (which he admitted to in the books Outward section).  Part II contains 48 photos captioned by George and Derek Taylor (whom we will hear more about in a bit).  Some are serious, others less so like the one for Plate XXIII which shows George playing his sitar.  The caption, which reads, “The author enjoying a cheese sandwich with some friends in Eastbourne, 1967,” is not a misprint – it is just another example of Harrison’s rather unique sense of humor.

     Part I is not a normal biographical telling of George’s life.  He says his piece, but there are generous commentaries provided by Derek Taylor.  Taylor got to know George when the former worked as a columnist for the Daily Express.  In 1963, he was dispatched to meet George and ghost write a weekly column ‘by George Harrison’ for the Express.  Taylor says George was singled out for this honor because, in his mind, Lennon and McCartney were busy with their songwriting and Ringo was too new to the band.  This left George.  Taylor gave his boss several reasons for the choice:  “George seemed to be a decent chap and when I had met him at press conferences and backstage he had been approachable, transparently sincere, and expressive.”  When Taylor and his editor, John Buchanan, approached the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein wanted to know why a weekly article would be written by Derek, and not George himself.  Buchanan told him, “Because Derek knows what the readers want.” 

      Epstein agreed it would give George an extra interest in the band, but they still needed to agree on a fee.  He was insulted at the first offer of 50 pounds per week.  Buchanan  assured Brian that George would not have to do much and 50 pounds was more than Taylor made in a week.  They eventually settled on 100 pounds per week after Brian reminded them both that Taylor’s weekly wage wasn’t the issue because, after all, “He isn’t a Beatle.”  Thus George Harrison became a weekly columnist for the Daily Express with Taylor promising to run the articles by him before they went to print.  In the very first piece, Taylor summed up a dialog between Harrison and his father.  Derek wrote that George would be busy touring and not around much.  To illustrate the point, he invented the following quote attributed to the father:  “Never you mind about that, son, you just go ahead and play your guitar and I’ll carry on driving the big green jobs.”  It wasn’t a big deal as this was a standard reporting practice in the British press – if you need to make something up to sell the story, so be it.

     When Derek brought the typed pages to Harrison to read, there was a great silence when he got to the above mentioned quote.  Taylor said, “There was a horrible silence.  George looked quite as much amused as amazed, but there was still a terrible hole in the air.  ‘What are big green jobs?” he asked.  ‘Buses,’ I said, ‘Liverpool Corporation buses, big green jobs, er, well, you know, big green jobs, double-deckers.’  They polled everybody in the room and came to the conclusion that nobody had ever called them ‘big green jobs’.  There was a feeling of insane hysterics, ‘Big green jobs,’ George repeated, shaking his head.  ‘I’d better keep on reading this.’”  In the end, George declared Taylor’s ghost-written article ‘wasn’t all bad’ and from then on, they would collaborate more and more.  Derek Taylor became one of George’s closest confidants from then until Harrison’s death.  It only made sense for Taylor’s voice to act as the moderator in George’s book.

     As a writer for the Daily Express, Derek Taylor would interview Epstein often.  Taylor ended up ghost-writing Brian’s 1964 autobiography A Cellarful of Noise.  He soon became Epstein’s personal assistant, and in his new position, Derek was still writing George’s weekly column but his salary had now risen to 150 pounds per week.  He also assumed the duties as the Beatles’ press officer.  As he explained it, “Joan and our four children followed Brian and the Beatles on the trail to metropolis.  All of our provincial lives were over.  We had no choice and maybe, anyway, it was time to go crackers.  It was 1964 and it was a very hard and sometimes unhappy year.”

     Going back to Harrison’s childhood, it sounded much like other British rock stars who grew up in post-WWII England.  Times were tough and people did what they had to do in order to survive.  The Harrison’s first home was at 12 Arnold Grove – a typical row house on a cul-du-sac, one step from the street put you in the small front room.  There were stairs leading up to the two bedrooms on the second level and an outhouse in the back.  In winter, the house was cold and it took several stones warmed by the meager fire to get the bed sheets tolerable.  This was the Harrison abode for the 25 years they were on the housing list for better accommodations.

     George has fond memories of growing up there, at least until he moved on up from junior school to the big grammar school.  Looking back, George said, “That is when the darkness began and my frustrations seemed to start.  You would punch people out just to get it our of your system.  The whole idea of it was so serious.  The backwards teachers, you can’t smile and you are not allowed to do this or that.  Be here, stand there, shut up, sit down, and always you need those exams.  I didn’t like school, I think it was awful’  the worst time of your life.”  Reading this passage suddenly made Roger Water’s Pink Floyd masterpiece The Wall a little clearer for me:  ‘We don’t need no education’.

     Math and testing seemed to particularly stick in young George’s craw:  “Algebra?  I have no idea what it means or where it came from.  It seems to have no harmony or rhythm or basic feel because really you can understand people without knowing the same language…but algebra for me had nothing to do with reality.”  As for the GCE (General Certificate of Education) tests, Harrison passed art but failed everything else.  They planned to hold him back and make him repeat the same classes with a new group coming up, but as he said, “I thought ‘No thanks, squire, I’m not going to get into learning all these new people and their tricks’ so I went over the railings to the movies and didn’t go back until the last day to pick up my fine.”  Even the way music was taught in the schools was too stuffy and formal for him.  His parents never knew as he burned his reports and testimonials.  His brother’s wife kind of aided and abetted him by passing a few coins his way for the movies or whatever else he did to while away the days he dumped school.  Long before LSD became a thing, George dropped out and tuned out of school.

     When his brother Harry was away doing his military service, George spent a lot of time chumming about with his sister-in-law Irene who remembered,  “We went out to shows and that sort of thing.  It was that rock’n’roll time and all the big acts, Lonnie Donegan and so on, came to the Empire (theater in Liverpool) and I’d get seats, and off we’d go.  It was nice to have company, you know?  Then Harry and I got married and we had a flat in Liverpool and George came round there quite a bit, sometimes with Paul.  He would come around and say ‘don’t tell my mom’ when she would give him lunch money which he spent at the movies or such.”

     George had no clue what to do with his life.  His father had pegged him for a trade like being an electrician so he and his brother could have a garage or shop.  He tried a few jobs but none of them said, “George, this is what you will do for the rest of your life.”  When George first told Harry and Irene he had the chance to join a group with Paul, his brother told him, “Have a go, you know?  You’re still young enough to do what you want to do, if you give it a year or two, you haven’t missed out.”

     George weighed the options:  “Well, you know what it was like in Liverpool;  if you had a trade you were made.  If you wanted to do anything else, you were a bit bonkers.  I don’t think our sort of upbringing allowed you to have other ideas.”  George resolved to be in the group.  His mother told him moving in with John would see him back in two or three weeks (and she was right) because there were no comforts of home in Lennon’s spartan apartment.  None-the-less, the Harrisons supported their son’s decision to not simply go into a trade and to do something different.

     Harrison first met Paul McCartney riding the bus home from grammar school.  Paul was a year ahead but they were both wearing the same school uniform and George started to hang out

with him.  Early on, when he was first playing with the band, he was still having to borrow money from his dad who finally asked, “Hadn’t you better get a job or something?”  He tried to get into what he termed ‘the Corporation (Liverpool)’, “but I didn’t pass the test.  I wasn’t even good enough to get into the ‘Corpy’.  I wasn’t bothering, I wasn’t trying, but after a lot of time, I had to – because it was getting too embarrassing, but it was a long time before I could get a job.”

     He missed out a chance to be a window dresser at Blacklers [department store] so they sent him to see Mr. Peet in maintenance where he was given menial tasks like cleaning light tubes.  George said, “I also learned to play darts and I learned how to drink fourteen pints of beer and three rum and blackcurrants and eat two Wimpy’s hamburgers all in one session.  All this I learned and at night we were doing gigs and then we got the gig to play in Scotland.  I went and told the boss at Blacklers, ‘I’m leaving, I’m sorry’.  This was great, really nice to say.  Still only seventeen and I resign!”  George may have lacked a formal education and job skills, but that didn’t mean George wasn’t curious about things and unable to seek knowledge.  

     George gives Brian Epstein a lot of credit for what happened with the band.  His involvement made them all feel that something big was about to happen to them:  “[Brian] knew how to get it happening.  We felt cocky and certain but when Epstein said, ‘You’re going to be bigger than Elvis you know,’ we thought, ‘Well, how big do you have to be?  I mean, I doubt that.’   That seemed outrageous yet he did have the right attitude.” Epstein died of an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol near the end of ‘The Summer of Love’ (or ‘the Summer of Acid’ as some choose to call 1967).  Harrison remembers having one serious conversation outside of the normal business affairs with Brian just before he died.  George felt Epstein was on the cusp of realizing he could rise to another level, perhaps of success or of spiritual awakening (he doesn’t specify).

     By the end of 1967’s remarkable summer, the Beatles were no longer touring and they were also on the edge of big changes.  How and what they recorded evolved.  They met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, youth culture was exploding at events like the Monterey Pop Festival, and everybody was optimistic that ‘flower-power, love, brotherhood, peace, and music’ would change and possibly save the world.  Unfortunately, the Beatles had stopped relying on Brian as a steadying ‘father figure’ guiding how the band handled their own affairs.  His death really marked the beginning of their problems, thus setting the stage for their eventual end.  Founding Apple and internal friction in the band became a slippery slope that nobody could foresee or reverse once everything began to slide down hill.

     For George, the novelty of being famous had pretty much worn off by 1965 and he told Taylor he did not enjoy being famous the same way again.  By 1969, he had married Pattie and they moved into a Gothic house and park in Oxfordshire.  This became Harrison’s inner sanctum where he enjoyed gardening.  Life there helped him escape being a Beatle.  George may not have been getting very many of his songs on the group’s albums, but he was amassing a sizable catalog for future use. When the ‘Beatles dam’ broke and they were set free, his songs burst forth with such volume, it surprised just about everyone.  Indeed, the triple album All Things Must Pass (released in 1970) covered so much ground it was proof that George had not been idle in 1968-1970.  He had absorbed a lot from working with the likes of Bob Dylan, the Band, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, and Billy Preston.  He had grown beyond his former role as ‘the quiet Beatle’.  Beatle George found a chameleon-like side of him that allowed him to work with just about anybody he came in contact with from Tom Petty to Jeff Lynne or Roy Orbison.

     There are too many facets of George Harrison to do him justice with in this short space.  Suffice to say one must consider him to have had three lives, all equally important.  When we view the man as a whole, we can see the additive effect of his life’s stages:  his childhood, his time as a Beatle, and the rest of his life and musical career in the post-Beatles era.  All were equally important, but one gets the feeling it was the last chapters that were the most meaningful and fulfilling for George.  With that said, it is hard to say if he could have arrived at phase 3 without the formative experiences of phases 1 and 2.

Top Piece Video:  George Harrison and his Traveling Wilbury chums performing Handle With Care from phase 3 of George’s life.