As a reader who has compulsively consumed the ever-expanding body of Beatles literature for 40 years, I have trouble picking out a favorite anecdote or most memorable quote. Is it John’s “If there is such a thing as a genius, I am one”? Or the note Paul sent John one day in the waning days of the group: “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot s—”? Or maybe it’s the time an airline stewardess offered George a glass of wine, not knowing he was deep in meditation. “F— off,” the spiritual Beatle replied.
I don’t know. I could go on with stories like this all day. None of them involve Ringo, by the way.
Given the vastness and variety of the literature, it would be incorrect to say that the Beatles story has been whitewashed, not when it includes so many get-even tell-alls and book-sized sumps of sensational gossip. But there is a quasi-official version of events, and when it is reissued periodically from the tireless Beatles public relations machine, the narrative does tend to take on the unblemished pallor of approved history. For 50 years the Beatles have been the rock group you could take home to meet Mom, and nobody close to their stupendous commercial enterprise seems eager to undo the image.
Paul, Ringo, the two widows, and what remains of the original Liverpool crowd keep the history tidy for reasons that are surely as much personal as fiduciary. Beatles Anthology, the eight-hour, supposedly definitive documentary the Beatles machine released in 1995, omitted any unpleasantness that might cast a shadow on the sunny version of the Beatles story, aside from a few inescapable anecdotes about illegal drug-taking. There was no mention of the now-legendary sybaritic excesses of Beatles tours, or the friends, wives, lovers, children, and employees betrayed or discarded on the way to the top. The sulfurous rancor that at last pulled the group apart, and which continued in punishing and pointless legal maneuvers for another generation, was mostly ignored. Even today, Paul and Ringo have stalled the rerelease of the 1970 documentary Let It Be owing to its glaring display of the group’s lassitude, self-loathing, and crisscrossing bitterness. And they’re right to keep it locked away, if the point is preserving the image of the moptops. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Let It Be, but I don’t recall wanting to take any of those Beatles home to meet Mom.
The authorized version has been buffed in recent weeks with commemorations of the tenth anniversary of George Harrison’s death, at age 58, from cancer. There he was again, peering out from the cover of Rolling Stone, just like old times. Life magazine, always a codependent in Beatles mythmaking, disinterred itself long enough to get out a special celebratory issue. HBO aired a four-hour documentary put together by Martin Scorsese, Living in the Material World, which is also the title of a companion book of quotes and pictures released by Harrison’s widow Olivia.
The book is the size of a paving stone and as sumptuously produced as any coffee-table accessory can be. Scorsese’s movie, on the other hand, is a mess. Like too many documentaries nowadays, it lacks a single narrator, leaving the viewer helpless as the movie jumps back and forth through each stage of the Beatles story, from blitzed-out Liverpool to blissed-out Rishikesh. Anyone unfamiliar with the small but necessary roles in the dramatis personae will find himself wondering who all these people are. Where’d this Astrid woman come from, and how come Stuart Sutcliffe is dead all of a sudden—and now that you mention it, who was Stuart Sutcliffe anyway? Poor Pete Best, who he? (The answers for the uninitiated: Hamburg, Germany, where she befriended the young Beatles; a brain tumor; the Beatles’ first bass player; and . . . it’s complicated.)
The theme that emerges from this dog’s breakfast involves Harrison’s split personality—or as he might prefer to put it, his dual nature, the yin and yang—as a religious seeker on the one side and a decadent, heedless rock star on the other. If you had even a passing acquaintance with Harrison’s career you know about the religion part, but nobody in the movie or book ever gets specific enough to fill us in on the other half.
“He had two personalities,” Ringo says. “One was this bag of [prayer] beads, the other was this big bag of anger.” Yoko Ono seconds that emotion: “He had two aspects,” she says. “Sometimes he was very nice. Sometimes he was [long pause] too honest.” Paul McCartney, coy as ever, says, “He was my mate, so I can’t say too much. But he was a guy, a red-blooded guy, and he liked what guys like.”
Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Say no more.
You have to read the tell-alls, such as the memoir of his first wife Pattie, to get the details about Bad George and his heroic capacity for cocaine, brandy, and adultery. The combination resulted in, among other things, the spectacularly gruesome scene he made in 1973 at a dinner party at Ringo’s house. The party went sour when George stood up to announce that he was sleeping with Ringo’s wife and planned to run away with her. (In the event, he quickly moved on from Mrs. Starr.) Just another potluck with the Starrs and the Harrisons.
Paul Theroux, the travel writer, has for some reason been enlisted to write an introduction to the picture book, and he beats the theme of two Georges like a Ludwig tom-tom: “It is no wonder he was so passionate: he was himself his own wicked twin,” Theroux writes. “He was himself the dark and the light, the flames and the ashes.” If you think that’s overwritten, wait till you watch him wade into the hallucinatory exaggeration we have learned to expect when Baby Boomers write about rock music:
To say that he was one of the great musicians of his time—one of the most innovative guitarists ever, one of the most imaginative songwriters—is to give only part of the story.
Yes, and not even the true part!
One of George Harrison’s most appealing traits was self-awareness. He would have seen (and said) how absurd such talk was. “I was never a real guitarist,” he once told his friend Klaus Voormann. And he wasn’t; he couldn’t launch the fireworks like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, and the disciplined technique of Andrés Segovia or Julian Bream never interested him. About his songwriting, he told an interviewer: “There’s no comparison between me and someone who sits and writes music. What I do is really simple.” Right again. He compared himself to a pastry chef, able to combine musical ingredients nicked from others to make a pleasing presentation of songcraft. He made many marvelous records, but as a source of fresh musical ideas, he said, “I’m not really that good.”
You could say the same for pretty much anyone who ever wrote a rock song, which is an extremely forgiving art form, but you can’t imagine anyone else who ever wrote a rock song admitting it.
Whether his religion led him to his clear-eyed modesty, or it worked the other way around, the two were connected. Along with the humility, his unapologetic religious faith made him the most unlikely rock star in history. It wasn’t the faith of his fathers, of course. His mother dragged him to Mass as a boy. “They tried to raise me a Catholic,” he says in Living in the Material World, but he stopped going to church before he was a teenager. Whatever chance he had to become an orthodox believer was snuffed out by the drab and airless Catholicism on offer in the decades leading up to Vatican II. He preferred to lose himself in the teeming pantheism and exotic mysticism of India. He first traveled there with the other Beatles, to sit at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the old fox who had the spiritual insight to trademark the phrase “transcendental meditation.”
The West itself came to represent the decadence that the Bad George fell into and the Good George struggled to escape.
I was in the West, and I was into rock ’n’ roll, getting crazy, staying up all night and doing whatever was supposed to be the wrong things. That’s in conflict with all the right things, which is what I learned through India—like getting up early, going to bed early, taking care of yourself and having some sort of spiritual quality to your life.
It helps that Hinduism lets a believer off the hook more easily than Christianity. Harrison became a particular devotee of the god Krishna, a blue-skinned, flute-tooting playboy who, unlike Jesus Christ, rotates his way through a harem of thousands of nubile maidens. Compared with them, Ringo’s wife must have seemed like a trifle.
Still, his mother may have succeeded more than he knew. When he went off with Maharishi, he wrote her a letter of reassurance. His Hindu practice, he told her, wasn’t taking him “off from any devotion to the Sacred Heart in any way. It only strengthens it!” Religious devotion of the most intimate sort preoccupied him, and his oscillation between guilt and redemption had a Catholic look to it—though his insistence on the split between spirit and body could have landed him squarely with the Manicheans. Not long after his discovery of India he went on David Frost’s chat show to announce the Beatles’ new religious phase. He could have been quoting a homily from any priest at St. Sylvester’s back in Liverpool—banal by the standards of sociology, simply bizarre by the standards of rock ’n’ roll:
By having money, we found that money wasn’t the answer. We had lots of material things that people can spend their whole lives to get. And it was good, but we still lacked something. And that something is what religion is trying to give to people.
To David Frost he couldn’t bring himself to say “God” with a capital G, preferring the less dangerous word “religion,” but it was only a matter of time—and when it came he wouldn’t shut up about it, or Him. Critics called Harrison “preachy,” and with some cause. I remember attending a concert in the only American solo tour he ever did, in 1974, in Long Beach, California. His voice was shot from infection and over-rehearsal, but none of us in the audience of 40,000 seemed to mind. A croaking Beatle was still a Beatle. Every song was greeted warmly, especially when he played the opening figure of the Beatles standard “In My Life,” grandly arranged and slowed to the pace of a dirge, in an effort to draw meaning out of each phrase: In my life, I love you more.
It was an odd song to do. “In My Life” was written by John Lennon, but Harrison put his own stamp on it, and how. He worked his way to the last line of the last verse: “In my life”—then came a rest of four beats, anticipatory cheers welling up from the crowd, the band prepared to come in like an avalanche—“I’ve loved God more.” And 40,000 people were caught in screamus interruptus. In my section of the cheap seats, there was a half-gulp while we all looked at each other: “Did he just say what I think he said?”
I still marvel at the nerve it must have taken, singing about God, of all things, in front of kids thumping for rock ’n’ roll, not to mention the wised-up musicians and the cynics and pedants of the concert-reviewing press. But you got used to it if you were a George fan, and in time came to expect it, as when, for example, in an acoustic blues called “Deep Blue,” he suddenly popped off with When I think of the life I’m living / I pray God help me; give me your light / So I can love you and understand . . . (You were expecting maybe the Hoochie Coochie Man?) And because George insisted, some of us felt obliged, for the first time in our lives, to take the idea (at least) of God seriously.
That Krishna, he works in mysterious ways.
Well into his forties he kept swinging between the poles of his double life as only a true Manichean can, a rock star buried in a pile of cocaine one minute and a sadhu renunciant fingering his beads the next. But by his fifties he had abandoned the pretensions of stardom altogether. He had married a formidable but endlessly forgiving woman. (“People sometimes say to me, ‘What’s the secret of a long marriage?’ ” Olivia says in the movie. “And I’m like, ‘You don’t get divorced!’ ”) He became a devoted father and accomplished gardener.
“I don’t listen to much of today’s music,” he said. “Most of it leaves me shell-shocked.” He immersed himself in the standards of the American songbook. “I would rather listen to ‘Lady Be Good’ by Grappelli [and Django Reinhardt] right now than almost anything,” he wrote in a brief autobiography. Hoagy Carmichael became a hero. His last albums each contained at least one old pop standard: Cole Porter’s “True Love,” Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues.”
When the cancer finally carried him off, his family’s formal statement insisted that he had never feared his own death, and even welcomed it, so sure was his faith in an afterlife and in God. The claim is repeated emphatically in the documentary. But this has the feel of a white lie—another bit of Beatle mythmaking. His last months were, in truth, a frantic scramble around Europe and North America in search of experimental cures that might keep his spirit housed in his body a few months longer. None of them worked.
I don’t suppose any Beatles fan will begrudge this last little bit of public relations touch-up. Even after reading the tell-alls, most of us think the authorized story of the Fab Four is fine the way it is, and anything else is finally irrelevant—a point which George Harrison himself sweetly made:
I think people who truly can live a life in music are telling the world, “You can have my love, you can have my smiles. Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because it’s the very best, and it’s the part I give most willingly.”
And don’t bug him when he’s meditating.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U.