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Shrouded in a sea of mystery, the elusive George Harrison has long been the most private and enigmatic member of the Beatles. From his hard knock childhood in Liverpool to his ascendance into rock infamy, George Harrison's life has been a torpid ride filled with legendary success and heart crushing defeat.
New York Times bestselling author Marc Shapiro sheds new light on this paradoxical rocker, whose reputation for unusual religious practices and drug abuse often rivaled his musical notoriety.
A man whose desire was to be free rather than be famous, Harrison's battle against conformity lead him to music making, a soulful and creative expression that would be his ticket to success and the bane of his existence. Behind Sad Eyes is the compelling account of a man who gave the Beatles their lyrical playing style and brought solace to a generation during turbulent times.
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Marc Shapiro has written over a dozen worksof non-fiction, with books on popular bands including Carlos Santana: Back on Top, Creed: From Zero to Platinum and The Story of The Eagles: The Long Run. He is also a rock journalist who has written for The Los Angeles Free Press, Words and Music, Hit Parade, Bam Magazine, Rock and Soul, Word Up, Faces, Gig and Creem.
oneGet Your Ass Out of Here!George Harrison returned to the spotlight in 1997. But not in the way he would have liked or, doubtless, would have been comfortable with.That year, it was disclosed that a deranged fan had been sending George death threats through the mail that reportedly said “good-bye George” and “time you went.” Only after the man was arrested was it discovered that the letters had, in fact, been coming on a steady basis since 1996 and that most of them had been burned by George’s staff before he had a chance to see them for fear of upsetting the—by that time—already security-crazed musician.In July 1997, while puttering around in the garden of his mansion at Henley on Thames Oxfordshire, Harrison discovered a lump in his neck. He would subsequently undergo surgery to remove what would turn out to be a cancerous nodule, followed by a month of radiation treatments. Harrison, who confirmed that the cancer had been the result of an off-and-on pattern of cigarette smoking over the years, pronounced himself cancer-free following that treatment. In January 1998, Harrison checked into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for follow-up tests and would again confirm that he was cancer-free.Harrison faced true terror on December 30, 1999, when the deranged thirty-three-year-old, Mike Abram, claiming he had been told by God to kill Harrison, broke into the ex-Beatle’s home and stabbed the musician several times in the chest, hands, and fingers before his wife Olivia subdued the attacker by hitting him repeatedly with a metal poker.“I vividly remember a deliberate thrust of the knife towards my chest,” Harrison related in a written statement introduced during Abram’s trial. “I felt my chest deflate and the flow of blood towards my mouth. I believed I had been fatally stabbed.”Olivia Harrison also remembered the night of terror during her trial testimony. “There was blood on the wall, blood on my hands, and I realized that we were going to be murdered.”Harrison’s personal trials continued to command headlines when, in April 2001, he underwent lung cancer surgery. In the wake of that operation Harrison appeared gaunt and sickly in public appearances to promote the reissue of his solo album All Things Must Pass, leading to active speculation that he was near death. The musician issued an angry statement that he was, in fact, “active and feeling very well” and that he was “disappointed and disgusted” at the ill-founded reports of his pending death.That George Harrison was forced into the spotlight because of personal travails is ironic, coming as it does from a man who has seemingly spent his entire life running from prying eyes. As always he was uncomfortable in front of the camera’s glare and the reporter’s notebook. He wished it would all go away.The at large opinion was he wished he could go away. But his life and times had already been marked by the pronouncement that George Harrison could run but he could not hide for very long.During his years with the Beatles, Harrison, who struck an introspective/inquisitive image with his angular features, wide eyes, dark bushy eyebrows, and often timid tight smile, was the one most uncomfortable with the accolades and the press interest. He would do the requisite interviews, albeit reluctantly. When he did speak, reporters instantly marked him the shy and withdrawn member of the Beatles who would never look you in the eye while speaking and always projected the image of deep thought or discomfort, even when presented with the most innocuous teen-heartthrob question.But he was also notorious in those early years of the Beatles for lashing out, in uncharacteristic fits of temper, when he felt his privacy was being intruded upon. However, Harrison, when he has addressed his feelings during the Beatles’ rise to stardom in the 1960s, would patiently couch his remarks in the fact that it was people’s seriousness about the whole idea of stardom and celebrity, rather than his personality, that was off-putting.“I’ve always been a firm believer in freedom and privacy,” he acknowledged. “Treat it all too seriously and you can’t help but go out of your mind.”Which was why, during the heyday of Beatlemania, Harrison hid his discomfort with the intrusions on his every thought with a quick wit, heavy on the double entendres and the snappy one-liner: playing as necessary the perfect comic relief, not so much for the benefit of others as for himself. Harrison was not dumb. He knew there was a game that had to be played. But as Harrison would readily admit in later years, he was also aware that it was all largely a sham.“I enjoyed making the records,” he conceded. “But I didn’t like to be on TV and do the interviews that were necessary to promote it. There was a time when I actually hated all that.”But he would always put up a good front. Beatles manager Brian Epstein acknowledged at the time that it was the rare moment when George was anything but accommodating. “George has his moods, though I cannot recall any particular moments. All I know is that George is remarkably easy to be with.”Harrison’s near-manic distaste for the public interest in his every move had, by the time the Beatles shut down the crazy—and, for George, the least musically rewarding—touring life in 1966, begun to turn him against the very group that had made him famous. The arguments, especially those with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, had become increasingly heated. More and more, George was longing for time away from the limelight and what had become the totally reprehensible process of being a pop star.“It made me nervous, the whole magnitude of our fame,” he admitted. “I wanted to stop touring after about 1965 because I was getting very nervous. They kept planning these ticker-tape parades and I was saying, ‘I absolutely don’t want to do that.’ I didn’t like the idea of being too popular.”His frustrations at not being more than a token songwriter in the band also fueled his anger. So did his increasingly serious view of life that often seemed to run at odds with the attitude of the rest of the group. John had already staked out the role of rock-and-roll rebel and was content to play it to the hilt. Paul, while serious about his songwriting, was rather frivolous and accommodating to the rigors of pop life. Ringo was basically the laid-back easygoing drummer who said yes to everything and could be counted on to be the pliable follower rather than a leader. George could never quite find his place.Consequently, his growing fear of the spotlight and his weariness of performing was the main reason why the Beatles never played live again after 1966. In fact, the only reason the band performed their now famous Let It Be rooftop session was that George refused to perform in front of an audience. When he stormed out at one point in the Beatles’ onerous Let It Be album sessions, after a bitter argument with Lennon and McCartney, in his mind his life with the Beatles was already over.In his post-Beatles life, Harrison would dismiss any questions about his Beatles experience as “rubbish.” He stated there was little in the Beatle experience that was satisfying, and that even the best thrill associated with celebrity soon got tiring.“It was awful being on the front page of everyone’s life, every day,” said Harrison. “What an intrusion into our lives. Your own space, man, it’s so important. That’s why we were doomed because we didn’t have any.”Harrison’s post-Beatles output, including the chart-busting All Things Must Pass and the less-than-creatively-exhilarating 33, was marked by an infusion of ego, fueled now by his now obsession with Indian religion. But, if anything, his own personal triumphs succeeded only in pushing him deeper into a shell.It also did not help that George was often feeling out-of-step with the prevailing state of pop music. Loud, angry rock and heavy metal had become the order of the day, as had, at the other end of the spectrum, soulless pop ballads. George steadfastly refused to bend to the current trends, often pushing aside suggestions that his music not be so religious and that he rock a little bit more. Unfortunately, his attitude only led to not-too-veiled suggestions that George was, in his late thirties, a dottering old relic who was well past being of any relevance other than as a piece of nostalgia.George had also become a bit of a professional liability. Getting him to promote his own records was tough. In fact 1982’s Gone Troppo literally died of lack of interest on Harrison’s part. He saw his penchant for privacy as something totally necessary and ultimately tied to his own personal philosophy.“These days I don’t go out of my way to sell records,” he related. “If people like it, they can buy it. I’ll do what I can as honestly as I can. I could go out and become a superstar if I practiced a bit. But I don’t really want to do that. I don’t have to prove anything.”His seeming not to care in a commercial sense led to much conjecture among critics and observers that Harrison, for all his resentment of his Beatles days, was suffering some discomfort that the group had broken up when it did and that, for all his productivity in his solo life, he would never equal that popularity on his own. It began to manifest in an increasingly unkempt look and an growing reluctance to talk about the past. In later years, Harrison would admit that “during the seventies, I just sort of phased myself out of the limelight.”But Harrison would find much that held his interest toward the end of that decade. While commercially successful, based largely on his name rather than any endearing music, critics suddenly began to find nice things to say about his music, resulting in the albums George Harrison and Somewhere in England being his best-reviewed solo outings since All Things Must Pass. Harrison took a shine to stock-car racing and exercised his desire to be behind the scenes when he got into the film business as the co-founder of Handmade Films.Consequently, Harrison began to loosen up. David Cheney, the owner of the pub Row Barge, near Harrison’s Henley-on-Thames home, recently reported that Harrison has always been an unassuming and natural person “who would often pop down for a pint with friends.” And, in 1977, Harrison popped into the Row Barge unannounced and entertained the astonished regulars with a live set. George Harrison was definitely showing signs of coming out of his shell.Until John Lennon was shot in 1980.Throughout the 1970s Harrison had often made light of the occasional threat from a crazed fan, but the death of Lennon suddenly put the musician in real fear for his life. For the next seven years Harrison retreated into his home, turning it into a literal fortress of surveillance cameras, razor wire—topped walls, and searchlights. A sign near the front gate of his home pictured nine flags representing the major nations of the world. Next to each was the equivalent of a NO TRESPASSING statement. After the U.S. flag was the statement Get Your Ass Out of Here!“At times you flash on it, when people call your name from behind,” said George not long after Lennon’s death. “You don’t know who’s crackers and who isn’t.”However, George was nothing less than kind to those he allowed into his personal and professional world. Keyboard player Billy Preston, who helped out on the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions and whose solo album George co-produced, saw that side of him. “George is wonderful. George is very spiritual. He’s a very loving and humble person. He’s a very good friend and is like a brother to me.”Even Eric Clapton, who has admittedly engaged in an extreme love-hate relationship with George which resulted in Clapton’s stealing George’s first wife, has only the kindest words. “I think the world of the man. He’s adaptable for any situation. His wit and his humor are a great source of inspiration for anybody who knows him.”As befitting his reclusive nature, Harrison rarely ventured out in public, preferring to work in his garden, play with his child Dhani, and, occasionally, to make a rare appearance at a nearby pub. In 1987, on the strength of his hit album, Cloud Nine, the very Beatles inspired hit single “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You,” and the opportunity to be part of a one-off supergroup called the Traveling Wilburys (which also featured Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison), George temporarily came out of the shadows.Once again the increased interest in Harrison put the musician on the defensive and he retreated into solitude and the life of a landed gentleman. He remained that way until 1995 when he made the fateful decision to finally face his demons and join the other surviving Beatles in producing a documentary film history of the Beatles called Anthology, which that would be followed in the year 2000 by a companion coffee table–sized book.Longtime friend Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) stated that Harrison participating in the Anthology projects was an important element in his coming back into the light. “I think in some ways he is just now getting used to being a Beatle. I think he’s deciding now that he can’t live locked away all the time.”George Harrison has never put any stock in the speculation surrounding his often reclusive nature that has been an intregal element of his life and times. And he laid it out in typical George Harrison simplicity: “That’s then and now’s now,” he said of his hiding from prying eyes. “I’m reasonably well balanced about it all and understand, in my own mind, why I’m doing it. Unfortunately it will make me a bit famous again, but just for a bit. Then I’ll go back to being retired again.”BEHIND SAD EYES: THE LIFE OF GEORGE HARRISON. Copyright © 2002 by Marc Shapiro. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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