Hey you! Beatles fans! I want a show of hands. How many of you believe that the following story—it comes from Philip Norman's new biography, George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle—has the faintest scintilla of a possibility of being somewhere close to a simulacrum of a story that might, conceivably, be within a hundred bazillion miles of an event that actually happened?
The year is 1971 or '72, it’s not quite clear. The Beatles have well and truly broken up. George Harrison's marriage to his first wife Pattie is dying from indifference, and Eric Clapton, perhaps Harrison's closest friend, has loudly declared his undying love for her.
So here's what Harrison does, goes the story: He sets out two guitars and amplifiers in the cavernous foyer of his Gothic mansion outside London and invites Clapton to visit, ostensibly for a gentlemanly chin wag. Instead, the unsuspecting suitor is challenged to a duel by the cuckolded Beatle—a "rock 'n' roll version of the 'pistols at dawn' a wronged Victorian husband would have demanded—in this case, guitars after dusk." According to Norman.
On through the night the two guitar gods raged! "Clearly a duel for Pattie," Norman calls it. Fiery licks rent the midnight air! Harrison, knowing Clapton's superior skill, plied his rival with brandy and kept himself to only tea, or so the story goes. At last, the night far spent, the two men laid down arms, exhausted. And yet, Norman goes on, "no winner was declared and George never mentioned the episode afterward."
Yeah, I don't believe it either.
I bet that even Norman suspects the reason George (and Clapton) never mentioned the episode: It didn't happen. It's much too melodramatic, reeks too much of after-the-fact wish fulfillment, carries the air of an imagination malformed by 1940s and '50s moviegoing—as indeed it probably was. The genealogy of the story, which Norman doesn't bother to trace for his readers, leads back to the great and greatly bibulous actor John Hurt, a drinking buddy of Harrison's who described the duel to Pattie Harrison but insisted he was the only witness.
No reason to beat up on Philip Norman. Some rock 'n' roll fans will buy anything. Cynical journalists sometimes wryly describe a juicy story as "too good to check," and while it's unsurprising to see this practice showing up in so slipshod a genre as the rock star biography, Norman is nevertheless able to include lots of jaw-droppers that do indeed check out. Most of them have to do with Harrison's goatishness, staggering in its range and exhibitionism. It encircled friends of his wife and the wives of his friends. Also his wife's sisters.
No one was safe. When Ronnie Wood, soon to become a Rolling Stone, asked Harrison's help in writing a song, the Reluctant Beatle showed no reluctance in taking Ronnie's wife on holiday to Spain. Later, when the Woods came to visit, the two husbands agreed to sleep with their wives—each other's wives, I mean. Wood cheerfully relates the story in his own autobiography, and Norman repeats it here. Neither writer bothers to register the reaction of the wives.
And by now many Beatles fans will have the heard the story of the dinner party with Ringo Starr and his wife Maureen, from the early '70s, when George announced to Ringo, another of his closest friends, "I'm in love with your wife," adding that he'd been sleeping with her for some time. After a stunned silence, Ringo said, "Better you than someone we don't know." The Unflappable Beatle! Even John Lennon was shocked. "Virtual incest," he said when he heard of the affair. In later years, George (chagrined, maybe?) used the same word, without the qualifying "virtual." The affair lasted another month or two and the Starrs were divorced within a year.
There's a contrast, to put it mildly, between George Harrison's knavishness, by now well-documented, and his undoubted talent and eagerness to do good in the world, which included countless kindnesses, financial and otherwise, to strangers and friends, a heroic work ethic, and charitable giving that at a very low estimate amounted to $45 million. The contrast should have given this biography more of a literary spark and narrative drive than it has. It's an oddly listless and incurious book. The best the biographer can do is to quote (several times) Starr's description of his friend's "two personalities," with a "bag of [prayer] beads" in one hand and a "big bag of anger" in the other.
George Harrison's longing for some kind of sanctity—as expressed in "My Sweet Lord," "Give Me Love," "Deep Blue," and a dozen other pop hymns—was genuine, even baked in. His mother was a pious Catholic and she raised him to be an altar boy, but it didn't take. "It felt so alien to me," he said of the pre-Vatican II Catholicism of heavily Catholic Liverpool. "Not the stained glass windows or the pictures of Christ; I liked that a lot, and the smell of incense and the candles. I just didn't like the bullshit."
Somehow he discovered less bullshit, though just as much incense, in Hinduism. With his fellow Beatles he went to India to study under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a high-caste entrepreneur who had the genius to trademark the phrase "Transcendental Meditation" just as the Western counterculture adopted Eastern pantheism as its house religion. Harrison cared enough about his residual Catholicism to explain his new interest in terms comforting to a working-class, right-kneeling housewife from Liverpool. "Don't think this lessens my devotion to the Sacred Heart," he wrote his mother. "If anything, it strengthens it!"
For his personal devotion he settled conveniently on the god Krishna, a cheerful lad with royal blue skin and Beatle-like access to a well-populated harem of milkmaids. In sexual matters Krishna cuts his devotees a lot more slack than Jesus ever does. Still, a Catholic-like aspiration remained in him—call it guilt if you wish. In a remarkable find, Norman reprints part of a taped private consultation Harrison had with yet another guru.
"I keep going round in circles," he confessed (the word seems appropriate). "There are periods where I can't stop chanting and there are other periods when, you know, I turn into a demon again."
So the Reluctant Beatle was locked in a duel after all, different from the one with Clapton—deeper and more moving, with the added virtue of being true.
George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle
by Philip Norman
Scribner, 512 pp., $35
Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.