George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle

  • By Philip Norman
  • Scribner
  • 512 pp.

A flat, uninspired look at the quietest Fab.

George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle

With the glut of Beatles-related books hitting the market over the last several years, I can imagine my reunited high school friends sitting at a Tastee Diner table at 2 a.m. and lustily debating whether we actually need yet another volume in the huge Fab Four canon. This time, the book in question is George Harrison, a new biography of the band’s lead guitarist and spiritualist.

I don’t know how many Beatles books should exist in a perfect world, but I’d argue we don’t particularly need this one from longtime journalist and Fab chronicler Philip Norman. His offering on the (despite the book’s subtitle) not-all-that-hesitant Beatle is short on fresh insights and reads like a steady — if flawed and uninspired — collection of events stitched together by a competent writer.

Norman previously wrote a so-so bio of the Beatles as a band (Shout!), as well as separate, weaker tomes on John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He’s interviewed some of the lads and many in their orbit over the years, yet his work here lacks rich perspective or flair; it appears he relied mostly on old interviews gathering dust in his clip file rather than trying to unearth any novel or reflective thoughts. In Norman’s hands, Harrison’s amazing life becomes a flat, plodding series of anecdotes.

The author tries to shake convention by saying George’s entrée to the Beatles wasn’t via the legendary evening where he wowed the others with the chords to “Raunchy” on the top level of an empty double-decker bus. Rather, Norman claims, it happened in a more formal audition at a music venue. (Although later, in a different and unclear context, he refers to “Raunchy” as the song George played to audition for a skeptical Lennon. Confused? I was.)

And he puts forth a whole new subtext to the song “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” Lennon, its chief author, said it was based on a song in Disney’s “Snow White” that opens with that line. But Norman, with murky substantiation, claims it’s instead about the Beatles’ awareness of their manager Brian Epstein’s closeted homosexuality.

The biography is rife with such questionable and unsupported conclusions. For example, the author notes Harrison and McCartney patched things up some in the 1980s in part because Harrison was enjoying success as a film producer, and Macca had just released the 1984 mega-flop “Give My Regards to Broad Street.” Yet nowhere does he cite anyone suggesting Harrison’s thawing feelings toward the Cute One were the result of film successes or failures, or of joy at seeing his former bandmate stumble. It’s an odd aside and is typical of Norman’s sometimes haphazard presentation of what I guess he calls facts.

More frustratingly, many of his sources in this book are his own earlier works. Referencing oneself has an arrogant feel to it, and besides, as a journalist, Norman should know that most facts in any story require two separate sources. Norman quoting Norman doesn’t impress.

Speaking of facts, much of the book features material already extensively covered elsewhere. I often found myself coming to the end of a section only to realize there wasn’t going to be anything surprising to see. Even Harrison’s fascinating spiritual journey beginning in the 1960s and his painful death in 2001 (after a heroic four-year struggle with cancer) don’t get a lot of coverage beyond a sharing of basic information.

Norman penned a shockingly tone-deaf and revealing Harrison obituary for London’s Sunday Times. To his credit, he apologizes for it in this book’s afterword but shows the same hack tendency when he says, “My article ran to more than 3,000 words and was unremittingly negative, in some places crudely insulting.” His defense? “At the time, almost everything I knew about [Harrison] had gone into Shout!, my Beatles biography...which had ended with the band’s breakup and barely mentioned their solo careers. Having no time for further research or reflection, I judged George” solely on the Beatle years.

It’s just a thought, but maybe he should’ve taken the time to gather more recent material before judging a man’s entire professional life in a major newspaper? (Oh, and George’s time with the Beatles was pretty great.)

Norman’s predictable career path suggests we’ll be getting a bio of Ringo Starr in about two years. I love Ringo. But based on the author’s treatment of the other three Fabs, I won’t be rushing out to buy the tome when it lands on the already-sagging Beatles bookshelf.

Michael Causey is the host of “A Good Hour” on WOWD 94.3 FM and

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