Not Guilty

A review of Marc Shapiro's "Behind Sad Eyes: The Life of George Harrison"

by Terry Ott

I know this will probably make guys like Martin Lewis -- a well known and respected Beatle "insider" expert -- blow a 50-amp fuse, but I actually think that Marc Shapiro's "Behind Sad Eyes: The Life of George Harrison" (or click here to order the British editon) is a somewhat valuable addition to the magical mystery tour, AKA the never ending Beatle saga.

Of course, the 231 page hardcover, released only months after Harrison's death from cancer in November 2001, is chock full of the kind of dumb factual errors -- the first Plastic Ono Band album is called "The Primal Scream Therapy Album" -- and slightly irregular timelines that could tend to invalidate the whole work. But I think not because this is not a book about facts, but rather one of impressions and analysis of feelings and reactions and scrutinized intent. Sort of like a lay man's PSYCH 101 de-construction of one of the most famous "quiet" men to have walked the earth.

So it should come as no surprise, therefore, that Shapiro finds a deeply flawed and damaged ex-Beatle and solo performer, who had a downright pathological personality that confounded and confused friend and foe alike.

Shapiro writes that George was actually complicit in the messy late 60s love triangle between Eric Clapton and George's wife Pattie. "While George seemed to take the high road, there was much in his actions that, perhaps deliberately, was destined to cause his wife and best friend the maximum amount of pain and discomfort -- revenge, if you will -- in a way that only a quiet man like George Harrison could inflict."

And while clearly this is only Shapiro's opinion based on the observed situation from afar, it would appear to jibe with Harrison's famous "I don't care anymore," mind-set when it came to anything that fundamentally frustrated and stalled him.

To me, this look into George's "inner light" is what Shapiro's book is best at. Which is to say that regardless of whether everything in the tome is "true," -- in whatever definition you choose to give to "truth," in the Beatle world -- it still creates a debate on what made Mr. Harrison tick. And it would appear George ticked very eccentrically, to be kind.

I think that Shapiro has a solid argument when, upon examination of Harrison's career, George is shown to be somewhat of a slacker when it comes to making good at how good musically he thought himself to be.

Shapiro says that after the monster -- and totally un-expected -- smash success of "All Things Must Pass," George grew more withdrawn and bitter about the music business after Harrison was sued for copyright infringement on "My Sweet Lord."

Then, when his follow-up to ATMP, "Living In The Material World," was pretty much dissed by the major rock press, yet still sold well, George basically smoked a lot of dope and stopped giving a shit what anyone thought, leading to a long period of personal and professional decline that was to last well into the 80s.

Yet Harrison WAS extremely talented when he chose and many fans and critics alike consider ATMP to be the "best" solo Beatle release by a long shot. So why couldn't he do it again?

It would appear that Shapiro has deduced that, notwithstanding substance abuse, George was basically a petulant, immature and hypocritical albeit quiet "star" who simply refused to apply himself.

When Harrison dabbled in films with his own Hand Made Films, an ill-fated team-up with Sean Penn and Madonna turned him off film making. When he got pissed off at A&M Records when they first rejected his late 70s album, "Somewhere In England," he sort of said "screw the whole thing" and the album came out and went nowhere in the world. Then George has substantial hit with "All Those Years Ago" in 1981, a tribute to John Lennon, but followed it up with perhaps the worst piece of tripe ever released by an ex-Beatle, the universally panned, "Gone Troppo." It would not be until 1987's "Cloud Nine," "Traveling Willburys" and a well-received tour of Japan that George would awaken.

And Shapiro says that while George was preaching Krishna consciousness throughout the '60s and '70s and even '80s, he was also getting loaded a lot and chasing women, two very un-Krishna-like hobbies. Although I think this would tend to indicate that George was only human, rather than theological shyster.

But by the early 90s, Shapiro paints a picture of a man who has been so psychically damaged by the rigors of fame that he would rather garden than rock. Shapiro then says that George's wife, Olivia, held Harrison together and that George appeared to be really happy for the first time in his life.

George had survived a first cancer scare in 1988 and then contributed well to the Threatles reunion on the Anthology Series in 1995.

But by by 1997, the cancer had returned and George would be dead within 4 years, despite a spirited fight against the disease.

It appears to me that Shapiro has had a go at George absent malice, or otherwise known in Beatle circles as absent Goldman, the late author Albert, that is, who ripped the Lennon legend to tatters in the mid 80s. I can read no mean and nasty in this book but rather an interesting thesis on why George Harrison was such a "sad" fellow, who perhaps under achieved as an artist after such a great uni start in 1970.

Perhaps, Shapiro's short mention of the Rutles parody of the Beatles deserved more examination. Of course, George always loved a chance to skewer the Fabs, especially Paul McCartney, and Harrison readily endorsed Eric Idle's vision of him as "Stig," the quiet Beatle "who had not said anything since 1963."

George even had a cameo in the film playing an interviewer who asks, "Who hurt Stig?"

Stig is played by one time Beach Boy Ricky Fattar with such a dopey, deadpan, "quietness," that maybe this WAS the real George Harrison. Could Stig, who was described in the film as a "school leaver" and depicted as being punched out by a 12-year old girl, be the real alter ego of George Harrison?

In other words was George really just having us on all these years ago? Sort of a within-and-without and up-and-around you?

I'd say read this book and then give it some serious thought. You may find in Harrison's "sadness," there was gladness disguised as gorm from a real rebel with no cause.

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