September 9, 2011 5:12 pm

Refuge for the quietest Beatle

As Martin Scorsese’s long and loving new film documentary shows, George Harrison’s entry into legend was casual

When Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the Conservative party at the beginning of the last decade, found himself under attack for his taciturn, uncharismatic style, he confronted the problem head-on. “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man,” he told his party conference in 2002. The response was underwhelming. A year later, he returned to his theme, if only to signal a change in tone. “The quiet man is here to stay. And he’s turning up the volume.” But the shift in decibels was indiscernible. He stumbled through the rest of his leadership and was eventually deposed. He had made the correct analysis, that Britain was a country that respected calmness and understatement. But he applied his strategy in the wrong arena. Political life in the 21st century was no place for the quiet man. To talk softly was to talk weakly.

But the arts are different. They are a refuge for those who disdain the sound of their own voices. They tolerate the inarticulate, or the plain shy, as long as something interesting is being said. Even in the media-driven age, culture can be a haven for the tongue-tied.

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Peter Aspden

One of the quietest of men was George Harrison. He found himself at the centre of an unprecedented cultural storm, and needed protection from it. To a certain extent, he found it in the form of his three buddies. But he was smaller, younger, more fragile than them. His quietness was a coping mechanism; shelter from the tempest.

Of course he never had a chance. As Martin Scorsese’s long and loving new film documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World shows, Beatlemania was not terribly good for Harrison. His audition for the band – on the top deck of a Liverpool bus – does not sound like one of the most nerve-wracking try-outs in pop history. His entry into legend was casual. But his equilibrium was shaken by the events of subsequent years, and he did not always react graciously. He became cussed and contradictory, recalls Ringo Starr: “Bags of beads, and bags of anger.”

By then, Harrison had written his first song for the band. “I thought, if John and Paul can write, then everyone can write,” says his lugubrious voiceover, showing how the democratic spirit of the 1960s could be responsible for spectacular misjudgment. His songwriting debut was written from a sick bed in Bournemouth, and was called “Don’t Bother Me”. It was not as dramatic a cry as John Lennon’s “Help!”, but it made its point. In 1967, while lysergic lunacy was capturing the young souls of the western world, Harrison wrote “Blue Jay Way”, a song full of foreboding: “There’s a fog upon LA, and my friends have lost their way.”

Harrison’s salvation came in the form of a meeting with Ravi Shankar, “the first person to impress me”. The spiritual yearning of Indian music profoundly changed him, even as the trappings of material success became ever more appealing. He was pulled in two directions, and did not always find a middle way. The imperatives of daily meditation encouraged further introspection. By the end of the 1960s, and of the Beatles, he wanted out. During the tortured Let It Be sessions he appeared to have lost interest altogether. A famous row with Paul McCartney is painful to watch. “Whatever it is that would please you, I’ll do it,” he tells his fastidious bandmate as they discuss a guitar part. When the group split up, the quiet man went solo. In February 1971, he was at the top of both the album and singles charts. Weirdly, he had asked Phil Spector, the most bombastic producer in the pop world, to shape his mellow outpourings. It was like being hit on the head with a joss stick.

. . .

Like all the ex-Beatles, he wanted to be more than an ex-Beatle. He spent half of his time recovering from the experience (“I wanted to plant trees, to be quiet, to meditate”) and the other half indulging in more earthly pastimes: a love of motor racing and surreal humour. He got into film production, almost by accident: when the backers of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) pulled out for fear of a moral backlash against the film, Harrison mortgaged his house for $4m to rescue the project, “because,” says Eric Idle, “he really wanted to see it”.

He found a degree of stability with his wife Olivia and a son, Dhani, who has turned out to be an impressive spokesman for his father’s legacy. At the turn of the millennium Harrison was attacked by cancer, and by an intruder to his home. The bad karma was shrugged off and he began to prepare for death. He took Olivia to Fiji, disappeared from her for hours on end, and turned up dressed in nothing but banana leaves. Terry Gilliam notes that he moved to Switzerland in the final weeks of his life to avoid paying taxes. Had he not written the snappiest anti-tax song of them all? But the acerbic mood was gone when he finally left his body, peacefully and, as Olivia describes, luminously, in 2001. He had made his mark on the material world, and left it quietly.

‘George Harrison: Living in the Material World’ will be broadcast by HBO in the US on October 5 and 6, released on DVD in the UK on October 10 and broadcast by the BBC in November

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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