Published to coincide with Martin Scorsese’s lengthy biopic of the same name, George Harrison: Living In The Material World is a richly presented and sumptuous biography of the former Beatle told through photographs, archive interviews and new quotes from those who knew him.
Although she receives the credit on the book’s cover, there are precious few words by Olivia Harrison, George’s widow, herself. She provides a tribute to her late husband towards the book’s end, as does their son Dhani, but otherwise she plays the role of the ‘quiet one’.
Her main contribution, however, is the assembly of archive photographs and memorabilia from the Harrison collection. And what a collection it is.
From the Harrison family’s modest Liverpool roots to his grand gothic mansion Friar Park, we see holiday snaps, school-era sketches of guitars and the pre-fame Beatles, through to the years when he was one of the four most photographed men on the planet. His passion for India, motor racing and gardening, and his accidental entry into film production, make up the latter part of the book, as he largely retreated from public view but remained no less active.
While some of the images are well known, many are seen here for the first time, and capture George’s public and private sides, at work, play, on holidays, in the studio, with friends, family and fellow musicians.
Harrison was a keen photographer himself, and his own images appear throughout the book. It is rare to see the world through The Beatles’ eyes, but Harrison’s fondness for turning his lens on the huddled journalists and photographers give a revealing insight into the mayhem of the mid-1960s.
The biggest revelation, however, is that Harrison kept a diary during the Beatles years. Just two extracts are reproduced: an entry for 1 April 1967 in which Harrison notes: “Recorded Sgt. Peppers Lonely-Hearts club-band – part 2”, and another from 10 January 1969 in which he matter-of-factly documents the day he temporarily left The Beatles:
Got up went to Twickenham rehearsed until lunch time – left the Beatles – went home and in the evening did King of Fuh at Trident Studio – had chips later at Klaus and Christines went home.
While Harrison was evidently a man of few words, the fact that he was documenting each day during that tumultuous time is hugely significant. How delicious it would be for Olivia to publish the entire diaries for Beatles scholars to pore over.
Disappointingly, Harrison’s first wife, Pattie Boyd, is all but airbrushed from this history. There is no mention of their relationship, which lasted from 1964 to 1974, nor their 1966 wedding. She appears in two photographs from India, and her only other mention is in a caption which runs: “George and Pattie’s house, 1968”.
Playing down their relationship is Olivia’s prerogative; after all, it is her tale to tell. But consider this: were Yoko Ono to produce an anthology of John Lennon’s life with barely a mention of his 10-year relationship with first wife Cynthia, Ono would inevitably receive the ire of Beatles fans the world over. It will be telling if Olivia Harrison gets off relatively lightly.
The picture is incomplete in other ways. Harrison’s numerous affairs are not dwelt upon, his extensive use of drugs is downplayed, and his obstinacy and public surliness in the post-Beatles years is not considered. Instead, Harrison is presented mainly as a saintly figure, searching for spiritual guidance and the path to enlightenment through music, religion and meditation.
For all its faults, Living In The Material World contains enough previously unseen photography, poignant and revealing in equal measure, to become an object of devotion for all Harrison fans. It offers a rare revealing insight into the inner world of this relentlessly private man, and for that we should be thankful.