With the 10th anniversary of George Harrison’s death approaching, fans can expect a plethora of new books about the former Beatle, among them his widow Olivia’s own tribute.
Harrison and Ringo Starr have traditionally been overlooked by biographers, despite their origins, at least, being no less interesting than those of Lennon or McCartney. There have been just a handful of books published about Harrison’s life, including his own 1980 autobiography, I Me Mine.
Gary Tillery’s Working Class Mystic analyses Harrison’s life and work through the lens of his religious and spiritual beliefs. It’s a theme that has been tackled before, notably in Joshua M Greene’s 2006 book Here Comes The Sun: The Spiritual & Musical Journey Of George Harrison, which was light on Harrison’s musical legacy. Another biography, Dale C Allison’s The Love There That’s Sleeping: The Art and Spirituality of George Harrison, also dwells on the subject.
In 2010 US author Tillery published The Cynical Idealist: A Spiritual Biography Of John Lennon. It was a well-received work that documented Lennon’s often troubled relationship with religion and belief. One of Lennon’s songs lends its name to Tillery’s latest work, a decision which may seem peculiar but turns out to be apt: Lennon and Harrison came from similar class backgrounds, attended the same Liverpool school, and Lennon was one of the first people that Harrison idolised.
They were also the first Beatles to tire of touring, of being treated like living gods or sacrificial victims by thousands of fans each night. And, perhaps more significantly, the pair were the first of The Beatles to sample LSD in 1965.
LSD was one of two catalysts that kick-started Harrison’s interest in spirituality. The other was the discovery of Indian classical music while filming Help! in the same year. This, coupled with The Beatles’ temporarily enthusiastic adoption of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation, set Harrison on a path of discovery that endured to the end of his life.
On Christmas Eve 1968, Harrison was introduced to Syamasundara Das, a Krishna devotee who happened to be waiting outside Apple Corps’ headquarters, and was invited inside by Yoko Ono. “Where have you been?” Harrison asked Syamasundara. “I’ve been waiting to meet you.”
The pair became friends, and Harrison delved further into Hindu beliefs, with frequent trips to India and forging firm links with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He became a dedicated and devout convert, and continued to chant the Hare Krishna mantra until his dying day.
Harrison, Tillery tells us, at times pursued meditation with a dedication bordering on obsessiveness. It contributed to the distance between him and first wife Pattie; eventually the distance between them became untenable and she hooked up with Harrison’s friend Eric Clapton.
Pattie wrote that, even though she and George had come back from Rishikesh ‘renewed and refreshed,’ she was aware of a change in him. ‘He had become very intense in India; the experience seemed to have answered some of the nagging questions he had had about his life but it had taken some of the lightness out of his soul.’ Harrison continued to meditate and to chant, but now in an obsessive way. At times he seemed to find peace; at other times the sessions left him withdrawn and depressed. His moodiness came to affect her, to the point where she admitted feeling ‘almost suicidal.’
Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography Of George Harrison
While his commitment to spiritual matters was never less than sincere, in the 1960s and ’70s Harrison was unable to leave behind the material world and sexual temptations, conducting frequent affairs and indulging heavily in drink and drugs. He was also prone to mood swings, and flitted between friendliness and joviality, intense brooding and sarcasm, and absorption in otherworldly thoughts.
While working on All Things Must Pass, Harrison lived in his newly purchased home – Friar Park – a 25-bedroom, neo-Gothic house on 30 acres near Henley-on-Thames. He brought to it from his home in Esher many decorative elements he had acquired because of his fascination with Indian religion. But in Esher they had been displayed with a light touch. Hare Krishna followers who visited Kinfauns were both amused and put on edge when they saw, between images of Ganesh and Saraswati, the novelty-store print of cigar-smoking dogs at a poker table. The tone at Friar Park was more reverential. Harrison converted an octagonal room at the summit of the house into his private temple, covering the floor with Persian rugs and using it as a place to meditate. He also transformed a wine cellar into an echo chamber, the ideal venue for chanting. Shortly after he and Pattie moved in, he invited three Hare Krishna families to live in the huge house as service staff, the men to do gardening and the women to care for the house and cook. He thought it would benefit the fellow spiritual seekers, give him friends with whom to chant, and contribute to the ‘good vibes’ in the house.
Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography Of George Harrison
The first parts of Tillery’s book tells the story of Harrison’s life, from his birth into a Roman Catholic family in Liverpool through to the rise and fall of The Beatles, the highs and lows of the solo years and his death from cancer in 2001. It charts how his initial passion for music waned as he pursued the delights of gardening, Formula 1 racing, film production, and, of course, religious matters.
Tillery writes particular well about the crisis in Bangladesh, which Ravi Shankar brought to Harrison’s attention and led to the first large-scale Western charity concert. His excellent explanation of the background to the incident – of land partition, governmental and army conflict, and refugees living in desperate conditions – is explained sympathetically, concisely and clearly.
The less savoury aspects of Harrison’s life are not shied away from, such as his cocaine indulgence, affairs – including with Starr’s wife Maureen – or his disastrous 1974 Dark Horse tour of the US, during which a proselytising Harrison took to hectoring his audiences, his best songs lost much of their winsome appeal, and his voice struggled to cope with the rigors of touring.
Nor, too, does Tillery spare us the troublesome details of Harrison’s struggles with cancer, or the gruesome knife attack in 1999 that left him seriously injured. That incident is described vividly and unflinchingly, and is perhaps the fullest account in any Harrison biography to date.
The final part of Working Class Mystic explores Harrison’s Hindu beliefs in greater depth, describing various religious concepts, parallels with his LSD awakening, how he used methods such as chanting, meditation and yoga to reach a higher plane of consciousness, and how his post-Beatles work was largely devoted to spreading the word of God.
While it would be impossible for a biography of George Harrison to ignore his religious leanings, most accounts have just a cursory explanation of the various complex concepts and questions to which he was devoted. By focusing on those matters Tillery captures the essence of a man who sought to reach God but was so often frustrated by the ways of the modern material world.
One of the more fascinating Beatles biographies, Working Class Mystic is neither hagiography nor rushed cash-in, but a richly informative account, understanding and empathetic, thankfully without much of the dourness that tarnished Harrison’s later recordings. A worthy companion to Tillery’s earlier book on Lennon, it is an insightful portrait of one of music’s more complex characters, and should be devoured by Harrison’s devout disciples.