When a celebrity passes away, that passing seems to serve as
permission for some biographers to write about the dark side of the
dearly departed. Marc Shapiro carries on this dubious tradition in
BEHIND SAD EYES: The Life of George Harrison.
As fans of the "Fab Four" will recall, Harrison was considered the
"quiet Beatle," the spiritual one who kept to himself and was
content to stay in the background. Like his fellow Beatles,
Harrison grew up amid lower-middle class surroundings. He displayed
a musical talent that overrode his scholastic career. As a
teenager, he hooked up with Paul McCartney and later John Lennon to
form the Silver Beatles; once Ringo Starr supplanted Pete Best as
the group's drummer, the quartet was on its way to stardom.
The long and winding road to fame had its share of stumbling
blocks, along with the perks that fall to those in rock-and-roll.
But Shapiro holds Harrison to a higher moral standard. He describes
Harrison's rite of passage into manhood during the Beatles' tour to
Hamburg in the early 1960s: "As promised, George would regularly
write home to let his parents know that everything was all right.
Needless to say it was a sanitized version of what had become, for
George, a willing descent into debauchery."
This same attitude is seen when Shapiro derides Harrison's use of
drugs, which was, unfortunately but almost inevitably, part and
parcel of the rock scene. Only Harrison is singled out for these
perceived indiscretions. Shapiro depicts Harrison as Machiavellian.
For someone who was supposed to be in the background, he is given a
lot of influence with having Pete Best replaced by Ringo. Shapiro
also tells us that Harrison did not get along particularly well
with Paul or John in later years.
To be fair, it was no secret that Harrison was constantly pressing
to come out from the shadows of Lennon and McCartney. He was tired,
and rightly so, of being thrown a bone, so to speak, with only a
song or two on each album. The group's record producers, however,
decided that many of Harrison's tunes were less than, well,
Shapiro portrays Harrison as a seeker, the one who turned the rest
of the band onto Transcendental Meditation. He remained a follower
of the faith, with the ebbs and flows of piety the devout often
face. But he also writes about the almost soap opera-ish triangle
between Harrison, his wife Pattie and Eric Clapton, who eventually
won her heart. Mixed in this storyline are the occasional affairs
and the seeming indifference towards the love triangle.
Even when Harrison displays his generous side, Shapiro shows that
no good deed goes unpunished. Commenting on the ex-Beatle's
"philanthropic best" with his involvement in the Concert for
Bangladesh, he writes "Unfortunately, the occasion . . . would also
expose his weakness as a human being," again holding Harrison up to
that higher standard.
As Harrison moves through middle age, Shapiro lightens up a bit,
giving him credit for his comebacks both as a solo artist and as a
member of the Traveling Wilburys. But the darkness was never far
behind. He battled cancer. While recovering from the ordeal he was
brutally attacked in his own home by a disturbed "fan" (Harrison
was a fanatic about security, especially after the murder of John
Lennon). Only the brave intervention of his second wife, Olivia,
saved him from almost certain death. Sadly, Harrison's cancer
resurfaced; he faced the end with dignity and peace.
BEHIND SAD EYES is Shapiro's attempt to lift the window shade on
this mystical life. It might be easier to take if his prose was not
so stilted. In his introduction, he relates how difficult this
undertaking was: "normal."
And so to the task at hand: to discover the real George Harrison in
all his varying shades of light and dark. And it is not an easy
life to put in order. George Harrison spent his entire life trying
to hide from us and, depending on how one addresses that elusive
beast called Fame, he either failed miserably or succeeded to the
The author continues to pat himself on the back later in the
introduction when he states, "You've been here before, But, you've
never been here this way." Shapiro's treatise is full of gossipy
tidbits many readers will enjoy; whether his words reach the
Beatle's über-fans is another story.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 21, 2011