Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography of George Harrison

Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography of George Harrison

by Gary Tillery

ISBN: 9780835609005

Publisher Quest Books

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Specific Groups, Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs, Entertainment/Music

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter



George Harrison was welcomed into the material world on February 24, 1943, arriving eighteen minutes before midnight in the upstairs bedroom of 12 Arnold Grove in Wavertree, a poor neighborhood in south Liverpool.

His father, Harold, and mother, Louise, had chosen to marry in the inauspicious year of 1930, seven months after the stock market crash. As the Great Depression gripped the planet, the family added a daughter, named after her mother, in 1931, and a son, named after his father, in 1934. A second son, Peter, came along while Hitler's Luftwaffe was attempting to pound the British into submission during the summer of 1940. George, the baby of the family, was born at the very turning point of World War II. England and the world had withstood the worst of the Fuehrer's crazed ambitions. Axis advances in the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Pacific had been blunted or repelled, and in America the "Arsenal of Democracy" began to build at a rate faster than the Axis powers could hope to match.

Harold H. Harrison had worked as a steward on ocean-going vessels—the same line of work pursued by John Lennon's father, Alfred. Unlike Freddie, Harry found the protracted absences from his wife unendurable. He turned his back on the seaman's life to seek a job in Liverpool. For fifteen months, in the depth of the Depression, he was unemployed. At last he found a position as a bus conductor, earning barely enough to eke out a living, but at least having the solace of seeing his family at the end of each day.

Liverpool had been a working-class town for centuries. As the best port on England's west coast, it had been the point of first contact for ocean-going commerce—the place sailors, traders, and travelers saw first. Raw materials from around the British Empire arrived at its docks, while manufactured goods were being shipped out. Factories sprang up to take advantage of the location, refining sugar, milling grain. Hardy men worked in them, many fresh immigrants. Liverpool was the site of England's first black population, Europe's first China Town, and, during the Great Famine of the mid-1800s, an influx of Irish that ultimately amounted to a quarter of the residents. In George Harrison's youth, Liverpool was a city of seamen, dock workers, factory hands, and tradesmen—the kind of people who could shrug off eighty air raids by the Luftwaffe and go back to work—tough, flinty, no-nonsense people who got things done.

Housing for blue-collar Liverpudlians was rudimentary. The ten-shilling-a-week home George grew up in was a simple brick house midway down an unbroken row of similar structures along an echoing cul-desac, a house composed of two hundred-square-foot bedrooms upstairs and an equal-sized living room and kitchen below. The front door opened directly onto the sidewalk. Visitors had merely to step across a raised threshold to be standing in the small living room. There they saw a small, seldom-used fireplace; beyond lay a small kitchen with an iron cooking stove and stairs leading to the two bedrooms. Out the back door, across a narrow paved yard, was the outhouse, and baths had to be taken in a zinc tub that hung on the wall outside when not in use.

This house was Harrison's home for the first six years of his life, a time of bone-chilling awakenings on winter mornings—he'd often have to chip ice off the inside of the windows—but the warmth of familial relations among six individuals interacting in a cozy space.

Being the baby of the family, George was naturally the focus of all eyes. One of his earliest memories was from about the age of four. He recalled standing on a stool, singing a song titled "One Meat Ball" as his family surrounded him. He also enjoyed putting on puppet shows. He had a range of animal puppets and he would entertain his parents and siblings with improvised skits that made them laugh.

Like his mother, George was baptized a Catholic, but as a result of the postwar baby boom primary schools were bulging with new students. When the time came for George to attend, the Harrisons decided to enroll him where there was sufficient room, at Dovedale Primary, a state-run school near Penny Lane.

Religion was not of central importance in the Harrison household. Harry had a northern workingman's suspicion of the church and did not attend services. George recalled: "Although they always say people who weren't Catholics were Church of England, he didn't appear to be anything." Harry's ambivalence influenced young George, who as a child accompanied his mother to Catholic masses, which she made sure to attend at least on major holidays. However, after celebrating his first Holy Communion at age eleven, he followed in his father's footsteps and never underwent confirmation. "I thought, 'I'm not going to bother with that, I'll just confirm it later myself.'"

His sister, Louise, was also swayed for a time by her mother's wishes and went away to be educated at a convent school. Eventually, though, she shared George's disenchantment. She observed that as children they had both been ruled by fear—afraid they would burn in Hell if they didn't conform to the church's viewpoint. But later, as they grew up and became independent thinkers, they rebelled against the idea of a "crazy god" who was "zapping everybody with thunderbolts." They decided that such a god did not deserve their allegiance.

Catholic ritual and dogma held no fascination for him, but Harrison as a child had mystical experiences. Unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, he would be overwhelmed by an odd sensation. His everyday perceptions would be superseded and he would begin to feel extremely tiny while simultaneously retaining a sense of his wholeness. As with all mystical experiences, the state was difficult to capture in words. "It was feeling like two different things at the same time. And this little thing, with this feeling that would vibrate right through me, would start off like rolling around and it would start getting bigger and bigger and faster and faster until it was going like so far and getting so fast that it was mind-boggling, and I'd come out of it really scared." As an adult, having experimented with mind-altering substances and meditation, he overcame his terror and learned to induce the state at will. During the Abbey Road sessions, he would slip off alone to a sound booth to repeat it.

When Harrison started school at Dovedale another student was already there, two years ahead of him. The boy came from the more affluent suburb of Woolton and was someone George would later grow to idolize—an exceedingly bright but rebellious student named John Lennon.

George was a bright lad himself, and just like John Lennon he came to dislike the routine and the regimentation of school. Perhaps because he had grown accustomed to being indulged at home, perhaps because of his budding sense of individuality, he detested having to meet the expectations of the school authorities. Just like Lennon he responded with surliness, and his rebelliousness was met with frequent detentions and in the end disciplinary canings.

In 1954, when George graduated from Dovedale and moved on to Liverpool Institute, his dislike of school graduated into hatred. He later wrote: "The whole idea of it was so serious. You can't smile and you are not allowed to do this or that. Be here, stand there, shut up, sit down." He found the environment inimical and responded by withdrawing both psychologically and physically. One of his teachers from those years, Arthur Evans, recalled him as an exceedingly quiet, even introverted boy who preferred to sit in the remotest part of the room and never even look up.

The teachers at Liverpool Institute seemed to fall into one of two categories: old military veterans or recent graduates with no experience—neither group capable of making education interesting and both quick to turn to heavy-handed discipline. "It moulded us into being frightened. There was a rot which set in. They say that children will learn something if it is exciting, but when the rot sets in, you stop learning and being open to everything." Many teachers did not hesitate to browbeat their students and treated some of them with contempt. One teacher forced disobedient pupils to sit in the chair adjacent to a student notorious for his body odor. George found this behavior so deplorable that he deliberately sat next to the boy and befriended him.

He shirked the work assigned to him and took to letting his hair grow shaggy and flouting the school dress code. He would keep his dark blazer buttoned during class to hide a canary yellow vest borrowed from his brother Harry. He used his mother's sewing machine to taper the legs of his trousers and started wearing shoes with pointed toes, emulating the fashion of Liverpool's tougher teens—known as Teddy Boys.

Having decided as early as the age of twelve that he wanted nothing to do with the army, Harrison watched in mystification as the Institute's cadets marched back and forth outside on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. The sight seemed bizarre to him. Why was this strange activity going on at a place of education? He later likened his reaction to the feelings of the main character in a 1960s' television series: "I never could discover why these normal things were normal. They always seemed crazy to me: everyone acting 'normally' but it was so like The Prisoner. You never quite know what it is they are talking about."

Completely averse to study, he was unprepared at age fifteen when the time came to try for his General Certificate of Education. Before he could take the exams he had first to pass three subjects in a "mock" GCE. He passed only one—art—and was held back to repeat his final year with the upcoming class. He devoted a total of only one hour to the renewed effort before ceasing to attend school at all. Instead, he passed the time at local movie houses. When judgment day came at the end of the school year, he returned to pick up his final report and a testimonial intended to advise employers of his strengths and capabilities. His teachers wrote candidly that they scarcely knew him, and his testimonial read, "I cannot tell you what his work is like because he has not done any." Harrison burned the documents before his parents could read them. At the age of sixteen, his formal education came to an end.

Living in a working-class city as an uneducated youth without any trade or marketable skill, George was sliding toward an adult life spent on menial work for subsistence wages. He had only one passion, but that pointed to a career path more insecure than any of the others.

Just after his thirteenth birthday, in early 1956, George had begun to pal around with Irene, the seventeen-year-old girlfriend of his brother Harry. Harry had gone away to do his National Service, and for Irene, an only child, Harry's brother George resembled a younger brother. She, in turn, filled the role of George's sister, Louise, who had gone away to a teacher training college. Irene began to invite George to accompany her to musical shows at the Empire Theatre. One day they caught a performance by the current rage in England. His name was Lonnie Donegan, his specialty was skiffle—a British take on American folk tunes like "Rock Island Line" and "John Henry," delivered at a rollicking tempo—and his instrument was a guitar.

Within days George's mother noticed him sketching guitars on every piece of paper he could find. When a school friend offered to sell him a guitar for three pounds, he appealed to his mother for the money. She bought the instrument for him, never realizing what a life-altering event it would be for him. In the coming weeks and months, he made an arduous effort to learn to play. His brother Peter had taken up guitar at almost the same time. Together, like many other teenagers of the time, they formed a skiffle group of their own. They called themselves the Rebels and even secured a paying engagement at the nearby British Legion Club.

Lonnie Donegan may have ignited the fire, but what fanned it into a blaze was the British discovery that year of a whole new style of music from "across the pond." Like many of the other restless youth of the time, Harrison felt bored by the bland popular music being played on the government-run BBC. What he loved, whenever the faint signal permitted, was the music coming from Radio Luxembourg, a station on the Continent that played the rock-and-roll hits sweeping America. One day George heard Elvis Presley singing "Heartbreak Hotel," and the tune "lodged itself permanently in the back of my brain." Elvis followed that with such rhythm-heavy, finger-snapping songs as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Hound Dog," and "Don't Be Cruel." Then in his wake came a barrage of infectious, up-tempo numbers from Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and others. Another revolution seemed to be taking place across the Atlantic, this time not political but cultural.

George diligently applied himself to learning his instrument by mimicking what he heard on Radio Luxembourg and studying the songs when he could obtain them on recordings. He convinced his mother to buy him a guitar of much higher quality for thirty pounds and worked to pay her back by delivering meat for a local butcher. To his delight, one of the customers had a son who had actually met Buddy Holly during his British tour. Better still, the boy had Buddy Holly records, and he lent them to George to listen to and study.

Harrison's intense fascination with the guitar gave him something in common with another student attending Liverpool Institute—Paul McCartney. Riding the bus together for an hour each way every day gave them the opportunity to become acquainted, and even though Paul was almost a year older than George and a far more diligent student, they bonded in their mutual love of rock and roll.

Paul McCartney's fateful introduction to John Lennon took place on July 6, 1957, following a public performance by John's group, the Quarrymen. John, who went on to Quarry Bank High School after graduating from Dovedale, had formed his group in March. He had intended to play skiffle music, but because of his own love of the new sound from America he was in the process of transforming the group into a rock-and-roll band. When Paul walked onto the grounds of St. Peter's Church that summer afternoon and first heard the Quarrymen, John was singing "Come Go with Me," a Top Forty hit for the Del Vikings. After their show, the Quarrymen went indoors for a break before undertaking a second performance that evening. In the interim a mutual friend, Ivan Vaughan, introduced Paul to John. Paul impressed John with his prowess on the guitar and was subsequently invited to join John's band. That summer the two met at each other's houses, and their bond grew stronger that fall when John enrolled at Liverpool Art College, which was situated next door to Liverpool Institute. McCartney finally joined the Quarrymen in a professional engagement on October 18.

In March 1958, Paul brought his friend George along to meet the band at a house in Old Roan, a suburb northeast of Liverpool. Colin Hanton, drummer for the Quarrymen, remembered: "It was at a club we used to go to, called the Morgue. It was in the cellar of this big old derelict house. No bar or coffee or anything, just a cellar with dark rooms off it, and one big blue light bulb sticking out of the wall." At Paul's prompting, George performed "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" as well as the hypnotic riff from a popular instrumental titled "Raunchy." While he wasn't invited to join the band right away, he had established his credentials. From then on he was welcome to show up at Quarrymen performances and be on hand to substitute if one of the other guitarists failed to arrive.

Harrison's persistence was eventually rewarded. His personality and ability meshed so well with Lennon and McCartney that they decided he should replace Eric Griffiths, one of the founding members of the group. The band scheduled a practice at Paul's house without informing Griffiths. When Griffiths got word of what was happening and phoned there, John and Paul deputized his best friend in the group, Colin Hanton, to deliver the unpleasant news.

Real tragedy struck on July 15, 1958. John Lennon's mother stepped in front of a speeding car and died instantly. A member of the Quarrymen, Nigel Whalley, chanced to witness the accident. Moments after walking away from a conversation with her, he heard the squeal of brakes from the highway. He turned back to see her body hurling through the air.

Though John had not lived with her since the age of five—he was raised instead by his Aunt Mimi—the loss was especially bitter because he had recently reestablished contact and his mother was supportive of his musical dreams. He turned his despair outward, directing his anger and venomous humor on the world. Paul McCartney could relate to John's pain. He had lost his own mother in October 1956, when she suffered an embolism following a mastectomy for cancer. George, spared such trauma as a teenager, could only imagine how his friends felt. Both of his parents would survive until the decade of the seventies.

George idolized John Lennon, attracted by his self-assurance, drive to succeed, irreverence, and wit. He seized on John as a role model and treasured the time spent in his presence. Though more private than shy, George had not yet begun serious dating. He was therefore unaware of how much of a nuisance he might be. He would spot John slipping away off campus in the company of his girlfriend and future wife, Cynthia, and hail them from behind with a whistle. Intent on spending time together somewhere, they would turn to find the eager boy hurrying to catch them, looking for companionship. "Where are you two off to? Can I come?" Often, when Cynthia prevailed on John to take her to a film, George would be sitting on John's other side.

Excerpted from "Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography of George Harrison" by Gary Tillery. Copyright © 2013 by Gary Tillery. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews