READ AN EXCERPT FROM “GEORGE HARRISON: BEHIND THE LOCKED DOOR”
An extract from George Harrison: Behind The Locked Door by Graeme Thomson, first published as a hard back by Omnibus Press in 2013, subsequently as a trade paperback edition in 2016.
Friends such as Jools Holland and Ringo Starr, who made his emotional final farewell to Harrison in Switzerland, made positive noises in the press, but in private he was ailing as the cancer spread from his lung to his brain. He resigned from Apple and from Harrisongs, with his wife taking his place. In a final swipe at the Taxman, he was fast-tracked as a Swiss resident.
As his condition deteriorated Harrison flew to the United States, for treatment at the Staten Island University Hospital. The unit specialised in fractionated sterotactic radiosurgery, an experimental cancer therapy which focuses beams of radiation directly at the tumour, avoiding as much healthy brain tissue as possible; the beam is also rotated around the body so it can attack the tumour from all directions. “He had been trying all kinds of different things,” says percussionist Emil Richards. “Different things, different doctors.” It was in New York that Harrison said a last goodbye to Paul McCartney, some 45 years after they had first met in Speke on the top deck of the 86 bus. They held hands, laughed and wept, and parted in love. Harrison’s sister Louise drove from Illinois to see her youngest brother for the first time in many years. A rift had developed between them in the Nineties over Harrison’s belief that she had exploited her associations with The Beatles. They were now reconciled.
It is difficult at times not to turn Harrison’s final years into a sorrowful tale. He suffered a number of cruel blows: serious and recurring illness, extreme violence, personal invasion and shocking breaches of trust and good faith, of which Dr Lederman’s was merely the latest. His illness was a major news story, and he did not always get the privacy he craved. “I’ll tell you, the media wasn’t very sweet in the last year of his life,” said Tom Petty. “Especially in Europe, he never got a moment’s peace. He would have helicopters follow him when he left the house.” He was also persuaded into once again “getting caught up in this big tangle” that was The Beatles, and “creating more and more karma” for himself.
If these struggles to free himself of the intrusions of the physical world and the chains of the past were a test of his resolve, those closest to him insist that he passed it, and that his final days were serene, settled and free of bitterness – even if some of the last songs he wrote, such as ‘Stuck Inside A Cloud’ and ‘Looking For My Life’, reflect a more anguished, conflicted view of his life and the impending separation of soul and body.
Now as the time drew close, locations became significant. He had bid his final farewell to India a few months before, when he summoned the strength to make a trip to Benares, bathing one last time in the Ganges, visiting the holy Krishna temple, and pledging a final donation to IKSCON. He didn’t want to die in hospital. Landing at Maui’s small but very public airstrip would attract too much attention. England was too exposed, and in any case there were now residency issues. Instead, in mid-November Harrison flew through the night by private jet to Los Angeles, where he was administered by Dr Lee S Rosen, chief oncologist at UCLA Medical Center. It was purely palliative care, attempting to strike the tricky balance between pain relief and maintaining awareness: he wanted to be conscious and alert at the moment of his death.
He spent his final days at 9536 Heather Road in Beverly Hills, at a house owned by Paul McCartney. “Olivia called us and said, ‘I think you better get over here right away, he’s not going to last the night,’” says Emil Richards. “That was at Paul’s house in Los Angeles.”
George Harrison died shortly before one-thirty p.m. Pacific time, on November 29, 2001, aged 58, with his wife and son at hand and a few important, close friends nearby, chanting, singing and praying. It was a moment, said Olivia Harrison of “profound beauty... he longed to be with God.” Within 20 minutes staff from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery arrived to collect Harrison’s body, which had been covered in scented oils and holy water and wrapped in a silk blanket. He was taken in an unmarked white van to UCLA Medical Center, and within ten hours his body had been cremated in a simple Hare Krishna service, accompanied by a reading from the Bhagavad Gita.
By the time the news of his death had broken, Olivia and Dhani Harrison were already leaving for Switzerland with his ashes. These were later scattered, in a secret ceremony delayed to avoid the intrusion of fans and media, at Allahabad, the meeting place of Hinduism’s three most sacred rivers: the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati.
His ashes were also distributed at nearby Benares, the place where Harrison’s spiritual journey could be said to have truly begun in the late summer of 1966, when he visited with Ravi Shankar on a trip which revealed a life-changing glimpse of the kind of “bliss” that fame, wealth, pop music and John, Paul and Ringo could never quite offer. For those who believed in reincarnation and souls “nipping through the astral plane” he was finally home. For those of a more sceptical bent, if nothing else Harrison’s final journey to the holy city of Benares, more than 35 years after his first, spoke of an admirable commitment to the quest to attain self-knowledge. Few rock stars asked as many awkward questions – of themselves, of God, of life itself. He was ready to hear some answers.
“When I met George he said his ambition was to have no ambition,” Olivia Harrison said. “And I think he achieved that. For the last five years he felt like that. He was free to go.”
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