London is swinging again, from Downing Street to Abbey Road. And music fans are still making a pilgrimmage to Number 3 Abbey Road, the legendary studios where the Beatles recorded classics like “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Each was written by George Harrison, who passed away a year ago this Friday. Ever since, the world has been gently weeping for him. Here’s an exclusive look at the private retreat of a very private man. George Harrison’s widow Olivia is sharing stories, secrets, and songs never heard before.
He was called the quiet Beatle — the gentle giant of pop. Later in his life, some branded him a recluse, a brilliant, yet eccentric musician. But to her, the real George Harrison wasn’t an enigma at all. She was his constant companion, his biggest fan. She was his wife.
“He was a person that I had a great connection with,” says Olivia Harrison. “And he also had a great sense of humor. And he was very serious and he aspired to a higher kind of consciousness, a higher life.”
Getting Olivia Harrison to agree to an interview wasn’t easy. After all, this is a woman who spent nearly three decades not talking about George — a man who intensely guarded his privacy. Which begs the question, “Why is she talking now?” She says she wants the world to celebrate George’s new music, and in turn, celebrate his life.
And no place is Harrison’s presence felt more strongly than in Friar Park — the garden-like foothills of his home outside London. This is where the famed rock idol and his wife shared many precious moments together. And now, for the very first time, Olivia opens the gates to their sanctuary of 27 years.
Katie Couric: “This is such a spectacular place and George absolutely adored it, didn’t he?”
Olivia Harrison: “Yes, he loved it here. You know early on, he had to get out of London. And so we kept moving further and further away from London. And he found a place where he could get away from the crowds and this was it.”
An hour and a half west of London, the 120-room Gothic mansion was built in the late 1800s. On 30 acres of land, it’s shrouded in the mist of the Thames Valley. But George felt most at home outside — in the gardens of Friar Park.
Katie Couric: “Did George plant all of these himself?”
Olivia Harrison: “Yes. I mean, he had help.”
We sat down on a typically rainy English afternoon. But as George might have said, “It’s good for the garden.”
“You know, it was really nature that he loved,” says Olivia. “And I think he felt closest to God in nature.”
The Beatles apple may have turned sour in 1970, but for George, it was a fresh start. He bought Friar Park, which was a stark contrast to Beatlemania and a perfect place to ask life’s essential questions: “Who am I?” and “What am I doing here?” and “Where am I going?”
Olivia Harrison: “George always said, ‘Nobody had time, nobody ever asked those questions.’ And really that’s where he was at. And he felt that from an early age, but because he had commitments and he had a career and he was in a band and he had a lot of songs to write and still a lot of aspirations to fulfill, you know, he had to continue participating probably longer than he wanted to.”
Katie Couric: “I like the way you say he was in a band. Like, no big deal.”
Olivia Harrison: “Well that’s, you know…”
Katie Couric: “Is that how he felt about it in a way?”
Olivia Harrison: “Yes, yes and no. I mean, sometimes people would say, ‘Are you a musician?’ He’d say, ‘Well, I used to be in a band.’”
MEETING A CALIFORNIA GIRL
By 1974, this Beatle was flying solo — professionally and personally. Already divorced from his first wife, model Pattie Boyd, George was about to embark on his very own U.S. tour. That’s when he met a 26-year-old named Olivia Arias in Los Angeles. Her grandparents had immigrated from Mexico. Her mother was a seamstress. Her father was a dry cleaner.
Katie Couric: “As I read about you, I thought a lot about fate and destiny. And how you were a nice girl in California, working as a secretary in a record company, and all of a sudden, you’re here. And, I’m sure on several occasions, Olivia, you might have thought, ‘Wow.’”
Olivia Harrison: “Wow, didn’t he get lucky. That’s what I thought.”
Katie Couric: “Is it? Good for you.”
Four years after they met, their first and only child, Dhani, was born. While music always filled this young family’s home, it’s not the music you might think. George’s morning wake-up calls to Olivia would often be a Mozart concerto, Cab Calloway’s “Bugle Call Rag”, or Hoagie Carmichael’s “Stardust.”
Katie Couric: “George had an incredible joie de vivre that might belie sort of the image that a lot of people have of him.”
Olivia Harrison: “Yes, I mean, anyone who knew him knew how funny he was and lively and, you know, I think he’d had such a heightened experience early on. There was always so much going on. He met a lot of people in his life. And the people he wanted to be around usually had that same quality which was simplicity. He loved people who would look at that Gingko leaf on the ground and say, ‘Wow look at that.’”
But George didn’t love the press and made no bones about it.
Once in an interview George had said: “The press are such dummies, generally speaking ... There are some great writers that do a useful job. But the whole thing is to sell a paper with some stupid headline. My image comes across like I’m some weird old mystical ex-Beatle.”
Katie Couric: “But he really wasn’t some weird old mystical ex-Beatle was he?”
Olivia Harrison “Yes, he was weird. In some ways, yes. No, you know, he was mystical and he was an ex-Beatle. So if you want to put those together, then you’ve got yourself a headline. But, you know, I don’t think that’s a very intelligent way to write about someone. People would say he’s a recluse. He said, ‘No I just don’t go where all the press is. People would say I don’t go out. I just don’t go where they are.’”
But even in some film footage Olivia shared, shot just over a year before his death, George himself reveals just how isolated he’d become.
He says on the video: “Sometimes I just feel like I’m actually on the wrong planet you know? I feel great when I’m in my garden, but the moment I go out the gate, I think, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”
PRIVACY AND SAFETY
Still it wasn’t all about privacy. Harrison feared for his personal safety, and as it turned out, with good reason.
“It was a terrifying experience,” says Olivia. “It was a nearly fatal experience.”
It was December, 1999, around three in the morning. While they slept, a 33-year-old schizophrenic somehow broke into Friar Park and viciously attacked them both, stabbing George in the chest as many as eight times.
Katie Couric: “You may not want to admit it, but you were pretty feisty.”
Olivia Harrison: “Yes.”
In a desperate attempt to subdue the assailant, Olivia struck the man, first with a fireplace poker, then, an antique lamp.
Katie Couric: “You took that lamp and walloped him over the head with it.”
Olivia Harrison: “Oh yes. I had to. George was coaching me, I have to say. And George was very brave and people don’t know that. Because he had already been injured and he had to jump up and bring him down to stop him from attacking me. You know, he saved my life too.”
Katie Couric: “You saved each other’s lives.”
Olivia Harrison: “Yes, we did. And that was an interesting experience. Because, you know, not a lot of people get tested like that, thank God.”
George might have escaped that brush with death, but his next test would be his last. After a four year battle with cancer, George Harrison passed away one year ago this Friday. Olivia says he faced death with no fear and no regrets. In a way, it was the tour he’d been rehearsing for nearly all his life. After all, this was the man who, 30 years ago. Wrote about the “Art of Dying.”
Katie Couric: “While he was sick, how did he deal with that? The fact that there was something happening to his body, ravaging his body, that he really couldn’t control.”
Olivia Harrison: “He was, you know, he never really, I don’t think, felt in control. He gave his life to God a long time ago. He wasn’t trying to hang on to anything. He wasn’t. He was fine with it. Sure, you know, I mean, nobody likes to be ill, nobody likes to be uncomfortable. But you know, he went with what was happening. He said one time, ‘You know, you can’t just at the end of your life start thinking about God, you have to practice. It’s not something you just stumble upon, you know, consciousness and self-realization, you have to work for it.’”
He was working up to the end on his music as well. But he was unable to see the completion of “Brainwashed”— a collection of eleven new songs, all but one written before his illness. So Olivia tapped two uniquely qualified musicians to complete the work — George’s good friend and fellow “Traveling Wilbury” Jeff Lynne, and wouldn’t you know, here comes the son— Dhani.
“It was the happiest and the saddest thing we ever had to do,” says Dhani Harrison. “It was such a privilege and an honor to work on a record like this and so sad that he couldn’t be there to do it for us, you know?”
“Brainwashed” may be his swan song, but if you’re looking for any prophetic words of wisdom you’ll have to read deep between the lines. His wife of 23 years says George Harrison’s songs were about life, not death.
“You know, George dedicated a lot of his life to attain a good ending,” says Olivia. “And I don’t have any doubt that he was successful.”