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Book Review: Wonderful Tonight by Pattie Boyd

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Because George Harrison was my favorite Beatle, I devoured Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me, a memoir by his first wife Pattie Boyd (of whom I confess I was, in my Beatle phase, horribly jealous) within days of its publication last year. Since recovering from her marriages, Pattie has become known as a photographer. This Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m., a show of her photographs opens at the Morrison Hotel Galleryon Sunset Boulevard. She will read from Wonderful Tonight this evening at 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

Pattie Boyd’s early relationships marked her as a musician’s muse, yet by page 202 – sometime in 1974 – she comes to terms with the reality of that tag, as she recounts how her second husband Eric Clapton wrote the song “Wonderful Tonight” for her:

To have inspired Eric, and George before him, to write such music was so flattering. Yet I came to believe that although something about me might have made them put pen to paper, it was really all about them.
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Appearing two-thirds of the way through the book, this is a welcome revelation in a book that is to a large extent framed as a journey of self-discovery. Over the course of Wonderful Tonight, Pattie Boyd recounts her odd, uprooted childhood (Kenya, followed by boarding school in East Grinstead) and pleasure in finally escaping the nuns and being on her own as a model in early 1960s London (Carnaby Street! Mary Quant! Biba! Granny Takes a Trip!). Pattie almost refuses to go to a casting call for A Hard Day’s Night, and turns down George Harrison’s initial request for a date even though she dislikes her boyfriend, but she finally gives in:

George, with velvet brown eyes and dark chestnut hair, was the best-looking man I’d ever seen…..We were both shy and spoke hardly a word to each other, but being close to him was electrifying.

And, as they say, the rest is a rock and roll fairy tale. Or not. Pattie makes clear how baffling Beatlemania was to the actual lads, barely men, whose spirits were challenged by the complex existences that their unpredictable success created. George, Paul, John, and Ringo had been brought up to lead simple lives, although it’s difficult to imagine any sufficient preparation for what happened to them in the their first few years of success. In public, George pursued various obsessions – Transcendental Meditation, which Pattie discovered first, the Maharishi, Indian music – but at home, as Pattie describes, he drank and rarely spoke.

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Poor George – so young and so famous. Poor Pattie, so accustomed to pleasing her man and so confounded by his behavior. Pattie’s description of how she and George grew apart is poignant, especially given her perspective, all these years later, on the immaturity and confusion that led each to push the other away when, all clichés aside, they needed each other the most. Everything falls apart at the same time: George cheats on Pattie (at one point with Maureen Starr, Ringo’s wife), John pushes Cynthia away for Yoko Ono, and Jane Asher leaves Paul McCartney after she catches him in their house in bed with another woman. Pattie, emotionally abandoned by George, has no real self to fall back on, having identified so very early on as the wife and muse of a great man.

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Enter Eric Clapton, George Harrison’s friend, portrayed here as a cross-addicted, seductive manipulator who, over the course of several years, plays on Pattie’s insecurity and neediness. In her portrayal, Clapton wasn’t sober for the entire time he and Pattie were associated (which he admits in his recent memoir, Clapton). Pattie describes in painful detail the push-pull of their fraught relationship, in a way that anyone who has ever dated an alcoholic will recognize, until her realization that someone who calls you his muse and writes songs to you doesn’t necessarily mean it personally. Shortly thereafter, she begins devoting more time to photography, and gains a stable sense of who she is and what she can do on her own (with, one imagines, the help of a very good therapist), with nary a musician in sight.

One cavil: Pattie’s breathy, girlish prose – “it was bliss,” “it was a night of pure magic” – especially in the first half of the book, can be a little hard to take, and one might have expected her experienced co-writer, Penny Junor, to clean this up. On the other hand, the fascinating window she gives us into a past moment makes this awkwardness a lot less annoying than it might be. Overall, Wonderful Tonight is recommended for Beatles fans, anyone interested in the British music scene of the 1960s or 1970s, or anyone who enjoys a good meaty tale of how yet another woman learned to grow up via some fabulous adventures along the way. And when the paperbackcomes out in late May, it'll be a damn good beach read.

Photo of Wonderful Tonight from Harmony Books; of Pattie Boyd at a reading in the U.K. by hddodvia Flickr.