Harrison started smoking in 1957 and quit in 1992, but in 1997 he developed a lump on his neck and in his lung. But after undergoing two operations for cancer and radiotherapy, he was doing well. By mid-1999, he had completed most of the demos for his new album Brainwashed, with son Dhani often playing with him.
Then a horrible assault contributed to the cancer’s return. In 1999, thirty-six-year-old Michael Abram kicked his heroin addiction, but ironically that made his schizophrenia worse. His mother tried to get him back on medication, but the bureaucracy of England’s National Board of Health kept putting her off. Abram went through an obsession with Oasis, then switched his focus to the Beatles. As he later told his lawyer, he became convinced they were “witches,” with Harrison in particular being “a witch on a broomstick, who talked in the Devil’s tongue—an alien from Hell.” Perhaps the song he was referring to was “My Sweet Lord,” in which Harrison midway switches from singing “Hallelujah” to singing Hare Krishna chants. Abram believed that Harrison was possessing him, and that it was Abram’s mission from God to kill him.
On December 30, a young female stalker broke into Harrison’s home in Maui and was arrested. The same night in England, Abram went to Harrison’s Friar Park.
The main gates had security cameras, but on other parts of the estate the fence was falling down. At 3:30 a.m., the sound of breaking glass woke Harrison and Olivia. From downstairs, Abram yelled for Harrison. Harrison went to investigate in his pajama bottoms while Olivia called the police. In a scene reminiscent of that year’s box office hit The Sixth Sense, Harrison came face to face with Abram holding a long kitchen knife. Trying to calm Abram and himself, Harrison chanted the Hare Krishna Mantra—probably the words that made Abram believe he was a witch in the first place. Abram attacked.
Harrison later recounted, “I thought I was dying. I vividly remember a deliberate thrust of a knife and I could feel the blood entering my mouth and hear my breath exhaling from the wound.”
Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts told the Observer, “I spoke to Ringo about a month after it happened and he told me exactly what went on, and it was horrific. George was stabbed about forty times. It happened outside his bedroom on the landing. He would have been dead if he’d been lying in bed, he wouldn’t have been able to fight. The papers did say that one wound punctured his lung, but a lot of the others were just as horrific. The man was slashing him everywhere. George’s wife hit him again and again on the head with this brass lamp, but he just wouldn’t stop. There was blood everywhere.”
First Olivia hit him with a fireplace poker, then smashed the antique lamp on the head. Olivia later told Katie Couric, “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.”
The lamp knocked Abram out, ending the fifteen-minute assault. The police carried him away. Harrison’s condition was critical for a day, then he was back home. Harrison said to the press, “He wasn’t a burglar and he certainly wasn’t auditioning for the Traveling Wilburys.”
Tom Petty said, “When I heard about it, I sent George a fax, and it just said, ‘Aren’t you glad you married a Mexican girl?’ Olivia really kicked ass. She is a beautiful person.”
Abram was acquitted of attempted murder due to insanity. He was treated then released after nineteen months in 2002.
Harrison got aggressive about finishing the album, and began giving Dhani detailed notes on how he wanted the sound and the artwork. For a while he said he planned to call it The World Is Doomed. Abram had punctured Harrison’s lung, and the cancer returned there. In May 2001, he had an operation at the Mayo Clinic, but it was discovered the cancer had spread to his brain. Harrison went to Switzerland for treatment, continuing to work on the album at a studio there.
In “Looking For My Life,” Harrison sings that he never anticipated that life could explode at any moment, as he’d been enjoying an idyllic existence in his garden for years. When he sighs that we’ve no idea what he’s been through, it’s as if Lennon has survived his shooting and is singing about it. When Harrison asks the Lord to listen to him and help him find his faith again, you know he truly does have something to plead about, like Job.
Featuring just Harrison with his son, Dhani, and producer Jeff Lynne, Lynne steps back and lets the guitars speak for themselves, with just a few deft touches, like giving the chorus’ drums a timpani-like depth for an epic feel.
Ironically, the song was written before the knife attack, perhaps in response to his cancer diagnosis or earlier eras of substance abuse. Still, as he strums intensely with his son, it’s hard to think of anything but that night at the end of 1999 that saw him on the floor soaked in blood next to Abram, finally knocked out by Olivia’s brass lamp.