Saturday, July 25, 2015

Death and Rebirth: The Beatles, LSD, Brian Epstein and Transcendental Meditation

The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967.

On March 21, 1967, the same day The Beatles were recording the chorus of "Getting Better" on Sgt. Pepper, John Lennon left the vocal session while tripping on acid. Paul McCartney decided he had better get his writing partner home safely. Since it was too far to drive to John's home in Weybridge, Paul took Lennon to his place. After arriving, McCartney was curious to see if taking LSD would bring him closer to his currently distressed friend. Most of The Beatles had taken acid by the time they finished Sgt Pepper, but McCartney had earlier held out. Late in 1966, he finally dropped it with Tara Browne, but with mixed feelings. McCartney didn't enjoy losing control, or putting himself in a position where he couldn't find his way back home. A year later, McCartney actually caused some controversy when he admitted to the press that LSD had opened his eyes to new religious experiences. On that night he tried it with Lennon, he only wished to re-establish a bond they once had as songwriters, as brothers. "[Lennon's] rough edges and fuck-all personality only underscored Paul's pretensions, sparking a contrast that would haunt Paul for the rest of his life," wrote Bob Spitz in his biography, The Beatles. From evening until dawn, the two men hallucinated together, staring into each other's eyes, looking for the firm connection they had when they wrote "I Want to Hold Your Hand." McCartney would later refer to the experience with Lennon as communing with the unknown. He saw John as the Emperor of Eternity, a deity, while they both laughed and shared stories of past glories. For five hours, they communed deeply, barely moving, except for a short excursion taken into the garden. Throughout the evening, these two fractured geniuses briefly blended together as one. But what The Beatles and their fans didn't discover, until shortly after 1967, was that LSD had more troubling ramifications. It first gave credence to religious and political ideologues. When extremists like the Manson Family and the Weather Underground used it to further their apocalyptic agendas, The Beatles became unwitting champions of this new revolution. "The sad fact was that LSD could turn its users into anything from florally-bedecked peaceniks to gun-brandishing urban guerillas," critic Ian MacDonald explained in Revolution in the Head.

The bold quest for social, political and sexual freedom in the Sixties also contained a foreboding element that soon permeated the counter-culture and had a large an influence on it. While love appeared to be everywhere  and pop music definitely celebrated it  there was also a significant emergence of occultism. Before 1967, the occult was perceived as marginally archaic (and derided), but after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Tarot, The Kabbala, I Ching, witchcraft, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and various swamis were eagerly validated. Within this celebrated mystical mosaic also lay the demon seeds of Charles Manson, the growing popularity of the Scientology of L. Ron Hubbard, satanist Anton LaVey, and the dark mystic Aleister Crowley (who was featured on the cover of Sgt. Pepper). What made this marriage of pop artists and occultism possible was partly the continued intake of LSD, which held the possibility of reaching alternate forms of consciousness. The use of hallucinogens by 1967 had offered escape for many people from the violent realities erupting in the culture. But instead of directly confronting this violence, hippies were trying to rid themselves of evil by simply forbidding its existence. Through the use of a variety of psychedelic drugs, they sought to create a blissful state of innocence, a virtual Garden of Eden that was free of anxiety and guilt. "Guilt is the other side of moral consciousness  [but] we have 'eaten of the tree of knowledge,'" wrote psychologist Rollo May in his perceptive Power and Innocence. "We valiantly try to persuade ourselves that if we only find the 'key,' we can easily create a society in which nakedness, guilt, anxiety will all be things of the unmourned past." To find that key, many reached for the alternate realities offered by Lysergic acid diethylamide-25.

George Harrison meeting hippies in the Haight in San Francisco, 1967.

In August 1967, George Harrison and his wife Pattie saw the transformations brought on by acid first-hand when they made a trip to San Francisco to see the remnants of the Summer of Love. It was a couple months after the love-fest of the Monterey Pop Festival and they went to San Francisco to visit Pattie's sister Jennifer. After being given some form of hallucinogen by a local DJ, Harrison, Boyd, press agent Derek Taylor, and tour manager Neil Aspinall eagerly headed to Haight-Ashbury. "I could only describe it as being like the Bowery," Harrison recalled. "[A] lot of [them were] bums and drop-outs; many of them young kids who'd dropped acid and come from all over America to this mecca of LSD." Their visit went from bad to worse when the drug-addled group recognized Harrison. "I had the feeling that they'd listened to The Beatles' records, analyzed them, learned what they'd thought they should learn, and taken every drug they'd thought The Beatles were singing about," recalled Pattie Boyd. "Now they wanted to know where to go next. And George was there, obviously, to give them the answer." Circumstances weren't helped either by the fact that Harrison's own drug-induced hallucinations were taking hold. People were handing him a variety of drugs to take, as another offered him a guitar, begging the Beatle to lead them like the pied piper out of the park. "We walked down the street, and I was being treated like the Messiah," Harrison added fearfully. "I went there expecting it to be a brilliant place, with groovy gypsy people making works of art and paintings and carvings in little workshops. But it was full of horrible spotty drop-out kids on drugs, and it turned me right off the scene." As they made a quick exit to their limo, Harrison vowed never to touch LSD ever again.

What Harrison perceived was similar to what folk singer Donovan had already started to observe a year earlier. Donovan began thinking about writing a song that took into account all the remnants of occultism he saw around him. Inspired by a viewing of the 1962 British horror movie called The Night of the Eagle (or Burn, Witch, Burn) about the power of witchcraft, he began to consider a tune that addressed how the auspicious pacifism of the cheerful flower & beads hippies he witnessed quickly evolved into the paranoid counter-culture occultists, who were driven by drugs and looking for followers to bring on the end of the world. To address this, Donovan composed "Season of the Witch," an unnerving composition about this disquieting mutation. The song was an eerily affecting track that warned of settled scores yet to come. Though Donovan was something of a hippie enigma himself, he wasn't being facile here. In "Season of the Witch," he warned of charlatans "out to make it rich," false prophets who ultimately made us pick up every stitch. No song had sized up the emerging zombie zeitgeist with such chilling prescience as "Season of the Witch." When Harrison gave up using LSD, he was clearly seeing something ugly and dispirited on the horizon, too. But while that ugliness would soon embody itself in the presence of Charles Manson (who arrived in the Haight mere weeks after Harrison departed it), Harrison and the rest of The Beatles turned towards gurus to reinstate their passport to higher consciousness.

Artist David Wynne, who had done busts of The Beatles' heads in Paris back in 1964, spoke to Harrison in early 1967 about one particular holy man who he found intriguing: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Wynne had been sketching the Maharishi, and he told Harrison that he was fascinated with him because he had a lifeline on his hand that didn't end. (It would end, though, in February 2008 when the Maharishi would die at the age of 91.) Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the fifty-year-old founder of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement Foundation who taught Transcendental Meditation. Transcendental Meditation, which the Maharishi began in 1955, was a form of meditation taken from the Vedic tradition of Hinduism. "It's a simple technique," Pattie Boyd explained. "You are given a mantra, a single word, which you keep secret, to say over and over again to yourself. The idea is that in repeating the mantra you clear your mind so you can give it and your body a brief rest from the stress of modern life." By sitting with your eyes closed for about twenty minutes and repeating your mantra, Boyd claimed you could make yourself feel calm and focused. "You just sit there and let your mind go," Lennon said about the process of TM. "It doesn't matter what you're thinking about, just let it go. And then you introduce the mantra, the vibration, to take over from the thought. You don't will it or use your will power."

Although Maharishi Yogi had been introducing Westerners to TM since 1959, it wasn't until The Beatles became interested in 1967 that he became internationally known. While TM had serious implications for George Harrison and his own spiritual values, the Beatles' road manager Neil Aspinall saw more rampant conformity than spiritual enlightenment. "Everybody going to the Maharishi was like everybody ending up with moustaches on Sgt. Pepper," he recalled. "A lot of it was follow-the-leader (whoever the leader was at that time). One got a moustache, so everybody got a moustache." Although Wynne told Harrison about a lecture the Maharishi was doing on August 24, 1967, at London's Hilton Hotel, it was Pattie Boyd who first encountered the guru. Back in February, Pattie and a friend were looking to take up meditation and came upon an ad in the paper for Transcendental Meditation courses with the Spiritual Regeneration Movement. It was over the course of a long weekend that they were given their mantras and met the Maharishi. Pattie shared the experience with Harrison who was immediately interested. When they decided to attend the August lecture, they naturally took The Beatles along. After joining Harrison in London, they went on with the Maharishi to Bangor, Wales on the train the next day. "During Sgt. Pepper, George was the most interested in Indian culture," Paul McCartney explained. "We were all interested in it  but for George it was a direction." For Harrison, it was also an opportunity to seek what he found lacking before The Beatles retired from touring in 1966. "After having such an intense period of growing up and so much success in The Beatles and realizing that this wasn't the answer to everything, the question came: 'What is it all about?' And then, purely because of the force-fed LSD experience, I had the realization of God," Harrison said. Essentially, he no longer craved the role of being a Beatle, or the image it created. "We go through life being pulled by our senses and our ego, seeking new experiences, because without experience we can't get knowledge, and without knowledge we can't gain liberation," Harrison said.

Brian Epstein in the studio with The Beatles in 1967.

While in Bangor gaining transcendental knowledge, the real world cut through when 32-year-old Brian Epstein was found dead of an accidental drug overdose at his home in London. The shocking news had shattered The Beatles' first meeting with the Maharishi, who told them to keep good thoughts for Brian on his spiritual journey. The Beatles then went back to London. Although it's true that Epstein's death was accidental, he had been on a collision course with mortality since The Beatles had stopped touring. "Brian's role with us had changed because he wasn't booking us around the world anymore," Ringo said. "We were working in the studio; we'd make a record and the record would come out. What was there left for him to do? Book the studio  one phone call. That was the extent of it at that time." The egalitarian vision The Beatles had built in the Sixties had been a collaborative effort of which Brian Epstein had been a key component. The boys, as he called them, were his dream image of assimilation, a consolidation of his own fractured personality. These once tough Teddy Boys might have been schooled on the streets of Hamburg, but Epstein essentially refurbished them. He brought them from their rough leather jackets into those formally elegant suits so they could change the world. When the world was fully in their sway, Epstein could live out his own dream (even as his hidden private life continued down a sado-masochistic path). When The Beatles abandoned the road, Epstein felt abandoned as well. His access to their dream world was gone. Epstein was now, once again, only a business manager. Consumed by pills and depression, he had become an accident waiting to happen. But that accident had a dire impact on The Beatles. "We collapsed," Lennon reflected to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone in 1970. "I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn't really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, 'We've had it now.'" Although The Beatles didn't immediately collapse, John Lennon realized then that it was only a matter of time before they did.

In January 1968, while The Beatles were still licking their wounds over the Epstein's tragic death, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi went to New York City to meet the press and spread the word about Transcendental Meditation. Before arriving in the Big Apple, he hired Solters & Sabinson, the same public relations firm that handled Ringling Brothers' Circus, to put together a press conference. The scrum was booked at the State Suite of the Plaza Hotel, where he was staying, prior to making an appearance at Madison Square Gardens to deliver a lecture to introduce potential converts to TM. As he arrived to meet the press corps, the Maharishi's entourage handed out pink carnations, 8x10 glossy photos, and a bio sheet explaining how millions worldwide were achieving inner peace through the Maharishi's methods. At first, the press was deferential to this tiny deity, taking pictures and asking the swami how he enjoyed visiting America. But within an hour, the mood got testier. One radio reporter, picking up on the public relations angle to this visit, told the Maharishi that Jesus and Buddha never had the advantage of a PR firm to represent their interests. He replied, to scattered applause from the assembled scribes, that perhaps that was why it took Christ hundreds of years to get known. When a young political activist asked the Maharishi about his opinion of the Vietnam War and the draft, the yogi was flippant in his answer, saying that his interest in Vietnam was no more than his interest in any other place in the world. His PR firm, now growing uneasy, tried to re-direct the questions towards Transcendental Meditation. But one female reporter stepped forward to ask how peace was possible when so many individuals lived in poverty. "People are in poverty because they lack intelligence and because of laziness," the Maharishi calmly explained to the suddenly hushed crowd. "Transcendental Meditation centres will teach them the virtues of selfishness and give them energy not to be poor any more." To the female reporter, it finally became clear who this diminutive deity really was: Ayn Rand with a beard.

Maharishi Yogi

The subject now turned more directly to the Maharishi's money  but he refused to discuss the subject. "I am a monk," he explained meekly. "I have no pockets. I deal in wisdom, not in money." Of course, his humble claim didn't answer how he acquired the cash to hire Solters & Sabinson, or book Madison Square Gardens. But many in the press gathered that day did want answers. After all, The New York Post had recently called him "the world's wealthiest guru." The Village Voice demanded to know if "an honest man can still be a fraud." Most got their answer when they attended his lecture at Madison Square Gardens. Before his talk, he posed for numerous photographs as he praised America as the land of opportunity. Speaking of America, one of his handlers told the press photographers that the Maharishi would be touring university campuses with one of America's most popular bands: The Beach Boys. The press expressed surprise that their Californian golden boys had turned in their surf boards for mantras. Pretty soon, they'd be expressing surprise that The Beatles would be collecting mantras of their own in India.

Before The Beatles began gathering their mantras, though, George Harrison secured the B-side of the "Lady Madonna" single with "The Inner Light," his third  and best  Hindustani song. Ironically enough, it would also be his last. While he was in Bombay recording a film score for the elliptically abstract drama Wonderwall, he had the Indian musicians perform a new track he wrote. Once he returned to London, he overdubbed his voice over the song. The origins of "The Inner Light" began when both Lennon and Harrison appeared with British talk show host David Frost on The Frost Report back in September 1967. While being part of a special on Transcendental Meditation, that featured an interview with the Maharishi, the studio audience was asked to participate in the show. Sanskrit scholar and Cambridge professor Juan Mascaro, who was present that evening, had written to Harrison and included a copy of a book called Lamps of Fire. This religious text, edited by Mascaro, included passages of spiritual wisdom from various traditions. On the show, Mascaro asked Harrison if he might set music to verses from the Tao Te Ching, in particular, a poem called "The Inner Light." The lyric concerns the idea of knowing all things of both earth and heaven without having to literally travel out one's door. In the song, Harrison treats the Taoist concept in a contemplative tone. Rather than preaching the word to us, as he did on the otherwise majestic "Within You Without You," he expresses how seeing this truth has changed him – and it's as intimate as a prayer. The music seemingly intoxicates Harrison as he speaks of the wonders before him. "The Inner Light" became the first George Harrison composition to appear on a Beatles' single. But its inclusion was largely due to John Lennon shelving his latest recording of his own spiritual meditation called "Across the Universe." Unhappy with his performance, Lennon left the door open for Harrison's debut on a Beatles single.

As The Beatles headed to India, the key words from "The Inner Light" ("The farther one travels/The less one knows") couldn't have turned out to have been more prescient. On February 15, 1968, John and George flew out with Cynthia Lennon, Pattie Harrison and her sister, Jenny. Paul and Ringo followed a few days later with their partners, Jane Asher and Maureen Starkey. While both Lennon and Harrison were seeking spiritual answers from the experience, McCartney took a pragmatic approach. Going to Rishikesh with the hope the trip would keep The Beatles together and bring some happiness to the group, he simply wished to learn how to meditate. Along with the other guests at the ashram, including actress Mia Farrow, her sister Prudence, Beach Boy Mike Love, flautist Paul Horn, and folk singer Donovan, they found the atmosphere enrapturing. "The place was idyllic," said Canadian photographer Paul Saltzman who took many pictures of the sessions at the ashram, which he later turned into a photo exhibit and a book. "It was an extremely relaxed and simple existence, which is what ashrams are supposed to be about. Everything was focused on meditation and being at ease. There was no hurry. Life was full of joy and humour." Everyone would meditate for about five hours a day  two hours in the morning and three hours at night. The rest of the time people attended lectures by the Maharishi, ate vegetarian food at a communal gathering. Their sleeping quarters were spare with a single lamp, bed and dresser. Heat was provided by a steaming bucket of water left just outside the door to the room. In spare moments, The Beatles relaxed with other guests and played music. Most of the songs they performed were new material composed at the ashram and would be included later on The White Album.

Although the surroundings may have appeared serene, the mood grew less so over the weeks. Contributing to the growing discontent was the realization that the Maharishi thought The Beatles would become special emissaries of his cause. "The purpose of the course was to become teachers of Transcendental Meditation," explained Beach Boy Mike Love. "But I remember Paul telling me that becoming a teacher 'wasn't the lads' cup of tea,'" McCartney had only planned to spend a month there, while Ringo was considering even less at ten days (especially since the spicy curries didn't agree with him). While Lennon and Harrison wanted to stay on, their reasons couldn't have been more different. "John and George both took meditation seriously," recalled Paul Saltzman. "George seemed to find what he was looking for, in essence, but John was looking for something in...a more adolescent way. He was looking for 'The Answer.' Well, there isn't 'The Answer.'" Lennon was also looking for a way out his marriage. Each morning, he would tell Cynthia that he was going out to meditate by himself, but in truth, he was heading down to the post office to retrieve letters from Yoko Ono, who was now expressing a deeper interest in getting involved with him. "I'm a cloud, watch for me," one postcard would say. And Lennon would watch the skies for her. But once Paul left in late March, John got even more restless. When Lennon signaled for his friend "Magic" Alex Mardas, a Greek technical wizard (who would later become a technical catastrophe for The Beatles) to join him, Mardas started putting doubts into John's head about the Maharishi's holiness. First of all, he told John that a holy man with a bookmaker was rather suspect. But he also noticed that the Maharishi was counting on The Beatles' support to enable him to reach new converts internationally – including having them fund and participate in a film about Transcendental Meditation. The group's roadie, Mal Evans, also discovered that, along with using The Beatles name for publicity, the Maharishi wanted a 25% cut of the group's earnings on their songs.

George Harrison with Maharishi Yogi in Rishikesh (photo by Paul Saltzman)

Although The Beatles once changed our perspective on the world through their music, making us feel part of a larger cultural revolution for change, they no longer felt content with the life they had made for themselves. Their rapid success and acquired wealth had insulated them from the world. When popular acclaim didn't bring for them a sustaining inner happiness, they turned to hallucinogens for answers. When those drugs caused as much damage as personal enlightenment, The Beatles looked to religion. But in looking for spiritual answers, the zeal of their desire for quick solutions had blinded them to the con artist lurking beneath the holy robes of the Maharishi. Curiously, The Beatles once had a certain skepticism towards received wisdom. It's what made them both fresh and distinct, setting them apart from any other pop group. When they first confronted the international press in 1964, they didn't acquiesce to the rules of conduct, they invented new rules to conduct a press conference. When they made records, they didn't copy the success of the last great album, but reached out for new, unheard sounds. Since their utopian vision was a borderless and shapeless spirit, that meant those who shared it could go anywhere and be anybody. But when The Beatles turned to the Maharishi, that spirit was replaced with the false utopia of Rishikesh. Within its real borders, The Beatles were no longer these rebellious kids defiantly challenging us to think for ourselves, they were now (through the Maharishi) telling us what to think. After the group had dissolved its old identity, it had no new identity to define itself as a group. As a result, The Beatles were becoming four distinct individuals within a band that also had four conflicting temperaments. Perhaps they recognized that reality and sought to re-discover their common ground by taking a sojourn to India. But rather than bring the inner harmony they sought, the journey served only to fuel the continuing disenchantment The Beatles felt with themselves.

The story of The Beatles and their quest for an artificial paradise was the best kind of cultural fairy tale. “[It’s] something that begins with great promise [but] bitterly shatters, and everyone who cared about it has to somehow find a way to preserve its best elements for themselves -- and go on," wrote critic Anthony DeCurtis. And that summarizes The Beatles’ utopian dream, and its aftermath, as well as anyone could. Greil Marcus once wrote of a lasting image of The Beatles that he couldn't shake. It was the final frame of Help! where the smiling face of John Lennon seemed to be, in Marcus's mind, "smiling over a whole generation." But Marcus felt just as much pain in that smile as joy because, as he puts it, "things could never be so simple." What he acknowledged was seeing their utopian spirit present in that smile, with a trace of a place where the pleasure of that smile could indeed be shared, and where a human being could also feel a special part of that smile. "The Beatles' promise came alive," Marcus explained, "and in that utopia, since utopia means 'no where,' it also faded beyond reach." But as quickly it fades beyond reach, we discovered that it always came back in a song. That turned out to be the true transcendental meditation.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

No comments:

Post a Comment