From The Beatles in India - Photo Gallery
Another chapter in counter culture history closed this week with the passing of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. As most of you already know, he founded the Transcendental Meditation movement, which is still growing today and was a big part of popular music's history as he hosted a spiritual retreat for The Beatles in Rishikesh, India. The basics are now part of our cultural lore - it was where John Lennon wrote Sexy Sadie (as a denunciation of Maharishi) and Dear Prudence (urging actress Mia Farrow's sister, Prudence, to come out from her meditating and play), as a band The Beatles wrote a whopping forty songs while at the meditation camp.
As the remembrances started flowing, James Wolcott weighed in:
Tediously, predictably, the centerpiece of most of the obituaries was the Beatles' spiritual pilgrimage to the Maharishi's ashram in 1968, most of the accounts leaving the impression that what began in bliss, love beads, and beatific smiles ended in sour recrimination and disillusionment (insert obligatory "Sexy Sadie" reference here), another Sixties soap bubble bitterly popped. The premise is that the Beatles were foolish enough to place their faith in a flawed guru and were burned, a cautionary tale for those who put their faith in false idols.
In Meditation on the Man Who Saved the Beatles, Allan Kozinn, of the New York Times wrote:
"Sexy Sadie," for all its implicit anger, was part of a huge trove of songs Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison wrote during and just after their visit to Rishikesh. Whatever shortcomings the Beatles' interaction with the maharishi may have had, the experience — which lasted only eight months, from August 1967 to April 1968 — seems to have opened a floodgate of creativity and got them out of what threatened to be a creative rut.
What is often overlooked, in recountings of this sorry tale, is the influence the maharishi — or at least the experience of going to Rishikesh to meditate for several weeks — had on the group. For one thing, he weaned them from LSD. Harrison had been heading in that direction anyway, and Mr. McCartney and Mr. Starr were only occasional users, but Lennon was a heavy user. Not that they gave up drugs entirely. They continued to smoke marijuana, and a year later Lennon was using heroin. ...But the maharishi, in 1968, was good for what ailed them.
What exactly went on in Rishikesh? It all started when Patti Harrison, George's wife and later Eric Clapton's, found out through a friend that the Maharishi was giving a farewell lecture tour before taking a vow of silence. This lured the band and entourage to the London Hilton on August 24th of 1967. At the end of the talk, The Beatles offered themselves up as disciples. They agreed to attend a weekend initiation conference. It was there the band learned that Brian Epstein, their manager, had died of a drug overdose. The Maharishi gave each of them a mantra while he helped them through the shock with Hindu philosophy about the continuing life of the soul. A few months later, the following February, the Beatles flew to Rishikesh to devote themselves fully to his instruction. Also joining them were Donovan, Candice Bergen, the Farrow sisters, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Yoko Ono, Mike Love and Al Jardine of the Beach Boys, along with John Densmore and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. However, their trip did not wind up as they had expected.
No one was allowed to eat any form of meat during their stay, which quickly drove off Ringo Starr, unable to eat spicy cuisine and was followed three weeks later by and Paul and his girlfriend, Jane Asher. John and George left around two weeks after that, with Lennon claiming Maharishi had made sexual advances to some of the women in the retreat. He and band employee, Alex Mardas, conspired to catch Maharishi in the act and did so at least to their own satisfaction. From Paul Saltzman's The Beatles In India. The "Mal" he refers to is Beatles road manager, Mal Evans:
The next day, Mal and I were walking up the dirt road towards the kitchen. At one point, Mia's name came up and Mal said that she still felt very awkward with all the attention the Maharishi was paying to her, far in excess of any other individual there. Mia would later recount in her autobiographical book 'What Falls Away' that one day the Maharishi invited her to meditate with him, alone in his cave-like meditation room, in the basement of his bungalow. When they finished, and were standing up in the darkness, he wrapped his "hairy arms" around her in an embrace. Was it sexual or not? For sure, Mia felt it was. She bolted from the room, hurriedly packed her bags, quickly said goodbye to Prudence, and was out the ashram gate and gone. Sexual or not, the whole issue of the Maharishi's sexuality would later result in John and George leaving the ashram, and the Beatles leaving the Maharishi behind.
Over the years, the accounts have taken on Rashômon-like qualities, with the band contradicting each other. George Harrison's statement was, "Now, historically, there's the story that something went on that shouldn't have done — but nothing did." In his approved biography, Many Years from Now, Paul McCartney wrote, "It was Magic Alex who made the original accusation and I think it was completely untrue." The Maharishi claimed he lost his temper with them because of their drug use and asked them to leave, which is backed by Deepak Chopra.
In 1991, Harrison and McCartney met with Maharishi, as recounted in The Star Of India:
The souring of relations between the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has always been a mystery for the world. There was a reconciliatory meeting between Maharishi and George Harrison, and TOI's Guest Editor on Monday Deepak Chopra was the only other person present there. In September 1991, Harrison asked Chopra to set up a meeting with Maharishi, which he did. "We got on to a chartered plane, which had just dropped off Paul McCartney to Monte Carlo. George wrote a note to Paul, saying, "Guess whom we're going to meet", and signed it 'Jai Gurudev'. Then we flew to Vlodrop, in the Netherlands, where Maharishi was staying."
It was an emotional meeting. As Chopra tells it, Harrison first presented Maharishi a rose. This was followed by a long silence. Then Maharishi asked, "How have you been?" George replied, "Some good things (have happened), some bad things." After some time, Harrison spoke. "I came to apologize," he said. "For what?" asked Maharishi. "You know for what," replied Harrison.
"Tell Deepak the real story," said Maharishi. Harrison said, "I don't know about it 100%, but here's what I know transpired." And he narrated the incident about the Beatles being asked to leave.
There was another long silence. Then Harrison told Maharishi, "I love you" and Maharishi responded, "I love you too." The two left, and Harrison later phoned Chopra and told him, "A huge karmic baggage has been lifted from me, because I didn't want to lie."
While at Rishikesh, Prudence Farrow stayed in seclusion for long periods of meditation in her room, not entering any camp activities. She took it more seriously than anyone else, "trying to reach God quicker" as John later explained. He and the others at the retreat wanted her to join them, and wrote Dear Prudence to entice her "to come out to play."
YouTube: Dear Prudence
Here's the demo version (via the wonderful Captain's Dead blog). At the end, you can hear Lennon say, in regard to Prudence, "No one was to know that sooner or later she was to go completely berserk, under the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. All the people around were very worried about the girl because she was going insane. So, we sang to her."
The Beatles: Dear Prudence (demo) - 3.33MB
Sexy Sadie was originally called Maharishi, with lyrics that featured the following lines: "Maharishi, you little twat, who the fuck do you think you are? Oh, you cunt." Lennon once said of the song, "That was inspired by Maharishi. I wrote it when we had our bags packed and were leaving. It was the last piece I wrote before I left India. I just called him, 'Sexy Sadie', just using the situation to write a song, rather calculatingly but also to express what I felt. I was leaving the Maharishi with a bad taste. You know, it seems that my partings are always not as nice as I'd like them to be."
In a 1969 interview, he stated one of his favorite songs was "I've Been Good To You" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. The Miracles song begins with the line, "Look what you've done, you made a fool out of someone", compared to Sexy Sadie's, "What have you done? You made a fool of everyone."
The Beatles: Sexy Sadie - 5.51MB
The Beatles: Sexy Sadie (take 6) - 6.79MB
George Harrison fired back with Not Guilty, which was left off the White Album. Check out some of the lyrics: "Not guilty, for getting in your way, while you're trying to steal the day. Not guilty, for looking like a freak, making friends with every Sikh. Not guilty, for leading you astray on the road to Mandalay. I won't upset the apple cart, I only want what I can get. I'm really sorry that you've been misled."
The Beatles: Not Guilty - 5.65MB
Spiritual Regeneration was recorded in India. It's a tribute to Maharishi that was recorded on Mike Love's birthday. Try not to mind the Wolfman Jack interruption, if possible.
The Beatles: Spiritual Regeneration - 1.77MB
Fake or fakir, Maharishi helped inspire some of the most prodigious musical output by perhaps the world's greatest pop band. For that alone, he should be thanked. See you in the next world, Sexy Sadie.