Meditation on the Man Who Saved the Beatles
“Maharishi — what have you done? You made a fool of everyone.”
That was the opening line of a sarcastic song about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who died on Tuesday, that John Lennon wrote in 1968, not long after the Beatles abruptly left the maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India, and declared themselves no longer his spiritual disciples. It wasn’t released that way. In the end the other Beatles, particularly George Harrison, argued that whatever disagreements they had with the maharishi, his work demanded respect, and it was unfair (and perhaps libelous) to be so blunt.
Lennon retreated, changing the song’s title, and the references to the maharishi in its lyrics, to “Sexy Sadie,” the form in which it can be heard on “The Beatles,” commonly called the White Album.
“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.
That may seem an odd assertion, given that the group had only recently released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” But part of the point of that album was to overcome the inertia imposed by the stress of being the Beatles by posing as someone else: the Sgt. Pepper band. And although it includes some of the Beatles’ most extraordinary music (“A Day in the Life,” for starters), it had been a struggle to fill it. Lennon, after all, had based one song on the text of a circus poster (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”) and another on a Corn Flakes commercial (“Good Morning, Good Morning”), simply, he later said, as a way of fulfilling his quota. After Rishikesh the group found itself with more new songs than it knew what to do with.
The Beatles’ first encounter with the maharishi was at a lecture in London, not long after the release of “Sgt. Pepper.” Harrison and his first wife, Pattie, who had become interested in Indian culture and Hinduism by way of Harrison’s involvement with the sitar and a visit to India in the fall of 1966, had heard him speak and alerted the others.
At the time the Beatles, especially Lennon and Harrison, were still trying to tap into the cosmic subconscious, or eternity, or whatever, by using LSD. The maharishi’s transcendental meditation techniques promised to get them there without the chemicals. They agreed to attend a retreat in Bangor, Wales, at the end of that August, and it was during the retreat that they learned that Brian Epstein, their manager, had died of a drug overdose.
The Maharishi helped them through the shock with Hindu philosophy about the continuing life of the soul, and a few months later, in February 1968, the Beatles flew to Rishikesh to devote themselves fully to his instruction. Also there at the time were Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Donovan and the actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence (immortalized in a Beatles song from the same batch as “Sexy Sadie”).
Ringo Starr left after the first week, saying he was unable to eat spicy food. Mr. McCartney left about three weeks later, and Lennon and Harrison left about two weeks after that, after hearing rumors that the maharishi had made sexual advances to one of the women in the ashram. Lennon, as the group’s designated defiant loudmouth, went to the maharishi and said, “We’re leaving,” adding only — as he reported the story in interviews — “If you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.”
In the years since Lennon’s death, in 1980, Harrison and Mr. McCartney reconsidered the accusations against the Maharishi. Mr. McCartney has noted that the rumors of sexual impropriety were raised by Alexis Mardas, a supposed inventor and charlatan who had become a Beatles insider. “Magic Alex,” as he was known, had agendas of his own, and may have fabricated (or at least exaggerated) the story. (Mr. Mardas has never commented on the incident.) During the 1990s both Harrison and Mr. McCartney were suitably convinced of the maharishi’s innocence that they reconciled with him and offered apologies.
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 whatever other powers transcendental meditation had, under its influence they wrote like demons. The main body of evidence is the White Album, a two-disc collection of 30 songs, more than twice the number on any previous Beatles album. And that doesn’t count two songs — George Harrison’s “Not Guilty” (which bears traces of bruised feelings over the maharishi incident) and “What’s the New Mary Jane” — that were recorded during the White Album sessions but left unreleased until “Anthology 3,” in 1996.
But that wasn’t all. While in India they recorded an acoustic version of a song called “Spiritual Regeneration,” a kind of theme song for the maharishi’s program. And in May 1968, a week before the White Album sessions began, the Beatles gathered at Harrison’s house in Esher, England, to run through their Rishikesh songs and decide which to record formally. A tape of 27 songs from that session has made the collectors’ rounds, and there may be more on the master tape, which the Harrison family owns.
Most of the songs on the Esher tape found their way to the White Album. But included as well are Lennon’s “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” which appeared on the “Abbey Road” album, in 1969. “What’s the New Mary Jane” — long thought to be a bizarre studio improvisation — is included too, as is “Child of Nature,” a gentle tune Lennon later rewrote as “Jealous Guy,” on his “Imagine” album.
The only non-White Album song by Paul McCartney on the tape is “Junk,” which found its way to his first solo album, “McCartney,” in 1970. But Harrison’s contributions are plentiful. Along with the White Album songs “Piggies” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the Esher tape also includes “Not Guilty” (which he remade for the 1979 album “George Harrison”), “Circles” (which didn’t turn up until “Gone Troppo,” in 1982) and “Sour Milk Sea” (which he gave to the singer Jackie Lomax for his first single on the Beatles’ Apple label).
Harrison said in an interview near the end of his life that the Esher tape would make a great “Beatles Unplugged” album. Apple should consider that. Meanwhile you have to wonder whether the Beatles’ future might have played out differently if Magic Alex hadn’t been in Rishikesh to spread rumors about the Maharishi. Instead of unraveling, as they did during the White Album sessions and throughout 1969, maybe meditation would have made them so prolific and contented that they’d have continued together, releasing a double album every six months or so.
Well, probably not. But the maharishi, in 1968, was good for what ailed them.