The Beatles went to India for enlightenment; what they found led to their breakup
For Lewis Lapham, longtime editor in chief of Harper’s Magazine, February 1968 marks the precise moment when the 1960s counterculture peaked, began to curl in on itself and suddenly collapsed against the sour, disillusionment of reality.
In the closing section of his new book, “With the Beatles” (Melville House), Lapham describes that month as “the precise moment … at which the flood tide of generous thought and optimistic feeling that formed the promise of the 1960s turns on the ebb — toward the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, followed by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June, in July by the riots engulfing the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.”
But in February 1968, the flower-power counterculture was alive and well, flourishing in a village called Rishikesh in the Himilayan foothills. There, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was offering a three-month course in transcendental meditation.
While other swamis were offering traditional spiritual instruction in modest huts along the banks of the Ganges, the Maharishi had constructed an air-conditioned ashram — surrounded by barbed wire — for the comfort and privacy of celebrity acolytes such as actress Mia Farrow, Beach Boy Mike Love, folk singer Donovan and, of course, the most fab meditators of all: John, Paul, George and Ringo.
As Bob Spitz observes in his new, impressively detailed book, “The Beatles: A Biography” (Little, Brown), the Maharishi’s ashram “resembled a Himalayan Club Med,” complete with a swimming pool and heliport. Getting to the ashram required crossing a swing suspension bridge bearing a sign that warned, “No camels or elephants.”
Though hundreds of journalists swarmed outside the perimeter of the Maharishi’s enclave, only one journalist was allowed into the inner sanctum: Lapham, who had been sent to India by The Saturday Evening Post.
These days, Lapham is one of America’s best-known public intellectuals, the author of eloquent jeremiads on politics and culture for Harper’s Magazine. Back then, he was a young practitioner of the literary style that became known as “new journalism.” For months he had steeped himself in the culture of transcendental meditation, studied the Maharishi’s “Spiritual Regeneration Movement,” attended TM workshops, talked to seasoned and novice meditators in Manhattan and Berkeley, and finally followed the Maharishi and the Beatles to India.
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“With the Beatles” is Lapham’s memoir of that period, the only journalistic account by someone who was actually on the scene.
And according to Lapham, it was quite a scene: “Monkeys in the trees, elephants in the forest, saffron-robed monks floating on the river;” the Beatles dressed in “embroidered overblouses, fanciful brass pendants, cotton pajama trousers, broadly striped in bright colors, robes for all occasions.” “The Big M,” as George called the Maharishi, held occasional press conferences while his advisers discussed plans for the Beatles to endow his movement with an annual percentage of their record sales.
“There was a lot of naivete among the meditators,” Lapham said in a recent phone interview. “But the bloom was beginning to come off the rose. Some of the meditators began to find that they were missing the worldly pleasures of Santa Monica Boulevard, and they were not finding the whole experience they had hoped for. I don’t know that cynicism is the word, but disappointment was beginning to set in.”
For all that, it was a remarkably creative time for the Beatles, as Spitz’s meticulously footnoted account suggests.
Between them, John and Paul wrote some 40 songs, many of which would appear on “The White Album.” When Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, locked herself in her room and stopped eating, George and John forced their way in and tried to bring her back to reality by singing a new tune called “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.” Donovan taught John a finger-style guitar technique that became the basis for “Dear Prudence.” They wrote tunes such as “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Julia,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Mean Mister Mustard,” “Rocky Raccoon” and “Across the Universe.”
Still, the factors that would split the group asunder less than two years later were already emerging. For Paul, the sojourn was a distraction from business. For George, business and songwriting were distractions from meditation. As for Ringo, he and his wife, Maureen, left after only 10 days: “Maureen and I are a little funny about our food,” he told a reporter when he left. “And we don’t like spicy things.” Paul left after a month and a half, leaving John and George behind.
Initially, John had plunged into the spiritual life with gusto, meditating for eight hours at a time. As time went by, he became increasingly isolated from his wife, Cynthia, who had accompanied the group to India. But John’s isolation, it turned out, had more to do with romance than with the Maharishi: He was secretly receiving postcards from Yoko Ono on a nearly daily basis.
When rumors surfaced that the supposedly celibate Maharishi was sleeping with one of his disciples (and had made advances toward Mia Farrow), John and George grew alarmed, Lapham said. “They had made a hard day’s journey to the pure spring of spiritual love flowing from the wells of wisdom in the Himalayas,” he writes. “What if it turned out that the sacred water was polluted with the weed of lust? Very bad karma for the Maharishi and the band. The British press would laugh them to scorn, discredit their songs, play them for suckers.”
And so, according to Spitz, George and John would eventually dash out of the encampment without even a word to the Maharishi. As they fled the ashram, John wrote a bitter tune that began, “Maharishi, what have you done/you made a fool of everyone…” Under pressure from George, he substituted “Sexy Sadie” for “Maharishi” and created what would become, at least for the moment, a private joke.
Nor was John finished with burning bridges: On the flight home, he told Cynthia about not only Yoko, but all of his affairs, starting the process that would lead to the dissolution of his marriage. By September 1969, the Beatles would be no more; John would announce his intention to leave the group (though the public wouldn’t find out until April).
Already, as Lapham puts it, “the psychedelic colors were fading silently to black.”
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