When George Harrison left his body on November 29, 2001, after suffering a long battle with throat cancer, the event was duly marked in the popular press. Understandably, however, given the tragedy of September 11 and its aftermath, there has not been time to pause and reflect more deeply on the inner meaning of George Harrison and the Beatles. And yet it would be worthwhile to do so, as we may find in the meditation a little trail of light that leads through the encroaching darkness towards a greater light beyond.
It is a curious fact that there are no substantial references to the Beatles in the primary and secondary literature of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Indeed, there are many in India who barely know who the Beatles were. This is both odd and unfortunate, for the Beatles were not only the most famous group in the history of Western popular culture, they also made good music, and, as I will suggest in this essay, they marked a significant step forward in the process of collective evolution. For readers who do not know, the Beatles were four young rock ‘n roll musicians from Liverpool, England, who rose to extraordinary international fame in the 1960s. They were the first Western popular group to become interested in Indian classical music, and they brought Indian spiritual philosophy to widespread public attention when they began studying meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh yogi. After the group split in 1970, one of the former Beatles, George Harrison, cultivated a lifelong friendship with Ravi Shankar and continued to study Indian spiritual philosophy, although there is no record that he was interested in Sri Aurobindo per se.
Unfortunately for us, no one ever asked the Mother about the significance of the Beatles, and so we are forced to speculate on the subject without the benefit of her guidance. The Agenda does note that a disciple once played her a few songs by the Rolling Stones– the Beatles’ chief “rivals” for most popular rock band — and she remarked drolly that they had succeeded in “getting rid of the head.” That is a generous appraisal of the Stones, who were as different from the Beatles in quality of consciousness as oil is from water. The only other comment the Mother made that may orient us, is that the peace movement and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s were an effect of the supramental force entering into an active cycle of global manifestation from 1967 on. This provides at least some circumstantial evidence that the Beatles played a role in the evolution of consciousness, as they were, by unanimous popular and critical accord, the most important musical group of the hippy generation.
But what could the Beatles have contributed to spiritual evolution? Their brash and brief pop songs are unrefined in comparison to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and the other great names of European classical music; unskilled with respect to the jazz masters of the 20th century; and unbearably disruptive to the subtle ether of Indian classical music. Yet, when listened to from the standpoint of yoga not art, there is a way in which pop music in general, and the Beatles in particular, brought a first collective opening to the New, to the possibilities of the future unleashed by the advent of the supramental manifestation. The electrification, democratization, and globalization of music in the last 50 years all represent ways in which the evolving Time Spirit in humanity has sought to infuse more vibrant powers and more creative influences into the realm of musical expression. We see this trend in its most spiritual turn with Sunil, of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, whose unschooled but highly intuitive use of the electronic synthesizer to set Savitri to music explores new vistas of consciousness. Of course, how less consecrated vehicles in the mass culture have responded to these same emerging powers and influences, and whether the evolutionary experiment will ultimately succeed or fail, is another issue. But this has been the general movement of the last century.
When listened to in this context, it seems to me that the Beatles represented the first dawning of the psychic inspiration in the collective consciousness of Western popular culture under the impress of the emerging supramental manifestation. Indeed, one might call them the vibhuttis of contemporary culture. Certainly, they were not yogis and thus translated whatever inspiration they caught with much distortion and diminution of the original charge, yet even so, one has the sense that they were dynamized with a higher afflatus and transmitted at least an echo of that new consciousness to the world at large. Particularly during their early years from 1962 to 1966, the heyday of “Beatlemania,” they let fly a spark of sheer joy the likes of which has not been heard so clearly before in the popular culture of any time or place. They were not in conscious artistic command of the larger world-force that moved them, and they were only able to give it the excitable voice of youth rather than the more settled and profound voice of age, yet this higher force is there behind them and made the Beatles the phenomenon they were.
Early Beatles music is simple, granted, and has little mental substance and not a trace of overhead inspiration, but within its small form it has a degree of perfection nonetheless. The keynotes of the early Beatle-vibration—hope, energy, sincerity, charm, innocence, and enthusiasm—are easily recognizable as psychic virtues. While the Beatles’ late work only rarely competes with the virtuosity of the world’s great musical traditions, their early work can stake a unique claim to have captured the ananda of youth better than anyone else. It constitutes an unusual confluence of forces in which the Beatles’ own capacities, the concerns of their age, and the formal possibilities of the nascent genre of rock ‘n roll were temporarily in alignment. Take, for example, familiar lines from one of their signature hits, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”:
“And when I touch you
I feel happy inside,
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hide,
I can’t hide
I can’t hide!”
The lyrics here are admittedly adolescent, but there is an energy and inner impulsion behind the music, a pitch of intensity in the feeling and expression of what all young lovers feel, that lifts this song beyond mere sentiment into something more essentially revealing of the soul. Likewise with any of their many early hits, such as “Please Please Me,” “I Feel Fine,” “I’ll Get You,” “She Loves You,” “Tell Me Why,” “From Me to You,” “All My Loving,” “Ticket to Ride,” and “Eight Days a Week,” to name but a few. All of these songs indeed excite the middle and upper vital and have their primary locus of expression there, however, this vital enthusiasm is like a surface bubble that forms in response to a deeper breath of life from within. There is an essential delight of being in early Beatle’s music behind the vital ebullience that imbues it with an innate or unarticulated spirituality of sorts. This spirituality lies not in any deep perception or musical subtlety, but rather in the thrilled elan with which the lads launch themselves into things common, making them uncommon. What is new about this type of soul impulse, as compared to the prior religious music of Europe and Asia, is that it is thoroughly world-embracing and life-affirming. Rather than aspiring to heaven hereafter or some transcendent Beyond, the young Beatles pour themselves into this worldly life and find there a hidden treasure of soul-delight. This is the occult, inner hope the Beatles brought—a sense of adventure and discovery, a promise of something marvelous about to happen or to be found.
This hint of the psychic (soul) awakening behind early Beatle’s music is perhaps best detected by comparison. Pop critics today, who are much soured by the search for intellectual “maturity,” generally mistake the Beatles’ psychic innocence for adolescent sappiness, and recoil from it like vampires fleeing from sunlight. Yet if one places the best of the early Beatles next to other upbeat, “feel good” pop–be it Chuck Berry, Elvis, Abba, Fleetwood Mac, reggae, Michael Jackson, or a host of others–there is something qualitatively different about the Beatles, a spark of sincerity and charm that is unique. Although the Beatles did not consciously posses and mold this deeper psychic (soul) inspiration into a full-fledged musical art, still this psychic (soul) soul potential is palpable, especially in their early live concerts. For instance, in the live take of “I’ll Get You” on their CD anthology, one can feel a collective psychic (soul) impulse moving back and forth between the Beatles and their rapt audience. Although the music is simple and the sound thin by current standards, yet there is a living, inner substance in the relationship between group and audience that is far deeper and more powerful than anything that has happened in Western pop since the Beatles.
Of course early Beatles’ music has its defects and limitations, and in abundance, even within the small confines of rock ‘n roll. Elvis and the Beach Boys were better singers, Bob Dylan a more artsy lyricist, the Rolling Stones more rocking, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page better guitarists, the Doors more intense, the Grateful Dead a better live band, the Who more dramatic, and on and on. But none of this changes the fact that the Beatles simply had more magic than anyone else; they were irresistible. In their hands the ungainly physical roots and crude vital substance of rock ‘n roll became clean, liberating, and pleasing. They were rebellious and rambunctious, yes, but they were so d— charming about it all. They wowed the Queen of England and set stodgy old fogies to tapping their feet. They appealed to 12 year old girls and 80 year old widows. They made all limits seem non-existent and all other music sound dirty, boring, unhappy, or all three. In short, they had a mystique that many have recognized but none has ever been able to explain or replicate. They have rightly been called the “greatest romance of the 20th century,” and like all true romances, there is something ultimately supernatural about the Beatles.
A recent tribute in Time-Life to the Fab Four eloquently captures this magnetic atmosphere of the early Beatles as described by first-hand observers:
“here came the Beatles, all flash and furor….when they left, it felt as if every breath of air went with them….magic….irresistible….cheeky…they seemed to posses a secret shared understanding, some kind of instinctive group strength that made outsiders yearn to be included….they look like the four limbs of a single anatomy… Only as a group do they have real life.”
“Their whole power was in their unity….they seemed almost like time-travelers, come from another dimension, as if they were on a private mission, sworn to show the rest of us what we’d been missing. Look and listen, they seemed to say. Life is not so hard, after all. Forget the deprivation, the ugliness, the hurt. Come with us, and there will be no pain.”
Students of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga will naturally recognize in such descriptions the impress of a spiritual force that used the Beatles as a vehicle for expression in the world of otherworldly things. In years past, visitors to the Ashram had even more intense experiences of this variety during audiences with the Mother. The “other dimension” evoked above is, of course, the dimension of the psychic being. Indeed, there is an uncanny way in which the early Beatles seem almost to be the Mother’s version of a rock group—clean-cut, cheerful, unified, and enchanting. Even their trademark suits and group-consciousness (“like four limbs of a single anatomy”), which were much parodied in later years, carry image-echoes of the uniforms at the Ashram school and demonstrations of collective physical exercises.
There is, too, a fairytale-like quality to the Beatles meteoric rise to fame, and a curious clustering of key events in their saga around the Ashram’s Darshan periods, that is significant. The “Silver Beatles” first performed as a group at the Indra nightclub in Hamburg, Germany, on August 17, 1961. The peri-darshan timing, the fortuitous name of the nightclub, and the place all suggest a larger and deeper mission for which they seem to have been picked. It is as if they were touched by the Divine Grace and sent into the desolate heart of Nazi darkness and depressed slums of post-war Britain to bring back the light, to re-awaken the sense of hope and joy. They electrified the slumbering masses with an as yet pre-verbal and pre-mental sense of a new world of consciousness emerging from the old.
One year later, on August 16, Ringo Starr was brought in as the group’s drummer, thus forming the final famous foursome. On February 11, 1963, they cut their first number one single, “Please Please Me,” and in the same month completed their first album, which went on to spend 30 weeks atop of the British charts. In August 1963 they recorded and released “She Loves You,”—the early Beatles song par excellence—, and by autumn were the rage of Britain. In November 1963, they played the Royal Command Performance at the invitation of her majesty Queen Elizabeth, an honor never before or again accorded to any rock band. The Beatles roused and cajoled the royal audience, and finally stole the night with cheeky humor when John Lennon quipped, “would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”
February 1964 was a definitive month for the Beatles. On February 7, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” hit number one on the charts in the U.S., and on that same day the Beatles landed at Kennedy Airport, where a crowd of 3,000 hysterically awaited them. On February 9, the boys made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, and in the span of 5 minutes rocketed to international fame as a record 73-million TV viewers tuned in and turned on. They played their first U.S. concert on February 11, in Washington D.C., and when they left the U.S. for England again on February 22, they took America’s heart with them. The group returned again to America on August 18 for a sell-out tour in the summer of 1964, and finally, culminating all of these developments, they held the first-ever stadium concert, in New York, on August 15, 1965— Sri Aurobindo’s birthday.
The Beatles’ concert at Shea Stadium is, without doubt, one of the threshold events in modern Western culture, and thirty years later the surviving Beatles still identified it as the high-water mark of their adventure. Footage from the concert leaves one with the distinct impression that a massive descent of shakti occurred on that night. Unable to contain the divine influx with quietude and calm, the crowd discharged the energy in deafening screaming, while the Beatles themselves got giddy and silly. Their recent video documentary (1995) highlights the Beatles’ entry into Shea with a series of freeze-frame shots of them gliding silently through dim underground tunnels, and then emerging into a sea of floodlights and dizzying noise. It is, of course, a metaphor for a birth passage, and the metaphor is apt, as mass culture as we currently know it was born on that night. So much that we take for granted today—electric instruments, super-groups, stadium concerts, international tours, music videos, widely disseminated recording media, youth culture, etc.—was given the stamp of the Divine’s assent at Shea. From MTV to the immanent emergence of Bollywood on the world-scene, we are still spinning in the grooves of pop-culture etched on that night.
In terms of the Beatles’ own evolution, the concert at Shea signaled the shift from their musical adolescence into adulthood. Having conquered the Western world, they now began to turn their attention and energies inward, cultivating a mental and later aesthetic consciousness in their music. This widening and heightening sphere of interest was central to the growth of both the rock genre and of contemporary Western culture, and it lead to a very important opening to Indian music and spiritual philosophy. To my ears, the evolution of the Beatles music is a product of the interaction between two separate lines of development. The first line is that of the overall vitality of their music, which is best traced in the quality of its mood, or to borrow from medical terminology, its antidepressant properties. On this line of development their early hits are more inspired than their later work, and there is a slow and steady decline in vitality across their career.
The second line of development is one of ascent, the growth of a self-aware and self-possessed mental consciousness with its attendant ability to bind and subordinate vital energy to the aims of aesthetic creation. On this line of development, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) is their universally acclaimed masterpiece, and their two most polished single recordings are “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields,” from the same period. If one traces out the interaction between these two lines of development, one gets a curve that resembles the silhouette of a suspension bridge spanning the decade of the 1960s. The two towers that sustain the arch are the Hard Day’s Night (1964) period on the one hand, and the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) on the other, with an up ramp and off ramp at each end of the bridge, and a particularly smooth landing at Abbey Road (1969).
The movie and music of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) are both remarkable and worth revisiting. The movie is historically important because it establishes the genre of music video, which Bollywood is now taking to new heights. It is also a delightful foray into unabashed youthfulness. With the lads at their most beguiling and radiantly innocent, and their shrieking harem in hot pursuit, the Beatles do the now tired dance of the group-groupie dynamic with incomparable finesse. These dazed and dizzy girls are qualitatively different from those of any other time in the last 50 years, including Elvis fans. The Beatles’ girls have real starlight in their eyes, a little shower of luminosity that graces their teenage heart-throbs with pulses of soul-light from another dimension. Indeed, for the archetype of the early Beatle phenomenon we must turn to the unlikely and surprising semblance of Krishna and his gopis, reborn in London circa 1963-64.
Musically, the album A Hard Day’s Night is still a bit rough and uneven in its technique (Help! from the next year is more sustained and euphonic), but it has exquisite moments. One is “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” where the lads successfully tame their usually galloping exuberance to craft a rhapsodic piece that has the unusual virtue of being eminently danceable. If there is one recurrent vital defect in early Beatles music, it is that it can be frenetic, that it lacks the luxurious and flowing vital movement of, say, good salsa or contemporary Bollywood music. But this song is excellent dance music, and curiously seems to have been inspired by the same vibration from the subtle worlds that Audrey Hepburn caught with her scintillating rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” in the movie My Fair Lady from the same year (1964). Another fine moment on A Hard Day’s Night is McCartney’s “And I Love Her.” With its mysteriously nocturnal aura and delicate inflections of feeling, certain passages of this song are enchanting:
“Bright are the stars that shine,
Dark is the sky
I know this love of mine,
Will never die…”
The lyrics here are better than usual for the young Beatles, bordering on true poetry, and the earthly romance takes on hues and hints of something deeper, more subtle secrets of the heart that bubble up from some inner fount of soul-feeling and soul-delight. It is perhaps no coincidence that McCartney intuitively turned to the image of stars to express this psychic inspiration. Shelley did likewise in the lyric on love that Sri Aurobindo has praised as the purest example of the psychic inspiration in English poetry (“the yearning of the moth for the star / the night for the morrow / the devotion to something afar / from the sphere of our sorrow”). In the visual arts, Van Gogh achieved a similar effect in The Starry Night, one of his most loved paintings.
After Shea, however, the Beatles left the universal vital and began their ascent into mind and aesthesis. This process began with the compositions “Norwegian Wood” and “Nowhere Man” on the album Rubber Soul (late 1965). In the former Lennon and McCartney challenged the public with obscure post-modernist lyrics, while Harrison played the sitar, and in the latter the Beatles introduced social commentary to the rock genre. They continued this process of exceeding the limits of two-minute love songs with pieces such as “Eleanor Rigby,” “Taxman,” and the stunning “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the album Revolver (1966). This growing intellectual capacity paved the way for the mature creativity of the Sgt. Pepper era, during which we hear, for the first time in rock, the integration of lyric and music to the aims of a sustained and sophisticated artistic discourse. Harrison imported Indian music and ideas wholesale on the beautifully orchestrated “Within You, Without You” on Sgt. Pepper (1967), and thereafter turned not only the Beatles, but also the collective consciousness of Western culture towards meditation and Indian spiritual philosophy.
The editor of Jyoti (the on-line journal of the East-West Cultural Center, in Los Angeles) has pointed out that this line of development, the mental-aesthetic one, was necessary to ground the emerging force of the supramental manifestation and opened the possibility of a progressive spirituality in Western popular culture. This is very true. Songs such as “Getting Better” and “Good Morning, Good Morning” on Sgt. Pepper do show a much clearer consciousness of the unique historical moment the world was living in 1967, with the emergence of a new world-order as the old began to crumble, and the lyrics suggest a sense of progress in the midst of confusing change. Also, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” with its frankly psychedelic quality, expresses the West’s first collective opening to ranges of consciousness that lie above the reasoning mind, something truly supra-physical. However, other songs on Sgt. Pepper reflect the nascent undertow of downward gravitation that was beginning to weigh not just on the Beatles, but on their whole generation. Implicit in “With a Little Help from My Friends” and explicit in “A Day in the Life” is a sense of personal and collective isolation, respectively, the silently suffocating force of post-modern alienation. This heavy feeling in the higher vital is new to the previously sanguine young Beatles, and metastasized throughout their work after their faithful manager and mentor, Brian Epstein, died of a drug overdose in 1967.
We should stop here for a moment to comment on the Beatles’ socio-economic and cultural context, for it affected their work both inwardly and outwardly. A recent broadcast on NPR (National Public Radio) explored the “swinging sixties” milieu of London in the first half of the 1960s. During this time, as the post-war economic depression resolved and Britain’s baby-boomers began to generate new wealth, fractures appeared in the previously rigid class-structure of English society, reflected in more flashy clothing and coiffures, new music, and a new freedom for people from different social strata to mingle. These new freedoms were played out most prominently in the nightclubs of London, where high and low class citizens met to dance all night to the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, then went to work the following morning as bank owners or bank clerks, depending on their lot in life. Notably, the drugs of choice during these heady years were amphetamines, which the Beatles also used on some occasions. These socio-cultural issues (minus the illegal uppers) are documented in A Hard Day’s Night and, significantly, in this film the Beatles managed the tensions of the generation gap with playfulness and humor (see, for instance, their affectionate repartee with Paul’s grandfather). Overall, there was a sense of joining-in during this era, a participation mystique epitomized in the Beatles playing to the Queen of England, and repeated in their comic bantering with seniors on the Morecambe & Wise Show (the British equivalent of the Ed Sullivan show, only funnier).
This sometimes tense but ultimately collaborative quality of the “swinging sixties” in Britain, stands in stark contrast to what happened in America after the center of gravity in rock ‘n roll shifted back to the United States in the second half of the decade. While Americans were already wealthy from the 1950s, and began the 1960s with the hope and idealism of the Kennedy White House and Martin Luther King’s quest for civil rights, the decade soon turned ugly for America. Both Kennedy and King were assassinated, and America sank into the quagmire of Vietnam. My own impression of these events is that there was a general psychic pressure active in the earth atmosphere in the early 1960s that influenced many of the artistic and socio-political developments in England and America during this period. However, darker forces that aim to retard spiritual evolution scored tragic victories in executing several of America’s progressive leaders (Martin Luther King and the two Kennedy brothers), and thereafter induced America to betray her inner purpose in Vietnam, where she forsook her quest for freedom and democracy in favor of deceit, destruction, and oppression.
Of course there were forces of light in America that responded as best they could –and no doubt the outcome would have been far worse without this human aspiration and the Divine’s responding Grace–but the cultural situation was agitated and covered by a shadow of rage and disaffection that was absent in Britain. While youngsters on both sides of the Atlantic were “turning on and tuning in,” American hippies added the unhappy clause of “dropping out” to their slogan. The peace movement in America had an anti-government and anti-authoritarian stridency, indeed an outright aggression, that was foreign to the Beatles and which Lennon tried to pacify in his song “Revolution” from 1968. Likewise, the pharmacological substrate of American “flower-power” was almost the opposite of London’s swinging sixties. While England had been upbeat and energetic on stimulants, America turned to opiates, hallucinogens, and dissociatives–all of which are ultimately tamasic and, if taken chronically, induce dysphoria, depression, paranoia, and/or disconnection. This American agenda infected rock ‘n roll in the late 1960s like a pernicious miasma and vitiated the Beatles as well. The previously carefree and infallible Fab Four faltered after their manager died, and they strayed from the sunlit path into the dysmorphic and drug-dazed consciousness which was the unhappy demise of the likes of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. This nether aspect of the 1960s is chronicled in the slow but relentless disintegration of the Beatles as the decade proceeded. Joy devolved into empty sermonizing, group cohesion dissolved in division, and rock ‘n roll fell from a charmed youth into a turbulent adulthood.
It is on this basis that I am a little wistful about much of Beatles’ later music. Having heard the joyful promise in their early work, there is a feeling of paradise lost in their maturity. For example, whereas the lyrics of “Nowhere Man” are about the fractured and alienated post-modern world, there is yet a shard of ecstasy in the song’s beautiful vocal harmonies that is not of alienation in the way that, say, “A Day in the Life” or “Strawberry Fields” are later. The feeling-tone of “Strawberry Fields” is actually one of deeply suppressed grief (it was inspired by an orphanage that Lennon used to visit in his youth), and each of the Beatles went on to write plenty of downers. Lennon’s raw edges came out (“I Am the Walrus,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”), McCartney wallowed in melodrama (“The Long and Winding Road,” “The Fool on the Hill”), and Harrison could be sarcastic (“Only a Northern Song”). Songs that attempted to recapture their early upbeat mood turned out superficial instead (“Hello Goodbye,” “Obla-Di, Obla-Da”), and their sermonizing on love and flower-power was either trite (“All You Need Is Love”) or over-wrought (“Let It Be”). They did continue to be technically creative, exploring heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”) and even jazz and reggae (“You Know My Name”), but as the soul of their generation, the Beatles also took on the faults and burdens of their time. Just as much as their wide-ranging interests opened to the possibilities of a new world-order brought on by the supramental manifestation, they also bore the upwelling of tamasic resistance against the transformation that was endemic in the late 1960s.
This is not to say, however, that the Beatles did not have their successes during their middle and late periods. More serious love songs from their incipient maturity, such as Lennon’s “In My Life” and McCartney’s “Yesterday” from 1965-66, have a frankness and emotional poignancy that elevate them to the stature of poetic. There is an out-take of “And Your Bird Can Sing” from this same period on their recent CD anthology that is intoxicating. The track breaks down as the Beatles giggle and laugh, but for me this only heightens the creative joy one feels in their sonic motion as the lead-guitar lines gyrate on beatifically through their merriment. This is the young Beatles at their best: carefree, spontaneous, confident, and creative. George Martin’s (their producer) favorite from that same period is “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a Lennon composition that he says still excites him to this day. Inspired by Lennon’s reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol), the song’s subtly modulated droning sounds and trance-like rhythm come closer to achieving mantric effects than anything recorded in the history of rock n’ roll. Someone ought to follow up on this tantalizing lead. Another fine piece from the Beatles’ late period is Lennon’s “Across the Universe,” composed while studying with the Maharishi Mahesh yogi, in which lyric and music unite to evoke a higher spiritual light filtering into the receptive mind.
Abbey Road (1969), the Beatles’ last recording as a group, is artistically excellent and has its spiritual highlights as well. Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” is illumined, auguring the dawn of a new light in the world; and “Because” is sublime, a hauntingly ethereal masterpiece recorded in 9-part harmony that seems to call in the voices of higher worlds. This song, though brief, is one of the most purely psychic (soul) inspirations in Western rock/pop. However, the album is also a swan song and the mood of final dissolution is palpable throughout. The second side, a series of song-fragments masterfully strung together like beads on a post-modern necklace, is technically brilliant but also a goodbye. One hears behind it the last breath not only of the Beatles, but of an era. All is unwound and undone, a cycle completed, the soul retracted and the body returned to the dust from which it came. They did their last photo-shoot together on August 15, 1969, in the same month that Woodstock transpired—the Beatles conspicuously absent—and with that the great cultural upheavals of the 1960s expired.
After the Beatles’ demise, each of the former Beatles pursued his own solo career. Neither Starr’s nor McCartney’s post-Beatle work has much to say for it, I think, at least from the spiritual perspective. Lennon continued to grow artistically, exploring his wife’s (Yoko Ono) experimental music, hard rock, and soft rock in turn. His widely popular peace anthem, “Imagine” (1973), is a bit sentimental in places, but has a redeeming gentleness in the higher vital that is laudable. I think his best late works are love songs to Yoko Ono from the late 1970s, which can be very tender and evocative. This kind of higher vital sentiment has as much right to grow towards perfection as any other human capacity, and perhaps it would have in Lennon’s music had he not been shot to death in 1980.
George Harrison once remarked that what he valued most about John Lennon was his honesty, and one would have to agree that the man had a sense of integrity that always held our respect. Although in his maturity Lennon developed a gritty realism born of his sharp intellect, in his youth there was another side of his character that peeped out at times, and that was the angelic. Lennon’s face was often radiant during performances in the heyday of Beatlemania, and one has the sense that he struggled in his later years to regain contact with this more innocent and psychic aspect of his personality. His friends Paul, George, and Ringo always knew that John could be illumined at times, and he was open to spiritual ideas and influences so long as he deemed them genuine. Thus, Lennon’s death at mid-life, just as his heart was opening at last, was a major loss to Western popular music. He might have made a fine vehicle for a higher consciousness to manifest had he lived.
The most remarkable post-Beatle growth, however, occurred in George Harrison, which is not surprising given his dedication to a spiritual quest. He continued to study Indian music with Ravi Shankar, became a dedicated devotee of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupata (founder of the Hare Krishna movement), and organized a benefit concert for Bangladesh that became the model for humanitarian concerts that other stars have turned to various causes since then. Musically, one already hears Harrison’s coming of age presaged in the acoustic version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which has a strong inwardness to it. The final version, on which Eric Clapton played the plaintive lead-guitar line, is good, but Harrison’s solo with acoustic brings out the spiritual feeling of the song more. It is a deeply philosophical piece inspired by what Sri Aurobindo calls “psychic sorrow,” the recoil the soul feels when it looks upon how the world vitiates and betrays the manifestation of the Divine on earth:
I look at you all
See the love there that’s sleeping,
While my guitar gently weeps.
I look at the floor
And I see it needs sweeping,
Still my guitar gently weeps.
I don’t know why
Nobody told you
How to unfold your love.
I don’t know how
Someone controlled you
They bought and sold you.
I look at the world
And I notice it’s turning,
While my guitar gently weeps.
With every mistake
We must surely be learning,
Still my guitar gently weeps.
I don’t know how
You were diverted
You were perverted, too.
I don’t know how
You were inverted
No one alerted you.
I look from the wings
At the play you are staging,
While my guitar gently weeps.
As I’m sitting here
Doing nothing but aging,
Still my guitar gently weeps.
Harrison’s first post-Beatle album, All Things Must Pass, marked his coming of age as an independent songwriter. Opinions vary about his hit single from this period, “My Sweet Lord” (recorded first 1970 and again in 1974), but I think it is a good first adaptation of the bhajan genre into Western rock. While it is not so impressive in comparison to the rich tradition of Indian devotional music, it is notable in that it marks the first time in Western pop that an artist consciously expresses a personal aspiration to know the Divine. Harrison was scandalized in 1976 when a court convicted him of unconsciously plagiarizing the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” in composing “My Sweet Lord,” but from the yogic perspective this affair was absurd, if not in fact the work of adverse forces that sought to punish Harrison for attempting to transform the inner sense of rock music. Since even a subtle alteration in the outer structure of a musical passage can alter the plane of consciousness it expresses, Harrison ought to be congratulated for alchemically converting tripe into devotional music. For me, the spiritual nectar of this song lies not in the vocals (which are only higher vital), but in Harrison’s electric guitar accents and acoustic strumming, which is rhythmically expansive and has a contemplative quality.
The final fruits of Harrison’s musical sadhana are to be found in his last two major works, Chants of India and Brainwashed, respectively. The former is a beautiful collection of traditional Sanskrit chants performed by Ravi Shankar, with Tarun Bhattacharya and other luminaries in support, which Harrison produced in 1995. Although Harrison himself is only a backing performer on this CD, the spirit of his offering is discernible throughout, as is his evident love for the spiritual and musical genius of India. Brainwashed, in contrast, is pure Harrison—and Harrison at his absolute best. His voice is weak on many tracks because of his advanced throat cancer, but his guitar playing and musical sensibility are in full efflorescence. The lyrics of this album are the most honest and profound statement of the heart that I am aware of in Western popular music. At once deeply human and deeply spiritual, these songs movingly document Harrison’s existential confrontation with his own mortality, and also hint at inner struggles with his own errors, shortcomings, vices, and spiritual falls. Nonetheless, Harrison knows how to be playful as well (as with religion, on “P2 Vatican Blues,” and romance on “Rocking Chair in Hawaii”), and musically there is an undercurrent of inner mirth bubbling beneath all these songs.
Since there is more to say about Brainwashed than can be put adequately into words, I shall trace only a few highlights here and leave the rest to the listener’s discernment. From the yogic perspective, the soul of this album lies in tracks 5-8, with track 6 (“Marwa Blues”) being the pinnacle of perfection. While track 3 (“Pisces Fish”) is emotionally stirring in the best sense, and track 9 (“Never Get Over You”) an intimate revelation of human love in the face of death, the spiritual substance of tracks 5-8 is perhaps a little more in foreground. The secret of these four tracks lies in Harrison’s extraordinary work on the electric and slide guitars. At moments soaring as it lifts the soul into wide air above the heart’s recumbent earth, at others soft and ethereal as the mewing of angels, Harrison’s guitar work here is magical. One can hear how years of studying the sitar inform his sensibility and approach, yet Harrison’s genius is that he evolves the electric guitar from within on its own terms, bringing forth the secret rasa of the instrument so that what we hear in the end is an organic unfolding of a Western instrument played in a Western genre.
The first song in Harrison’s final fab four (pardon the pun) is “Rising Sun,” whose title and lyrics are reminiscent of his earlier masterpiece from Beatle days, “Here Comes the Sun.” What we hear emerging from the 30-year span of musical sadhana that separates these two compositions is a considerable deepening and heightening of Harrison’s inspiration. Where the inner light transmitted via “Here Comes the Sun” is a bit sallow and tarnished in comparison, the best passages of “Rising Sun” are absolutely pure and luminous. No one with any spiritual opening can miss the symbolism of the sun, surya, as the truth of the higher consciousness dawning in the receptive aspirant. But “Rising Sun” goes beyond generic spiritual imagery into a clear apperception of the supramental sun dawning in matter, of a new life and new world taking birth right now behind the veil of this familiar one:
“But in the rising sun you can feel your life begin
Universe at play inside your DNA
You’re a billion years old today
Oh the rising sun—and the place it’s coming from
Is inside you, and now your payment’s overdue
Oh the rising sun, Oh the rising sun”
“And in the rising sun you can hear your life begin
And it’s here and there, nowhere and everywhere
Though it’s atmosphere is rare
Oh the rising sun, and the place that it’s coming from
Is inside of me, and now I feel it constantly
Oh the rising sun, Oh the rising sun”
In keeping with the lyrics of this song, the music to this refrain is appropriately revelatory. Harrison’s lead guitar lines garland the refrain like ambrosia, and open doors of perception onto a greater world that we feel descending into us through this music. The rapt listener feels a new light and a new hope rising in the heart, and for an enchanted moment we can actually hear the promise of the life divine taking birth on earth.
The following “Marwa Blues,” a purely instrumental piece, ranks among the most spiritually inspired compositions in all of Western music, either classical or popular. This is the proverbial music of the spheres, if ever human ears have heard it. The whole piece comes luminously down from some intuitive plane of consciousness, unstained and unsullied by any error in transmission or inadequacy of musical expression. Harrison’s lead on the slide guitar is absolutely exquisite, and one feels bathed in the aqueous light of some angelic world where apsaras dance in a fluid trance of perpetual harmony. Ironically, Harrison calls this piece “blues,” yet if this is the blues then lotuses are made of mud. Perhaps technically this flower blossoms on the bed of blues, but Harrison’s inspiration transforms the vital sorrow and suffering of the genre into sheer spiritual delight. There is no loss or grief in the realm to which Harrison transports us—all is harmony and light and supernal Beauty. “Marwa Blues” is indeed the future music Sri Aurobindo has hinted at in his own poetry.
The next two songs, though not as perfectly sublime as “Marwa Blues,” are still glowing gems, each in its own way. “Stuck Inside a Cloud” should, to read the lyrics, be heart breaking, yet Harrison’s knows how to turn this goodbye to life and loved ones into an offering of the human heart to the Divine. This is really a song about surrender, in the fullest Aurobindonian sense of that word. Again, it is Harrison’s electric and slide guitar work that gives this piece its spiritual elevation, but the lyrics also hint at the secret of this song:
“I made some exhibition
I lost my will to eat
The only thing that matters to me is to
touch your lotus feet”
Likewise “Run So Far” is another song of spiritual surrender, in which Harrison meditates on the inescapable press of death, from which one can only “run so far.” On this track not only is the lead guitar revelatory, as usual for Harrison on this album, but the vocal melody and harmonies are also superb, in moments dipping straight into the psychic (soul) center. This is music from the soul that speaks a message of hope to the human heart and gives it strength to bear even the seemingly unbearable. Taken together, tracks 5-8 remind us that while the outer George Harrison was a modern rock star who knew his share of error and pain in his walk through life, behind that outer personality stood a star from a higher world who came to earth to shed his light and beauty and heavenly sound here.
All in all, Harrison’s last album, Brainwashed, is a masterpiece. It is a mature work that sets the new high-water mark for Western popular music in terms of spiritual substance. Granted, it is an individual statement and as such has not the dynamic power of the collective force we feel behind the Beatles, but it is a remarkable accomplishment nonetheless. Harrison is the only rock star to have made major contributions to modern music both individually and as a member of a group representing a collective force, and for that he wins our respect. Many were and are more technically gifted than he, but none has equaled his depth, his spiritual sensitivity, and his cultivation of an inner beauty. And even though the younger Harrison was often eclipsed by the phenomenal output of the famous Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo, in retrospect we can see clearly that Harrison’s quiet presence had a deepening and stabilizing effect on the Beatles, and gave the group ballast. For if Lennon was the mind of the Beatles, McCartney the emotional-vital, and Starr the physical consciousness, Harrison was the soul, that elusive inner element without which there is no ultimate meaning.
In closing, it seems relevant to identify where the Beatles’ evolution ended. I feel that their final statement was not the aptly named “The End,” the last track of Abbey Road, but rather the Lennon piece they completed posthumously in 1995, “Real Love.” This song weaves together many of the strands of consciousness they had labored to develop as a group. It returns to their original forte, the two-minute love-song, but a full cycle up on the spiral of evolution. McCartney’s mature sense of ballad is unobtrusively brought to bear in the orchestration, Lennon’s edginess and angst softened to an emotion that is trying to be psychisized, Harrison’s guitar-accents grace the piece with nectar, and Starr holds the group together in time and space. Overall, this song gives one the impression of closure to the Beatles’ saga. It does lie more on their vital line of development than their mental-aesthetic one, but on that line it is a mature piece, not about holding hands or twisting and shouting, but about adult human love and what lies behind that, the intimate glow of the soul’s journey through life. No doubt the future shall exceed the spiritual content of Beatles’ music by far, but we can always remember them with a smile, for in the end they were a force of progress and of joy.
So, with that, we gratefully thank both John and George for the gifts they brought us, and we wish them well wherever their souls may venture next. In memoriam, I can think of no more fitting words for either of these men than those Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at the funeral of his friend, Henry David Thoreau:
“….wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”