Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722) (8 page)

BOOK: Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722)
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George Harrison's starry-eyed mystic insights were infectious. He had been studying Transcendental Meditation (TM), and his
wife, Pattie, had heard that the long-haired giggling guru who had been touring the world to teach his meditation technique was going to be appearing in London. Harrison wanted the Beatles to go and hear Maharishi Mahesh Yogi talk. It wasn't a hard sell. Paul McCartney recalls that the band was in psychic disarray. Being a Beatle only heightened their personal struggles. There was only so much the nervous system could take. So the group, already experiencing the shadow of the tensions that would ultimately split them apart, agreed to go. They needed something to calm the stormy waters. At 20 Grosvenor Park, Harrison, McCartney, and John Lennon, along with Pattie and McCartney's then girlfriend Jane Asher, listened to the maharishi speak on the benefits of TM. Any single moment during any single day can change the world, and this happened to be the one that would begin a shift in the spiritual aspirations of a generation.

The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation offered an easier, softer way to achieve enlightenment. After being interviewed by the maharishi or one of his disciples, you were given a personal mantra, usually a Sanskrit word, which was apparently tuned to your own vibration. The mantra was not cheap, but the promise of a life free from stress—one of serenity and fulfillment—seemed worth it. And it was even said that after a certain amount of time, some practitioners were able to levitate (which in reality looks to be more like hopping while in the lotus position, a feat almost as remarkable).

The imperative of the West to find a guru in the East originates in an idea that sprang out of the Occult Revival of the late nineteenth century. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, known as Madame Blavatsky, was born in Russia and had traveled all over
the Middle East and Europe before landing in New York City in 1875, where she founded the Theosophical Society. Her physical size was matched only by the weight of her charisma and her intellect. Blavatsky was an encyclopedia of occult lore, and claimed to have developed uncanny powers. But her most essential teaching, the one that would have the most lasting impact, was that all religions—no matter their superficialities—are just different representations of a single divine reality. The subtext here was that Christianity was not the one true path it had sold itself to be for millennia. In fact, it might even be a stopgap to greater spiritual wisdom. This secret teaching was given to Blavatsky by the Mahatmas, a group of ascended masters who dwell in the Himalayas. Blavatsky popularized the idea that true knowledge is found in the exotic East. The Vedanta movement brought the great Hindu teachers like Swami Vivekananda to the States around the turn of the century, and this became the religion of choice of many intellectuals and writers in the 1940s and 1950s, including Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. In the 1950s, Beats such as Jack Kerouac began grooving on Zen Buddhism, and the mystic hedonist Alan Watts turned Eastern mysticism into pop psychology with a psychedelic vibe through his books like
This Is It
Psychotherapy East and West.
But it was what the scholar Wouter J. Hanegraaff rightly describes as theosophy's “force of religious innovation” that infused the West with a fascination about the occult, one dependent on the idea of teachers from the East to give it form and function.

Mixing magic with LSD in the 1960s just about made everybody's head crack like Humpty Dumpty. There had to be someone who could put it all back together again. The day after
the lecture in London, the maharishi met with the Beatles and invited them to a retreat in Bangor, North Wales. This time the whole Fab Four went along, with friends and girlfriends in tow. The scene at the train station belied the serene intentions of the trip. The media and fans mobbed the group as they tried to board the train, and while they eventually got to their destination, there was one casualty. Mistaken for a fan by police, Lennon's wife, Cynthia, was kept back and the train left without her. Less interested in the spiritual pretentions of the Beatles than the drama of their daily lives, the newspapers snapped photos of the distraught young woman and printed stories the next day that focused on her crisis, the short article in the
of London
being typical, “Beatle Wife Misses the Train,” complete with a photograph of the distressed Mrs. Lennon.

Cynthia being stranded, however, is uncannily symbolic of the Beatles' spiritual journey: forever trying to cast aside the chains of celebrity as they explored altered states of religious and chemical consciousness, but having access to anything they wanted to explore, chant, or swallow by virtue of their stardom. The privilege that comes with status is part of why rock and the occult became wedded so quickly. Rock stars had money and cultural cachet, had access to ideas and people most others did not. Granted a private meeting with the maharishi and being invited to a retreat is only one such example, but it's certainly a glimpse into how certain cultural elites are able to safely break free of mainstream religious communities. Fans who did not have access but who were also seeking something different could use the Beatles as a guide. The infamous 1966
London Evening Standard
article where Lennon was quoted as saying “We're more
popular than Jesus” shared an observation more prescient than anybody could have imagined at the time. For many, the Beatles were precisely that, in softly theological terms: a mediator between heaven and earth, a bridge from the drudgery of middle-class culture to the dream of something greater: cosmic awareness, inner peace, and the eternal high. Similarly, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Hollywood films about the rich and successful were hugely popular. People who had nothing to hope for flocked to movie theaters to watch Fred Astaire in tux and tails dance on the deck of a luxury ocean liner. Fame and fantasy were a glimpse into what was possible.

In the mid-1960s, however, the cultural anxiety was not one of money but of sex, war, race, and religion. And even though the public often looked to bands like the Beatles for a glimpse beyond the confusion, the chaos sown by their celebrity status was a strangely privileged microcosm of the chaos of the West. People wanted to know every detail of their lives, not only because of how wild and fun it all looked, but because the Beatles were also a cultural mirror. And in 1967, when Cynthia was left grief-stricken at the station, people witnessed the chaos inherent in the tension between spiritual desire and the demands of the world.

In Bangor, though, the Beatles themselves seemed to fall into the quiet meditative rhythm quite naturally. The Beatles, never shy of the press, were quick to speak about the benefits of TM. By the end of the first day they were ready to proselytize for the maharishi. At a press conference, McCartney told reporters: “I had given up drugs before becoming interested in the yogi's teachings. The only reason people take drugs is because
they hear so much about experiences that can expand the mind. By meditating, this expansion can be done without drugs and without their ill effects. Mediation is a way of expanding the mind naturally.” Only a few months earlier, he had admitted to using LSD, and lauded its benefits: “After I took it, it opened my eyes. We only use one-tenth of our brain. Just think what we could accomplish if we could only tap that hidden part. It would mean a whole new world.”

An anti-LSD position was radical for a rock band in 1967, especially a group who had already shaped the LSD musical aesthetic with songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Within You Without You.” But even as the Beatles denounced drugs, Harrison kept ashore of the new hippie ethos to be wary of being preached to. It would not do to trade the mainstream Christian proselytizing for another type of evangelization, even if it did come from the East: “We don't know how this will come out in the music. Don't expect to hear Transcendental Meditation all the time. We don't want this thing to come out like Cliff and Billy Graham.”

As if fated to test their newfound state of peace, their trip was cut short when, after two days, they received devastating news. Their beloved manager and friend, Brian Epstein, was dead at the age of thirty-two from an overdose of barbiturates mixed with alcohol. Epstein was supposed to meet the band at the retreat and become initiated into the TM practice. He killed himself instead. As the Beatles were heading back to London, the media immediately bombarded them with ludicrous questions: What will you do now? What are your plans? They tried to answer as best they could. Grainy, almost inaudible, footage of the moment
still clearly reveals their shocked and grief-stricken faces. But this trip to learn from the maharishi, this sudden commitment to a spiritual discipline in the midst of their inscrutably chaotic lives, had to mean something, especially now. Film from that time shows Harrison in shock, but he wouldn't let the blow derail him from what he hoped, needed even, to be the truth of the maharishi. So Harrison, who once had been reluctant, drew deep from the well and said to the press, “There's no real such thing as death anyway. I mean, it's death on a physical level, but life goes on everywhere . . . and you just keep going, really. The thing about the comfort is to know that he's OK.”

The death of Epstein pushed the Beatles further toward the charismatic teachings of the maharishi. The ever-smiling guru was an island, a private retreat offshore from the fans, from the press, and from the tragic loss of their manager. But always ready to meet with the media, the Beatles could not withhold even their most private moments of introspection and mourning. Despite Harrison's promise that they were not the maharishi's missionaries, Transcendental Meditation had become too important, too life-changing, to keep to themselves. Of the practice, Lennon told the press a month after Brian's overdose, “This is the biggest thing in our lives at the moment, and it's come at a time when we need it. . . . We want to learn the meditation thing properly, so we can propagate it and sell the whole idea to everyone.”

In the 1960s, the culture of rock and the lives of the musicians and the music they made were inseparable. There was too much at stake for a band like the Beatles to not become a perfect microcosm of those tumultuous years. Harrison became the spiritual face of the band; his interest in Hindu spirituality had
been evolving. It began, Harrison once said, with hearing Indian music. Once he began his now-famous relationship with the late sitar player Ravi Shankar, Harrison saw that the music of the Beatles and spiritual intentions didn't have to exist in separate realms. Shankar described first meeting the eager young man who wanted to learn the sitar: “It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars . . . it had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to me, I didn't know what to think. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene.”

For three days in June 1967, at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, California, a marriage of Eastern and Western spirituality came together in a stunning display of musical talent. Even more so than the Human Be-In, with its focus on the politics of consciousness, the Monterey Pop Festival oriented the counterculture toward music as a method for transcendence. The official logo announced the spirit of the festival with a blunt visual: a satyr playing the panpipe in a bed of flowers. The lineup is a who's who of 1960s music, and it's hard to imagine the shape popular music would have taken if even one of these performers had never existed: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, the Who, and the Byrds, among others. Beyond including some of the most iconic performances in rock history (the Who destroying their instruments, Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire), the atmosphere of the Monterey Pop Festival was both thick with pot smoke and a collective consciousness that tuned in to a singular spiritual vision. Eric Burdon, the lead singer of the Animals, said it simply: “To me, Monterey wasn't
a pop music festival. It wasn't a music festival at all, really. It was a religious festival. It was a love festival.”

Footage from the weekend shows stoned and tripping faces beaming as if illuminated from both within and without. Various reviews in the rock and popular press describe something akin to bearing witness to ancient rite. Writing for
, Michael Lydon describes Hendrix's guitar burning as a pagan religious sacrament: “And when he knelt before the guitar as if it were a victim to be sacrificed, sprayed it with lighter fluid, and ignited it, it was exactly a sacrifice: the offering of the perfect, most beloved thing, so its destruction could ennoble him further.” It was the performance of Shankar, though, his first public appearance in America, that infused the festival with a sense that something special was taking place. Shankar played three hours of raga to an audience of thousands (whom he politely asked not to smoke during his performance, all of whom obliged).

While Shankar appreciated the reception at Monterey and respected Harrison and the passion the Beatles brought to his musical and spiritual devotion, he was skeptical about the hippie movement in general. In an interview not long after the festival, Shankar admitted to some ambivalence that his music was so loved by the hippies. In the top-forty magazine
, Shankar drew a line between the essential religious roots of his music and the drug culture: “We don't believe in the extra, or the other stimulus taken, and that's what I am trying my best to make the young people, without hurting them, of course, to understand.”

Shankar had his fans, but alone he would not have the impact
soon to come when sitar playing was woven into pop music. Not only were these songs presented to the youth culture by the Beatles, in the context of rock, and especially psychedelic rock, but the sound itself resonated deeply with them. The sitar clothed the LSD experience in something authentic, both culturally and musically. By this point it was impossible to divorce the mystical from the psychedelic, the magical from the drugs, as they lent themselves so perfectly to the ideal of consciousness revolution. And the sound of the sitar in the hands of George Harrison elevated pop music beyond anything that had come before. Through lyrics like those of “Tomorrow Never Knows” (“Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void / It is shining, it is shining”), the popular consciousness was being transformed. It would spread, like all of rock's most important milestones, into commercial and marketing efforts of the most cynical kind, but more important, it would change rock's sound and reception forever. While Beatles fans were not the only ones to hang on to every word and every chord, the band's popularity set a precedent by which rock bands and musicians would be held up as avatars of a special sort, not as priests or apostles, but as tricksters who would show that the emperor had no clothes, that normative Christianity (and Judaism, as the case may be) was empty and without the kind of spiritual nourishment the next generation would need. Rock was a method to change the spiritual order of the world. The Beatles' explicit expression of mysticism would only supercharge the electrical connection between bands and their audiences.

BOOK: Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722)
13.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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