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February 06, 2008

What Sexy Sadie Did

By Michael Gerber

crossposted from Hey Dullblog

"Which one of you geniuses," Ed emailed this morning, "is on the Maharishi beat?" As the least-employed member of our merry band, I guess that's me (Mike). I admit to having a real fondness for The Giggling One, and not just because I spent yesterday afternoon at a Mindfulness Meditation workshop at my local public library. (Me and 99 senior citizens.) As cartoonish as his public persona could be, it's undeniable that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi helped change Western culture, largely for the better. And it's equally undeniable that every Beatles fan--and especially every fan of John Lennon--should spare a smile for his soul or whatever's just left us, wherever it's whizzing off to.

Whether it was the meditation, clean living, or just the peace and quiet, The Beatles' time in Rishikesh resulted in an explosion of creativity. And I'm not talking about the "everybody dropped acid and spray-painted George's garage" kind of creativity, but actual songs, the best of which equal any the group wrote. Lennon especially benefited from this--he mined this three-month period for years, not only filling the White Album with stuff written in India, but also parts of Abbey Road and even Imagine.

So TM was good for The Beatles, and not just from a songwriting standpoint. Going to India was the last gasp of the group's legendary unanimity. (Mick Jagger used to refer to them jealously as "the four-headed monster.") This quality had always been The Fabs' secret weapon, but by late 1967, it was subtly, silently on the wane. Trooping off to Rishikesh probably delayed their eventual split by a handful of essential months, perhaps the time it took to make Abbey Road. The Beatles went to India in February '68 and returned in May--by February '69, the group was practically defunct. As went Lennon, so went The Beatles; in Rishikesh, Lennon was a "Child of Nature," but as soon as he returned to the West he became a "Jealous Guy."

Which leads me to the second reason to spare a prayer for the Maharishi, which is the Maharishi's effect on John Lennon. We all know how it ended--accusations, "Sexy Sadie," and Lennon playing the role of the betrayed child, as he did periodically throughout his life. But all that aside, I think The Beatles' time interacting with the Maharishi (roughly August 1967 to May 1968) might've saved John Lennon's life.

For all his protestations about being "a performing flea," Lennon's reaction to the end of The Beatles' touring days was confusion bordering on despair. In the year prior to the trip to India, Lennon wrote only when prodded into action by the ceaseless productivity of McCartney. The rest of the time he spent lolling in an hallucinogenic haze in the sunroom at Kenwood. When he was lucid, which appears to be not very often, Lennon felt a deep dissatisfaction with the life he'd created; as long as his real life was filled with the glamor, stimulation, and ceaseless work of being a Beatle, Lennon could tolerate occasional visits with his wife and child in the suburbs. Now that equilibrium was shattered, and he was miserable.

Part of this is as common as dirt--lots of people who get married young find the choice doesn't fit as they get older. But Lennon was facing an even tougher problem: what to do for the next fifty years. Anything was bound to pale next to being a Beatle, and being a has-been prickled Lennon as a particularly hot kind of Hell. In '67, he wasn't looking at a limitless future, but a slow slide to the grave, perhaps in the ever-growing shadow of McCartney. The drugs made the days seep away, but until Lennon figured out what to do next, he was in a precarious position. Then, in August of '67, Brian Epstein died.

The precise nature of their relationship is unknowable, but it's reasonable to assume that Brian's role in Lennon's life had paternal elements; he was a protector and provider (their weekly "green" came from him), as well as Lennon's biggest, truest fan. Leaving aside for a second the sexual undertones between the two men, Brian Epstein probably satisfied some of Lennon's longings for the father he never had. His sudden death had to be a ghastly echo of Julia's, the central crack in Lennon's psyche. In the wake of Brian's death, Lennon desperately needed all the calmness and perspective he could muster.

The loss of one of Lennon's primary emotional supports--much more essential, it seems, than either his wife Cyn or his co-worker/competitor Paul--was devastating. I don't think Lennon ever really got over it; ceding his business affairs to Yoko was probably an attempt to recreate the earlier relationship. This sudden loss, added to McCartney's growing confidence, Lennon's lack of a vision for the group, and his appetite for harder and harder drugs, makes me think it's not at all unlikely that, without the Maharishi, John Lennon would've been the first of the great rock star casualties, clearing the way for Janis, Jimi, and Jim in death, as he'd done in fame.

Lennon never truly worked out his problems, backing away just as real change was required, but his six-month interlude with TM kept him hanging on through a very dangerous period. As soon as he returned to England, Lennon's destructive behavior resumed; while this eventually destroyed the group, his relationship with Yoko kept him out of the grave. For all his good qualities, Lennon needed a surrogate parent to withstand the buffeting of the world; and for all his eccentricities, the Maharishi played this role at a crucial time, in a very benign way. Lennon eventually rejected him, but that's not really the Maharishi's fault; Lennon was driven to enact a pattern of conversion, obsession, and disillusionment for as long as he lived.

John Lennon always needed two things: something to do, and something to fight. The Maharishi provided the first, but could not provide the second. But the Giggling One kept him alive until Yoko could give him both. For that I thank him, and wish him a cozy little corner of the Cosmos.

—Michael Gerber

Posted at February 6, 2008 04:08 PM

I actually went through the nonsense of signing up for a "google account" in order to post at Dullblog, but then nada, zip, nuttin'. But I'm one of them, i.e., a maniac, and must repost:

Interesting take on the tightrope Lennon walked all those years ago. Still, all such guesswork is just that- an exercise in psycho speculation. I tend to think John was both tougher and smarter to ever have cashed in his chips back then, however depressed and angry. But who knows? The two things I'll most fondly remember about John and the Maharishi was Lennon having once referred to him as the Rama Lama Ding Dong, and the lyric, "Ain't no guru can see see through your eyes". All in all, he was a harmless old fraud who made a nice living suckering the rubes. RIP.

Posted by: JW at February 6, 2008 08:23 PM
I tend to think John was both tougher and smarter to ever have cashed in his chips back then, however depressed and angry.

The expectation is to make him bigger than life, but most of the people sitting at the big table have their own insecurities.

JW, it's surprising how closely you channeled my thoughts when I clicked on the comments link. These re-interpretations are amusing, but I prefer Lennon as the temporary celebrity on his way to obscurity. For my money, "Working Class Hero" is a true song that dared to say things about class.

But the Giggling One kept him alive until Yoko could give him both.

Damn, but if observations (projections) like this ain't enough to turn anyone off aspiring to celebrity. I attribute drugs, bad temper and worse decisions to simply being human. I only hope that in 25 years someone gives Britney Spears the similar treatment as punishment for ruining our routine. Isn't she the Lennon that the US deserves Mickey ears and all?

Posted by: Ted at February 6, 2008 09:05 PM

I remember the day John Lennon died. I was at a bus station in Corpus Christi Tex, when I heard the news. Six hours later I was on a shrimp boat headed to Mexico.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 6, 2008 10:16 PM

well, a long winded rumination on a brilliant pop musician. But I'd rather spend my time seeking out interesting music, particularly from other cultures. Yugoslavia, for example, has astonishing pop, rock, rap and chanson traditions, something none of you clods would even imagine.

Anyway, this post reminds of a quite OK joke, albeit not my creation.

What's the difference between Yoko Ono and a bunch of starving Darfurians? They're all living off dead beatles.

Posted by: xyz at February 7, 2008 07:15 AM
...a long winded rumination on a brilliant pop musician.

Are you a fast reader? One would hope so, because that's two minutes you won't get back.

But my interest is piqued: WTF is Yugoslavian music? Techno-polka? Angularly heavy boned specimens gyrating to fused beats of rock and squeezebox? What's so astonishing and are they being held back on the farm by the special interests pushing rap and pop?

Please tell.

Posted by: Ted at February 7, 2008 08:42 AM


A very enjoyable article!

When I was kid in India in the mid 60's, one of my uncles was a follower of the maharishi. For a time he must have been quite high in the organization as he travelled to europe etc.

I also remember family reunions where my uncle, with his long beard and flowing robes would try to interest us younger kids in reciting a mantra and relating his philosophy about meditation. He later gave me my own secret 'chant' or mantra to recite for entering higher levels of conciousness (much later some hashish in Nepal did the same trick). My uncle eventually established his own Ashram based on Maharishi's teachings and also incorporating old Hindu Vedic traditions.

There were some maharishi trivia recited as well for us by my uncle.. one being that our family name was the same as the maharishi (we were not related) and the maharishi went to university in the same town as my cousins and I were attending elementary school

After I moved to America with my parents I lost touch with this part of my culture. I never made it to rishikesh but did go to nearby places in the himalayas later in life and found the landscape and the country to be very full of energy.

Perhaps Lennon did'nt really need the Maharishi, he just needed to go to this part of India and feel the energy flow. Or maybe Lennon only needed the Maharishi to channel the energy towards himself. But travelling to such places and perhaps studying with a yogi will reveal other points of reference in the scheme of life.

So tune in, turn on and drop out! (at least out of the consuming society), for a few months, you never know what nirvana you may find


Posted by: Sam at February 7, 2008 09:52 AM

well, Ted, there is Djordje Balasevic, the Serb version of Yves Montand, but better. Dino Dvornik, an astonishingly talented rapper from Split. some great rock bands, and I've heard people argue that punk was invented in either sarajevo or Ljubljana. But you people clearly have narrow views and virtually no real knowledge of the world beyond your silly parlor politics. Really, a bunch of provincials posing as sophisticates. Ugh.

Posted by: xyz at February 7, 2008 10:03 AM

I took the Saturday morning TM session, after I got out of the army and six years before Lennon was murdered. Meeting up with a friend a few years ago I was surprised and alarmed that she also had been given my exact private meditation word. TM was a good battery recharger, like hiking.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at February 7, 2008 10:23 AM

Interesting take. I still miss Lennon.

Posted by: Batocchio at February 7, 2008 04:43 PM

This seems a good place to add Elvis Costello's cynical lyrical swipe at Lennon:
"Wasn't it a millionaire who said 'Imagine no possessions'?"

I love this quote because it captures the kind of conflicts that Mike is getting at -- not just psychological conflicts for Lennon, but for the era as a whole, that wierd mix of naivety and insight and rebellion and privilege. Yet even if true, it doesn't decrease my respect for Lennon one bit (I doubt it does for Costello, either).

P.S. The next line in the song uses Roger Waters to reinforce the point: "A poor little schoolboy who said 'we don't need no lessons'?"

Posted by: Whistler Blue at February 7, 2008 06:59 PM

``But I'd rather spend my time seeking out interesting music, particularly from other cultures.''

In general, so would I, starting with Beethoven, Schubert, etc. (or Ives, Barber, William Bolcom, Joan Tower etc. That latter is all from the US, but so far as I can see, for most it might as well be from another culture :-) But I don't think this is what xyz has in mind.

But now we know, xyz is from the former Yugoslavia, yes? Yet another ``god that failed'' type, perhaps?

Posted by: Feeder of Felines at February 8, 2008 04:54 AM

``That latter is all'':

That should be ``are all'', of course. This is what I get for posting at 4:00 in the morning, having taken one too many pain meds.

Posted by: Feeder of Felines at February 8, 2008 06:18 AM

Who would have guessed that knowledge of Yugoslavian pop music is the bar for musical sophistication.I should have just saved the money on Berklee tuition and bought some Djordje Balasevic records.
xyz(or may we call you Comic Book Guy,for short?) seems to be one of those losers who personally define hipness so that they are the only ones who meet the criteria-'people don't like me because they don't get me,not because I'm an asshole'.

Posted by: Bart S. at February 8, 2008 09:02 AM