November 22 – Thoughts on the White Album

The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)

We’ve finally arrived at the Big Anniversary of the Beatles’ sprawling, self-titled 1968 double album.  It’s the first Beatles album to be covered in this unabashed fanboy’s blog which I started at the beginning of the year.  Many of us have already greedily consumed the 50th anniversary release of the album, complete with the Esher Demos, session goodies, the famous individual portraits and lyrics poster, and a hardcover book.  Some have already published nice reviews in the blogosphere and elsewhere.  Somehow today feels a bit anticlimactic, though I’ll probably give it a spin before stuffing my face with turkey later in the day.

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It’s not that the anniversary hasn’t re-sparked my enthusiasm for the White Album, released this day in 1968.  It has.  It isn’t that I’m not thrilled with everything to do with the deluxe edition which I’ve been poring over these past couple of weeks.  I am.  But if you’ll excuse a bit of hyperbole, when I think about it, this entire year has been about the White Album as pertains to my perception of the Beatles, the music scene in general, and to some extent the year 1968 itself.

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The Mad Day Out.  (Stephen Goldblatt photo)

Looking back over the first eleven months of my blog, this record looms throughout.  The seed is probably found as far back as August of 1967 with the death of Brian Epstein.  The Magical Mystery Tour project in the immediate aftermath of his passing may have been their first attempt to carry on managing themselves, but with the White Album we see the fissures within the group and their individual future directions in full light.  Many of these songs were written in February during the Rishikesh retreat, and most of the band’s activities the rest of the year from that trip-onward led to this album or were an offshoot of it.

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We had the single, Lady Madonna/The Inner Light, released in March.  In May, the establishment of Apple Corps, Ltd. was announced.  This was to be the band’s business and musical apparatus, as well as a vehicle for them as individual artists – and isn’t that really what the White Album is, some group work but a lot of individual effort?  May was also the month sessions for the album began in earnest.  With the release of the stunning Hey Jude/Revolution single in August, they showed the world that the Beatles were still the Beatles despite the turmoil they always seemed to find themselves in.  Although those tracks were not included on the album, they are White Album session tracks.

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The Mad Day Out.  (Don McCullin photo)

Group and individual burnout is evident on this album.  Even Ringo walked out during his well-documented “I thought it was YOU three?” moment.  John’s behavior became predictably unpredictable, and the sad state of affairs (no pun intended, but yeah) surrounding his marriage to Cynthia finally came to an end as he officially transitioned to Yoko.  They immediately created their first vinyl baby, Unfinished Music No. 1:  Two Virgins, under the Apple umbrella, and she would be a permanent fixture within the group dynamic from that point on.

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Ringo’s personal copy of the White Album, edition numero uno, sold at auction in 2015 for $790,000.

George finally found his own creative outlet with Wonderwall Music (the inaugural release on the Apple label), the score to the Wonderwall movie which included Indian musicians who also performed on the Inner Light, as well as his buddy Eric Clapton, who participated on both the movie score and the White Album.  All of these factors – from India to Apple, from recording the demos at George’s house in Esher to the singles releases, from the “Mad Day Out” photo session in July to the individual side projects and contentious group studio sessions – all of them are woven into the double album we’re celebrating today, and all were played out over the course of the year leading up to its release.

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Some random personal thoughts about the record:

  • In 2018, if there’s any one member of the band I associate with the album more than the others, it’s George.  I freely admit this is due in large part to Hari gradually becoming my “favorite” Beatle over the years.  The White Album was perhaps his final chance to exert serious influence on the direction the Beatles would take, both musically and spiritually.  His creative input could no longer be ignored by John and Paul if he was going to remain in the group long-term.  It may not have gone as he had hoped, but his spirit is everywhere in these songs, including the ones which didn’t make the final cut.  As he mentioned in interviews, he tried to enter the studio the following January for the Get Back sessions with a positive mindset, but it was too late.  The Beatles were, for all intents and purposes, done, despite there being two albums yet to record.  Amazingly to me, George was only 25 when the White Album was released.

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  • As a child, even though I always loved most of its tracks, the White Album kind of creeped me out.  First, the “Paul is dead ‘clues'” in the grooves and album artwork were both fascinating and, to 9 or 10-year-old me, frightening.  My brother Paul would spin the vinyl backwards for me to hear voices supposedly saying “Paul is a dead man.  Miss him, miss him,” and “Turn me on, dead man.”  In that dimly lit basement I was glad not to be alone when listening.  To this day, Revolution 9 still gives me the heebie jeebies, and Good Night which follows sounds more funereal than lullaby because of it. Then there was the unfortunate, unintended  connection to the Manson murders. Even that shoddy collage of photos which makes up the poster insert was at best confusing to me.  But it’s So White Album, no?

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  • Their individual appearances fascinated me, as they did many others.  Overnight they transformed from the psychedelic, flower power Sgt. Pepper look to their disheveled appearances of ’68.  John looked tired and bitter, and it wasn’t until my teen years that I understood why that was.

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  • Yoko.  Yoko, Yoko, Yoko.  Yoko Ono…                                                                            Because I was born the year after the Beatles broke up, as a younger person I always accepted everything I saw, heard, and read as just part of the narrative of the group.  But wow, what an unforeseen shock her emergence in all their lives must have been!  Whether he’s simply taking the high road or being sincere, Paul made peace with Yoko in recent years as well as declared his perhaps overdue respect for John for making his stand with her.  I believe Paul is sincere.  It’s past time to remove those “I still blame Yoko” bumper stickers, folks.  There were plenty of other factors contributing to the split.

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  • And lastly, as for the great debate about whether or not it should’ve been condensed down to a single LP, my answer is a resounding HELL NO!  It’s great just the way it is, but if anything could’ve improved it, it wouldn’t have been making it a single album or two separate releases (the White and Whiter Album as Ringo quipped in the Anthology).  In my mind, this could easily have been a triple album.  I think it’s a crime that George’s Sour Milk Sea wasn’t properly recorded and included (nothing against Jackie Lomax’s version).  The same goes for Not Guilty.  Sprinkle those tracks, plus Hey JudeRevolution, and Circles throughout Sides 1-5, and make Side 6 all about John and Yoko’s madness with What’s the New Mary Jane and Revolution 9, and presto!, The Grand and Mega-Blindingly White Album!  It was all free-form craziness anyway, and we’d be celebrating it the same as we are today.  That still would’ve left Lady Madonna/The Inner Light as the non-album single between Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album.

But I’ll defer to Sir Paul for the final word on the matter:

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
  2. Dear Prudence
  3. Glass Onion
  4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  5. Wild Honey Pie
  6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
  7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  8. Happiness is a Warm Gun

Side Two:

  1. Martha My Dear
  2. I’m So Tired
  3. Blackbird
  4. Piggies
  5. Rocky Raccoon
  6. Don’t Pass Me By
  7. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
  8. I Will
  9. Julia

Side Three:

  1. Birthday
  2. Yer Blues
  3. Mother Nature’s Son
  4. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)
  5. Sexie Sadie
  6. Helter Skelter
  7. Long, Long, Long

Side Four:

  1. Revolution 1
  2. Honey Pie
  3. Savoy Truffle
  4. Cry Baby Cry
  5. Revolution 9
  6. Good Night

-Stephen

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/ringo-starrs-personal-white-album-sells-for-world-record-790000-62410/

 

 

 

August 26 – Hey Jude/Revolution

The Beatles – Single:  Hey Jude/Revolution

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of yet another of those incredible non-album Beatles singles, Hey Jude b/w Revolution.  So much was happening at this time (when wasn’t this the case with the Beatles?):  They were still a couple of months away from completing what would come to be known as the White Album.  They were up to their ears with Apple business and searching for direction after the death of manager Brian Epstein the summer before.  They had been burned by critics (and perhaps by their own hubris) with the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour film.  Personal and artistic differences among them were beginning to come to a head.  But they were the Fab Four, so they just kept moving.  And look what they gave us…

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-Stephen

 

 

July 17 – A Yellow Submarine Surfaces in London

The Beatles – Movie:  Yellow Submarine

The beloved Beatles animated movie made its UK premiere on this day in 1968.  The group arrived at the London Pavillion on Piccadilly Circus to a scene reminiscent of the “old days” just a few years earlier for the premiers of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! at the height of Beatlemania.

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The film was directed by George Dunning, who supervised over 200 artists for 11 months, and was produced by United Artists and King Features Syndicate.  However, aside from performing the songs used in the movie, the only involvement the Beatles themselves had in the film was their brief cameo at the end.

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Other actors voiced the Beatles’ parts in the film, and oddly enough it worked out quite well even though they sound nothing like the Beatles.  It must have seemed somewhat surreal for them, even with all their previous experiences, to witness their cartoon likenesses on-screen with other actors’ voices portraying them with exaggerated Liverpudlian accents, let alone in a large, packed theater for a gala event such as that.  Whatever they may have thought of it at the time, I’ve yet to read or hear a subsequent interview with any of the four who said anything negative about the film.

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So much had changed for the band during the previous 11 months:  Brian Epstein had passed away the previous August, they (Paul, really) made their ill-fated directorial debut shortly afterward with Magical Mystery Tour, John began seeing Yoko and subsequently left Cynthia, the group became involved in Transcendental Meditation and visited the Maharishi in India, Apple Corps was launched, and recording had begun on a large batch of songs, many of which were written in India.  Also, Paul (who attended the premiere alone) would officially be single a few days after the premiere when longtime girlfriend Jane Asher announced their breakup on the BBC.

Yet despite all the chaos and upheaval (or, perhaps because their involvement with the project was so limited), another Beatles product was being introduced to a public which couldn’t, and still can’t, get enough of the Fabs.  The film influenced the animation art of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python), as well as children’s programs Sesame Street, the Electric Company, and Schoolhouse Rock.  With its trippy, colorful animation, positive message, and of course wonderful music, Yellow Submarine continues to capture the imagination of young and old to this day.

Four of the numerous songs included in the movie were previously unreleased and had been considered not up to Beatles standard for a regular album release:  Hey Bulldog, Only a Northern Song, All Together Now, and It’s All Too Much.  I supposed we can attribute this to an embarrassment of riches.  The latter song is one of my favorite Beatles tracks, and along with the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, it’s my favorite of the “psychedelic era.”  Even what is widely considered the weakest of the bunch, Only a Northern Song, is worthy of inclusion (Harrison presented it for inclusion on Sgt. Pepper but was asked by George Martin to come up with something better, which he did with Within You Without You).  The soundtrack’s orchestral score was arranged by George Martin.

A few stills:

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“Don’t push that button!”
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Mystical, animated George.  If anyone knows where I can find a poster or t-shirt with this image, please let me know!

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I received this as a Christmas gift from my wife.  Despite the temptation, I haven’t removed the contents from the box.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Submarine_(film)

https://www.beatlesbible.com/1968/07/17/world-premiere-yellow-submarine/

-Stephen

June Tunes, Pt. 1

Confession:  Sometimes I’m lazy.  Really…freaking…lazy.  Lasting momentum eludes me, and this month has encapsulated that struggle.  The alloted two weeks of spring here in north Texas have given way to the annual blast furnace which extends into October.  I started out fairly active for what is a rather quiet month on the 50th album anniversary front, but today is the first time in a couple of weeks I’ve signed in to the blogosphere.  Time to accept what is with the weather and get back to writing, as I’m now feeling spurred on by some random kind words of encouragement from someone I don’t know, but whose work I admire.

Despite my recent inactivity, I did read a couple of books over the past few weeks that I recommend:

JFK and the Unspeakable:  Why He Died and Why it Matters, by James Douglass (2008)

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The Longest Cocktail Party: An Insider’s Diary of the Beatles, Their Million-dollar Apple Empire and Its Wild Rise and Fall, by Richard DiLello (1972)

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The latter is a fun and quick read.  While the Beatles loom throughout, the book is really about the people who worked in and visited (crashed, more like) the madhouse that was Apple Corps.  It’s more than a minor miracle that the Apple experiment lasted three years.  This is not your typical Beatles bio.  As for the former, while I’m not a “conspiracy enthusiast,” to anyone left still inclined to believe Oswald was the lone gunman I recommend checking this out from your local library.

Now on to some June 1968 releases.  On one hand, it kind of feels like I’m mailing it in with another month-end roundup of leftovers, but as I mentioned earlier this isn’t a big month for 50th anniversaries.  Watch the following be among somebody’s all-time favorites…

Steve Miller Band – Children of the Future

This was the debut album of the Steve Miller Band, produced by Glyn Johns.  About half the songs on it were written by Miller, the others by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and then-bandmate Boz Scaggs.  An album later and we’re into those early Miller tunes I really dig.

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Jose Feliciano – Feliciano!

Admit it, you like this album.  Honestly, it had slipped from my memory.  I don’t own it, nor do I hear his version of Light My Fire anymore on any radio station I listen to.  But I like it.  This all acoustic, all covers album is Feliciano’s most successful release, reaching #2 on Billboard’s Top LP Chart, #3 on the R&B charts, and #3 on the Jazz charts.  Besides the Doors, he covers the Mamas and the Papas, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Beatles, and others.

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I’ll have more tomorrow.  Cheers for now, and thanks for reading!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_the_Future_(Steve_Miller_Band_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feliciano!

-Stephen

My Album Rankings – Solo Beatles Top 25

I’ll wrap up my solo Beatles album rankings by putting it together in a tidy and very scientific Top 25 list.  My thoughts on each album can be found in my individual posts for George, Paul, John, and Ringo.  Other than my choice for #1, this is a rather absurd exercise to undertake, but what the hey.  It’s got me thinking of some mighty good albums I haven’t listened to in a while.  Just a reminder:  the only reason choices such as #’s 25 and 22 aren’t rated higher is because John and George, respectively, are featured on only half the album or less.

25.  Double Fantasy

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24.  Ringo

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23.  Wonderwall Music

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22.  Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1

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21.  Brainwashed

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20.  Dark Horse

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19.  Tug of War

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18.  Flaming Pie

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17.  Shaved Fish

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16.  Wings Over America

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15.  Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard

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14.  Thirty-Three and 1/3

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13.  Imagine

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12.  Red Rose Speedway

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11.  Band on the Run

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10.  George Harrison

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9.  Cloud Nine

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8.  Mind Games

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7.  Back to the Egg

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6.  McCartney

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5.  Plastic Ono Band

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4.  Living in the Material World

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3.  Walls and Bridges

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2.  Ram

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1.  All Things Must Pass

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Alright, now you can let me have it!

-Stephen

March 15 – A White Album Appetizer

The Beatles – Single:  Lady Madonna/The Inner Light

As I began typing this the thought came to my mind how different the function of the single release was to major acts such as the Beatles and the Stones compared to today.  With some exceptions, we now live in a short attention span, single-song digital download world where artists are given far fewer chances to strike it big for their record company and themselves.  Oh boy, here I go again about the good ol’ days when I was not yet born, blah blah blah…

But while Beatles album releases were an event, the band took their single releases leading up to their next LP’s quite seriously as some of their most creative songs up to this point were single releases only (although some wound up on later compilations).  Paperback Writer/Rain and Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields are a couple of examples from the previous two years.  On this day fifty years ago the band released Paul’s Lady Madonna with George’s The Inner Light as the B-side.

As a child, I “inherited” this 45 RPM single in a small stack of my brothers’ original 45’s of the Beatles, solo Beatles, and other random discs I can no longer recall, most of which were unplayable.  As with the original pressing Beatles albums I took naps with as a boy instead of stuffed animals, I cannot say without doubt as to when they became unplayable:  either when my brothers had them when they were boys themselves or when they switched to my grubby little hands.  Anyway, I was always fascinated by that yellow and orange yin/yang-like label.

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Both of these tracks were recorded just prior to the Beatles’ trip to India in February 1968, Lady Madonna during the first week of February, and The Inner Light mid-January with George conducting Indian musicians in Bombay while he was there by himself producing tracks for the Wonderwall soundtrack, and and then with the finishing touches back in London the first week of February.

I still like Lady Madonna quite a bit, although oddly enough I associate it almost as much with McCartney’s performance of it on Wings’ 1976 triple live album, Wings Over America.  And The Inner Light?  It was always one of those Beatles oddities to me growing up, but if you’ve read my previous posts it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it’s now right up there among my favorites.  And let’s call it what it is:  a George Harrison solo song.

Side A:  Lady Madonna

Side B:  The Inner Light

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Madonna

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Inner_Light_(song)

-Stephen

The Beatles in India: Feb. 15-April 12, 1968

Since long before 1968, westerners have journeyed to India in search of a different way of being within the confines of the material world.  But no visit has been more documented, more celebrated, than that of the Beatles when they traveled to the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose spiritual guidance they had begun receiving the previous August, in the beautiful surroundings of Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the Ganges, northern India.

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Rishikesh today

The group and their entourage arrived in two parties, with George Harrison and his wife, Pattie Boyd, her sister, Jenny, and John and Cynthia Lennon arriving on February 15.  Paul McCartney and his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, and Ringo Starr and his wife, Maureen, arrived at the ashram on February 20.  There they joined a larger group of seekers and Transcendental Meditation (TM) teachers-in-training for a months-long immersion in meditation and lectures by the Maharishi.  Others of note at the retreat included John’s inventor-friend Alexis “Magic Alex” Mardas, Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, jazz flautist Paul Horn, as well as Mia Farrow and her siblings, including sister Prudence.

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Mia Farrow and the Maharishi

The basic story is well-known.  The Beatles had long beforehand grown weary of Beatlemania, George and perhaps John the most.  With the combination of the death of their manager, Brian Epstein (while they were in Wales being initiated into TM the previous August), and the founding of their company, Apple Corps, they were quickly becoming untethered, stressed, and looking for guidance or at least a nice holiday.  Ringo and Maureen stayed about ten days, the food problematic for his sensitive digestive system.  Paul and Jane left after about a month – Paul to supervise Apple business and Jane for an acting engagement.  The Harrisons and Lennons stayed on until April 12, famously leaving when the rumor that the Maharishi had made inappropriate advances toward Mia Farrow became fact in John’s mind due to Magic Alex whispering in his ear.  Years later they would all express regret at their behavior in leaving the ashram as they did, assigning it to their relatively young age when they were there.  This would be the final time the four Beatles traveled together.

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Photos and film footage of the Beatles’ time in Rishikesh paint an idyllic picture of mid/late 20-somethings on a spiritual quest, evolving out of a life of short-lived pleasures enjoyed by elite celebrities and into something more meaningful and lasting.  But while the trip did everyone some good by most accounts, you can take the egotistic rock star out of Swinging London, but you can’t always take Swinging London out of the egotistic rock star.

Associates made sure LSD and alcohol were available, a big no-no at a spiritual retreat (duh).*  Also, John and Cynthia’s marriage was in its final throes, and he began each day with a trek to the local post office to check on the arrival of new telegrams from Yoko, to whom he would soon and almost always be attached.  And much to George’s chagrin, Paul and John spent a lot of time writing songs that would end up on the sprawling White Album later in the year instead of meditating.  Indeed, George was the single most serious practitioner among the four, and continued to be until the end of his life with lapses along the way like most of us mortals.

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John pretending to be married to Cynthia in India.

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Another element to this period is the fine line a spiritual teacher walks between the teachings on one side and the commercialisation of it on the other.  Obviously the Maharishi enjoyed increased publicity worldwide as a result of his association with the Beatles, and I have no problem with that in and of itself.  When the dust of the 60’s settled, the awareness and popularity of TM became much more widespread.  This was a good thing, and the Beatles, especially George Harrison, were a major reason for it.  Was it inherently bad that the Maharishi was also a shrewd business man?  I don’t believe so.  Just as modern teachers such as Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle generate large amounts of money through their writings and speaking engagements, so too did Yogananda and Vivekananda years before the Maharishi, and it was all for the better in my book.

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The remains of the Maharishi’s abandoned ashram today.  Apparently there are plans to renovate the grounds.

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*Subsequent to this post, I’ve read another account of the Beatles’ India Trip (Riding So High:  The Beatles and Drugs by Joe Goodden) which states the group was clean during their stay in Rishikesh.  However, within weeks Lennon would develop a heroin addiction upon meeting Yoko back in London.

https://www.beatlesbible.com/features/india/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beatles_in_India

-Stephen