How Groovy Gurus and Other Avatars of Enlightenment Shaped the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Who and others
On Jan. 13, 1968, an episode of the Mel Books-Buck Henry spy spoof Get Smart aired that captured an easily satirized aspect of the hippie counterculture: the eagerness with which young people embraced any Tom, Dick or Mary who promised them spiritual enlightenment. In its darkest aspects, this naivete led to such false prophets as Charles Manson, Mel Lyman, Guru Mahara Ji, Bhagwan Rajneesh, and, to a lesser extent, Timothy Leary (who was more of a con artist and charlatan than a guru).
In its more benign aspects, this collective trusting temperament introduced rock musicians and their fans to paths of inner wisdom that they might not have otherwise pursued and perhaps even helped them through times of personal chaos more effectively than drugs or booze. Groovy gurus, in other words.
Indeed, the above-cited Get Smart episode found Max Smart and Agent 99 fall under the sway of the Groovy Guru, played with wacky relish by Larry Storch. Paying lip service to Eastern religion to disguise his real intention—brainwashing America’s youth into killing their parents—the Groovy Guru used rock music to deliver his message. That is, his comrades in evil were the Sacred Cows, a rock band whose hits were flooding the airwaves with subtle lyrics like, “Yeah, yeah, bump off a square / that’s what it’s about / hate is in / love is out.”
In this clip from the episode, the Sacred Cows’ hit single “Kill, Kill, Kill” has mesmerized Max Smart and Agent 99.
Around the same time that this Get Smart episode was broadcast, the Beatles fell under the sway of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi whom they met through George Harrison. The Beatles’ guitarist had befriended the sitar master Ravi Shankar in 1965, and through him had become infatuated with Indian culture, including its spiritual world. A small leap of faith was all it took for Harrison to throw his lot in with the Maharishi and then convince the rest of the Beatles to seek inner peace along with him. So, after recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the group retreated to Wales to recharge their psychic batteries through the jumper cables of Transcendental Meditation, the regimen the Maharishi espoused.
Soon Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Donovan joined the inner circle of Maharishi devotees. They, and others, including Mia Farrow, accompanied the Beatles on a retreat to the Maharishi’s ashram in India. Though the other three Beatles eventually grew wary of the guru, and drifted away, Harrison stuck by his guru before drifting off himself toward Krishna consciousness. John Lennon’s parting shot at the guru was the Beatles song “Sexy Sadie.” Originally titled “Maharishi,” it was changed at Harrison’s request before the Beatles recorded it for their White Album. Lennon reportedly soured on the guru when the giggly old man made sexual advances on Mia Farrow. Lennon later said, “I wrote it when we had our bags packed and were leaving. It was the last piece I wrote before I left India. I just called him, ‘Sexy Sadie,’ instead of ‘Maharishi, what have you done, you made a fool…’ I was just using the situation to write a song, rather calculatingly but also to express what I felt. I was leaving the Maharishi with a bad taste.” The song had unintended consequences, as it was one of the songs on the Beatles’ White Album that deeply influenced Charles Manson.
Here’s Lennon’s demo of the song before it was recorded by the band.
The Beach Boys, however, went all in with the Maharishi. They invited him to be the opening act on a U.S. concert tour in 1968. Surrounded by a sea of flowers, pontificating in his high, nasal voice, the giggling guru seemed basked in the attention. He certainly made one of the oddest opening acts on the rock ‘n’ roll circuit. This came at a time when the Beach Boys were neither having hit singles nor making inroads with skeptical hippies. Not surprisingly, the tour was a bust and Al Jardine later remarked that the only people who made money on it were the florists.
All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s first solo album (not counting Wonderwall), was drenched in Eastern philosophy and spiritual longing. “My Sweet Lord” was, of course, the most obvious example, but more subtle, and thus effective, were songs like “Awaiting on You All,” “Art of Dying,” and “Beware of Darkness,” the lyrics of which included, “Watch out now, take care / Beware of soft shoe shufflers / Dancing down the sidewalks / As each unconscious sufferer / Wanders aimlessly / Beware of Maya.” He had, by this time, become a convert to the Vaishnavist branch of Hinduism and had worked on musical projects with members of the Radha Krishna Temple in London.
Youtube of “Beware of Darkness” from All Things Must Pass.
In a more subtle and silent way, a guru named Meher Baba indirectly influenced millions through the words and music of his disciple, Peter Townshend of the Who. Townshend borrowed heavily from Baba’s teachings for the Who’s rock opera Tommy and his later solo work.
In 1953, Meher Baba had declared himself an avatar (or divine incarnation) with the pronouncement, “I am the Highest of the High.” Townshend became aware of his teachings in 1967, through Mike McInnerny, a Baba devotee who would later design the cover art for Tommy. Townshend never actually met his guru, who died in 1969, but that only added to the mystery of his lifelong hold on him since that time.
In its obituary of Baba, Rolling Stone remembered the avatar as “the familiar benign face on the little cards of anti-drug advice handed out at Be-Ins.” He was the original “Just Say No” guy. He didn’t just say no; he went further and said nothing at all. Indeed, Baba kept a vow of silence for 43 years, communicating via sign language and alphabet board.
Townshend was so enamored with his mentor that, beginning in 1970, he made three albums with other devotees that were dedicated to Meher Baba: Happy Birthday, I Am, and With Love. Money from the sales of these albums went to charity. Many of the songs on these lo-fi releases were later recorded by the Who and on Townshend’s own solo albums.
The song “Parvardigar” first appeared on one of these tribute albums and then later appeared on Townshend’s first solo album, Who Came First. It was based on Baba’s “Universal Prayer, which opens “O Parvardigar, the Preserver and Protector of all / Without beginning are you Lord without end.” Here he is singing the prayer at the Fillmore West in 1996 and offering some context to the rowdy audience for the song.
While many hippies did not always follow their chosen guru’s advice on drugs, they admired Baba’s teachings. While preparing a book about psychedelic poster art of the Bay Area, I interviewed Joe McHugh, founder of the graphic arts and poster publisher East Totem West, several times. Here is a typical mind-blowing experience he had involving Baba:
“It was a rainy February afternoon. I got out my dope box and decided to take this ‘space pill’ I’d been given. I was told to put it in a pipe and smoke it, and it would get me high for three days. I took one drag just to try it. I felt like I’d just stepped through the side door of an acid trip. I went in the bedroom to relax and figure out where I was. I picked up a copy of Astral Projection, a spiritual paper out of Albuquerque. I turned the page and saw a picture of Meher Baba. I looked at it, said ‘Ouch’, turned the page real quick and put the paper down. Then I came back to it and told the picture, ‘You’re fucking with my head’. I threw it down on the floor and sat cross-legged on the bed. I’m looking around and thinking, ‘This has never happened before with a picture. I’ve done it before with people, staring in someone’s eyes.’ So I found a picture of Gurdjieff and looked at that, but it wouldn’t look back. No other picture worked. I said, ‘All right, Meher Baba,’ and I opened the paper again and looked at the picture. It was an experience of going through space, a multitude of forms, nothing to put my finger on. A month later, I found out that Meher Baba had died on the day I was looking at his picture. It was like I was in the draft of his pulling out.”
A coda to the 1960s guru mania: Columbia Records, ever eager to milk a trend, decided that guru futures might still be profitable as late as 1971. That’s when they released a two-record set of spoken wisdom by Swami Satchidananda. By then, apparently, all available consciousness had already been raised, as it turned out to be the worst-selling album in company history. A skeptical reviewer for Fusion magazine asked, “If Satchidananda and Professor Irwin Corey are not one and the same person, how come you never see them together?”