The Beatles: White Album – The hidden meanings behind the lyrics
On the 50th anniversary of The White Album, Maharishi’s assistant reveals all
Susan Shumsky, front left, in Rishikesh in 1970
An unlikely setting for songwriting, a meditation retreat at an ashram in Rishikesh, India proved one of the most creative places for the Beatles. Away from pressures of superstardom, from February to April 1968 they composed 40 songs while studying with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of transcendental meditation. While in Rishikesh, Donovan suggested, because of their immense fame, the Beatles’ next album could be plain white and nameless. Thus The Beatles (aka the White Album) was born.
I spent 20 years living with and working for Maharishi in his ashrams all over the world, including his ashram in Rishikesh. I was very lucky to get a unique insight into how Maharishi and the events that happened in the ashram influenced and inspired The Beatles. So, on the 50th anniversary of The White Album’s release, what are the hidden meanings behind the songs written under Maharishi’s influence?
Mia Farrow’s sister “Dear Prudence” Farrow had abused drugs and alcohol as a teenager. While in Rishikesh, she spent nearly all her time in meditation. Trying to lure her out of her room, John Lennon and George Harrison burst through her door, singing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. But she just wanted them to disappear.
Prudence suffered a terrifying episode at the ashram. But after three weeks of daily massages and private meetings with Maharishi, she became responsive and happy. Just before leaving Rishikesh, George sent Prudence a note that John had written Dear Prudence for her.
John said he composed some of his best songs in Rishikesh – pouring out of him in the hundreds. I’m So Tired chronicled persistent insomnia, hallucinations, misery, and irrational suicidal thoughts. The lyrics “I’m so lonely I want to die” in Yer Blues was no exaggeration.
A lecture by Maharishi about the unity of nature and humanity inspired Mother Nature’s Son by Paul, and Child of Nature by John (later released as Jealous Guy).
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey echoed Maharishi’s favourite expressions: “Take it easy; take it as it comes,” and “it’s such a joy!” When beckoning anyone, Maharishi would always say, “Come, come,” or “Come on.” John revealed the “monkey” was Yoko Ono. “ The song Julia referred to both John’s mother and Yoko, whose name means “ocean child”.
The Maharishi Effect inspired the song Revolution. Maharishi often said, “For the forest to be green, the trees must be green; for the world to be at peace, the people must be at peace.” He believed politics and treaties couldn’t achieve peace, but a small percentage of the population meditating could attain it. He demonstrated his theory through scientific studies.
Recorded right before the Beatles arrived in India, Across the Universe included the term Jai Guru Deva (“Hail to the divine teacher”). Instead of “hello,” Maharishi greeted everyone with this salutation, recognizing his own guru.
Richard A Cooke III (Rik) dressed and looked like a textbook Anglo-Saxon Ivy Leaguer. He and his mother Nancy Jackson took a safari hunting tigers and afterwards detailed their exploits to Maharishi, while he glared silently at Nancy. Maharishi questioned Rik, who answered he would never kill another animal. When John Lennon piped in, “Don’t you call that slightly life-destructive?” Nancy retorted, “It was either the tiger or us” [after eight elephants drove the poor tigers into the “kill zone”?]. Thus originated The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.
Originally from Tucson, Arizona, Terry Gustafson was a ranger in Sequoia National Park. He learned TM in January 1967. One night near the lecture hall, Terry, dressed in khakis and short hair, came across John Lennon, wearing a flowing paisley cape, red sash, white bell-bottom pants, green Egyptian slippers with curled-up toes, and hair dyed five different colors. Strobe lights in his eyeglasses flashed on and off.
“Look at you!” “Look at me!” John exclaimed. “One of us don’t belong ‘ere. Get back to the forest! Get back to Tucson Arizona! Get back where you belong!” After that, whenever their paths crossed, John told Terry to “Get back!” Terry claimed this was the birth of Get Back.
Paul wrote Cosmically Conscious because Maharishi talked endlessly about Cosmic Consciousness, and also often said, “It’s such a joy.” When he heard loud crowing in the early morning, Paul composed Blackbird. However, years later he ascribed deeper significance to it, paralleling the lyrics to the civil rights movement.
Paul wrote Why Don’t We Do it in the Road? after he saw monkeys copulating. He felt people’s sexuality should be natural, simple and free as animals. One day at breakfast, Paul sang Back in the USSR with its Beach Boys’ sound to Mike Love. Mike suggested mentioning girls from Moscow, Ukraine, and Georgia, as a nod to California Girls. Paul said Fool on the Hill was like Maharishi, whose detractors didn’t take seriously because of his constant giggling. The Long and Winding Road could be interpreted as the path to spiritual enlightenment.
In My Sweet Lord, George sang Sanskrit words from the ceremony chanted by every TM teacher when they initiate new students. The words, from the ancient Guru Gita (Song of the Guru), mean: “The guru is Brahma, Vishnu, and the great Lord Shiva. The guru is the eternal Brahman, the transcendental absolute. I bow to the supreme guru, adorned with glory.”
George’s Dehra Dun criticised students running off to buy ashram-forbidden meat and eggs in the town Dehra Dun, 28 miles away – far from the spiritual riches of Rishikesh. George’s Long, Long, Long was about tears shed in losing and finding God. His Sour Milk Sea, written in 10 minutes one evening, promoted the process of TM as the way to overcome dissatisfaction and limitation.
There were three reasons why, after two months in Rishikesh, John and George suddenly left Maharishi in a huff. One reason was a course participant from Brooklyn, Rosalyn Bonas, claimed Maharishi had made a pass at her. As the Beatles waited for taxis to extract them, John took out his vengeance, writing lyrics peppered with colourful expletives. When George complained the lyrics of the song Maharishi were ridiculous, John changed the title to Sexy Sadie.
Beatles fans, music critics, and audiophiles laud the White Album, consisting mostly of songs written in Rishikesh, as a masterpiece.
Maharishi & Me: Seeking Enlightenment with The Beatles’ Guru by Susan Shumsky is out now, priced at £19.99 and is available on Amazon.co.uk