(The following review of Lewis Lapham’s wonderful book on the Beatles’ journey to Rishikesh to study and meet with the Maharishi first appeared on the old buhdge website. It appears here on the Pure Pop Radio website with but a few tiny changes, and the notation that the book is no longer in print. It is, however, available as a download for the Kindle. With the Beatles is highly recommended.)
Lewis Lapham | With the Beatles | Kindle version (2014)
You can hardly pass through the music section of your favorite bookstore without perusing the latest range of offerings concerning the Beatles. I know this, because I’ve seen you. You may think nobody’s watching, but we are.
And for good reason. The latest crop of Fab-centric missives is actually pretty good. Lewis Lapham’s With the Beatles is a shining example–a quick, highly entertaining read that delivers the goods as well as any book twice its physical size (approximately 5″ x 6 1/2″) and three or four times its length (147 pages, with the text starting on page 33 after a sweet selection of photos lensed during the Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh).
Ah, Rishikesh… the mecca for enlightenment within which the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi sought to raise consciousness and the light from within. The Beatles, in February 1968, whisked off to the Maharishi’s camp to practice Transcendental Meditation (TM) and commune with nature. While there, the Fabs studied with the Maharishi and wrote the songs that were to become The Beatles, or, more famously, the White Album. Past the flies, the oppressive heat, the less-than-comfy living quarters, and the less-than-appetizing food, at least the Mop Tops got an album out of their time in India.
Which is to say that the reality of the Beatles’ time in Rishikesh turned out to be less than advertised. Ringo thought he could assume the Lotus position just as well back home, a point Lapham makes in his fine book that details his coverage, for the Saturday Evening Post, of TM and the Beatles’ attraction to it.
Lapham, now editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine, covers his brush with the Maharishi and TM from his stateside investigation of the practice to his time in Rishikesh and his trip home. Throughout, he maintains a healthy air of skepticism about the whole enterprise, delineating, with a reporter’s keen eye (and a welcome sense of humor), observations that elevate his story above mere reportage, telling about the woman staying at the Maharishi’s camp who wanted hot water at lunch so she could pour it in some Sanka coffee, the Maharishi’s inner circle and, of course, the Beatles themselves.
About the flies, Lapham writes that Maureen Starkey “hated” them “to the point that if there was only one fly in the room she would know exactly where it was, how it got there, and why it must be destroyed.” When they talked to the Maharishi about the flies, he told them “that for people traveling in the realm of pure consciousness, flies no longer matter very much. ‘Yes,’ Ringo said, ‘but that doesn’t zap the flies, does it?'”
Ringo’s take on things was only fair, as he had gone to study with the Maharishi because it was George’s thing, and the Beatles were a group that supported each other… at least until the flies became the Starr thing.
Mike Love also made the trip to India, as did actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence, among other notables, but the other Beach Boys stayed home. Interviewing the group prior to heading off to Rishikesh, Lapham discovered that Brian Wilson’s mother “had scheduled her own initiation for the next week; his father was considering a trip to India. ‘If my dad goes to India,’ he said, ‘I’ll know that the Maharishi has done his job.'” Murry Wilson never made the pilgrimage.
In the end, at least one of the Beatles became disillusioned with the Maharishi; there were rumors that the guru had sampled the pleasures of the flesh with Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, prompting John Lennon to write “Sexy Sadie,” in which he hardly minced words about his feelings for the Maharishi, reducing the guru to a mere charlatan or a feeble con artist, take your pick.
Upon arriving in New Delhi, Lapham hired a taxi to take him to Rishikesh. The driver, in star struck fashion, immediately understood where the writer wanted to go. Lapham: “‘Yes, good,’ he said. ‘We go Beatles.'” With that information in hand, the writer could have chucked the trip to Rishikesh and gone home an enlightened man, leaving the flies to swarm around the inner light.
April 23, 2006