Authors: Peter Bebergal
While it certainly is true that much of it was mere copycat spirituality, Eastern mysticism soon became all the rage in the
counterculture of the 1960s. If a Beatle believed in it, it must be true. This made many in the religious establishment wary. While other spiritual ideas might offer some hope, they are ultimately in opposition to Christian teachings. The beloved preacher of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell, said it is often “spiritually undeveloped people” who are drawn to mysticism and other occult activities. Bonnell used the Beatles as the example of the tragic turn away from the simple, perfect message of Christ: “I suppose an instance of this would be the Beatles, who supposedly found nothing acceptable in Christianity, but then journeyed to India to sit starry-eyed at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Hindu mystic.”
In February 1968, the Beatles, along with the musician Donovan and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, went to see the maharishi at his ashram in New Delhi. Boredom, and rumors that the long-haired, giggling yogi was making sexual advances toward the female guests, led the Beatles to fly back to London confused and angry.
The role of the guru in the 1960s counterculture might seem opposed to the magical-oriented stew of beliefs and practices. But the Western view at the time was that mysticism and the occult were mostly synonymous. Except for a few dedicated Buddhists and other intellectuals who were committed to a rigorous exploration of yoga and other Hindu practices centered around the philosophical tradition known as Vedanta, any alternative form of religious practice was kept in the public consciousness through artists and writers. Their fame and their genius, as well as their explicit public statements about spirituality and religion, all worked to inspire the idea that they must
be hiding something, that either some unseen force worked to shape their life and music, or they were willing players in various (often believed to be dark) conspiracies that both benefited and cursed them in equal measure. Like many artists whose larger-than-middlebrow life made them suspect of infernal dealings, often thought to have sold their soul to the devil, the Beatles became mirrors for every kind of occult speculation.
The cover of
, the now iconic image of the Beatles crossing the street, is the portrayal of a benign and banal activity, and was a departure from their previous two outlandish covers:
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
with its collage of celebrities, saints, and sinners, and
âbetter known as the
âwhich was just that, a white cover, a blank slate available to the pen and Magic Marker doodlings of thousands of adolescents. But
became a template for secret messages.
The first believed case of this was supposedly discovered by a Detroit DJ, who responded to a caller's query about the rumored death of Paul McCartney by playing the avant-garde song off the
, “Revolution 9,” backwards. The refrain “Turn me on, dead manÂ .Â .Â .” could be heard (especially if you are listening for it) and was the first “clue” that there was a conspiracy to hide the news of the beloved Beatle's death. While the “Paul is dead” rumor did not involve occult elements, the obsessive looking for clues in Beatles album covers inspired what would become a regular part of the activity of listening to rock and roll: searching for hidden meaning in every album cover. The band always denied ever deliberately helping to perpetuate the myth, but the emblematic quality of some of their album covers are evocative of those mysterious Rosicrucian posters and other
occult drawings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Originally conceived of in the Renaissance, emblems served as a visual allegory for some deeper, often esoteric truth. Meditating on the symbols could bring spiritual or psychological illumination. The album cover, however, is not in the context of a tradition. Many emblems were clearly meant to convey biblical or alchemical truths, but the album cover exists in a vast sea of culture. There is no telling exactly what all those people and items on the cover of
meant to the band, if anything at all. What makes the album covers occult is the same thing that gives any graphic form the power to function as an emblem. In the case of the 1960s, awash with LSD and mystical mottoes, the desire of the viewer and the spiritual rebellion at the heart of rock and roll came together. This is where the culture was created, in that special and powerful bond between the audience and the musician. The painter and graphic designer Paula Scher was once asked about her experience with
as an art student in 1967: “Everyone I knew stared at the cover for hours on end, unlocking special, secret clues to its meaningÂ .Â .Â . and we debated our obscure findings forever. Nothing before or since affected me as strongly. I doubt anything ever will.”
There is also a negative side to how rock inspires this kind of exegesis. Those with enough time and inclination could read the Beatles album covers as an occult terrorist's handbook, a step-by-inscrutable-step guide to helping Satan and his legions take over the world. Even today, the search continues. One contemporary blogger has gone to the trouble of compiling every esoteric connection that can be found, if the right lens is applied to the task. From the cover of
Hard Day's Night
eyes. 8=sun worship.” From
: “H=8 (the sun worshipper's number), HE=13 (occult), ELP=33 (masonic degrees)Â .Â .Â . So âHELP'=Masonic occult sun-worshipper's record.” From
: “John Lennon makes the âdevil's horns' (âcorna') hand sign.” And
is a veritable encyclopedia of hidden occult symbols:
[A] hookah (drug bong), a purple velvet snake (serpent/satan/phallic), Snow White (from mason Walt Disney), a Mexican Tree of Life (usually depicting the serpent satan offering Adam and Eve forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden), and a Saturn trophy (sun/satan) near the “L” (90 degree square).
It is almost too easy for those with a particular religious agenda to find in the Beatles all the evidence they need to claim a vast occult conspiracy working its subliminal messaging through the mass media. The Beatles' fame made them either willing participants or naive dupes under the control of a satanic master plan. The Beatles pushed every fundamentalist button. The band's history included a guru and an admission of drug use, and even the tragedy of Lennon's death was seen as a key to their infernal dealings. But this is more often than not the voice of someone preaching to other believers. It is a self-perpetuating delusion that only fuels itself. Unfortunately, this kind of confused occult interpretation can also take a darker turn.
When the police arrived at 3301 Waverly Drive, the home of Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, they were met not only by the atrocities of the way the couple had been killed, but with the graffiti on the walls, written in the blood of the victims.
One phrase was familiar: “Helter Skelter.” The title of a Beatles song from the
, these words had become the murderous rallying cry of the charismatic cult leader Charles Manson. The night before killing the LaBiancas, the followers of Manson had slaughtered five people, including Sharon Tate, wife of the filmmaker Roman Polanski (and as some occult conspiracy theorists would point out, a year earlier Polanski had directed
, about a woman who is impregnated by the devil by way of upper-class Satanists). At his trial, Manson would describe how the Beatles' music was in fact specific instructions to incite a race war: “Helter Skelter is confusion. Confusion is coming down fast. If you don't see the confusion coming down fast, you can call it what you wish. It's not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says âRise!' It says âKill!' Why blame it on me? I didn't write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness.” The Beatles were devastated that their music was interpreted in this way, and became increasingly sensitive to how they were being perceived by the public.
The Beatles had become a mirror of the 1960s, a decade that had been tempered with a deep and almost anxious need for spiritual meaning, for a religious experience that was not governed by Christianity. The Beatles were the perfect mediating principle between their audience and the tumultuous decade. They offered a way to measure the effects of every experiment, be it acid or Eastern mysticism. By the time it was all over, the Beatles had each gone their separate ways, musically and spiritually. Lennon would later pen his own personal response to what he saw as the failure of the 1960s, of the starry-eyed naivetÃ© of
their own “Love Is All You Need” absolutism: “I don't believe in magicÂ .Â .Â . I don't believe in TarotÂ .Â .Â . I don't believe in mantraÂ .Â .Â . I don't believe in yogaÂ .Â .Â . the dream is over.” In a 1971 interview with
, Lennon was even harsher. He was tired of having become a messianic figure of sorts, seen by many as a spiritual savior whose private life was nonexistent insofar as it could shed meaning on their own lives: “I'm sick of it,” he said. “I'm sick of them, they frighten me, a lot of uptight maniacs going around wearing fuckin' peace symbols.”
While Harrison would later regret the way things ended with the maharishi, his mystical quest only deepened. He would eventually devote himself to the spiritual movement known as Krishna Consciousness through his relationship with Shankar. Apple Records, the Beatles' boutique label, would even release
Radha Krishna Temple
, an album of devotional chants, and in 1969 the first single, “Hare Krishna Mantra,” would reach number twelve in the UK charts. Once the Beatles broke up and Harrison was free to explore his spirituality through his music unfettered, he offered “My Sweet Lord,” one of the most explicitly religious songs to ever land as number one on the Billboard singles chart.
To bridge the personal quest with the cultural, it took a band with a public persona inflexibly the same as the bandmates' private lives, a band who wore their spiritual search in the often indecipherable lyrics of their music as well as in interviews with the press. In other words, it took the Beatles to drive home the idea that a new spiritual age truly was dawning, but they were also the band to show that you could only take it so far.
In the January 1967 issue of the seminal underground newspaper the
San Francisco Oracle
, a full-page spread announced the Human Be-In, a “Gathering of Tribes” bringing together politics and spirituality, often the estranged bedfellows of the 1960s counterculture. The ad put a stake in the ground. The political revolution must be driven by a spiritual consciousness. Scheduled attendees included Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, with music to be provided by the seminal San Francisco bands of the time, including the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The cover of the issue is now iconic, a Hindu holy man with an open third eye resting in a pyramid. LSD was thought to be the tool to open the third eye of a generation. Even academics saw LSD's potential. Some, like Barbara Brown, interviewed for the
Los Angeles Times
in January 1966, likened the coming laws against LSD as being akin to laws against things like witchcraft: “[H]istorically there has always been legislation against magicÂ .Â .Â . and LSD can work magic.” Musicians were not shy in talking about how it changed their lives. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys described how it would turn pop music, even his own girl-crazy pop music, into spirituals: “White spirituals. I think that's what we're going to hear. Songs of faith.” It was his own LSD trips, he said, that were a “religious experience” that set him on a new path as an artist. But researchers and musicians could not stop the popular tide. In the spring of 1966 the psychedelic drug was made illegal in California in a bill signed by then governor Jerry Brown. The Human Be-In would be the
counterculture's tribal response to the new law. It was a howl at the system that consciousness could not be legislated. There was real magic in the air, and it was coming to transform the world whether the People of the State of California liked it or not. The Human Be-In was a warning flare that the psychedelic revolution could not be stopped. The long-term effect would be a popularization of LSD-flecked mysticism that would find its way into every part of pop culture. As a result, Western spirituality shifted dramatically, eagerly pushing past the Christian crowds as people eagerly feasted on every form of Eastern philosophy and religious practice, magic, and every manner of occultism. More important, the Human Be-In would turn rock and roll into the primary means of delivering the message.
The idea for the Human Be-In was born in a conversation between two counterculture occult artists, John Starr Cooke and Michael Bowen, the art editor and one of the foundersâalong with the poet Allen Cohenâof the
San Francisco Oracle
. Bowen was deeply schooled in theosophy and other esoteric philosophies and his artwork might now be described as belonging to the Visionary tradition. He was an outsider artist who routed his attunement to mystical frequencies onto canvas. Cooke, born to a wealthy family in Hawaii, had started using tarot cards as a child when he inadvertently purchased a deck, thinking it an ordinary pack of cards. As an adult, Cooke became involved in Scientology, Sufism, and eventually Subud, an esoteric spiritual practice using a technique called
, practitioners allow the spirit of the divine to enter them and then to be expressed in whatever manner is particular to the individual. People have been known to shout, laugh, cry,
and even dance, but
is not considered to be a trance state of spiritual ecstasy.) In the early 1960s, Cooke met Bowen, and the two had much to discuss. Cooke and Bowen were both convinced a new age was dawning. Guided by answers received on a Ouija board from an entity known as “One,” Cooke “channeled” the images for what he understood to be an important new interpretation of the tarot, one that Cooke believed had been prophesied by Madame Blavatsky. The deck, T: New Tarot (often referred to as New Tarot for the Aquarian Age), was first presented as a series of posters, published by the psychedelic-poster company East Totem West and showcased in the August 1967 issue of the