Michael Gerber
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Folks, I just got a press release for something very interesting: The Beatles and India is a new documentary about, well, just what it says. Those of you in the UK (and India?) can stream it now; the rest of us will have to wait a bit. There is also an album of covers.

Two things come immediately when the topic of the Beatles and India heaves into view. The first is how strange it was for something like this to happen. The world’s most famous pop group decamping from the West—in the middle of the Cold War—to go sit at the feet of a bearded Eastern philosopher? Unheard of; unthought of. Cribbing here from Mitch Horowitz‘ fascinating book Occult America, rich Westerners had studied Hindu-inflected mystic beliefs since Krishamurti—and before that Madame Blavatsky—but no one at the pinnacle of fame had done this, with 1968’s billion-eyed modern mass media in tow. Imagine Frank Sinatra heading to Rishikesh in 1947, or Elvis in 1959; impossible, unthinkable—the first went to Vegas, the second to the Army, entirely the opposite direction from John, Paul, George and Ringo.

It is a mark of how different The Beatles were from the scions of Old Showbiz that they would do this; and how different the fame-game had become in 1968. In 2021, every pop star is also expected to be a thinker, packed with deep opinions and life wisdom, festooned (one hopes) with good works. But before the Fabs went to India, that simply wasn’t the case; pop stardom was a deeply, intrinsically secular experience, the opposite of spirituality. But as with so many things, the Beatles changed the game, and we have been living with pale imitators ever since. The imitations distract from the truth that for a few seconds in February 1968, The Beatles focused the world’s attention on meditation, and the West has never been the same. (The East, too.)

So externally, The Beatles’ trip to India is remarkable, just a fascinating thing to have happen. So much of the charm of The Beatles’ story is its utter unpredictability, and this turn was yet another. But it was no less influential internally, within the group.

In my opinion, the time the Fabs spent in India was pivotal; had they not gone, they likely would have followed a path similar to The Rolling Stones…with Lennon playing the role of Brian Jones, and the others sticking together probably to this day. (George didn’t like Beatling, but he really liked money.) The trip to India was The Beatles at their least Stonesiest, which is why Lennon tried to make himself an honorary Stone in late ’68 (with “Rock and Roll Circus,” and Klein), to break with himself in High Hippie mode. But it’s impossible; Lennon’s mind was simply too active, and his desire for change too relentless. Seeing him skeletal and stoned, farting out blues riffs like he’s Keith Richards—it’s such a diminution of him, and I think Lennon knew it was, too. He couldn’t be Keith Richards any more than he could be a fisherman.

Without Lennon taking up the fascination, India would’ve remained a quirk of George’s. But the four of them did go to India, and so the dominoes that ultimately resulted in the breakup began to tip. The first one was Brian’s death, but had John, Paul, George and Ringo stayed fundamentally the same people, they would’ve likely reacted to that with more Beatling. It was India that sent each fully in their own directions.

Reading this, you might think I feel the trip to India was a mistake—quite the opposite. It clearly unleashed a flood of creativity that the group mined well into the 70s. And spiritual seeking was so of that time, The Beatles would’ve pursued something in that realm—the rock star life practically forces one into that kind of introspection, if the person has any thoughtfulness whatever. Of all the possible directions this urge could’ve taken, TM was probably the least harmful.

Of late I’ve become interested in how The Beatles’ trip to India—and specifically George’s interest in India—was rooted in India being part of the Empire. I wonder if the film talks much about that.