After almost 6 years of exciting, high energy, at times drug-filled, touring and recording, constantly hounded by the press and screaming fans, the closed ashram gave John, Paul, George and Ringo the private, quiet retreat they needed.
The Beatles’ time at the ashram was unusually productive. In all, they wrote 48 songs in Rishikesh, including 17 songs on their double album ‘The Beatles’, also known as the ‘White Album’, and much of ‘Abbey Road’.
Ashram life, to a great extent, is about the inward journey. And in his tender love song “Long, Long, Long” George wrote exquisitely about coming back into relationship with the divine, within himself. The acoustic guitar style of several of the songs on the ‘White Album’ was very reflective of Rishikesh. They had only brought along their Martin D-28 acoustic guitars and wrote their songs using them. In so many ways, it was an idyllic time for them, despite the way it ended with the Maharishi. Yet the stresses and strains in their relationships, there before India, were still there when they returned to England.
Musically, they were already going their separate ways. Recording the ‘White Album’, John, Paul, George and Ringo were distant, at times embattled with each other, often recording in 3 separate studios at EMI, London at the same time. And since they had stopped touring a year and a half before India, they had stopped spending a great deal of time together as the four buddies they had so long, and lovingly, been. Life in the studio was mostly hell. As tough as it was for them, their brilliance still made the White Album a masterpiece, and my favourite of all their albums. And not because serendipity allowed me to be present for part of its creation in Rishikesh.
Sadly, their pain was exacerbated in their studio sessions when John and Yoko attended together. Wives and girlfriends had always been banned from writing and recording sessions. There was enormous resentment from George, Ringo and Paul at Yoko’s presence, no doubt heightened by the fact that, in a very real way, John was leaving them. The four guys had all loved each other, deeply. At the ashram, they were a family, and an incredibly close one. It must have felt as if John was betraying their profound mutual love for each other, for Yoko. It was, of course, classic.
As individuals the Beatles had come out of what were, perhaps, less than unconditionally loving families and, as adolescents, found each other. They bonded together into a tight, joyful, highly creative group, went forth into the world, and took it by storm. They took off like a rocket, becoming the biggest, most influential music group in history, to this day. And, I believe, the most brilliant, ground-breaking and playfully fun group ever. As they were coming out of their adolescence, they found wives and girlfriends that suited them, as it suited their partners. But by India, “the boys”, as Mal affectionately referred to them, were growing up, outwardly and inwardly. John was not only their tacit leader, he was the first to grow up emotionally and enter a life-long adult romance. Within months of India, his marriage with Cynthia was over. He was wonderfully, madly, inseparably in love with Yoko and this was, de facto, the end of his adolescence. And the end of the Beatles’ tribal oneness.
John would later say, in his profoundly honest, humorously off-beat way, “Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine.” (see John and Yoko’s Playboy interview, 1981) It just took a long while for George, Paul and Ringo to be able to feel happy for John and his new love.
Their break-up was the break-up of a super, tight-knit, loving family. It was a divorce. It was, no doubt, both classic and inevitable–unless they had all refused to grow up into their adult lives. It was certainly hardest for Paul. He and John were emotional partners in a powerful, creative and loving way. Before too long though, the Beatles would all be with different life partners, involved in their unique and separate lives, with remarkably creative careers of their own. But before that could happen, and contain peace and happiness for them, they would go through unbelievably painful emotional and legal wrangling around the break-up of the Beatles and their businesses, fuelled even further by all those who gathered around for a piece of the spoils.
Within a year of Rishikesh, John and Yoko were married. They lived and worked together until John was tragically assassinated in 1980. He was barely 40 years old. In that same year after Rishikesh, Paul married Linda Eastman. They also had found their ‘true loves’, living and working together until Linda died of cancer in 1998. She was 56. Seven years after Rishikesh, Ringo and Maureen divorced. Maureen died of a rare form of leukemia in 1994, with Ringo at her side. She was 47. George and Pattie split-up in 1977.
Eight years after Mal and I affectionately said goodbye, that evening by the roadside on the way to Delhi, he was killed in Los Angeles. He had moved there after the Beatles broke up. Tragically, he confronted two policemen with a gun, while stoned on barbiturates and alcohol, and was shot to death. At least, that’s the police version of the story. He was 40 when he died.
Personally, I was sorry to see “the boys” break up, but not heartbroken. They had to get on with their lives. And they had already given me so much, in their music, in the examples of their loving, creative, exploring lives. I was very sorry for the terrible pain they were so obviously going through. They had already given me gifts. Gifts beyond beauty. Gifts of brilliance and discovery. Door openers. Doors to a unique brand of joyfulness they embodied, to conscious exploring and becoming, to loving being paramount. All you need is love. They said it in song so exquisitely. And they said it in their spoken words, too.