In My Life:
The Beatles and the Electric Buddha Lands Within
Professor David Meckler, Ph.D.
Skyline College, October 13, 2005
The Beatles have been the most significant musical influence in my life and have impacted it in more ways than I can count. I would like to explore three aspects of The Beatles music and trace some of the reverberations through my life. The three aspects are avante garde/electronics, the influence of Indian music, and the philosophy or message behind much of the music.
Before I begin to describe these three aspects I would like to say a little bit about my introduction to the group. I was only 6 when they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and don’t really remember that event. However what I do remember was watching them play Hey Jude on the David Frost Show in 1968. Though I had been a fan of The Beatles cartoons, seeing them performing live had a much bigger impact on me. It was probably the first time that music really hit me, opening up a new world of magic. Within a couple of years I had collected many of their records and was a devoted fan. I was also learning to play the guitar and writing songs of my own. I remember reading in a fan magazine that one thing that distinguished The Beatles from other groups was that they were constantly experimenting and seeking out new sounds, never content to repeat themselves. As a result their music was always fresh and never formulaic. I was quite impressed by this, and remain so to this day.
The Beatles began utilizing studio effects very early on in their recording career but they became more important as they learned to use the recording studio itself as a musical instrument and began producing their most innovative and creative work. To some extent the group was entering this phase in late 1965 when they began recording Rubber Soul. However I think that the next album, recorded in early 1966 is the beginning of their most experimental period. The most experimental song on Revolver is a Lennon composition called Tomorrow Never Knows. This song incorporates a backwards guitar solo, numerous tape loops and Lennon’s voice recorded through a rotating Leslie speaker (MacDonald, p. 152). All in all it presents a tour de force of psychedelic rock, allowing the listener to enter into the colorful, creative dream world that was The Beatles. With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, recorded from late 1966 through the spring of 1967, The Beatles reached the height of their most experimental phase. And though all of the tracks on that album feature numerous special effects, the last track on the album, A Day in the Life, is probably the most avant-garde of any of their songs. Of primary interest here are the two orchestral crescendos featured in the recording. Paul McCartney remembers coming up with the idea inspired by Stockhausen. But George Martin remembers Lennon wanting huge buildups of sound rising up to what Lennon called, “The sound of the end of the world.” (Hertsgaard, pp. 7-9) The fantastic effect propels the song into outer space. When The Beatles (White Album) was released with the track Revolution No. 9 in 1968 many fans probably thought that the group had become hopelessly spaced out. However what most probably didn’t know was that this track belonged to an established tradition of experimental music called musiqe concrete. When The Beatles were recording the song Revolution 1, also featured on the album, they ended with a long jam session and a self described “freak out.” This recording formed the basis over which John Lennon, Yoko Ono and to a lesser extent, George Harrison, added tape loops of conversations, symphonies, operas and other sounds (MacDonald, pp. 230-234) which constitutes the most avant-garde track (notice I don’t refer to it as a song) on any Beatle album. Interestingly, Ono had worked with John Cage in the early 60’s and no doubt introduced his ideas to the group.
Another aspect of The Beatles endless search for new and unusual sounds was the element of Indian music. George Harrison became interested in this music when he encountered Indian musicians on the set of The Beatles’ second film, Help. He soon picked up a sitar in London and incorporated it into the Lennon & McCartney song Norwegian Wood on Rubber Soul. The following year Harrison integrated Indian instruments more fully in his own composition, Love to You on the Revolver album. Two more songs followed, Within You Without You from 1967’s Sgt Pepper album and The Inner Light from the Lady Madonna single. Aside from these few songs in which Indian instrumentation dominates, there are a number of others that incorporate Indian instruments very effectively within the context of more or less conventional rock arrangements. Some examples include Tomorrow Never Knows (sitar, tamboura), Strawberry Fields Forever (svarmandal), Getting Better (tamboura), Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (tamboura) and Across the Universe (sitar, tamboura) (MacDonald, pp. 148, 170, 190, 192, 221).
Now hearing all this strange music from my musical heroes as an impressionable youth no doubt prepared me to embark on a slightly less than conventional career as a music listener. Though I soon added records by The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Frank Zappa to my collection, the music of The Beatles remained the center of my musical universe. And though there was probably more than one factor involved, such as an innate curiosity about music, I believe that The Beatles were instrumental in opening up my curiosity about different kinds of music more than any other single element. They were my musical heroes and if Paul McCartney listened to electronic music, or George Harrison to Indian music I was no less inclined to listen to those types of music than I was to listen to Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly because John Lennon praised them.
At 15 I had taken up the habit of listening to my local classical radio station. Late on Friday or Saturday nights they presented a program of avant-garde music which I was quite interested in. One night they played a piece by Edgar Varese which I really enjoyed. I don’t know its title but it was purely made up of strange electronic sounds. I went to a record store looking for it but they didn’t have it. Instead I bought another album called Arcana, by the same composer. While the title track was a symphony, the second side featured a number of shorter pieces which utilized sirens and percussion. Soon after that I purchased an album of Debussy, performed on synthesizers by the Japanese artist Tomita. In my twenties I listened to a number of records by electronic music composers including Milton Babbitt, Morton Zubotnik and Stockhausen. I also attended a lecture and concert by John Cage at Cal Arts (Disney’s art school in LA County), and another by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis at Mills College. Of more enduring importance to me, however, has been the music of Brian Eno. Actually his background is closer to that of The Beatles, coming from a British art school background, than to that of the composers mentioned above, though he did develop an interest in John Cage etc. in art school (Tamm, pp. 40-44). Eno began by playing synthesizer in a progressive rock group called Roxy Music in the early seventies. He soon went his own way, creating a number of solo rock albums and making a reputation as a producer and collaborator with groups like the Talking Heads and U2. To me his most important contribution has been as a composer of ambient electronic music. My favorites are Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Ambient 4: On Land, Music for Films, Apollo: atmospheres & soundtracks and The Shutov Assembly. Another favorite is Eno’s collaboration with pianist and composer Harold Budd, The Pearl. This music is tranquil, haunting, evocative and creates a sense of space where ever I listen to it. I find this kind of ambient music to be very relaxing and good for doing yoga or chi gung, or just as background music for reading. Sometimes, though, I put on my Bose headphones and let this music take me away to a world of calm.
As to why experimental and electronic music appeals to me I can only speculate. I have had an interested in unconventional literature and art from an early age as well. I’ve always been an avid reader and some of the writers that appeal to me the most are Kafka, Beckett, Stein, Wells and Borges; all experimental or fantastic writers. And in the visual arts I’ve always been drawn to the surrealists such as Dali and Max Ernst. Perhaps because I grew up during the space age I always had an interest in anything that opened up new frontiers. As a young boy I was fascinated with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions. Later I became a Star Trek fan and today I still read a lot of science fiction and fantasy (some favorites: Dick, Lem and Ballard). There is a futuristic aspect to The Beatles, Brian Eno and John Cage’s music and I do find it very attractive. There is also a fantastic dimension to much of The Beatles work, notably Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Yellow Submarine, Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite and Octopus’s Garden. In fact Lewis Carroll was one of Lennon’s favorite authors (one of mine as well) and this is reflected in songs like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Cry Baby Cry. I’ve always felt that much of The Beatle magic is created by their connection to the tradition of English fantasy along with Carroll, Travers and Tolkein.
In addition to developing an interest in electronic music, I also began to explore Indian music at a fairly early age. I had a George Harrison album called Wonderwall Music which alternated Indian ragas with rock numbers. Within a couple of years I had collected an album or two by Ravi Shankar. I’ve attended one Ravi Shankar concert (late 70’s) and two Ali Akbar Khan concerts. My present CD collection includes, among other things, Ragas (Ravi Shankar/Ali Akbar Khan), Garden of Dreams (Ali Akbar Khan), Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Ravi Shankar’s Chants of India. Over the last five or six years I’ve also been drawn to the music of Japan and have acquired a number of CD’s of that music, including: Brightness of Summer-Melody of Japan (various artists), The Art of the Japanese Koto, Shakuhachi and Shamisen (Yamoto Ensemble), and Sanctuary-Music from a Zen Garden (Riley Lee). I also make a point of attending as many recitals as I can during the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan Town each year. Another type of music I’ve been drawn to is produced by bells from Tibet, India and Japan. My favorite CD of this type is Seven Metals-Singing Bowls of Tibet by Benjamin Iobst. I will explore the appeal of this music when I get to the philosophy of The Beatles.
Another area of my life impacted by the music of The Beatles is as an amateur musician and recording artist. At the age of 12 I began taking guitar lessons and writing songs. In high school I was in a band called Mrs. McBride’s Private Dream. We were exclusively a “studio” band and never played before an audience. And for the most part we were not very good. The best stuff we ever did was when were just goofing off, then we were pretty funny. We aimed to be The Beatles but ended up sounding more like the Bonzo Dog Band.
A few years later I teamed up briefly with two friends named Andy and Cindy. They owned a four track reel to reel tape recorder and a variety of instruments including guitar, bass, drums, piano, organ, flute and an Arp 2600 synthesizer. Andy was also an electronics engineer and designed and built a few home made electronic instruments, one of which we called a Beserkitron because of the weird noises it produced. We wrote and recorded a country and western song called Monkey Brain Honey which is kind of reminiscent of The Beatle’s Rocky Raccoon, though even more absurd. . One evening we ate at a Thai restaurant and they were playing some interesting Thai pop music. That night we went home and recorded a comical version of Twist and Shout with heavy echo on the voice to try and capture the sound of the Thai pop. Actually it ended up sounding more like The Bonzo Dog Band doing one of their parodies of a lounge act. But most of what we created was much more experimental, sometimes composed primarily of tape loops of slowed down sounds such as splashing water, or those produced by the synthesizer.
In the early 90’s I teamed up with a guy named Jim who had a kind of home studio. In addition to a four track reel to reel, he had a four track cassette recorder and a half track. He also owned a guitar, bass, and a variety of synthesizers, a sitar, some Indian and Tibetan bells, a shehnai (an Indian oboe), a MIDI and an apple computer music program. He also had an extensive library of sound effect records and tapes which we made ample use of. We recorded some rock numbers, including a cover of Strawberry Fields Forever and a country tune; The Streets of Laredo (complete with gunshots and horse sound effects). We also did some recordings with slowed down sitars, bells and a toy xylophone. One day we spent hours creating a fairly complex rhythm track using the apple computer, then brought over another friend, named Christian, who we had improvise on the viola to the rhythm track. We processed the viola with a lot of echo as well. We also recorded at least one track where my guitar playing was run backwards over a computer generated rhythm track. We also recorded a couple of hard rock songs that I wrote called Radioactive Flesh and Electric Chair. Filled with apocalyptic imagery, Lennonesqe word play and loaded with tape loops, echo and heavily distorted guitars, these tracks are my A Day in the Life and I Am The Walrus.
The third aspect of The Beatle’s music which has had a profound influence in my life is its philosophy. Though largely influenced by the drug culture which they came to represent, the overall message behind much of their music was also shaped by the Indian philosophy which they embraced. Some of the lyrics that I feel are important are as follows: “It’s so fine, its sunshine, it’s the word love” (The Word), “Love is all and love is everyone” (Tomorrow Never Knows), “All you need is love, love, love is all you need” (All You Need is Love), and “When you’ve seen beyond yourself you may find peace of mind is waiting there, and to see you’re really only very small and life flows on within you and without you” (Within You Without You). And finally, the most concise summation of the theory of karma that I know of: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make” (The End). The universal love that The Beatles advocated may be utopian, but so are the teachings of Buddha and Jesus.
Around the same time that I began listening to The Beatles I became interested in India. I tried to learn yoga from books in the library at the age of 12. I started reading articles on Hinduism and Buddhism and by 16 or 17 I had read a number of books by Alan Watts, including The Way of Zen. At 18 I received a mantra and learned Transcendental Meditation, the same type that The Beatles had learned. Now keep in mind that my grandfather was an Assembly of God minister (he founded several churches in Bakersfield and Beaumont, Ca) and our family regularly attended Baptist church. My parents had no interested whatever in Indian philosophy. In fact they probably still think it’s pretty strange. As to why I would be interested in yoga and meditation at such an early age I don’t know. Were the sitars on Sgt. Pepper enough to spark an interest in the mysteries of the East? Or perhaps I had established a connection in a previous life and the music served to reawaken that connection. I tend to think this is the case. George Harrison remarked that he found Indian music very familiar the first time he heard it. He was also quickly drawn into Indian philosophy as well. Anyway, through most of my twenties and early thirties I drifted away from spiritual practice and focused more on writing, art and music. But in the early 90’s I picked up where I had left off. I began practicing Vipassana (Insight Meditation), a form practiced by Buddhists from Southeast Asia. I also began reading books on Buddhism and some of the ancient scriptures (suttas in Pali, sutras in Sanskrit), one of my favorites being the Satipathanna Sutta (The Scripture on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness). Another favorite is the massive, psychedelic Avatamsaka Sutra (The Flower Ornament Scripture) which describes various heavenly realms and Buddha Lands. For the past several years I have been a student at the San Francisco Zen Center where Soto Zen, a school founded in Japan is practiced. This has coincided with an increased interest in Japanese culture including music and Chado, the Way of Tea. This past summer I spent a week at Green Dragon Temple in Marin County where I attended regular sessions of ZaZen (sitting meditation) and services. The ZaZen periods are punctuated by different sounds including the striking of a wooden block (called a han), bells, gongs and a drum. The services also include periods of chanting which I participated in as well as I could (some of it was in Japanese). The chanting, drums, gongs and bells help create a sacred space rather than serving as a musical performance, though to me they are quite musical. In fact I would say that much of Indian and Japanese music help create a sacred space and act as supports for meditation practice and this is as least part of their appeal to me. Much Indian music seems to me to have a very cosmic dimension, like the voice of Brahma. The music of the Shakuhachi reflects the serenity of Zen.
Music produced by bells, such as Seven Metals: Singing Bells of Tibet, or Karma Moffit’s Golden Bowls, is sometimes used as an object of mindfulness during Vipassana retreats. I have experienced bell meditations during retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County (where the bells are played live by a meditation teacher) and at home using CDs. Either way I’ve found this musical meditation to be profoundly mind expanding.
At this point in my life I listen more to Brian Eno, Japanese and Indian music (and jazz) than to The Beatles, but I continue to return to their music periodically and I always find new inspiration there. And more and more I appreciate the spiritual quality of their music. If I might sum up my understanding of Buddhism in a nutshell I would say that all beings are endowed with Buddha Nature, the seed of enlightenment, of perfect wisdom, compassion and universal love. For most of us though, this Buddha Nature is obscured by the three poisons: greed, hatred and delusion. The practices taught by the Buddha and practiced by his followers aim at purifying the mind of these poisons so that Buddha nature can be fully realized and manifested in this life. Recently I have been attending a class with one of the priests at Zen Center where we have been studying and practicing a meditation called Metta Bhavana or development of loving kindness.
“Put away all hindrances, let your mind full of love pervade one quarter of the world, and so too the second quarter, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around and everywhere, altogether continue to pervade with love-filled thought, abounding, sublime, beyond measure, free from hatred and ill-will.” (Kornfield, p. 7)
In this meditation one wishes oneself to be well, happy, successful and free from suffering. Then one moves on to a friend, a neutral person, an enemy and then expanding the feeling outward to all beings in the universe. I was telling the priest about my love of The Beatles and he suggested I use The Beatles in my meditation as an image to help bring out feelings of good will and warmth. Later that evening I was watching a DVD of Yellow Submarine and it dawned on me that the basic teachings of Buddhism were right there. First of all, Pepperland is under attack by the Blue Meanies who hate music, color and flowers. But instead of retaliating, The Beatles/Sgt. Peppers’ put on a concert and starting singing All You Need Is Love and With A Little Help From My Friends. This is significant because just as Jesus taught non violence, so did the Buddha. Turn the other cheek, don’t retaliate. Don’t hate. And the music is like Metta Bhavana, in that it broadcasts good will and loving kindness. Then John Lennon invites the chief Blue Meanie to join up and be friends, just as in loving kindness meditation good will is extended to one’s enemy. The Blue Meanie then admits that his cousin is the Blue Bird of Happiness, in other words, he too has Buddha Nature.
Hertsgaard, Mark. A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. Delacorte Press, New York, 1995.
Kornfield, Jack. Editor. The Teachings of the Buddha. Adapted and translated from the Digha Nikaya by Maurice Welsh. Shambhala, Boston & London, 1996.
MacDonald, Ian. Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1994.
Tamm, Eric. Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. Faber and Faber, Boston and London, 1989.