Today, the first of two extracts from George Harrison: Behind The Locked Door by Graeme Thomson which Omnibus published in 2013.
The first conscious inkling of the East and all the musical, philosophical and spiritual treasures it harboured came the previous year , during the making of Help!. The film was one of The Beatles’ least soulful, least committed projects, in which alternative spirituality was mockingly played for the broadest of laughs: “See what you’ve done with your filthy Eastern ways!” Lennon says to Ahme, played by Eleanor Bron, the high priestess of the fiendish cult.
Filming in the Bahamas during February and March 1965, they were bored, stoned virtually the entire time, and often obviously contemptuous of Dick Lester’s brasher follow up to A Hard Day’s Night. In Nassau, on Harrison’s twenty-second birthday, he was approached by Swami Vishnu Devananda, a 37-year-old Indian guru who had started teaching Sivananda Yoga and preaching its wider message throughout north America. Devananda had recently opened one of his yogic ashrams on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, a short hop from Nassau, and he gave each member of the band a copy of his book, The Complete Illustrated Guide To Yoga. Harrison later – much later, for he didn’t read it for several years – saw this as a sign. Perhaps it was. Either that or a smart piece of opportunism from someone already well-practised in the art of converting willing Westerners to the ancient ways of the East. There was no shortage of either type in the Sixties.
Later, in April, filming Help! back in England at Twickenham Film Studios, Harrison heard the sitar for the first time, played by the Indian musicians brought in to perform in the movie’s Rajahama scene. He picked it up, took a look at it, plucked, twanged, fingered a few shapes, and found himself intrigued. This was essentially the end of his curiosity until he experienced what amounted to a life-changing shift in his perception of the universe and his own consciousness.
Harrison’s immersion in eastern spirituality came via an accumulation of experiences – notably music, travel, literature, lecture, yoga and meditation. The initial impetus was his first encounter with LSD, then liquid and legal, in the summer of 1965. Attending a dinner party in London, Harrison, Lennon and their wives were spiked by their host, The Beatles’ dentist John Riley. At the end of the meal Riley put acid in their coffee with the intention, they later suspected, of instigating some communal scene of unbridled sexual abandon. Instead, when they learned what had happened, they swiftly left.
By the time they reached the Pickwick Club, another favourite London haunt, Harrison was coming up. He felt “a very concentrated version of the best feeling I’d ever had in my whole life,” he recalled. “It was fantastic, I felt in love, not with anything or anybody in particular, but with everything.” By the time they had moved on to the Ad Lib club things had become a little darker and stranger. En route Boyd tried to smash a window. In the club the elevator appeared to be on fire, and hours seemed to pass in seconds. As dawn rose Harrison drove everyone home – very slowly, very carefully – in his Mini. They stopped on the way to play football before falling into [his Esher home] Kinfauns, bolting the door, and willing sleep to come.
Amid all the confusion, terror and disorientation of his 12-hour trip Harrison was hit by a life-altering illumination. “It was as if I’d never tasted, talked, seen, thought or heard properly before,” he said. “For the first time in my life I wasn’t conscious of ego.” Unlike alcohol or pot, acid didn’t make the edges of existence appealingly fuzzy. Instead, it brought into blinding focus all the questions and doubts already lurking in his consciousness. “It was an awakening, and the realisation that the important thing in life is to ask: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where am I going?’ and ‘Where have I been?,” he said. “ All the other bullshit – that was just bullshit.” He had the hyper-real sense of escaping his body, of becoming pure energy, infinite and omnipresent.
There is, according to Roger McGuinn, “a misunderstanding about what we were doing back in the Sixties with psychedelic drugs. We were really seeking a higher power. We were looking at it like the peyote used by American Indians, as a sacrament to find out what was happening spiritually. It does free you up to see things other than the three dimensions that we’re used to. It’s not hallucinating so much as seeing into another dimension.”
Applied to many other musicians this interpretation would seem fanciful, and certainly not everyone who dropped acid shared such lofty aspirations. But Harrison was spiked. He was not deliberately seeking to alter his perception. He had no expectations and was taken entirely by surprise when he discovered that LSD gave him a temporary glimpse of a higher form of self. Later, he would claim that he only really needed to take it once, that the inaugural experience was enough. In fact his fascination with the drug lasted two years, from the summer of 1965 to the summer of 1967, the year he wrote ‘It’s All Too Much’, not a terribly good song but perhaps his clearest expression of how acid impacted on his wider consciousness. “The more I go inside/The more there is to see,” he sang, picturing himself “floating down the stream of time/From life to life”. There was also a word of caution: “Take a piece but not too much,” advice that he generally heeded even if several of his peers and at least one of his band mates did not.
McGuinn was a happy participant when Harrison took his second trip a few weeks later. The Beatles were on tour in the States, and this time the illumination of transcendence came with a direct connection to the music of India. When they arrived in Los Angeles on August 22 the band holed up for a week in a large rented house belonging to Zsa Zsa Gabor at 2850 Mulholland Drive in Beverly Hills. On the afternoon of August 24 they sent a limousine to pick up McGuinn and David Crosby from The Byrds, who they had met earlier that month at Blaises nightclub in London. The ensemble took LSD soaked in sugar cubes and promptly hid in the bathroom, the designated chill-out zone throughout the peak pressure points of Beatlemania. Harrison thought he had held onto the memory of how extraordinary his first acid trip had been, but as he came up he found that “the concept was nowhere near as big as the reality.”
“George, John, Crosby and I, and Peter Fonda, all dropped acid,” says McGuinn. “Ringo did, too, I think, but he wasn’t hanging out with us. We went into the bathroom to get away from the security guards because they scared us – there were all these armed guards around the house because the little girls were trying to climb in over the fence. It was a wild scene, like A Hard Day’s Night. So we found solace in this bathroom that had a nine foot-square tub, and we were all sitting on the edge of the tub with a guitar, passing it back and forth and comparing notes. That was when I first learned that the first thing both George and I ever learned was the riff from Gene Vincent’s ‘Woman Love’.
“Then I played something for him a little like Ravi Shankar, and George immediately said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘That’s like Ravi.’ David Crosby and I had access to Ravi Shankar’s records because he recorded for World Pacific and Jim Dickson, our manager, had been the engineer at World Pacific. So we knew about Ravi. David was a big fan, he had seen Ravi in person and got very excited about it. David told George all about Ravi Shankar, and David can be extremely enthusiastic. He kind of jumps up and down, he can sell something to you really easily. The Help! movie had been in the can by that time and there was a scene with some Indian music, so obviously it wasn’t the first time they had heard Indian music, but I don’t think they knew about Ravi Shankar. That was the first time he became aware of him, and George sought him out and became a student.”