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A Few Imaginative Men: The Spirituality of the Beatles
The story of the Beatles, from an early age, was always about conquering their world, challenging conventions, and breaking the ordinary boundaries. Initially, the obvious world to conquer was the physical world. Growing up in post-war Liverpool, opportunities seemed limited. The masses grew up there, got a job doing skilled or unskilled labor, and worked long hours in an industrial city in an attempt to “make ends meet” and provide shelter and food for their families. Most conformed to what seemed the only option and did not move away from Liverpool to chase grand dreams. Travel and vacation were not even too realistic or common; Liverpudlians were from Liverpool, lived in Liverpool, and did Liverpool things, as even London seemed a separate world. Through their pursuit of musical success, the Beatles transcended all of this: they avoided ordinary day jobs, and very early on they could say they had traveled and been exposed to an array of different people and lifestyles in Hamburg and elsewhere. This was but a stepping stone, and the ordinary world would be entirely conquered by their huge successes in 1963 and 1964. 1964 ensured that they would never likely have to worry about the normal working-class struggles with which most people from their past had dealt. Of course, they would conquer and re-conquer the physical world as their success and power increased. Soon, they had only their own boundaries to break and themselves to compete with and out-do. What they had grown up believing to be success was soon far in the past, and had been far surpassed. Life could not only be about material wealth, power, and fame, because they had those in abundance, yet mysteriously their lives were not over and were not complete. There had to be more, or maybe less, to give meaning to a life. That realization is what drove the Beatles' interest in transcending conventional reality and is why Steve Turner's claim that they sought to discover and appreciate a world beyond the merely physical is compelling and accurate.
Can't Buy Me Love
According to Turner, at the time when drugs became an influence on the Beatles' beliefs, or non-beliefs, in God,
“George was saying that the only worthwhile pursuit was the search for the answers to the questions, who am I? why am I here? and where am I going? 'We made our money and fame, but for me that wasn't it,' he [George] said. 'It was good fun for a while, but it certainly wasn't the answer to what life is about'” (Turner 16).
Turner quotes Ringo Starr as saying something very similar, a sentiment they would all express many times in many ways:
“We have got almost anything money can buy. But when you can do that, the things you buy mean nothing after a time. You look for something else, for a new experience” (16).
This notion of being able to buy anything money can buy may seem like something to which most of us could never relate, but its power is that it can be related to when broken down. The idea is very similar to the way we might value something more if we had to save up for it than if it were simply given to us. Because, in the first scenario, that item represents with it all the hours of work and sacrifice that were necessary to attain it. There was a goal and an achievement, which brings with it feelings of satisfaction and success, and the perception of progress. Material wealth no longer brought the Beatles that satisfaction.
For the aforementioned reasons, among others, the great success of the Beatles ironically left a gaping void in their lives and discredited their previous perceptions of themselves, the world, and what the purpose is of anything and everything. The very idea of what matters changed dramatically for the group as they progressed. Steve Turner explains this well:
“As they matured, the issues that preoccupied them changed from ones of freedom from authority and tradition to freedom from material craving, rampant ego, reduced consciousness, war, prejudice, poverty, and lies” (8).
These changes required a change in consciousness. Albert Einstein said a problem cannot be solved in the same consciousness that created it. To escape the regular world, which had started to become almost silly, meant consciousness could not be limited to the confines of that world. The Beatles attempted to find answers along their travels of drugs and meditation. These methods provided them much more than a high; they offered to them, again, the excitement of a journey and of exploration and experiment, which they had not been faced with for a couple years. As it turned out, their journeys and experimentations were accepted as answers in themselves. Of course, the Beatles were wise enough to realize that they had not even found the answers themselves. A fine example of the contrast between their uncertainties and the certainties audiences attributed to them is found in a Jann Wenner interview with John Lennon, in which John says, “The only true songs I ever wrote were 'Help!' and 'Strawberry Fields',” (Wenner 9). Any Beatles fan will admit they have searched for deep meaning in many more songs than these two, but the Beatles fan may be the fool trying to make sense of the world spinning round. The Beatles witnessed in their lifetime the phenomenon of their followers looking more deeply into their songs than perhaps even intended; artists are generally spared this until after their deaths.
The Beatles saw how easy it was to influence the masses to the level of being compared with a religion. What they saw were millions of people turning to them for answers, scouring through their lyrics for meaning, just as people do with religious leaders and sacred scriptures. Further, not only were they being viewed by some on the same level as Christianity, they were remarkably different from their perceptions of the Christianity they had grown up around: they were daring, caring, and honest; they despised mindless following and obedience and valued questioning and imagination; they hated rigidity and were fun for their followers. Being so different in so many ways, but yet followed so similarly, made obvious the futility of many aspects of worship.
In his second series of Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
“The religions of the world are the ejaculations of a few imaginative men.”
The Beatles found themselves in the unique position of being among the most famous people in the world and whatever they released, whether in the form of a song, an interview, and even mysterious absences, was noticed and was interpreted by their followers. Turner says,
“The Beatles didn't consciously base themselves on shamans...but during the period of 1966-1970 this is the role they played,” (6).
Because wealth and fame were unfulfilling as the pinnacle of life, they had to search somewhere beyond the realm of what was previously imaginable as the height of success and find meaning elsewhere. Especially in their later years as a group, whatever they did was no longer right or wrong, it was simply it, and was followed closely. Perhaps it could be said that the recognition of their own limits, and that they had not felt satisfied with the messages they produced that others accepted as enough, propelled the group towards meanings outside and inside of themselves. It was, in fact, their consciousness that what others considered “religion” based off of their assumed messages, that caused them to turn to drugs and meditation. These alternate practices offered insight into alternate perceptions, and these alternate perceptions were necessary to their understanding of the world, which had been altered by the previous alternate perceptions of these few imaginative men.
Gould, Jonathan. Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.
MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1994.
Spitz, Bob. The Beatles: The Biography. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005.
Turner, Steve. The Gospel According to the Beatles. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Wenner, Jann S. Lennon Remembers. New Edition. London, New York: Rolling Stone Press, 2000.