The Singer, the Song … and the Guru

The Singer, the Song … and the Guru

March 2014

Have you ever felt the need to completely change your perspective on life? If so, you’re in good company. Here I’d like to reflect on some of the popular songwriters who have publicly done so.

The classic example is Bob Dylan, who in 1979 released his uncompromising album Slow Train Coming. An educated Jewish songwriter who had always quoted from both the Old and New Testaments in his songs, he now went all the way and declared himself a follower of Jesus. In one track he resolves publicly that he is ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’, which means that he will ‘stop being influenced by fools’ – referring to secular sophisticates who think they’re too smart to believe in a Messiah. In later decades, Dylan’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity (if that’s what it was) mellowed into a wonderfully sombre spirituality: still faithful to the idea of God but much more open-ended in its notion of what a religious way of life actually involves.

Often, the inspiration for a new sense of direction is a particular movement, and with it a particular guru, or spiritual guide. Perhaps the most obvious example is George Harrison’s first solo album All Things Must Pass (1970), inspired by Harrison’s embrace of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Though Harrison had initially become interested in Eastern spirituality by way of the ‘transcendental meditation’ taught to him and the other Beatles by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, he had come to feel that he needed to commit himself to a specific religious movement, focussed on a particular deity: in this case the Hindu god Vishnu, incarnated as Krishna. We learn from one track on the album that regularly ‘chanting the name of the lord’ is the way to become spiritually ‘free’. Most famous, though, is the song ‘My Sweet Lord’, a hymn of praise to Krishna which also manages to appeal to Christians by alternating the refrain ‘Hare Krishna’ with ‘Hallelujah’.

By contrast, when Pete Townshend wrote Tommy (1969), the Who’s most famous ‘rock opera’, his target was false religious cults. The hero, a ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ who becomes a ‘pinball wizard’, finds himself worshipped by people desperate for some meaning and security in their lives. Townshend is clearly satirising the whole business of guru-promotion. We need to bear in mind, though, that it is only because Townsend had dedicated himself to following the spiritual path outlined by an Indian guru, Meher Baba, that he felt it absolutely necessary to expose the false versions of religious philosophy by contrast with Baba’s own vow of silence, which precluded any chance of his becoming the focus of false expectations.

Sometimes, though, it’s the false expectations that the guru himself can dispel. I’m thinking of the album by Joni Mitchell, Hejira (1976), and in particular the key song ‘Refuge of the Roads’. Mitchell had recently visited the Tibetan Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and briefly experienced a state of selflessness, thanks to his advice to live in the moment and see the divine in everything she experienced.  She recalls: ‘I sat before his sanity / I was holding back from crying / He saw my complications / And he mirrored me back simplified.’ His message was threefold: ‘Heart and humour and humility’.  Mitchell charts how she then trusted to ‘the refuge of the roads’, and experienced ‘radiant happiness’ as she travelled – until, that is, she forgot his advice: ‘I started analyzing / And I brought on my old ways.’ In documenting her failure, though, she only endorses the wisdom of Trungpa.

Of course, we do not expect songwriters to follow the same spiritual path forever, once they’ve declared their affiliation to a system of belief. Of those mentioned, only Harrison may be seen as totally consistent, espousing Krishna Consciousness right through to his death in 2001. His case forms a contrast with his fellow-Beatle John Lennon who, in the very same year as All Things Must Pass, released Plastic Ono Band, which articulated his disillusionment with the Beatles, with the sixties counterculture, with drugs … and even with religion itself, as a form of delusion. Thus, in the song ‘God’ Lennon declares the idea of a deity to be merely ‘a concept by which we measure our pain’. Again, in ‘I Found Out’ he asserts the importance of coming to terms with one’s own humanity instead of looking to others for answers: ‘I seen through junkies, I been through it all / I seen religion from Jesus to Paul / Don’t let them fool you with dope and cocaine / No one can harm you, feel your own pain.’

This is a challenging album, full of savage irony (does ‘Paul’ refer to a certain Paul McCartney, to St Paul, or to both?), but I wonder if it entirely evades the model we’ve been following. It was composed and recorded by Lennon immediately after undergoing ‘primal scream’ therapy, in which he had been encouraged to regress emotionally, re-experiencing the trauma of birth and early childhood, under the guidance of the radical psychotherapist Arthur Janov. As such, Plastic Ono Band might be seen as an extended testimony to the philosophy of Janov, who had told him that religion was ‘legalised madness’: that he had to accept material reality, and to understand the source of his ‘pain’, without recourse to any spiritual dimension. It just goes to show how hard it is to follow a new path without also following a guru, even if his message is anti-guru.

It may be a sign of age, but it does seem to me that it is the songwriters of ‘the great tradition’ of popular music (those coming to prominence in the 1960s) that had the courage to change their worldview so drastically and so publicly, running the inevitable risk of ridicule. Besides them, the contemporary music scene looks dreadfully dull and bland, does it not? Or perhaps I’m too stuck in the past, and need to ‘change my way of thinking’ myself!

Laurence Coupe