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SGT. PEPPER’S MAGICAL MYSTERY SCHOOL: The Resurrection of the Beatles

SGT. PEPPER’S MAGICAL MYSTERY SCHOOL: The Resurrection of the Beatles

allyouneedismyth

July 22nd, 2013

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“We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

–John Lennon

beatles-heathensThe “passion play” of the Beatles’ began, appropriately enough, when John Lennon compared the Beatles to Jesus Christ. His infamous quote to Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard in March, 1966 caused no reaction in Great Britain, but was re-printed five months later in the American teen fanzine, Datebook, where it caused public protests and the burning of Beatles albums, photographs, and books.

The living-dying-resurrecting story of Jesus Christ has been commonly referred to in the Western world as “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” In fact, the narrative of Jesus is just one of many myths of a Living-Dying-Resurrecting-God-Man, which itself is a particularly salient version of what Joseph Campbell defined as the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, a plot structure that exists at the core of many myths in many cultures. The storyline is simple: the hero 1) departs his or her community for an unknown realm, 2) is initiated by obtaining a boon (usually knowledge, treasure, etc.), and 3) returns with it for the benefit of the community. The character of the Living-Dying-Resurrecting God-Man, or Savior, follows the arc of the Hero’s Journey by departing the world of the living, becoming initiated in the mysterious realm of death, and then miraculously returning to life, bringing with him the ultimate boon––revelations about freedom from mortality.

The savior character was especially prevalent in the Mystery Schools of Antiquity. These religious cults originated from traditions in Ancient Egypt and replicated and evolved throughout Greece and Rome until the early Christian era, when they were extinguished by the Roman military. Among the various resurrection deities, we have: Osiris, who was killed and dismembered, only to be resurrected through the love of his wife, Isis; Orpheus, who traveled into the underworld to resurrect his mortal lover, Eurydice, through the power of music and love; Dionysus, who traveled into the underworld to resurrect his mortal mother, Semele; Demeter’s daughter Persephone, who was married to Hades, the god of the underworld, and allowed to resurrect for half the year through her mother’s love; and finally, Jesus Christ, who died and was resurrected through God’s love for humanity. Love, be it familial, romantic, spiritual, or some combination of the three, literally brings the dead back to life in each one of these stories.

The resurrection of Jesus is the underpinning of the Christian faith, though it’s rarely emphasized (sometimes not even included) in popular American versions of the story. Hollywood prefers to focus on antagonistic “good verses evil” conflicts, and usually opts to emphasize Jesus’s struggles with adversaries—variously personified as Judas (Jesus Christ Superstar), Satan (The Last Temptation of Christ), and even non-believers, i.e., the Jews (The Passion of the Christ). While this approach may resonate on the vigilante- and violence-obsessed American big screen, the more fantastic elements—the miracles, transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension—are highlighted in church, where they’re viewed as proof of the divinity of a historical Jesus, the core belief of the Christian faith.

It’s also these elements which align the Jesus story with the other resurrection myths, and which the story of Beatles communicated allegorically through mass-media. Like these savior characters, the Beatles enacted the specific transformational drama of death-transfiguration-resurrection-ascension as they played out the monomythic arc of the Hero’s Journey: departure-initiation-return.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the Jesus story, the passion drama initially concerns his arrest by the Pharisees and his trials before the Jewish high court and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The charge against him? He had purportedly claimed to be the Messiah. Though he was found not-guilty by Pilate, Jesus was condemned by the people (the court of popular opinion) and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Similarly, Lennon’s perceived claim of divinity, for all the outrage it caused, was not a “crime” punishable by law. He would instead be tried in the media and his public persona crucified by the modern day Pharisees, fundamentalist Christians.

Both Jesus and the Beatles, in their respective myths, experienced a years-long period of ministry/touring and works/songs (performing one “miracle” after another), during which they were consistently met with praise and adoration. In both cases, as time went on, they increasingly spoke out against social injustice and leveled critique at the ruling class, which eventually culminated in their respective confrontations with authorities. It’s noteworthy that in their February, 1965 Playboy interview, well over a year before the Datebook controversy, the Beatles were not only sharply critical of religion in general (and Christianity in particular), but also claimed to be agnostics. John Lennon was, of course, the most accusatory: “[It’s] the hypocritical side of it, which I can’t stand.”

If the Playboy content wasn’t red-enough meat (likely because its interviews were considered to be serious, adult conversations), the comments appearing in Datebook gave Beatles detractors the opportunity to use the excuse of protecting impressionable minds of American youth. Lennon was thereafter subject to trial by press conference, broadcasted to an expansive viewing audience several million times larger than the witnesses Jesus faced on the steps, or whatever, of Pilate’s palace. The press pressed, to paraphrase, “Are you saying you are God?” and “Will you apologize for whatever it was you said?” Lennon began his “apology” with a sly retort, which, like Jesus’s reply to Pilate (“You say that I am”), both deflected the question and shed light on the true source of divine pretense. “I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it.” He reportedly wept afterward.

After Jesus died on the cross, Pilate handed his body over to Joseph of Arimathea, who laid Jesus in a tomb that Joseph had prepared for his own eventual burial. After the Beatles quit touring, they “disappeared” for a short time to pursue personal projects, soon ensconcing themselves in the Abbey Road studio with producer George Martin.

Joseph of Arimathea is described in the various gospel accounts as a counselor, a rich man, a member of the Sanhedrin (Jewish high court), and, most pointedly, a disciple of Jesus. Though he enjoyed a higher status, was wealthy and a member in good standing with the establishment, he was a believer, and he accepted and served the glory of the Savior.

The importance of George Martin in the musical journey of the Beatles cannot be overstated. Martin took the raw talent and creativity of the band and counseled, developed, arranged, and produced them. He was a well-respected and successful member of the musical establishment who believed in them and humbly and steadfastly dedicated himself to their artistic growth and creative transformation.

In these respective stories, Joseph of Arimathea and George Martin represent the same monomythic archetype: the Wise Old Man. A crucial ally to the Hero/Savior, the Wise Old Man is a father-figure and mentor, dispensing wisdom and offering guiding support by virtue of his maturity, experience, sound judgment, and higher social standing. This stock character is well-known to audiences of literature and film, of course, where he has been memorably presented as Gandalf (Lord of the Rings), Obi-Wan-Kenobi (Star Wars), and Professor Dumbledore (Harry Potter), among countless others.

Martin’s relationship to the Beatles was revealing. No other archetype from the Rock mythos can claim such a direct and crucial connection to a symbolic Father. (The word “Abbey,” by the way, is derived from the Aramaic word abba, or “father.”) Both George Martin and Joseph of Arimathea are, in these stories, allegories for God in that just as humanity is seen to be guided by God’s wisdom, grace, inspiration, and love, the Hero is guided by the Wise Old Man. For the Beatles, as for Jesus, this relationship became more charged as the time of transformation approached.

The death of the Beatles was represented by the band’s retreat from the stage after their August 29, 1966 performance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. For the sixties generation, this was the equivalent of the end, or metaphoric death, of the Beatles. They stopped appearing live. The Beatles as a live entity, and perhaps as a crucial part of the unfolding history of a generation, was seemingly over. The concept of a band’s continuing production and ongoing cultural relevance without live performance was unimaginable at the time. The lack of an official announcement only added to the unsettling fear amongst the faithful that the Beatles were now… gone.

beatles-revolver[1]But the story wasn’t over. The Beatles had entered into the transfiguration stage of the drama, mirrored in nature by the pupal stage of the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into butterfly. This phase was marked by the most transitional album of the band’s career, Revolver. The metaphorical layers of the album’s title alone suggested that the Beatles, as they had been, were over. It was time for revolution and evolution. It was time to become something more, something new. Even the abandoned working title of the album, Abracadabra, suggested that something magical was taking place. The songs on Revolver spun from one Beatle to the next, accentuating each and unveiling more and more layers of depth to their individual, prototypal personalities, while also announcing a new direction in the group’s songwriting, message, and sound.

The transfiguration of Christ concerns a Biblical event in which Jesus goes to the top of a mountain, is bathed in radiant light, and is visited by two prophets, Moses and Elijah. Though, chronologically, this episode takes place shortly before the arrest and passion, it has also traditionally been associated with the elusive time between the crucifixion and resurrection, and understood to reveal a foreglimpse of the resurrected body of Christ.

Revolver was released in August 1966, the same month as the Beatles’ final run of concerts. It joined two other masterpieces released earlier that year by rock gods Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys), Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds, respectively. All three albums were striking expansions of musical horizons and a deepening of subject matter in rock & roll, all three marked a creative zenith in the mythic stories of their creators, and all three were influenced by hallucinogenic drugs.

The last song on Revolver, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” was a poignant, psychedelic climax to this transformational statement. Most scholars now agree that psychotropic entheogens were likely used in the Mystery School cults. Hallucinogens (often represented in art by mushrooms) were ingested during religious rituals in which the initiate enacted the transformational drama of the savior. Similarly, magic mushrooms and LSD began to be used by the counter-culture in the sixties at the time of Revolver. Inspired by his reading of Leary, Alpert, and Metzner’s The Psychedelic Experience, which was itself inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead (a casual translation of a book titled, more accurately, The Book of Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State––in other words, a Buddhist guidebook for the transfiguration stage between death and rebirth), John Lennon found the words and music to describe both the transformational psychedelic experience of the sixties generation, and the end of the Beatles as a “live” entity.

The resurrection of Jesus, the quintessential doctrine in Christian theology and the central tenet of the Christian faith, involves the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead by God. Interestingly enough, while the letters of St. Paul refer to a resurrected Christ, they never mention an empty tomb, or list any post-death physical appearances by Jesus. As far as St. Paul was concerned, the resurrection was conceptual, not historic. On the other hand, the versions in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles (all of which were written much later than the authentic Pauline letters) include earthly appearances by the risen Christ. Perhaps the most well-known of these post-mortem cameos is the story of Doubting Thomas, in which Jesus has to prove he’s really Jesus by showing the skeptical Thomas his stigmatized hands. This story makes the point that Christ’s body has literally been physically resurrected. However, there are several other accounts that present a not-entirely-corporeal Jesus, one who walks through walls (John 20:26), disappears upon recognition (Luke 24:31), appears differently to different people (Mark 16:12), and cannot be touched physically “for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17).

It was in the realm of sound and story where the Beatles would resurrect with far more permanence and impact than their physical performances could ever manifest. Utilizing the recording studio as an instrument of musical language, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a concept album that revolutionized ideas about the potential of recorded music. The album’s “concept,” of course, was the Beatles’ imagining themselves as a mythical band, while marking the first time a band’s existence was represented solely in the form of recorded sound and not in the form of live appearance. All at once, they were reborn into the realm of mythic allegory. The Beatles were no longer a band—they were the very concept of “Band.” They had become mythic creators, and as the quiddity of their art became the quintessence of their culture, the Beatles’ sound, image, and message expanded to define the spirituality of their time.
sgt-pepper[1]

The mythic resurrections of both Jesus and the Beatles heralded new eras in their respective cultures. If the early Christians and the priests of the apostolic age saw in the resurrection of Christ an evolutionary leap in their conception of spirit, Sgt. Pepper’s, by redefining the very future of music and further establishing the Beatles as a mythic phenomenon, performed the same function for the youth culture of the western world. Accordingly, Time magazine greeted the album with a cover story titled: “The Beatles—Their New Incarnation.”

Then, on June 25, 1967, less than a month after Sgt. Pepper’s had entrained the generation, the Beatles performed and recorded “All You Need is Love” as part of Our World, the first ever global satellite broadcast, seen by approximately four-hundred-million people in twenty-six countries. With this performance, they played out the resolution and final act in the mythic resurrection drama: the ascension––the transcending of the crude world to become one with God. With this celestial excursion, the Beatles’ image and sound literally rose above the physical world as they explicitly aligned themselves with the message of love.

The books Mark, Luke, and Acts all allude to Jesus ascending to heaven on a cloud, where (according to Mark) he took a seat at the right hand of the Lord. The process of a human being achieving divine essence, or becoming “one with God”––known in Christian theology as divinization—is, in all of the Savior myths, manifested by love. Love is intrinsic to the process of God-becoming-man: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” (John 3:16); and man-becoming-God: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…” (I John 4:8). In these resurrection dramas, love is the inspirational process that transforms spirit into matter, and matter into spirit.

No individual Gospel gives a full beginning-to-end account of the resurrection story, but all four books do agree on two occurrences: 1) the stone in front of the tomb was found moved; and 2) the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the risen Christ were women, including Mary Magdalene, who is specified in all four versions.

mary stained glassThe significance of the movement of the stone is literal: matter can be moved by spirit. The significance of the women at the tomb, and Mary Magdalene in particular, has to do with the role of the resolution of duality in divinization. In general, female characters in these myths “complete” the transformation of the (usually) male Saviors through the balance of feminine/masculine opposites. They also symbolize love.

Love is, in essence, transcendence of the illusion of individual separation and recognition of the sameness of the Self and something (and by extension, everything) else that exists. In mythology, transcendence is achieved through love, and love is symbolized by the balance of opposites. Love is manifested—be it between heaven and earth, light and shadow, male and female, matter and spirit, or any number of polarized concepts—through harmony. The resolution of duality and the power of love are not just central tenets of the resurrection myths; they are also keys to understanding the elusive meaning and modus operandi of myth itself.

Duality is the manifestation of two opposing and interdependent forces, entities, or concepts. It’s how we know anything exists. The first thing an artist learns is that both shadow and light are needed to create form. This is as true of the physical world as we know it as it is of our own emotions and inner lives. Hot/cold, creation/destruction, joy/sorrow, etc. Ask any good computer programmer. Binary code works because it’s modeled off of our experience of existence, which is reducible to ones and zeroes. Yes or no.

If duality is the basis of our experience of the manifest universe, it makes sense that the un-manifest (Godhead, Spirit, Brahman, Whatever) would be imagined as something somehow non-dual, either singular and whole, or so fluid and multifaceted that it can contain two opposites—in fact, all opposites—at once.

The Beatles’ first single after “All You Need Is Love” was “Hello, Goodbye,” which presented the problem of duality explicitly (and cheekily): “You say ‘Yes,’ I say ‘No.’/ You say ‘Stop,’ and I say ‘Go, go, go..,’” but it was the band’s 1968 post-resurrection narrative that expressed the resolution of duality as the natural denouement to their Hero’s Journey. Once again, the Savior was bringing the secret of transcendence back to the community to harmonize the world and unite his people.

The visual presentation of their next album would represent this integration. Created by Richard Hamilton, the British conceptual artist who coined the term “Pop Art,” the cover of The Beatles—their only official album cover that doesn’t feature an image of the four Beatles—was an exercise in minimalism. In stark contrast to the vibrant hues of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour, the entire sleeve was pure white.

Beyond its marketing innovation, a completely white album cover is a powerful mythic symbol. The color white is both everything and nothing, empty and all-encompassing. White transcends the color spectrum in that it contains all colors. It is, along with the circle and the mandala, a symbol for wholeness, purity, and bliss.

The only thing visible in this monochromatic composition was the band’s name, which doubled as the album’s title. The letters were the same shade of white as the background, and were only legible because they were slightly embossed. When looking at the original album cover, fans read the words “The Beatles” not in ink, but in the interplay of light and shadow. This pure “White Album” also contained not one, but two records (the only double album of the band’s career), creating a “duality-contained-within-the-godhead” metaphor to an almost absurd degree.

And of course, that same year, John and Yoko fell in love.

 


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