by Wayne Mullins
Many people ask what are the Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a Flaming Pie and said unto them ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an A’. ‘Thank you, Mister Man,’ they said, thanking him…
This colourful and creative reason for the name “The Beatles” is something you can immediately associate with John Lennon and his amazing ability to take a fairly mundane topic and give it an otherworldly slant. However, the real reason behind the name and spelling of The Beatles owes a lot more to the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac than it does to mystic pie riders from the sky.
It was 1957, a time when the Beats were at the height of their powers: Allen Ginsberg was in Court defending his poem ‘Howl’ and On the Road had its first publishing and became an instant classic. At the same time, across the Atlantic, the Beatles (originally called The Quarry Men) formed in Liverpool, England. Several name changes occurred in the early life of the Beatles before John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe decided to honour the memory of Buddy Holly by changing the band name to the Beetles (as a play on Buddy Holly and the Crickets), but as John Lennon was a fan of clever word play he decided to change the spelling of The Beetles to Beatles as a way to suggest “beat” or “beat music”. As John Lennon said in a 1964 interview, “It was beat and beetles, and when you said it people thought of crawly things, and when you read it, it was beat music.”
The Beatles and the Beats shared much in common during these early years. The friendships, relationships and experiences formed by both groups during their early days were to go on and shape entire generations in the decades that followed.
Further evidence of the Beat influence on the Beatles came from the time John Lennon spent at Liverpool College of Art. The Beat culture in Liverpool was certainly one of many influences on him; he knew Adrian Henri, and many of the professors who taught John at Liverpool College of Art were ardent followers of the Beat Movement. His dear friend June Furlong had posed for quite a few Beat artists and John loved the free-form mode of expression that the Beat generation endorsed. However, John was not a “joiner.” He didn’t want to be linked to any one movement or any one philosophy. When the Beatles journeyed to Hamburg in the summer of 1960, Lennon’s best friend Stuart Sutcliffe became enamoured of the Existential Movement (“the Exi” as John referred to them), but John scoffed at it as silliness. Much later in life when John sang his long list of the things he didn’t believe in (in the song, “God”), he was not so much rejecting everything on that list as he was telling the world that he was not a part of any group. He was himself. And he felt that was enough.
While Lennon may never have been a follower in the tradition sense, it is clear nonetheless that the Beat movement did play an important part in the development of both his and the Beatles vision. While the Beats are famously associated with their love of Jazz, there were notable occasions when the world of Beat and sixties pop music crossed paths. Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography details an encounter between Allen Ginsberg and The Beatles in the mid sixties.
“Then Allen Ginsberg came in … He went over to the chair Dylan was sitting in and plonked himself down on the armrest … John Lennon broke the silence snarling:
“‘Why don’t you sit a bit closer then, dearie?’
“The insinuation – that Allen had a crush on Dylan – was intended to demolish Allen, but since it wasn’t far from the truth anyway, Allen took it very lightly. The joke was on them, really. He burst out laughing, fell off the arm and onto Lennon’s lap. Allen looked up at him and said, ‘Have you ever read William Blake, young man’
“And Lennon in his Liverpudlian deadpan said, ‘Never heard of the man.’
“Cynthia, who wasn’t going to let him get away with this even in jest, chided him: ‘Oh, John, stop lying.’”
That broke the ice.
The Beats are largely seen by the public (either rightly or wrongly) as the founders and spiritual leaders of both the Beat and Hippie movements. But this never sat particularly well with several members of both groups. Jack Kerouac in particular came to resent the perceived image the Beat followers had of him and claimed “It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” But follow him they did, often forcing him to move around the country with his mother when his address became too public – allowing eager young Beatnik followers who saw him as some kind of prophet to show up at his door uninvited. Though they were often disappointed that he was not the man they imagined him to be, they would often drag the bloated, old man Kerouac had grown into out for an all night drinking session, just so they could say they partied with “Sal Paradise.”
John Lennon was a person who always strived to be an individual and not belong to any group. But some of the ideals that the Hippie movement cherished, John cherished. After all, his most famous message was “Love is all you need.”
During the mid-sixties the rapidly expanding Beat movement underwent another transformation. The jazz, sunglasses, dark clothing and goatee beards faded out of fashion to be replaced by up tempo rock and pop music, long hair, bright psychedelic clothing and a more high profile form of protest. Many of the original Beats were still active members of the Hippie movement, the most famous of these being Allen Ginsberg who became a permanent fixture of the anti-war movement during this time. While the Beats were largely apolitical, the Hippies were more active and goal-orientated in their protests; protests that started with the anti-war movement, leading onto civil rights and environmental protests. However, not all of the Beats were so quick to embrace the new counter culture movement. Kerouac in particular was strongly opposed to the Hippie movement and labelled it as “new excuses for spitefulness.”
Both Beatnik and Hippie movements were committed to mind-expanding drug experimentation, free love, anti war protests and living a life of personal and spiritual vision. The Beats pioneered the recreational use of marijuana and Benzedrine, paving the way for the generation that followed to experiment with LSD and other drugs. It’s easy to see how one movement morphed into the other. While the Beatniks may have started the counter culture, music, drugs and promiscuous sex movement, it was the Hippies that really popularised it through a combination of upbeat and catchy sixties pop music and its more inclusive nature.
Drugs played a big part in both movements and Kerouac was famous for his marathon Benzedrine writing sessions (sometimes lasting days). Lennon also experimented quite frequently with mind expanding drugs. His songs, “She Said, She Said,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver demonstrate the influence of the drug culture on John’s lyrics and music.
Famously both the Beats and The Beatles grew weary of the straight laced and conformist attitude of western religions and explored the East in a search for deeper meaning and answers. Both Kerouac (Christian) and Ginsberg (Jewish) had strong attachments to their religions in their youth, but during the early fifties Ginsberg started to become involved in Buddhism while living on the West Coast and Kerouac began to develop his Transcendentalism-based fascination with Buddhism while living on the East Coast. Eager to explore the new consciousness of their newfound Eastern teachings, the Beats revelled in the power of the new philosophy which placed the power of the individual at the spiritual centre of life. Many of the Beats took their new teachings very seriously, travelling to Japan to be closer to the original source and in Ginsberg’s case even going on to become a devoted Tibetan Buddhist after being tutored by his mentor, a monk called Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The Eastern influences can be seen throughout the writers’ work in pieces such as ‘Howl’ and The Dharma Bums.
When the Beatles started to experiment with their own ventures into the Eastern region it was to prove just as controversial as when the Beats had first began to explore the East a decade earlier. When the Beatles famously travelled to India to converse with the Maharishi during their exploration of Hinduism it was not to be without incident. John Lennon was extremely disillusioned with Eastern philosophy when he returned from the Beatles’ ashram with the Maharishi. In fact, John left in utter disgust and when the Maharishi asked John why he was leaving, John replied, “You’re the mystic. You tell me.”
At the end of John’s life, he was spending a great deal of money each week reading books on all sorts of faiths, including Judaism and Christianity. Having been raised in the Anglican Church John was toying with returning to his religious roots. If you study one of the last photographs of John (in his New York Shirt) before he was killed, he is wearing a crucifix. John believed that God could not be put into a tiny box of any faith. He looked to the East, the West and all points in between. And that after all, is where he believed God was.
Many critics were quick to label the Beat writers “armchair Buddhists” in the sense that they only picked the parts of the religion that was of use to them, abandoning the rest. The Beatles also faced similar accusations in relation to their “free love” and “peace” message of the Hippie era. John Lennon didn’t like materialism and yet he owned a large portion of The Dakota on New York’s West Side, a plethora of expensive guitars, a great deal of land and property on Long Island. John Lennon devoted his life to peace, but he wasn’t opposed to violence when his best friend was threatened by a group of thugs.
That being said, Lennon wasn’t a pacifist to the point of surrendering his values. He didn’t want “peace at any price.” He realized that peace was a cooperative agreement between two people, two cultures or two nations. If one party failed to honour that commitment, then the process was ineffective and other means of solving the problem would then be necessary. In his revision of the rock anthem “Revolution,” John says, “But when you talk about destruction… don’t you know that you can count me out/in.” Why “out/in”? John wasn’t nebulous in his stance on war and peace. He was being very clear in these lyrics: he was saying that he would like to be counted out of destruction, war and violence (just as the Hippies would have wanted), but in reality there were cases in which one must stand up and fight or stand up and protect/defend. John knew that life wasn’t a simple flower-powered love-in. Life had to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
By the end of both their lives, I feel it’s fair to say that both Jack Kerouac and John Lennon, the two people who probably best represent the movements of the Beats and Hippies, had both fallen out of love with their original message. John Lennon was not a person who wanted to be a leader or a follower; he was someone that I don’t think would want to be tagged as part of any movement. As he said in ‘God,’ “I was the Walrus, but now…now I’m John.” He wanted to be individual. What he gave to his era which influenced the Hippie culture as well as a very straight-laced mainstream group of people, he gave out of his need to express himself, to “sing his heart.” If it changed or influenced others, then fine. If it didn’t, then that was fine too. He sang because he had to sing, not because he wanted to lead change or direct a movement. Jack also appears to be a man who wanted to bring people together and teach the world all the new wonders he had found, but eventually his message became more important than its content, leading him to lose the spark of passion, a spark that he felt could change the world and make it a better place. He famously once said “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” This is the clearest message he could have given that he felt any kind of cultural movement was largely superficial and if you really wanted to make a difference and change the world, you would have to do it in your own way.
However, despite both movements being just memories now, they have left long and lasting legacies that continue to be as powerful today as they were 50 or 40 years ago. The message of peace and love is always “right on time.” It was brilliant when Jesus proclaimed it. It was powerful when Ghandi proclaimed it. It was courageous when Martin Luther King proclaimed it. It is never outdated. It is the only message; and as cynical as we may be about things as they are today, it is love upon which we focus when everything else around us is falling apart.