“The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ at 50,” reads the headline, “Still full of joy and whimsy.”
Surely it is—but is that the story to be told on the front page of The New York Times on the golden jubilee of the centermost achievement of The Beatles? The cover in itself is the single-most important icon of a generation; a talisman for a generation of more than 40 million people all born apparently within days and weeks of each other, which came of age and came together at its beckoning. And because of this, the world as we had known it just before came virtually to a dead stop. This generation and tens of millions more would follow Sgt. Pepper headlong and hellbent on a magical mystery tour through Strawberry Fields to San Francisco in the Summer of Love, to India, to the camp of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and across the universe.
“Sgt. Peppers” brought a shaman’s journey that would change the world. Fifty years later it is possible to suggest that it will—it has—changed the world forever.
The cover itself is a mandala that elicits the story of the age. Gathered around the Fab Four are some of the most dynamic tricksters, felons and swamis of an age about to awaken. Among them C.G. Jung top row toward the center, Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce, Aldous Huxley, Marlon Brando, James Joyce, T.E. Lawrence, Hindu gurus Yukteswar Giri, Mahavatar Babaji , Paramahansa Yogananda and Karl Marx, Aleister Crowley, Stan Laurel and Marilyn Monroe.
Key to its understanding is Madame Truffaut’s modeling of the old Beatles; the earlier Beatles of the Ed Sullivan Show in black suits and mop haircuts. Wax dummies dispirited and downcast as if at their own funeral. The contrast with the boys in sensational new beards and do’s and multicolored circus-like outfits suggests they are undergoing a transformation; a transformation like that expressed in the famous image of the Tandava dance of Shiva whirling in a circle of fire, the dance of “the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution.” The old corpses of the Wax Museum Beatles like the demon Apasmara—the demon of ignorance—crushed under Shiva’s foot to be left behind so they may awaken again to the dance of the new creation, like butterflies coming out of a cocoon.
And we went through that transformation, too. It marked the age as we of the age had left it all behind as well to enter born free again into a new beginning.
An old Catholic priest in Boston made a succinct observation about the generation as it related to his traditional ministry.
“There was no conflict, no hostility,” he said. “It was as if they had just taken off an old coat and left it behind.”
“The Sixties” is often recalled and recollected through the Woodstock festival in August 1969, but that sensational happening might be seen as a rite of exit from the heart of the greater social and cultural movement—the phrase revolution has been used world wide. The Sgt. Peppers album, released in May, 1967, might be seen as that historic moment’s rite of entry. The cultural explosion would immediately follow and enter into full flower. The Summer of Love was directly ahead.
As the fateful summer of 1967 drew down, John Lennon released the song “I Am the Walrus.” Possibly in mind that the time had come, as the Walrus had said in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “to think of many things.” It was said to be one of Lennon’s favorite books.
John wrote at the beginning, “I am he,” about the swimming together of all of us at the peak of the Sixties, and “we are all together.”
“I am the Eggman,” he sang, with his characteristic Liverpool humor, “…they are the Eggmen. I am the Walrus.” That might well describe him and the rest of us in the enigmatic St. Pepper’s moment. The phrase “I am he,” brought to mind India where the Beatles were about to travel in the next few months.
“I am I, I am Brahman, I am he,” reads the Maitreya Upanishad.
It is all comic and hidden, but it reflects an awareness he had about being a man at the center of a world in transformation. The words, “I am he,” are from the core of Eastern spirituality and are well known to its practitioners.
This is in essence the sacred, simple and clear formula: Tat twam asi, this is you. Or “I am in the east and in the west, I am above and below, I am this whole world” as it has been described.
And we were of the world as well as we followed them to it. We would not have gotten there by ourselves. They brought us with them on their shaman’s journey and left us there. And we, so many of us and more in newer times and in younger generations, are still there.
Bernie Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. For 20 years he has been an amateur farmer, raising Tunis sheep and organic vegetables. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children.