One of the first pop songs to espouse pantheism, and one of the first psychedelic rock songs. In a PBS rock documentary, members of the Grateful Dead recalled that when Revolver came out they went from friend’s to friend’s place in the Haight excitedly sharing the news: The Beatles knew, i.e., they were sharers in the LSD enlightenment. The evidence was this astounding song.
There’s no denying its effectiveness. It’s one of the seminal stun-from-the-first-note, overwhelm-the-senses, and pin-the-hearer-to-the-wall moments of rock power. One could say much about its unusual beat, the parallel use of Indian tamboura and feedback, and the new studio techniques such as tape loops it employs, but without question, part of that impression of power comes from the song’s sense of danger. To approach the divine All, and to unlock the chaos of the subconscious mind by means of acid, these must be fearful things. And here is a maelstrom of sound to reflect that.
Similarly, even if the lyrics say that love is all and begin by telling us to relax, they take us into considering daunting doctrines, and troubling paradoxes:
Turn off your mind, relax and float down-stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying,
Lay down all thought, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
That you may see the meaning of within,
It is being, it is being,
That love is all and love is ev’ryone,
It is knowing, it is knowing.
When ignorance and haste may mourn the dead,
It is believing, it is believing,
But listen to the color of your dreams,
It is not living, it is not living.
Or play the existence to the end.
Of the beginning, of the beginning. (etc.)
If we consider the dying, shining, etc. participial lines I think we have to conclude that they are meant to suggest relation to one another, often paradoxical relation, and that the correct pairings are: shining/being, knowing/believing, and more significantly, not-dying/not-living, with perhaps also an implied pairing of end-ing/beginning. And other paradoxes are present in the lyrics: the void shines, you listen to colors, etc.
You are to surrender to the All, which as we know from other pantheism songs, such as The Byrds’ “5D,” could be presented in a kindly manner, but here it is initially presented as the void. The quick reassurance that such a surrender is not an act of dying is eventually undermined by the suggestion that not dying is in some way the same as not living. Part of the reason I say this is that since the antecedents to each of the participial lines’ pronoun “it” are never 100% certain, they could be read in a deeper sense to all have one antecedent. This transcendent “it,” this One, which outside of the participial lines seems to be described as the meaning of within, the color of one’s dreams, the void, and as a love that is all, is described within the participial lines as both beginning/ending, shining/being, and not-dying/not-living. The mental relation of our individuated minds to the One, which obviously we could also call the All, is what is captured in the knowing/believing pair.
The When ignorance and haste may mourn the dead line, as it is followed by the suggestion that the proper remedy to such ignorance is a kind of believing, could initially be read in two ways: 1) mourning is mistaken because the person lives on as a person, as in Christian or spiritualist belief, or 2) mourning is mistaken because “the person” was never more than an ever-changing part of the itself ever-changing All, so that death’s dissolving the body into the earth and other living organisms simply more vividly reveals this, and so that the enlightened belief is that this is not a change to be regretted. Upon minimal reflection, we can see that the second interpretation of this line must be the favored one. Christian doctrine regards death as a real curse. Jesus wept when in the company of his fellow humans confronting death prior to the more solid hope of resurrection that he brought[John 11:35]. As for spiritualist heresy, it is all about the idea that the particular person lives on in the afterlife. So “Tomorrow Never Knows” cannot offer any encouragement to the desire of many of us have, such as Cate Le Bon, to be in some way with the dearly departed again.
Judging the song artistically, I’d say its musical and lyrical evocation of the mysterious and frightening side of pantheism make it much better than The Beatles’ other big pantheism song, “All You Need Is Love.” Comparing the former song’s elusive use of paradox with the more straightforwardly didactic use in the latter song reveals that spelled-out pantheism, at least in the mouths of its Western novices, often becomes repellently smug. However kindly its chorus seems, the verses of “All You Need Is Love” teach a doctrine precisely guilty of the type of all-is-destined and its-all-good moral surrender that Tocqueville argued was the key characteristic of pantheism. “Tomorrow Never Knows” took the more attractive path of keeping the doctrine shrouded in mystery.
I admit that to speak authoritatively on the subject of pantheistic religion is no easy task. We postmodern conservatives often immediately proceed to quoting Tocqueville’s famous chapter on it from Democracy in America, but as I suggested when I recently discussed Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion (scroll below), there are a number of other authorities to be taken into account: Greek philosophers, Sanskrit sages, Transcendentalist literati, modern psychologists, 60s and New Age gurus, etc. I also said that what we really want to know is whether our New Age spiritual practices today, most of which first got off the ground in the 60s, are more fundamentally pantheistic, or individualistic/therapeutic. That is, are they more about understanding oneself as a mere part of the divine all, or, more about divinizing the inner self?
Douthat says the latter—for most present-day New Agers, the meaning of within turns out not be a too-profound-for-words encounter with being, but a follow-your-inner-voice theology of books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert’s inner voice told her to leave her husband, and to travel to places like Bali. Our Peter Lawler says something similar, but puts the accent more on the therapeutic than on the selfish. He argues that pantheism serves more as a temporary therapeutic technique than a seriously-followed doctrine: “These days, pantheism rarely defines a whole way of life…but is a kind of stress-relief from the competitive marketplace that is so much of most successful lives.” I.e., as Tocqueville said, it is a relief from modern democratic restlessness. “Restlessness,” incidentally, was the very word used by James Redfield in The Celestine Prophecy to describe the modern malaise his New Age doctrine would cure. That is not a sign that Redfield knew anything about Tocqueville, but rather a sign of how deeply Tocqueville knows us, the democratic men and women who made Redfield’s crackpot book a bestseller.
Now to my Gen-X ways of judging, the exploration of pantheist spirituality found in the 60s Counter-culture always seemed cool and sophisticated, even if as a Christian I regarded it as ultimately errant, whereas that exemplified by 80s New Age seminars, best-sellers like The Celestine Prophecy, or the sorts of teachers championed by Oprah, has always seemed pretty lame, something characteristic of the more tired of the aging baby-boomers, and those foolish enough of later generations to listen to them. 1966’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” belongs to a period when The Beatles and many others in the Counter Culture were quite seriously hoping that LSD-use would allow something new, i.e., that combined with certain Eastern religious teachings, it would produce what Allen Ginsberg once described as a “revolution in consciousness.” The initial embrace of the sexual/hedonistic revolution made by many in the early-to-mid 60s period, was thus being quickly followed by a turn to the spiritual, although admittedly a spirituality that would endorse aspects of the newer hedonism. In any case, it was fresh, and full of potentiality.
But the lameness was there to detect from the start. It would soon enough issue in things like slightly annoying Beatles song “All You Need Is Love,” or the truly nauseating Beatles movie Magical Mystery Tour, but there were those who recognized that even this song, right at the leading edge of the trend, contained notes of smug self-serving therapeutic technique.
Consider The Who’s “Armenia City in the Sky.” It is the lead song on the album The Who Sell Out, which was made loosely thematic by the interspersion of little commercial ditties between the main tracks, and was like Magical Mystery Tour released in December of 1967. It is a lesser song than “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but I think it only takes a single listen to recognize that it is derivative from it, or more properly labeled, a deliberate response to it:
The song was one of the few Who numbers written by a non-member, Pete Townshend’s chauffeur and fellow rock musician Speedy Keen, and there’s talk that the title refers to some lost painting. But the minimal lyrics strongly suggest that they have “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or at least what it stands for in the emerging Counter Culture, directly in their sights:
If you’re troubled and you can’t relax,
close your eyes, and think of this.
…If you ever want to lose some time,
just take off! There’s no risk.
The way the psychedelic spirituality had been championed, by acid-pioneers like Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters,” and by the song of this post, it was presented as something you had to have bravery to try. But its effectual truth, the way it was really practiced by the Counter Culture, was all wrapped up in the word relax present in the first line of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and made in “Armenia City” to sound like the cloying pitch of a slick advertisement. There’s really no risk to this spirituality, because the pantheistic doctrine is not to be seriously followed as a guide to living, but to be taken as a momentary therapeutic relief from modern troubles and restlessness. Thus, the guru and the ad-man could be the same man.
There would be those more serious about the new spirituality, such as The Beatles’ own George Harrison, who would turn away from acid to established Eastern pantheist disciplines and doctrines, such as those of the Hare Krishnas, ones which require real self-sacrifice. But it seems The Who were onto the more dominant note of the Counter Culture’s spirituality, the one Douthat and Lawler can more fully explain in our day. This is so even if we expand the “Armenia City’s” criticism of the use of Eastern religion to include that of religion in general—something which might be suggested by the presence of Armenia in the title—and even if it seems slightly tricky to correlate its criticism with Pete Townshend’s own long-term devotion to the guru Meher Baba, which began around this time. Quickly on that last wrinkle: The Who as a whole would not let themselves be defined by Pete’s Baba-ism, and this is one of their few non-Townshend songs; Baba-ism itself criticized the easy/vague pantheism, and especially the related acid-use, that characterized so much of the Counter-Culture. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the song that best embodied and heralded the arrival of that pantheism.
Again, I would never deny the song’s artistic achievement—here’s a bit more on its making for the Beatles-lovers–, but I’ve saved the last words for Tocqueville:
If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroys the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds.
Among the different systems by whose aid philosophy endeavors to explain the universe I believe pantheism to be one of those most fitted to seduce the human mind in democratic times. Against it all who abide in their attachment to the true greatness of man should combine and struggle.