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.
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.