Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sexy Sadie

"Hey, Meg!" you might say, if you are unversed in the nuances of Beatles history. "Why did someone make a YouTube video to 'Sexy Sadie' that's just a slideshow of the boys posing with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? What does he have to do with anything?" Well, see, Sexy Sadie is the Maharishi. This is a song in which John gets all mean-spirited, basically-- he only even changed the name of the song to "Sexy Sadie" from "Maharishi," its original title, after George basically begged him to not air the band's dirty laundry.

"But, Meg," you might continue to ask, "what could possibly be John's beef with the Maharishi?" Well, after spending some months in Rishikesh meditating with the Maharishi and the other Beatles and a bunch of celebrity friends and fans (among them, most famously, Donovan and Mia and Prudence Farrow), John was joined by Alexis Mardas, also known as Magic Alex, a world-champion con artist and asswipe who had unfortunately worked his way into the Beatles' inner circle. (If you're unfamiliar with Magic Alex, you should check out this excellent article from In the Life of... The Beatles, because he's fascinating.) Alex essentially started a rumor that the Maharishi had been hitting on a woman staying in the meditation camp, which John believed, and which for some reason destroyed John's trust in the Maharishi as anything more than just another douche trying to get laid. John left Rishikesh in a huff, writing the song that was to become "Sexy Sadie" as he waited for a car to pick him up. It was a few years after the song came out on the White Album, I believe, that John revealed whom it was really about, and during the years that followed many others have come to the Maharishi's defense, which is why I now say with some certainty that the alleged sexual intrigue seems to never have happened, at least not according to people who were there. (And even if it had, I've never understood why it necessarily would have mattered-- but that's just me.)

As a Beatles blogger, I'm basically honor-bound to repeat that story when speaking of "Sexy Sadie," but I personally prefer to not think too much about it, because changing the Maharishi to a woman and making the whole thing a lot less specific just makes the song scads more appealing. I mean, when you realize that John wrote "Sexy Sadie" about a real person, it takes on a little bit of a nasty sheen-- but not so much that one can't love it, in my opinion. (This is no "How Do You Sleep?", thank the good Lord. Ever since John's death has turned him into some kind of peacenik "imagine-all-the-people-tra-la-la" icon/martyr in the popular imagination, I feel like people forget how mean John could be. I mean, I can't even listen to the character assassination piece that is "How Do You Sleep?", and that's from the Imagine album, of all places.)

But anyway, just one lovable thing about "Sexy Sadie" is that John's vocal is particularly ingenious, even for him. His singing hits just the right notes of bitterness, amusement, arousal, and even begrudging admiration-- he even manages to make some moments sound a lot like heavy breathing. And his falsetto parts, particularly in the coda, are beautiful, rather like laughter. I think that by the time he got around to making the White Album recording of this thing he'd already become less overtly angry and more just cynical about this situation. It's all in the vocal, which, as usual in John's best vocals, hides nothing that he's feeling. Awesomely, the others sing backup on hilarious "wah-wah-wah" lines that sound as much like "nyah-nyah-nyah" as one could hope for-- while their gleeful rising chorus of "saaay-diiiie" on the bridge sounds like they're egging her on from the sidelines.

And we've got another piano-driven song today, which is kind of cool. That's Paul on the opening piano line, which for some reason has been produced such that it sounds like it's coming from a room down the hall or something. It's also Paul on the bassline that comes in after the piano opening. This is one of Paul's more underrated lines, I think-- listen to it and tell me it doesn't just drip with lazy mockery. I don't know how he manages to infuse basslines with so much personality, but he DOES. Between the piano, the bass, and the drumming--which Ringo keeps fairly lazy and heavy without ever actually lagging behind the beat-- we get a laid-back, sorta hard-rock feel that makes this song a nice breather (or a nice cigarette break) in between the manic rock of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" and "Helter Skelter," which "Sexy Sadie" sits smack in between. Listen to the piano part-- it sounds like it gets almost clunkier as it goes along-- by the time we're midway through, it might actually be just slightly behind the beat.

That piano-and-drum sound on "Sexy Sadie" gives it a totally distinctive sound in the Beatles canon, I think-- I can't imagine ever mistaking this piano part for any other piano part. The whole mood here is a little weird for them, just shot through with a very Lennon-esque cynicism that he'd do a lot more with down the line in his solo recordings. But I find "Sexy Sadie" totally, totally sexy. It's like John's talking dirty to you, or something. So just leave the Maharishi out of it and let him. It rules.

"Sexy Sadie," released in the U.K. side C track 5 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. Another one of those songs we were talking about months back that conveys a feel that's more than the sum of its parts. Great production.

    George became disillusioned too, didn't he?

  2. Yeah, I think George did, but this little snafu made John lose faith in TM and Eastern philosophy period. Whereas George might have just learned a lesson about the fallibility of individuals. Anyway, quite right about the feel. It's unique, don't you think? Really nothing quite like it in the catalog...

  3. Simply Shady -
    George from 1974's "Dark Horse" album :
    You may think of Sexy Sadie
    Let her in through your front door
    And your life won't be so easy anymore

  4. The author of the post basically gets it right about the song, "Sexy Sadie," and thanks for clarifying the source and some of the facts—including how "mean" John could be.

    As is common knowledge among Beatles buffs, John Lennon indeed wrote the song "Sexy Sadie" about Maharishi (and did originally name it "Maharishi"). True, John was upset because of rumors spread by one "Magic Alex," a Beatles tag-along, who convinced John that Maharishi had "misbehaved." But the other Beatles refused to let the song be released under that title. Why? Because they knew that John's rash accusations against Maharishi were false.

    The old tale of the Beatles' disenchantment with Maharishi has been revisited recently by the mainstream press, which for decades spread the gossip that the Beatles' abrupt departure from Maharishi's ashram had to do with some alleged transgression by Maharishi. It did not.

    Recent stories in the L.A. Times, the New York Times and elsewhere have reassessed the Beatles' relationship with Maharishi, looking more at the facts than the rumors that swept the media in the 1960s. The Beatles themselves all discounted the accusations that Lennon made against Maharishi—and Paul, George and Ringo all made public statements that they never believed the rumors.

    John himself phoned Maharishi to apologize for "Sexy Sadie," the writing of which was a rash "error in judgment," John said. (See for details.)

    The two surviving Beatles still practice the technique of meditation that Maharishi taught them (Transcendental Meditation), as did George till the end.

    The strongest evidence for the Beatles' continued respect for Maharishi, and what really says it all, was demonstrated on April 4th this year when Paul and Ringo volunteered to perform a benefit concert to support Transcendental Meditation in the schools, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. This was the first time that Paul and Ringo had played together since the memorial concert for George—and before that they hadn't played together in 20 years. Paul and Ringo were joined by an all-star cast of their TM meditating friends, including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Ben Harper, Moby, Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Sheryl Crow, Jim James and others. (See for more about the concert, and to watch a press conference with Paul and Ringo talking about their time in India and their experience with Maharishi and meditation.)

    Yoko attended the New York concert for TM, and afterward said to Rolling Stone magazine, "Lennon would have been the first one now, if he had been here, to recognize and acknowledge what Maharishi has done for the world and appreciate it."

    The two surviving Beatles expressed great respect for Maharishi when he passed, and continue to show support for TM.

  5. Heh. If we pinpoint Magic Alex as the sole source of the rumours about the Maharishi and his propensity to try it on with girls, then those rumours do indeed begin to look very suspect. I don't think he was teh sole source, though, was he?

    But whether the Maharishi was some sort of minor league sex pest or not, I reckon the Beatles in general did groe disillusioned with gurus in general and the Maharishi is particular.

    George Harrison continued to purue an interest in spirituality, and he remained quite naive in that respect. Peter Brown tells the story of Harrison insisting - on a flight back from a trip he and Brown took to visit the guru in Sweden, to prevail upon him to cease using the Beatles' names in his publicity - that the Maharishi just doesn't understand the issues involved because "he is not a modern man".

    To be very reductive, the hippies in the 1960s made a great decision in rejecting traditional religion(s), but they made a huge blunder by relacing those traditional beliefs with 'new age' ones. The Beatles hooking up with Sadie was emblematic of this tendency.

    The song is great, though, whatever way you look at it. 'Specially that 'however big you think you are' line.

    Meg - what do you think of the mono White Album now you've been listening for a while?


  6. Thanks to everyone for filling out more of the story of the Maharishi here! And laughing crow in particular, thank you for the detail that I didn't fill in entirely. I hope I made it clear that John turned out to be wrong. But I'm still glad he got this song out of it, because I really like it-- and thank God it wasn't released under its original title, or it would be much harder to enjoy.

    As for the White Album in mono, I think I'm with you, JC-- it's, you know, GOOD. But I'm not hearing anything mind-blowing. So far Rubber Soul might be my favorite in mono, but the White Album, though it sounds great with all the remastering, just doesn't benefit from it as much. I think part of it as that so many of these songs are kind of monochromatic sketches that there's just less to hear differently-- like Why Don't We Do It In the Road and Rocky Raccoon and such like, you know, just less complicated in terms of texture than RS, and maybe less likely to benefit from the makeover. I'm just speculating.

    But, I mean, I think it sounds great nevertheless. You say the stereo ie better, yes?

  7. Well, on 'Beatles Day', 09.09.09, me and my Beatles-fanatic best mate trundled down to the nearest record shop and, much as I'd like to have bought both box sets right there, we played it cautious and just bought a handful of stereo remasters - plenty to enjoy for now, get the rest later.

    The stereo White Album was very much a stand-out, of he ones I heard first. It just sounded so, I dunno, opened up and full of life. Plus that lovely boosted bass. When I eventually caved in and bought the mono box, albums like Beatles For Sale and, as you say, Rubber Soul, were big stand-outs in mono. Something about the mono White sounded wrong to me. I think it was the muddiness, and the combined bass and drum, THUD THUD THUD through every song, the drums sounded somehow abbreviated, and the overall effect was jarring and unpleasant. Not good. I kept playing other albums and enjoying them immensely, then trying the mono White again and hating it. But, just a few nights ago, I put it on with the volume cranked up even higher than usual, and suddenly it made sense! The jarring effect was gone, and now I could actually enjoy the monolithic nature of the mix. Now, I'm still not sure I prefer it to the stereo, and a song like 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' I still don't really like in mono, but my opinion has definitely shifted.