In the spring of 1968, The Beatles found themselves in Rishikesh in the Northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. There, tucked between the Himalayan foothills and the sacred waters of the Ganges, the Fab Four and their entourage – comprised of musicians Donovan, Mike Love, Paul Horn, the actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence Farrow – engaged in a programme of transcendental meditation under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The trip gave birth to some of the band’s most revered songs, including the perenially evocative White Album cut ‘Dear Prudence’.
It would be wrong to suggest that such songs were inspired purely by the group’s pursuit of the eternal. That being said, Lennon clearly benefitted from the communal way of living at Rishikesh, not to mention the tranquillity of the location and the structure of life on the retreat. As they evolved more attuned to their inner worlds, the Beatles became increasingly sensitive to their surroundings and to one another, a sensitivity that found its way into their music.
Prudence Farrow was something of an outsider during her stay. Years later, she confessed that she had indeed been rather “fanatical” about her desire to achieve a state of enlightenment. “Being on that course was more important to me than anything in the world,” she tells Steve Turner in A Hard Days Write. “I was very focused on getting in as much meditation as possible, so that I could gain enough experience to teach it myself. I knew that I must have stuck out because I would always rush straight back to my room after lectures and meals so that I could meditate. John, George and Paul would all want to sit around jamming and having a good time and I’d be flying into my room. They were all serious about what they were doing but they just weren’t as fanatical as me”.
But Farrow’s apparent “barminess”, as Lennon put it, wasn’t the only inspiration behind ‘Dear Prudence’. John started writing the song after hearing Donovan play finger-style guitar during an evening jam session. Speaking on an episode of The South Bank Show in 2004, the folk musician recalled: “When we were in India, John said: ‘How do you do that?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said: ‘That stuff with your fingers’. I said, ‘It’s a pattern’. Three days later he had learnt it and a whole new world opened up for his songwriting. ‘Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play’.”
That same singer-plucked guitar style would come to define several other White Album songs, including ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ and the mournful ‘Julia’, the latter of which, in its nakedness, gives Lennon’s lyrics a certain vulnerability. Just as meditation may have allowed Lennon to peel away a few layers of ego, Donovan’s lesson allowed him to access something organic, psychologically complex and, rather counterintuitively, truly original.