Paul Saltzman came to India in the spring of 1968, driven by a desire to reconnect with his soul. A few weeks later, dumped by his girlfriend via airmail, the now successful Canadian producer and director found himself outside the gates of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh. It took eight days of camping outside to be let in, but once there, Saltzman spent the a week in the company of the Beatles. He exhibited his photographs of that trip in New York last month. He spoke to Lounge about hanging out with the band, and the impact of that life-changing week:
When did you first see them?
Well, after I got in, the meditation took half an hour, and it was fantastic. The agony was gone, so I walked out. Then I saw them sitting on a table, on a cliff overlooking the Ganga. I walked over, and said “May I join you?” and John said, “Sure, mate, pull up a chair.” Then, Paul said, “Come and sit here,” and pulled a chair next to him. They finished what they were talking about, and then John turned to me and teased, “So, you’re American then,” which certainly wasn’t a compliment. I said “No, Canadian.” And he turned to the rest of the group, and said, “Ah! He’s from one of the colonies, then.” We joked like that for five minutes until finally, Cynthia (Lennon) said, “Leave the poor chap alone. He’s only just arrived.”
Reunion: Starr poses with Saltzman.
Were they as cool as everyone thought they were?
After they left, their road manager Mal Evans and I were left sitting together. I asked him if they were really as cool as they seemed. “Not always, but pretty much,” he said. They were phenomenally down to earth. They all had a Liverpudlian humour —slightly denigrating, but playful. Their humour was clearly one way they kept their feet on the ground.
What were the life-changing conversations?
George and I were sitting with everybody in the shade. And everyone got up to leave except George and myself. I said to him, I love the way you brought the sitar into Norwegian Wood. So, he started telling me about learning the sitar with Ravi Shankar, and coming to Mumbai with Pattie (Boyd), and then he said I’m going to go practise, do you want to come. So, we went to a small mediation room, and he started to play. I just zoned out. I don’t know how long he played. We had an incredible conversation about life and meditation and, so on. He said two things to me that were life changing. About meditation he said, “I get higher than I ever did with drugs.” And he meant it literally.
And then, he said this other thing, which was more profoundly life-changing.
He said, “Like, we’re The Beatles after all, aren’t we? We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for. But, it isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside, is it?”
That changed my life, and I never forgot it.
The other moment was with John. Again, we were sitting with everyone at the table. Everyone got up to leave, and I was finishing a cup of chai.
He asked me what I was doing there in a very kind way, and I told him briefly, about the heartbreak, and miracle of meditation. He said, “Love can be pretty tough on us sometimes, can’t it?” and then, “But then, the good thing is, eventually, you always get another chance.”
That was life-changing for me. Of course, I didn’t realize until months later, when I read about John and Yoko, that he was also talking about himself.
They wrote 48 songs during their time at the ashram. Did you ever see them compose any of them?
There was only one that I sat with them while they were composing. That was Ob la di. What happened is that they were sitting together and I took a bunch of pictures. I noticed under Paul’s toe he was holding down a little piece of paper and I looked at the scrap, and it had “Ob la di Ob la da” scrawled on it and he was reading the words. He and John sung it over and over again with tremendous joy. They were playing it faster and slower, and about a second after I took the picture, Paul looked up with a twinkle in his eye and said, “That’s all there is so far. We don’t have any of the words yet.”
How did they let you take photos of them?
When I was sitting with them the first day, I noticed they took pictures of each other, sitting across the table. So, the day after I met them, I asked each of them individually if I could take pictures. And the reason the pictures are so intimate is that they took me into the group. I literally stopped thinking of them as The Beatles, as strange as that sounds.
The beatles broke up shortly after that trip. Did you sense any tension?
When they were in India, they were very close and tight. The only thing I noticed was that John and Cynthia seemed to be not very connected to each other. It was nothing very overt, but you could feel it. Of course, now we know why.
Did you ever see them after that?
About three years ago, Ringo’s record producer Mark Hudson got in touch with me and said Ringo would like one of my pictures. I had never seen any of them again after that week. I tried to get in touch after my first book, but I never got any response except from Ringo’s lawyer, who said he wasn’t interested in talking about India. So, I said he can have any or all of them for free, but on one condition: that I give them to him in person. So, about three summers ago, my wife and I travelled to New York to meet him. We spent a lovely half-hour chatting, and this time I remembered to take a picture with him.
Paul Saltzman is the author of The Beatles in India. Visit www.thebeatlesinindia.com for more information