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Instant Karma

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I.

Linda asks once. "What happened in India?" she says. "Something must have." Because she's Linda, and you're alone, one lazy day in Scotland with the kids playing within earshot and the wind too biting for any reporter crazy enough to breach private property, you say: "John and I talked shit about drugs."

It sounds like a flippant reply, like a joke. It's the only way you can even approach the topic, and because she's Linda, she gets that.

You're not lying. That conversation is what happened in India, and in retrospect, you can see the damage it did. But everything said then was only the end, not the beginning, and you're not sure how to tell the rest. Not least because it means dragging all those things to the surface that are safer hidden, or given musical shape. Words in themselves are clumsy and insufficient. You've always felt that. But oh, words in conjunction with music. The sound of things. You can rave about your childhood and the way it's there and it's not, separate from you through your fame and yet always present, and it sounds trite. But the sound of a piccolo trumpet: there it is, Penny Lane in my ears and eyes, and it is everything.

"You're just chicken," John would say, but even John, whose gift for words was always greater, never found any that remotely captured what the two of you were as well as your singing voices did, perfectly matched in their differences.

But words matter, you're forced to concede that to him, and those spoken in India and before were fatal.

 

II.

India, then. It's just you and John and George talking, because Ringo is busy helping Maureen in her anti flies crusade, and Jane avoids being around John on general principle if she can help it. George is happy, perhaps the last time before the group ends that he's really, genuinenly happy, practically glowing with satisfaction, and genuinely amused that John keeps asking when the Maharishi will reveal the answers. "This," George says, in his element here in Rishikesh as he hasn't been anywhere for quite a while, "this is the answer. This life. It's not about some gimick, John."

"Well, I don't know about you, son, but I want more than scouts camp for giving up the old lysergic," John replies, half serious, half not.

You're busy teasing out a new melody with the finger picking technique Donovan has been teaching you, so you don't pay as much attention as you should have, and comment in the same vein: "Wasn't a big loss, though, was it? Face it, acid's been a bit of a drag."

Silence. You look up, and that's when you notice something is wrong. John is staring at you. He's not wearing his glasses, not the new ones adopted from that film he did, not the old ones which Buddy Holly wore, and so you can see his eyes. Unclouded, because the Maharishi insists on his followers abstaining from drugs, clear as they haven't been in years, and right now, twin accusations in hazel. Then they turn to ice.

"You never really liked it," John says.

"Sure I did," you answer lightly, trying to steer the conversation back to safe banter. "Told the press so, remember?"

"Don't we all," George says drily. You're aware George has been anything but thrilled by the "I took LSD three times" interview, and that he is convinced you did it just to promote Pepper. But of course he backed you up in public back then, and backs you up right now, getting John back to jokes, and when has John ever been able to resist a crack on your expense?

But John doesn't go for the obvious opening. John doesn't tease you about being a media whore. No, John ignores George altogether, keeps staring at you and repeats: "You never really liked doing it."

Now you're starting to bristle, because what does he want to hear? You're not talking about that night in front of George. You're not talking about that night, full stop. And truth to tell, "like" is the wrong word anyway. It was intense and as revelatory as advertised, and it scared the hell out of you, as you knew it would. There is a reason why it took you more than one and a half years to try, and why you never had the slightest problem following the Maharishi's edict in regards to LSD, despite not feeling the same awe for the man that George and John do.

You need this conversation to stop, right now, and if John isn't going for banter, fine. There is another way to change the subject. You give him your most blank look.

"It was alright," you say. "I've had better."

You're all sitting cross legged on mats, making an effort at this whole disciple thing, but now John jumps up faster than he's moved for years, takes your guitar right out of your hands and hisses in your ear: "I wish you were dead."

Then he flings the guitar in the next corner and stomps away. George looks after him, mouth half open, before turning to you. But you don't want to have that conversation with George, either, so you get up as well and collect the guitar from the floor to check it for damage.

Amazingly, there is none.

III.

Sometimes you wonder whether the single person responsible for the most problems within the group, and certainly between you and John, wasn't that dentist who thought it was a great idea to dose John, Cyn, George and Pattie with acid.

John and George were full of the fervour of the newly converted afterwards. Couldn't talk about anything else, how fucking amazing it had been, how it showed you the truth about yourself, how you couldn't possibly understand yourself until you've tried it. "I don't know, mate," you say, "I like me as a distant acquaintance, I don't want us to get closer," and that gets you some laughs, but John knows you meant it, so he later asks what you're so afraid of, and when you say you're not, he says: "Well, then you'll do a trip with us, won't you?" and without further asking tells you it's all arranged, there is acid in Los Angeles and a few days between concerts away from the public.

You never took well to being dictated to. So you invite Peggy the evening he wants to do the trip, pretty available Peggy who has been badgering Mal to arrange for another date with you ever since news of this tour hit the media. Peggy is there, as eager and blonde as ever, and John is predictably furious. He's incredibly rude to her, making a crack about not needing to invite girls for dinner if all you want is to fuck them after dinner. But Peggy is bedazzled and horny enough to stay despite the insults, and that is the end of John trying to force LSD on you.

Instead, he goes for the indirect approach. Inside jokes with George, and scornful asides about chicken squares who can't possibly understand. George is just a little too smug in playing along, and maybe that's why you give him an extra hard time in the studio when you're recording, but really, it's for his own good, and it's not like you're asking anything of him you're not willing to do yourself. That is the exploration all of you should be concerned with, how much better you can play, how much farther you can push, all those amazing things possible now in the studio, and really, who needs LSD if you can stay up all night to create tape loops full of voices that never were?

As for being a coward, well. You're not the one staying in the suburbs, staring at the tv and dreaming your life away. Instead, you're in the thick of things, listening to William Burrough's flat Midwestern voice one moment and being introduced to the wonder that is Magritte by your new friend Robert Fraser the next. Robert, interestingly enough, despite being familiar with every drug known to man and a few which aren't, never tries to persuade you to take LSD with him. Cocaine, yes, and you do, which certain people who shall remain Lennon would not dare to. Heroin, yes, once, and you don't like it, say as much, and Robert shrugs and says he won't bother you with it again, a promise he keeps. But not LSD.

"You're not into acid?" you ask Robert once, and he shakes his head.

"I like being in control too much," he says, and you have your answer.

Years later, you find out Yoko doesn't care for LSD, either, and you're not remotely surprised.

IV.

All the meditation in India leads you to conclude that maybe you shouldn't let John brood about the stupid acid matter and clear things up, because you can't get that look on his face out of your head. So you waylay him on the way of what passes for the post office in Rishikesh, no bandmates, wives, girlfriends or well meaning American musicians in sight, and you come to the point immediately, because isn't that what this time here is supposed to be about? Being honest to each other?

"Listen," you say, "I didn't mean you. When I said it was just alright."

"Then what the hell were you talking about?" John asks distrustfully. He's wearing his glasses now, the new ones, the National Health Care ones, granny specs, circles of glass that reflect the sun and hide his eyes. Your own hurt, the result of spending hours in a dark hut, trying to concentrate, and then running straight into the sun.

You want to say that shared trip was everything to you. That this is why the memory still frightens you, even more than you suspected it would, because you showed him everything that night, and he was everywhere. There had been no sense of self left where he wasn't. That was why you had to get out of the house, and also why you returned, and really, blokes don't talk about such things. Not even in India.

So instead, you say: "I meant Tara."

"What?" John asks, sounding genuinenly baffled.

"My trip with Tara," you clarify. "The first one. It wasn't all that, so I..."

"You did it with Tara before you did it with me?"

You had forgotten John didn't know that. It had been a controlled experiment, and Tara had been ideal because he'd done it before and was a nice guy but not the brightest lad around. Chances were that whatever your subconscious would reveal would just pass him by, and sure enough, it did.

"You're unbelievable," John says in India, and enough is enough. Except it's not, never for John, John always wants more, whatever you give him, and that way lies madness.

"I think you're confusing me with Cyn, mate," you say. "I'm not the one you're married to."

"I've been confusing something, alright," John says grimly. "But not anymore. So thanks for opening my eyes, mate. Thank you for that."

 

V.

When your producer tells you he left John on the roof, that's when you know you'll give in. You and George race upstairs to find John intact and whole, as opposed to wandering off the roof convinced he could fly, and for a moment you can't breathe. You don't doubt for a moment he did it intentionally, taking LSD right here in the studio, because he never slipped up before. You should be furious. Maybe you are. This album will be special, you just feel it, better than Revolver even, you've never been so confident about your music in your life, and here is John putting that at risk for the sake of a few hours on acid.

But it's not anger that makes your throat feel constricted. There is something about John alone under the stars that refuses to let you go.

"That's it," you tell George. "Let's call it a night. I'll take him home."

"Are you sure?" George asks. "It's a long drive out to Weybridge, and I live there anyway, so I could..."

You didn't mean home to Weybridge. Not to John's home. You meant yours.

"No, I'll do it," you say and leave George to explain things to George Martin. John follows you meekly down the stairs, through the floor and into the car, the car that is necessary even for the short, short distance to your house, because no matter how early or late, the girls are waiting outside. Maybe John thinks you're going to deliver him to Cynthia, too, because he sits silently next to you right until your car comes to a stop and whatever else he sees in his acid-fuddled state, he realises where you are.

His left hand shoots up and grabs your wrist. He looks at you, and the starlight paints his face hollow.

"You have more with you," you say. "Don't you."

It's not a question. If John taking acid in the studio had been a genuine accident, he wouldn't have, but you know John, and so you know, as sure as any note you ever played, he has another pill at his disposal, one more lysergic key to the fabled kingdom of knowing the things you bloody well should leave alone.

You're scared again. More scared than you ever were in Hamburg, more than in the air plane that suddenly started to spew black smoke over America, more than in the Philippines when the police left you at the mercy of a public that seemed to want to tear you apart.

"Don't fuck about," John whispers. "Do you mean it?"

His other hand wanders inside and out of his shirt, and when he opens it, it's there, lying in his palm, harmless and white, looking for all the world like some Aspirin.

"Yes," you say, and raising his hand to your lips, swallow it whole.