The much-discussed surrender of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the soothing influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi makes, in my view, depressing reading…The unfortunate Beatles, like many of us, it seems, are in grave danger of coming into contact with the Spirit of Universal Truth, an unhelpful tipple which has in the past turned the great mind of Aldous Huxley to mystical blotting paper.
John Mortimer, The New Statesman, 29 September 1967.
There’s high, and there’s high, and to get really high—I mean so high you can walk on water, that high—that’s where I’m going. The answer’s not pot, but yoga and meditation, and working and discipline, working out your karma.
George Harrison, quoted in Holiday, February 1968.
All at once, or so it seemed, the British pop aristocracy turned to “Eastern” religion. Pete Townshend found Meher Baba, Dave Davies was reading Vivekananda’s Rajah Yoga. Donovan and the Beatles became adherents of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Spiritual Regeneration Movement, an offshoot of Hindu teachings centered on the practice of transcendental meditation.
The mystery of this burst of religiosity is somewhat dispelled if you consider that many of these people had taken LSD for some time—Tony Visconti and his wife Siegrid tripped once a week for a year, for instance, and John Lennon all but lived on acid in 1966. Eastern teachings resounded with young celebrities trying to make sense of a world in which “all limits had been magically removed,” as Bernice Martin wrote.
In Britain, where Christian observance was in great decline among the young (Lennon’s “we’re more popular than Jesus” comment was specifically about this generation), watery varietals of Buddhism and Hinduism became alluring. To Western youth, Buddhism had no edict-heavy god and its spiritual leaders were best known for protesting war and wearing colorful outfits. Seemingly devoted to the “now,” it was misinterpreted as a Pop religion. “I only live now and I don’t know why,” as David Bowie sang in “Karma Man.”
Bowie’s interest in Buddhism dated to his early teens, sparked in part by his half-brother Terry, Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and Penguin paperbacks on Zen Buddhism by the British convert Christmas Humphreys. But the essential book, Bowie later said, was Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, the wellspring of Bowie’s first Buddhist-influenced song,“Silly Boy Blue.” Harrer was a German national who’d made his way into Tibet, a country few Westerners had ever visited. Much of his book concerned his stay in Lhasa, his meetings with the young Dalai Lama, and his thoughts on life in a Buddhist theocracy.
Bowie was a regular at the Tibetan Buddhist Society by late 1965, a time when he often stayed at his manager Ralph Horton’s apartment, a five-minute walk from the Society’s office in Eccleston Square. There he met and befriended a Tibetan lama in exile, Chime Rinpoche, who became Bowie’s spiritual mentor. He would ask Rinpoche and his fellow monks questions about Buddhism that the monks would answer with other questions, a circularity that delighted him.
The more frustrated Bowie became with his pop music career, the deeper his immersion in Mahayana Buddhism: late 1967 and much of 1968, when his debut album tanked and Deram kept rejecting his singles, marked the peak of his self-identification as a Buddhist. He said he was “going to chuck it all in” to become a monk, to the point of claiming to have visited a monastery in Scotland, allegedly sleeping upright in a box and keeping to a vow of silence. (It’s worth noting the latter practices have nothing do to with Mahayana Buddhism. This suggests a strong element of fiction in Bowie’s tale or that this Scottish Buddhist monastery was rather unorthodox.)
Buddhist-derived concepts, such as the ultimate emptiness of the self, intrigued Bowie. The line “his overself pays the bill” in “Silly Boy Blue” suggests that he’d read the Tathāgatagarbha Sutras, Mahayana sutras that claimed within everyone is an immortal, transcendental “overself” (a rough equivalent to the Christian concept of the soul, and sometimes referred to as Ātman, or the “Buddha nature”). Yet while anyone could be a Buddha, this potential was hidden within you, obscured by your own flaws of perception (“colored shades that blind your eyes”)— you wrongly perceived the world and, often, wrongly lived in the world.
So Bowie’s devotion was more dedicated than the average weekend Buddhist of his era, for whom “Tibet” was an Atlantis up in the mountains, a Shangri-La in which everyone was holy and wasn’t hung up on material things. The fevered political atmosphere of 1968 meant that identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist (and so by default protesting China’s occupation of Tibet) could get you flak from Maoist radicals. Even the apolitical Bowie reportedly was heckled by an American Maoist during his pro-Tibet mime Jetsun and the Eagle.
“Karma Man,” written in early-to-mid 1967, was slated as the B-side of Bowie’s proposed autumn single for Deram, a chaste counterpart to the lustful “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” Bowie’s tribute to monks in exile like Rinpoche, its title character prays in a carnival tent as one of the exhibits: a metaphor for the lama in the West, a “freak” living ascetically in the world of ice cream cones and sideshow stalls. There’s the concept of life as perpetual impermanence, which would turn up again in “After All” and “Changes,” and an obvious homage to Ray Bradbury’s tattooed Illustrated Man (“fairytale skin depicting scenes from human zoos”), with the lama as living storybook.
Where “Silly Boy Blue” had the measured tone of a National Geographic article, “Karma Man” was more fantastical. Bowie had taken to describing Buddhist monks as superhuman figures, claiming to the Melody Maker that monks could go days without eating, spend months underground and could live for centuries (traces of this appear in “The Supermen” and “Sons of the Silent Age”). This suggested that Bowie was up on one of the counterculture’s new heroes, Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, an arrogant ex-surgeon reborn as a chela to the Ancient One and who, as per Geoffrey O’Brien, “spends his days sitting lotus fashion within his tastefully decorated Greenwich Village pied-à-terre and tuning into the brainwaves reaching him from across the universe.” Steve Ditko’s Strange Tales was full of astral projections, trips to psychedelic bardos and battles with occult powers like the Dread Dormammu.
“Karma Man” was a fragile beauty of a song, its syllable-stuffed D major verses calmed by harmonized B major refrains, whose melody had for an opening hook a grand descending phrase (“slooow down, sloooow down,” F#-D#-C#-B) that set up the spotlight moment, an Anthony Newley-style elongation of “do–oh–ow–ownnnnnn,” with Bowie really wringing out the concluding en sound. It would have a strange, frustrated life as a recording.
Its 1967 studio take was a rush-job, as Bowie and Visconti had to cut it on the same day they did “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (Deram soon rejected both tracks.) Bowie sounds tentative in his phrasings at times, putting hard emphases on filler words like “he’s” and “but,” sounding as if he’s stalling for time while changing lyric sheets. There’s a fundamental imbalance between Visconti’s cello scoring, which dominates much of the track, and the subdued rhythm section—John McLaughlin vanishing for much of the song after playing the opening riff, some professional busker guitar by “Big Jim” Sullivan, a bass mostly content to shadow the cello (a modest Visconti), Alan White’s drums trying to make peace with the track. Siegrid Visconti sang the high harmonies, blending well with Bowie’s voice and kicking off a tradition of Visconti spouses making cameo appearances on Bowie tracks or videos.
Far better was the “Karma Man” done for the BBC’s Top Gear in May 1968, which I still consider the song’s canonical version. Visconti’s strings are lusher, with a broader tonal range; the tempo has subtly but essentially increased, making the song move at last. Having a stronger rhythmic template to work with (see also, more dynamic drumming and livelier guitar strum patterns), Bowie sounds at ease in the song, better handling the tricky rhythms of his verse lines, luxuriating in his refrains.
He returned to “Karma Man” in early 1970, as it was being released at last, on a Deram compilation LP cashing in on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” success. Performing it alone for a John Peel session, Bowie alters the guitar pattern to the sort of chugging Bo Diddley-esque line he favored in the “Space Oddity” era, while he has a similar plaintive tone as on likes of “Columbine” and “God Knows I’m Good.” He’s more inventive as a singer by now—listen to how he subtly shifts emphases and holds his notes with more assurance in the refrains—and he makes “Karma Man” sound fresh. You can imagine it having further life on stage in the Hunky Dory/Ziggy years, but this was the end of it.
Thirty years later, Bowie remade many of his “lost” Sixties songs. “Silly Boy Blue” got a gravid, respectful reinvention; “Let Me Sleep Beside You” became an aging roue’s come-on. “Karma Man,” never bootlegged but said to have been cut in the Toy sessions, would remain a rumor until last Friday, when it appeared on streaming sites.
I wish that I could say its Toy version gave the song a new perspective. But so far I just hear a cluttered, fumbled cover, a reheated “oldie” with Bowie in a diminished voice—was he getting over a cold when he cut this vocal?—that feels more dated than its Sixties versions. The arrangement, with Mike Garson filigrees in the verses, a trumpet opening hook and radio ident bumper vocal tags, sounds at times like a band trying to replicate a Badly Drawn Boy track from memory. Sterling Campbell tries to pound some life into the thing, and there may well be some good guitar lines somewhere in the mix. The 1968 “Karma Man” had grace; the 1970 version held mystery—it left an opening. Its 2000 incarnation is airless.
There would be no going back, it turned out, and this wouldn’t be the way forward. The world that created “Karma Man” now seems ten lifetimes away. Bowie’s song was a butterfly, never meant to last more than a summer.
(Deram version) Recorded: 1 September 1967, Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal; John McLaughlin: lead guitar; Jim Sullivan: acoustic guitar; Tony Visconti: bass; Alan White: drums; Siegrid Visconti: harmony vocals; unknown player(s): cello. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Gerald Chevin. First release: 6 March 1970, The World of David Bowie (Decca SPA 58)
(Top Gear version) Recorded: 13 May 1968, Piccadilly 1 Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; McLaughlin: lead guitar; Alan Hawkshaw: keyboards; Herbie Flowers: bass; Barry Morgan: drums; Visconti, Steve “Peregrin” Took: harmony vocals; The Tony Visconti Orchestra (uncredited): violins, violas, celli. Produced: Bernie Andrews; engineered: Alan Harris. First release: 26 September 2000, Bowie at the Beeb (EMI/Virgin 7243 5 28629 2 4).
(Sunday Show version) Recorded: 5 February 1970, BBC Paris Studio, London. Bowie: vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar. First release: 28 May 2021, The Width of a Circle.
(Toy version). Recorded: (tracking) July 2000, Sear Sound, New York; (vocals, overdubs) October 2000, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Bowie: lead vocal; Earl Slick: lead guitar; Mark Plati: rhythm guitar, keyboards; Mike Garson: keyboards; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass; Sterling Campbell: drums; Cuong Vu: trumpet?; Holly Palmer, Emm Gryner: harmony vocals. Produced: Plati; engineered: Pete Keppler. First release: (streaming) 15 October 2021.