‘Mad Men’ spotlights the Beatles’ best song

May 8, 2012

This blog will leave the TV critiquing to the TV critics, but one thing we can say with certainty is that in its fifth season on AMC, Mad Men is on a roll with its musical selections and cool inside-rock references, from Megan Draper’s performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou” a few weeks back, to the recent nod to the Rolling Stones’ obscure jingle for Rice Krispies. But the most striking moment by far came this week when Don walked into his beyond-mod Manhattan super flat, went over to his space-age stereo system and spun “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the best song from the Beatles’ best album—which some would say makes it the best song ever, period.

On Monday, Forbes reported that the track cost Mad Men show runner Matthew Weiner a cool $250,000. But it was worth every penny, and not only for the jokey reference to the statement earlier in the same episode that nobody ever could afford to license a Beatles song. Simply put, it stands as rock’s finest evocation of a transcendental journey—spiritual, imaginary or, specifically in the case of its author, drug-induced.

Among the many other superlatives heaped on them, and not only by nostalgic Baby Boomers, the Fab Four are remembered as the Acid Apostles of the New Age. But the Beatles’ earliest psychedelic experiences were unfulfilling—a far cry from Roger Sterling’s recent psychedelic revelation.

John Lennon and George Harrison first tripped in 1964 after they were unknowingly dosed by their dentist during dinner at his flat. Though the tooth doc begged them to stay, the two Beatles were angry and stormed out. They made the mistake of speeding around London in Harrison’s Aston-Martin, landing at several nightclubs where the crowds and the noise unnerved them further, before finally escaping to Harrison’s house and winding down, thoroughly freaked out.

Their second trip wasn’t much better. In August 1965 they took LSD with members of the Byrds and some Tinsel Town hipsters while they were staying in L.A. to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. This time, as they tried to chill out in a hot tub, actor Peter Fonda wouldn’t stop babbling about how he almost died on the operating table, until a freaked-out Lennon finally screamed at him to shut up. (That experience would later be recounted in the song “She Said She Said.”)

Lennon finally had his first profoundly moving psychedelic experience in December 1965, a month after the release of Rubber Soul. Sitting alone in his attic, armed with Timothy Leary and crew’s how-to manual The Psychedelic Experience, he finally traveled toward the “white light” described by that psychedelic prophet Aldous Huxley. The next morning he began writing a song, and three months later, the Beatles recorded “The Void” at Abbey Road Studios, the first tune for what would become Revolver.

Eventually re-titled “Tomorrow Never Knows” after one of Ringo’s pet aphorisms, the song features several lines lifted directly from The Psychedelic Experience—the Beatles, we should note, were not above sampling—and that book had in turn been adapted by Harvard’s acid acolytes from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, ancient advice to a dying soul on how to reach heaven. “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream/It is not dying, it is not dying,” Lennon sings. “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void/It is shining, it is shining.”

Lennon’s voice is both intimate and distant, as if he’s whispering in your ear from somewhere over the horizon. Meanwhile, an insistent drum beat folds in on itself again and again—a tribal trance groove—while an ominous organ and Harrison’s guitar drone in the background and strange bird calls of backward tape loops mock the monotone vocals, which Lennon intended to evoke the sound of a thousand chanting Tibetan monks. Closing in on half a century later, the song stills sounds like a clarion call from another world, resembling nothing else in rock.

What did Don Draper think of it? Superficially ambivalent as ever, he didn’t let on, but it’s hard to imagine he didn’t well and truly have his mind blown… just like I do, each and every time I hear it. And so will you.