Literature in Music: “Tomorrow Never Knows”

 

 

When The Beatles Remasters came out in 2009, I bought a copy of Abbey Road and Revolver. Anxious to hear the sonic upgrade, the first song I played on my stereo was “Tomorrow Never Knows”. If any song would benefit from remastering, it would certainly be Revolver’s closing song with its tape-loops, John Lennon’s distorted voice, and Ringo Starr’s non-traditional drum pattern.

And I was not to be disappointed. The drums wrapped themselves around the room, the odd sounds that are the song’s trademark came from every angle, and George Harrison’s guitar break cut through the chaos like a knife. Lennon’s call to “surrender to the void” was an announcement from a hidden Buddhist Temple. Moments like this are why I love music so much. Songs can take you places you never thought existed, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of rock’s wildest trips.

It should be no surprise then the song’s lyrics were adapted from The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert.  As its name suggests, the book is a manual inspired by the Buddhist funerary text Liberation Through Hearing During The Intermediate State, more commonly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Eastern philosophy became en vogue during the mid-1960s and Lennon became attracted to its themes of death, rebirth, and “clear light of reality”.  Most of the book focuses on the interval between death and the next reincarnation, known in Tibetan as “Bardo”.

Many of Lennon’s lyrics on Revolver deal with death and fatigue (“I know what it’s like to be dead” in “She Said, She Said”, and apathy of “I’m Only Sleeping”). “Tomorrow Never Knows” paints a different picture, though.  It is surrender to the void and an acceptance of the afterlife. Even though Lennon’s voice is pushed to the background of the song, it seeps into your sub-consciousness. He half-sings the lyrics like the prayers they are.

I’ve always thought of Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” as foils. The first deals with inner-peace and the second deals with world-peace and equality. They are both mantras of sorts – a call to arms. In “Imagine”, Lennon invites the listener to envision a world with “no heaven, and no religion too”. While there’s a certain cynicism to the lyrics, it’s still inviting. No such luck on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It’s a command. “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,” Lennon enthuses in the opening line. You’re either going to take this trip with him or you’re not.  Even in “Imagine” Lennon know that he will have his critics. “Tomorrow Never Knows” offers no respite. Your mind will be expanded, and the music only reinforces this.

Clearly the Beatles knew the significance of this song, and that’s why it was the last track on Revolver. They were no longer boys, but grown-ups. And if you didn’t figure it out, you would be the time Sergeant Pepper came out

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1 Comment

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One response to “Literature in Music: “Tomorrow Never Knows”

  1. Interesting. I went back to my Beatles Anthology book and re-read the Beatles’ quotes regarding this song. The title comes from one of Ringo’s silly malapropisms, along with “A Hard Day’s Night.”

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