Many Beatles fanatics would attest to the Fab Four’s songs saving them from one emotion or another, perhaps even rescuing them on a grander scale than a pop star ever should. Whether its the extra dose of happiness they imbued with ‘Yellow Submarine’ to save you from a gloomy day or the trip down to the ‘Norwegian Wood’ to relieve you of boredom—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr produced songs capable of changing the atmosphere and one’s own outlook.
One such song, allegedly composed on the spot and in dire circumstances, was written to save the sister of actor Mia Farrow from a spiritual meltdown as she got lost in the pursuit of transcendental enlightenment. Instead, John Lennon and George Harrison reacted and performed a rough version of ‘Dear Prudence’, a song which would not only become a focal point of their White Album, but a crucial part of their legacy too.
The group were embarking on a trip to India to partake in the practice of yoga and transcendental meditation under the tutelage of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — a figure who had gathered growing importance in the band’s life. Arriving in India was a significant moment in The Beatles history and influenced much of their later work. It was a retreat that welcomed many celebrities including folk singer Donovan, The Beach Boys member Mike Love, Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence.
Prudence had flung herself into the opportunity India and the Maharishi’s teachings afforded her and had become slightly obsessed with the practice. A heavy-hitting regime of grand conceptual conversations about eternal spirituality mixed with hours upon hour of meditation can have an effect on anybody. According to Lennon, going a little “barmy”.
Prudence would later say in Womack’s book The Beatles Encyclopaedia: “I would always rush straight back to my room after lectures and meals so I could meditate. John, George and Paul would all want to sit around jamming and having a good time and I’d be flying into my room. They were all serious about what they were doing, but they just weren’t as fanatical as me.”
Lennon and Harrison had become close with Prudence after she revealed that she had travelled to India following a traumatic experience with LSD, and they were even assigned as her “team buddies” by the Maharishi. Offered two of the biggest musicians in the world as your support network, Prudence would need to rely on the two stars as her comfort. It was a responsibility the duo took very seriously, and when they were asked to coax Prudence out of her room and partake in the group’s activities, they dutifully obliged.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Donovan was also present at the retreat and remembered in a later Mojo article that “we were diving deep inside ourselves, not just for 20 minutes in the morning and the evening, but we had days of it…deep exploration of the deep psyche…So Prudence was in deep, and this [song] was John’s way of saying, ‘Are you OK in there?'”.
Paul McCartney remembered in a 1994 interview that the song was composed during her self-administered seclusion and that it helped to bring her back into the group’s fold. “He (John) wrote ‘Dear Prudence, won’t you come out and play’ and went in and sang it to her,” said Macca, before adding: “And I think that actually did help.” Farrow would later say that she hadn’t heard the song until it was released on The White Album later that year.
As part of Lennon’s iconic interview with David Sheff of Playboy, the singer-songwriter offered up his own opinions on some of the song’s conception: “‘Dear Prudence’ is me. Written in India. A song about Mia Farrow’s sister, who seemed to go slightly barmy, meditating too long, and couldn’t come out of the little hut we were livin’ in.
“They selected me and George to try and bring her out because she would trust us,” and she did trust them, and a degree of normality was restored to her life. As Lennon rightly notes, at this time, “If she’d been in the West, they would have put her away… We got her out of the house.”
Clearly proud of his human achievement and now distancing himself from the Maharishi he said: “She’d been locked in for three weeks and was trying to reach God quicker than anybody else. That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp—who was going to get cosmic first. What I didn’t know was I was ‘already’ cosmic.”