There aren’t many songs that Patti Smith can’t turn her hand to but, on the face of it, The Beatles classic ‘Within You Without You’ looks like a song that is even a little bit out of her reach. It’s also a track that is deeply connected to its original creator, George Harrison, and his own spiritual awakening.
The Beatles were connected to India even before their trip in the spring of 1968. During the mid-60s, George Harrison was trying to extend himself beyond the role of a guitarist in the band and wanted to explore his potential by indulging in new interests and opportunities. Soon, he found himself enticed by the cultural heritage and spiritual soul of India, which led him to take a break from the band and visit Bombay in September 1966 with his wife Pattie Boyd, to learn under the tutelage of the sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar.
“When I had first come across a record of Ravi Shankar’s I had a feeling that, somewhere, I was going to meet him,” recalled the guitarist. “It happened that I met him in London in June, at the house of Ayana Deva Angadi, founder of the Asian Music Circle. An Indian man had called me up and said that Ravi was going to be there. The press had been trying to put me and him together since I used the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’. They started thinking: ‘A photo opportunity – a Beatle with an Indian.’ So they kept trying to put us together, and I said ‘no’, because I knew I’d meet him under the proper circumstances, which I did,” said Harrison in The Anthology.
The nourishment he drew from the Indian soils flowered into a few compositions that changed the band’s soundscape. ‘Within You Without You’ was the second song after ‘Love You To’ that was heavily inspired by Indian classical music and spiritual concepts.
The lyrics had their roots in the Hindu religious Vedic texts which talked about monism and maya. These are mammoth concepts which occupy thousands of pages in sacred texts but a simplified version would come down to something like this: The material world is nothing but an illusion (maya). The only absolute truth in this world is the divine and it should be our aim to unite with him through acts of love and kindness. The lines “We were talking about the space between us all/ And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion/Never glimpse the truth…” echoes this concept. However, the transcendental theme corresponds with the idea behind the Summer of Love which promoted universal love and peace, something that was raging along the west coast of America at the time.
The music was inspired by a classical sitar recital of Ravi Shankar in the All India Radio. Harrison, while discussing the composition in 2000, said: “Within You Without You’ was a song that I wrote based upon a piece of music of Ravi [Shankar]’s that he’d recorded for All-India Radio. It was a very long piece – maybe thirty or forty minutes … I wrote a mini version of it, using sounds similar to those I’d discovered on his piece.” Harrison used Indian instruments like Dilruba, Tanpura, Tabla and Sitar to incorporate the authentic flavours.
Harrison’s understanding of Indian classical music in such a short period of time is impressive, his implementation of that knowledge can’t be credited the same. It could have been a classic fusion piece if he complimented the Indian instruments with the western ones. The final product was just a short Indian classical recital with English lyrics which can’t be called a “fusion” from a musical point of view. Moreover, the beautiful lyrics were overpowered to some extent by the instrumentation and, as a result, it lost its essence.
This is one of the songs whose immense potential was better explored in cover versions. Among many others, Patti Smith’s cover was an absolute treat to the ears. Smith didn’t go for fusion, instead, she turned it into a full-fledged pop song with guitar and drums. The track was included in Smith’s 2007 album Twelve which exclusively contained cover versions.
Smith’s voice sparkles throughout the track. The version brings the lyrics into the spotlight re-emphasising its beautiful message and transcendental quality. It might have taken away the more obvious and audible Indian influences, but its traces remain within the lyrics and in basic melody. The ease with which Smith has re-arranged and delivered the song makes one think if it was made for her.