Whether or not he actually warranted it, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi incurred the wrath of John Lennon towards the end of The Beatles’ visit with him in India in 1968 for a meditation-based retreat. Maybe the Maharishi was enlightened, but he must have missed the knowledge that it’s never a good idea to get on the bad side of a great songwriter, deservedly or not, or else you’ll have a song like “Sexy Sadie” written about you besmirching your reputation from here to eternity.
The short version of the story is that Lennon, who initially dove headlong into meditation and the Maharishi’s teachings, lost respect for him when he heard that the so-called Giggling Guru had made a pass at one of the female retreaters. Many who were there claim that there was never any evidence of this happening and that Lennon was intentionally given bad information. In any case, he was fired up enough to write a song expressing his disgust, changing the title from “Maharishi” to “Sexy Sadie” only when George Harrison convinced him to do so.
This wasn’t the only song of disdain that emanated from his India experience; he aimed “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill” at an ardent hunter in the camp. But that one came off as a fun but slight novelty at best when it was released on The White Album in 1968; “Sexy Sadie,” on the other hand, rose much higher on the strength of some enchanting music and the complicated mixed bag of emotions in the lyrics.
The song begins with Paul McCartney’s piano intro, somehow stately and wobbly at once thanks to the effects added to it. Once the rhythm kicks in, it does so at an ambling pace, yet Ringo Starr is able to keep things from falling into torpor with spicy drumming. McCartney flitters about the lower end on bass, and eventually Harrison takes over on the outro with spiraling riffs.
The music somehow manages both dreaminess and melancholy, which makes it just the right fit for Lennon’s lyrics. He doesn’t just go off on a one-sided diatribe, which would have been easy enough but could have come off as too snide. Instead he adds just a hint of admiration, as if ultimately impressed that the title character has the ability to wield such power over her acolytes.
Thus every accusatory word (“You made a fool of everyone”) is balanced out by quasi-praise (“How did you know/ The world was waiting just for you?”) In fact, it’s initially hard to hear anything but adulation in lines like “One sunny day the world was waiting for a lover/ She came along to turn on every one.” The backing vocals by McCartney and Harrison also seem to hover between praise and mockery.
By the final verse, Lennon has had enough equivocating, finally calling her out: “You’ll get yours yet/ However big you think you are.” Yet even the anger within that line is quickly turned around to disappointment and even a glimmer of lingering hope: “We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table/ Just a smile would lighten everything.” Lennon’s last falsetto cries seem resigned to the fact that he’s been duped though, and he’s left to repeat his threat: “However big you think you are.”
There’s a great moment captured in The Beatles Anthology documentary of Lennon being queried by a reporter shortly after his return from India about whether he thought the Maharishi was on the level. Lennon, always lightning quick with a retort, responded, “I don’t know what level he’s on.” That sense of disillusionment and unknowing hangs heavy over “Sexy Sadie,” one of the prettiest poisoned-pen letters you’ll ever hear.