Across the Universe
“Look at the sky; remind yourself of the cosmos. Seek vastness at every opportunity in order to see the smallness of yourself.“
-Matt Haig, Novelist (1975-)
“Instead of being overwhelmed by the universe, I think that perhaps one of the deepest experiences a scientist can have, almost approaching a religious awakening, is to realize that we are children of the stars, and that our minds are capable of understanding the universal laws that they obey.”
-Michio Kaku, Theoretical Physicist (1947-)
“Nothing’s gonna change my world ….”
-John Lennon, Songwriter, Performer and Peace Activist (1940-1980)
John Lennon first wrote the words and music to Across the Universe in 1967. ’67 was the year that US astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward Higgins White and Roger Chaffee burnt to death in Apollo 1 during a launch pad test, 10,000 people marched in San Francisco against the Vietnam War, Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu married in Las Vegas, Israel defeated an Arab consortium in the Six-Day War, Britain decriminalized homosexuality, the world’s first heart transplant was carried out by Dr Christiaan Barnard in Cape Town, South Africa, and the space race was well and truly underway, stimulating America to launch three lunar orbiters while Russia launched two Venus probes.
The haunting song was credited Lennon-McCartney, but it was Lennon’s brainchild. As he recalled it, he was lying in bed, thinking, alongside Cynthia, his first wife. That evening he had become annoyed at her, in his words, “going on and on about something.” The phrase words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup came to him spontaneously, and kept recurring over and over inside his head.
In an attempt to dispel his exasperation, Lennon eventually went downstairs, wrote out the lyrics, went back to bed, and—mission accomplished—promptly forgot about the incident. Months later he revived the song, and, after some fine-tuning, a final version was recorded by the Beatles at their Abbey Road studios on February 8, 1968. Although it went through several iterations, Across the Universe became what some regard as the flagship composition of the Beatles’ last album, Let it Be—even in the minds of some fans, outshining other tracks of genius including Get Back, The Long and Winding Road and the title song of the album’s name, Let it Be.
Lennon said later that he transformed the experience into a “cosmic song rather than an irritated song,” but so far as the beautifully suggestive lyrics were concerned, they “were purely inspirational and were given to me as boom!” He went on to say, “I don’t own it (the song) you know; it came through like that.”
Lennon, genius that he was, was not a psychologist or neuroscientist, so he did not know that this is often how the brain works. He felt he didn’t “own” the song because he didn’t sit down and plan to write, and then execute, the words of the song and the accompanying melody. The structural and functional architecture of the brain predisposes people to have unpremeditated ideas which seem to come out of nowhere.
Everyone experiences this. Lennon’s spur of the moment ideas were amazing, and he had more creative intuitions than almost everyone else on the planet, of course. He revealed more about Across the Universe in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine:
“It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written … it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin’ it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand out as words, without the melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.”
He’s being disingenuous, of course, as John Lennon could be. For me, that brilliant harmonic progression and haunting strangeness always lingers long after the last D chord as the Jai Guru Deva refrain fades away. But that’s not the start of the song, it’s the end. You can read the lyrics on many sites. Try this one, here: https://www.google.com/search?q=Across+teh+Universe+lytrics&rlz=1C1GCEU_en-GBNL821FR822&oq=Across+teh+Universe+lytrics&aqs=chrome..69i57j0i13l9.5599j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The message the song articulates is one which contrasts beautifully with the hard facts of the Universe—its age and expanse. We can glimpse in the language of the first verse everything that poetry can make manifest. The image of words echoing out from Earth through the solar system, then out across the Milky Way, and beyond to other galaxies, is as powerful as any other Beatles’ composition, or anything by their contemporaries the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. The lyrics are jam-packed with images, motifs, symbols. Words flow, rain is endless, words slither; sorrow comes in pools, sorrow and joy drift, and the singer’s mind is opened to experience. He is both possessed and caressed. The semantic structure is simple and elegant and the metaphors are just lovely.
The song was laid down in the group’s transcendental meditation phase. The Jai Guru Deva. Om refrain links the verse and the “Nothing’s gonna change my world” refrain to the chorus and literally means “glory to the shining remover of darkness”, but in Sanskrit (जय गुरुदेव ॐ) its meaning is probably closer to “victory to God divine” or perhaps “hail to the divine guru.” The chorus, mantra-like, repeats four times.
It’s not a stretch to say that the statement is largely true, cosmologically- and technically-speaking. The laws of the Universe are fixed: light travels at a constant speed in a vacuum (299,792,458 metres, or 186,282 miles, per second) and then there’s the gravitational constant. The fine-structure constant characterizes the strength of the electromagnetic interaction between elementary charged particles. The Universe-as-we-know-it requires these constants to be fixed at these levels; otherwise, there’s no Universe with stars and galaxies for us to experience—and therefore, no Earth, or us.
We get back to startling word-evocations with the second verse. The observer sees dancing, shimmering images before him, calling him, over and over. The dream-like quality is a descendent of 1967’s A Day in the Life on the Sergeant Pepper’s album, and these intense visions are again reprised in #9 Dream on the 1974 album Walls and Bridges, the famous solo album of Lennon’s several years after the Beatles disbanded. But don’t worry about the musical history, feel the images: thoughts meander and tumble blindly, and are like a restless wind. Linguistic charm and sheer romantic brilliance from a man who was not always charming but often brilliant.
That pregnant, poignant chorus chimes in again at this point – repeating, evocatively, that “Nothing’s gonna change my world.” You get the feeling Lennon didn’t want his own world to change—or perhaps, Freudian-like, he was suppressing his awareness of the impending bust-up with Paul McCartney, and his eventual messy, argumentative withdrawal from the Beatles. In 1967, Lennon’s life was already changing, and fast, even if the laws of the Universe were fixed.
The third verse continues the surreal, lilting lyrics. The person at the center of the narrative (Lennon himself, surely) can hear sounds and shades ringing in his ears. They are calling him, seducing him. His shimmering love (for Yoko Ono, not Cynthia, by then) is as limitless as the Universe, and cries out to him across the vastness. He is travelling in his mind’s eye across the firmament of space.
While the scientific truths illuminated in Lennon’s paean to immutability can be defended with reference to physics, Lennon was unable to achieve divine stasis in his own life. Yoko had arrived in either 1965 or 1966 (the dates are disputed), and by 1969 he’d married her; Let it Be was the last Beatles’ album, and from 1975 on, Lennon settled down to become a doting house-father, raising his and Yoko’s son Sean. On 8 December 1980 Lennon was murdered—shot in the back four times, in the foyer of his own New York apartment, by Mark David Chapman, a fan. He was only 40 years old.
The song finishes with the chorus. Jai Guru Deva. It fades out after six iterations, and in some versions, is accompanied by sounds of wildlife.
The release of Let it Be signalled the end of The Beatles, to the dismay of millions of fans worldwide. Lennon and McCartney, for many the most beloved and gifted songwriters ever, split acrimoniously. John later argued that Paul subconsciously tried to destroy Across the Universe and some of his other songs. According to Lennon, Paul failed to reciprocate the hard work Lennon believed he always put into McCartney-led songs. Despite all their music being signed off as Lennon-McCartney, by the time Across the Universe was produced, the collaboration was largely over, they were writing as individuals, and this song belonged almost exclusively to John.
Even for belligerent, pugnacious, ego-centric band members with notoriously unstable relationships it is often hard to continue hating someone forever. Their mutual regard—and especially their respect for each other’s talent—broke through a couple of times before John’s death. Despite demonizing him throughout the 1970s, Lennon summarized his feelings towards McCartney in an interview just three days before his death: “Throughout my career, I’ve selected to work with ... only two people: Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono ... That ain't bad picking.” Not bad picking, indeed.
The best epitaph for John Lennon and Across the Universe came not from his many fans, the musicologists who study him, the musicians throughout the world who still play his works, the groups today using his quarrelsome pacifism for their advocacy of peace, or simply his legacy of fantastic tunes, but from NASA. On February 4, 2008, on the 40th anniversary of the recording of the song, Lennon’s Across the Universe was beamed directly into deep space, going boldly where no music has gone before ... . In a wonderful synchronicity, 2008 marked the shared 50th anniversary of NASA’s founding, and the first recording of the Quarrymen – John, Paul and George playing together in ’58, two years before the formation of the Beatles.
NASA aimed the transmission at Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is 431 light years from Earth. Calculated at the speed of light, the message will arrive in the year 2,439. McCartney, now Sir Paul, sent a message to NASA: “Amazing! Well done, NASA. Send my love to the aliens.” And Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono was delighted too: “I see that this is the beginning of the new age in which we will communicate with billions of planets across the Universe.”
John Lennon pre-deceased Cynthia Lennon, whose nagging was the original inspiration for the brilliant Lennon response, by 35 years. Cynthia died on April 1, 2015, at her home in Majorca, Spain, of cancer. Julian, the son she shared with Lennon, was by her side. She was 75. What Cynthia was “going on and on about” has been long forgotten. But Lennon’s redolent, memorable words and melancholic, poignant tune, echoing across the vastness of space and time, will be remembered forever.
Lewisohn, Mark (1996). The Complete Beatles Chronicle. London: Chancellor Press.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (2008). NASA Beams Beatles’ “Across the Universe” Into Space. NASA, News Feature. January 31. http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/across_universe.html
Sheff, David (2000). All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Unterberger, Richie (2009). Across the Universe. Allmusic, Song Review. November 26. http://www.allmusic.com/song/across-the-universe-mt0010130340