My life with Eric and The Animals was about to fall apart. December of 1967 marked the beginning of the end of my time with the band. Indeed the final demise of the band was less than two years away, while I would be part of it for only another seven months.I had started with the band just over a year previously, in November of 1966.While it had not all been sweetness and light, my time with the band had given me a once in a lifetime experience.
And we had achieved a lot.By the fall of 1967, we had become an excellent band on stage. In my admittedly biased opinion, one of the best live bands of the time, (A 1990 CD release, “Roadrunners”, culled from hitherto- unknown recordings of the Animals playing live, bears me out.The band was tight and polished with an ability to drive and swing that few rock bands could match in those relatively unsophisticated times)
We were also extremely capable in the recording studio.We had become quite close as friends, with a strong sense of camaraderie.Much of this camaraderie, no doubt, was due to a lot of dope smoking, plus the occasional acid trip. Nevertheless, we had been through some enjoyable months. We were having fun and I was enjoying the best times of my twenty two years.LA seemed to be the place where we could relax and make the best music, and that was where we had been from the beginning of October to the end of November.At the end of November (only a few days before the Ali Akbar Khan concert) we flew back to London.There, everything changed.
Back in the cold and gloom of London, it seemed like someone had thrown a switch, bringing our dark sides to the forefront.We began to argue and bicker.We also started to realize that there was something terribly wrong with the way that money was being handled and disbursed.
When we returned to LA in the middle of January of 1968, the mood in the band had changed.Instead of community, it began to be every man for himself.By July of that year I was out of the band.
In LA, I discovered that Ravi Shankar had opened a school of Indian music.He himself was rarely there; certainly I never saw him on the premises.But he had a teaching staff and there were ongoing classes.I took some classes and discovered that I could get around on the sarod quite well, its fingering being similar to that of the guitar.
My traveling schedule with the band, plus the growing political turmoil therein, made it hard for me to attend classes, so I regretfully dropped out. Except for buying and listening to the occasional album, I put my Indian music interest in on the shelf.
I was becoming more and more interested in the arrangement and orchestration of Western music.After leaving the Animals, I began to work as a producer and musical arranger in the Hollywood recording studios.It was heady stuff.I was writing music for and directing the best musicians in the world.There were members of the LA Philharmonic, there were guys who used to play for Henry Mancini, and there were the guys who were the core of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s famous “Wrecking Crew”.Many of them were twice my age.Almost without exception, they were great guys.I had a great time working with them and developed some good friendships, some with men old enough to be my father.
I took my musical responsibilities quite seriously and, realizing my own shortcomings and inexperience, began to study orchestration.My abilities to write and arrange music were growing by leaps and bounds.
But inside, something was terribly wrong.The responsibilities of being on my own (as opposed to being a band member), owning a home, being in a steady relationship and generally trying to be a productive member of society, were cutting into my spiritual search.In fact, the search was at a standstill.I had become a full on LA studio musician in my behavior and attitudes.There was no time for irresponsibility.There was always another record date with arrangements to be written and delivered to my copyist. There were always thousands of dollars on the line and I was the one most responsible.
I bought a house in Topanga Canyon and settled in LA. I was hooked on California and my privileged lifestyle.
But still, in the back of my mind, there was a nagging voice. What about your spirituality? What about Indian music?
`The last time I took LSD was in February of 1968. I had just finished reading Ravi Shankar’s autobiography, which had moved me deeply. I sat out on the balcony of my Topanga home and cried. When my girlfriend asked me why I was crying, I told her that I was thinking about all the Indian musicians I had read about who had dedicated their lives to the study of spiritual music and wishing I could do the same. I told her I felt I was wasting my life when I should be devoting my life spirituality and music.
After the LSD wore off, it was back to the daily petty concerns of normal life.
I began to suffer from depression again and now there was nothing that could blot it out; my desire to take LSD had gone and I was no longer enjoying smoking marijuana.
In May of 1969, I was offered a job with Capitol Records as a staff producer. Although Capitol had musical giants like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Band and The Steve Miller Band on their roster, they had acquired them by luck rather than musical or business acumen. Located at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood, Capitol still had the aura of a 50s record company. They were located in the round Capitol Tower that was supposed to represent a stack of records and was their corporate logo.
Everything about Capitol was much more set up to handle Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Peggy Lee than the rock bands that were now their bread and butter. Someone decided that they needed new blood in the A& R department and they offered me a contract.
I cut a very lucrative deal with them.That was the only redeeming quality about my time with Capitol. Everything else I hated. I hated the endless meetings. I hated the corporate politics. I hated the rules and regulations. Above all, I hated the lack of support that they gave new artists. This meant that any product that a producer like me put out, regardless of its artistic merits and the work expended upon it, had to make it on its own.It was the marketing theory of “let’s throw it up against the wall and see what sticks.” Only if you were lucky enough to garner some airplay somewhere and get a regional breakout would you get any support from the company. All the other A&R people complained bitterly and our meetings deteriorated into endless bitch sessions. It soon dawned on me that my new job was just another prison. This was emphasized by the fact that, even though I hated my job, I now had a mortgage and bills to pay so did not have the option of quitting. I sank deeper and deeper into despair.I felt panic-stricken, humiliated and so, so empty.
In 1968 and 69, Los Angeles was beginning to feel like a war zone. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the black riots of 1968 and 1969, the L.A.P.D. would hassle anybody who looked the slightest bit different. It was a very paranoid environment. And still there was this voice in the back of my head. What about your spirituality? What about Indian music? One day I sat down and I prayed. It was my first experience of surrender. I simply said, “God, I don’t know what to do. Please help me.”
It came to me that, if I expected to be helped, I should give something in return. In 1967, I had learned a meditation from a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda.I started that meditation and made a commitment that I would do it for five minutes every morning and five minutes every night. That was it. I didn’t know what else to do and I had no idea what to expect.
It seemed to me that spiritual people should sit on the floor, thus I stoically assumed a cross-legged position on the carpet in my study. Since I had never sat on the floor for any length of time since I was in the Cub Scouts, my knees stuck up at a high angle. I felt very uncomfortable and rather silly but I kept doing the meditation. I felt no immediate benefit and I had to keep pushing my unhappiness and emptiness aside in order to persevere.Although not keeping count at the time, I later realized that it was after exactly 40 days of this simple practice that my life changed.
In my life I have found that, if I am feeling stuck, frustrated, depressed or unhappy, it means that my soul is calling for me to move to a higher level of spiritual practice.
So I take the time to assess my situation and ask to be shown a path of growth. Generally the next level of daily practice that I should adopt is revealed to me and, provided I keep my part of the bargain, after 40 days of practice, my life moves up to a higher level of awareness and opportunity.
In 1969, I was looking to God for a miracle that would change my life. And sure enough, it came. Divine Intervention, however, does not always come in a way that one might expect or even feel good about.
On Tuesday, December 15th, 1969, my boss at Capitol Records called me into his office. "Vic," he said, "I owe you an apology. All the bad things that I said would not happen if you came to work here have happened. I'm sorry to tell you we're going to have to let you go. Oh, and by the way, Merry Christmas." I thought "Merry Christmas to you too, m*#$% f%^$#," but said nothing.
On the way home I was devastated. How was I going to maintain my lifestyle without my salary from Capitol Records? And yet, after reaching home, I found a sense of relief creeping over me. No longer would I have to go and work in this awful constricting corporate situation. No longer would I have to feel the constant ache in my cheeks from trying to smile when I was crying inside.
That week the L.A. Free Press carried an interview with Richard Alpert. He had been one of the notorious LSD researchers at Harvard with Timothy Leary and had co-authored The Psychedelic Experience. In the intervening years he had gone to India, met a Guru and become Baba Ram Das (later just Ram Das), the first American spiritual teacher of the Psychedelic Age. He was to give a lecture that Friday at the Beverly Hills High School. I was fascinated by his story. I also was very hungry to listen to anyone who had direct experience of Indian mysticism.
When Baba Ram Das spoke, he began by talking about himself. He told us about his early life, then his LSD experiences. Finally he began to talk about his experiences in India, how he met his guru and his spiritual awakening. I was deeply moved and, at the same time, excited. I began to realize that the spiritual realms and experiences upon which I had briefly touched with the use of psychedelics could, just possibly, be available to me all the time. Deep inside me, I knew there was nothing more in life that I wanted than spirituality.
The next day, a Saturday, Baba Ram Das was giving a daylong seminar at someone's home in Beverly Hills. I went. It was just as inspiring as the previous evening and the energy went on for the whole day. As I left that seminar, I could see that my life was about to radically change, even though I had no idea how.I didn’t care.I just wanted to get on with it.
The following day, brimming with enthusiasm for the principles of self- sacrifice that I knew guided a spiritual life, I began a three day fast. I also determined that, when I began eating again, it would be as a vegetarian. There was, however, a problem. Since it was just before the Yuletide season, I had invited friends over for Christmas dinner. I had ordered an organic turkey from the health food store and I had procured several bottles of wine. So I decided to compromise. On Christmas Day, we partook of a traditional Christmas dinner. On December 26th, 1969, I literally went "cold turkey". I finished the cold turkey and the last bottle of wine, then let go that aspect of my life. From now on, I would be a non-drinking, non-drug taking vegetarian.
Capitol Records had given me some severance pay and I had a lot of time on my hands.This afforded me the luxury of being able to pursue my new interests. I asked myself, "What is it that I want to do most now?” I realized that what I wanted more than anything else, was to study Indian music. I bought a Sarod, the Indian instrument popularized in the West by maestro Ali Akbar Khan, and began to take lessons. I spent my days practicing music, something that was very familiar to me.
In January of 1970, my girlfriend had arranged to go and visit her parents in New York and I found myself alone in the house. On Tuesday, January 22nd, I thought to myself that it would be nice to start taking some yoga classes to get my body in shape. I looked in the classified section of the LA Free Press and noticed that there was an advertisement for a class in the Beverly Hills area. I saw that, if I rushed right out the door, I could get to the class just in time.
Arriving at the address shown in the Free Press, I found it was a disused warehouse in Jules Buccieri's furniture store at Robertson and Melrose, I also found that the ad had been wrong. The class did not start for another hour. The type of yoga being taught was called Kundalini Yoga.
I waited rather apprehensively while the room filled up with a lot of hippie types. When the room was quite full, a tall Indian in a pink turban, white sweater and black pants, walked in, sat down on the bench at the front of the room and said with a thick Indian accent "Tuesday is a day for hard work and tonight we are going to work very hard."
And we did. I stretched and strained, sweated and groaned until I thought that I might die. As I left, I thought “never again”.Thus I was very surprised when I found myself back there the next morning for the 10am class.
The next class was not as hard. When I left I felt an incredible sense of well being, both in my mind and body. It was like being on drugs but without having to worry about an impending comedown.
I had always sensed that, when I took drugs, I was doing something invasive to my body. With yoga I felt great; my body felt like it was being nourished and nurtured.So I kept going to every class, morning and night.
That Thursday evening I found that the Indian was not there. A friendly Jewish fellow with a long ponytail was teaching the class. After the class we started talking. His name was Richard Lasser and he was majoring in Russian at UCLA. He told me that he had been taking classes from Yogi Bhajan (the tall Indian) for about six months and that "the Yogi", as he was called by his students at that time, wanted all his students to graduate from being disciples to becoming teachers. He also mentioned that Yogi Bhajan had established a loose organization (with non-profit status) that he had entitled 3HO. (The Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization.)
That night I had dinner with Richard and some of the other students. It was a night of sharing spiritual experiences and joyful laughter.When I left Richard's apartment, I felt that I belonged in this energy and with these people. This was something I had never felt before, not with my family, not with my friends, not with my colleagues. I had no idea what was going to happen next. All I knew was that I wanted to be a part of this group, whatever it was. I felt that I had come home.
On the Sunday morning I again went to class. When the class finished I walked over to collect my shoes. As I put them on, I found Yogi Bhajan standing there. He looked at me with a piercing gaze and said "Thank you for coming." I mumbled something about being quite welcome but I felt overwhelmed by his power and presence.
I told Richard what had happened. He said that it was very unusual for “the Yogi” to talk to anyone before they had been coming to class for a month or more. Richard and I were going off to do some things together but he told me that he wanted to stop at Yogi Bhajan's house, a few blocks from the yoga center, to see if there were any errands that needed to be run. It was my first experience of someone who was planning to do seva (selfless service0.Richard knocked on the door and the Yogi himself answered it.
He was an imposing presence. At six feet four inches with a massive physical frame, he towered over most people. But the aura surrounding him was what really grabbed your attention. It shimmered with power and regal authority. Not at all like the sweet, surrendering energy of Mother Teresa. I had never experienced a human being like this.
From the moment I walked in the house, I became the main attraction. He talked directly to me, as if I was the only person on earth, ignoring everyone else present.He told me that I was an old soul who had come to Earth to complete my mission. He talked about how I would devote my life to the path of Truth but it would be very hard for me. He then asked me if I had any questions.
I told him how I wanted to play Indian music on the sarod and how important it was to me. He said "When you sing, people will come for thousands of miles to hear you. The dead will rise from their graves when you sing." I was shocked. My immediate assumption was that Yogi Bhajan did not speak English well, he had not understood me and that he had no idea of what a sarod was.
I had never entertained the idea of becoming a singer. Ever since that awful night when I was 14 years old, and through my previous eight years as a professional musician, I had always shied away from the idea.
He then said "Let me show you where you are coming from, sit down and close your eyes."I did as he said and immediately sensed a huge energy filling the room. Richard later told me that Yogi Bhajan was pointing his forefinger at my third eye.
I could hear celestial choirs singing and my mind and body filled with bliss. It was an incredible experience, yet in no way unsettling in its strangeness. Even though I had never experienced anything like it before, it felt familiar and comforting. After a few minutes, he asked me if I wanted more. I said yes.
After that experience, I was in no doubt that I would devote my life to this man and his teachings. Later I realized that, at that point, I allowed him to become the spiritual and temporal father that I’d never had.