Did Paul McCartney and William S. Burroughs share sacred knowledge of the meaning of life?

It’s no secret that the Beat Generation, led by William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, had a monumental impact on 20th-century pop culture and the 1960s countercultural movement. Most tangibly, this connection was displayed in a fruitful friendship between Ginsberg and Bob Dylan in the mid-60s, but this cohort of progressive writers also guided Paul McCartney and The Beatles.

Although countless later artists, including Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke and Tom Waits, have cited Beat writers as a pivotal influence, their impact was most revolutionary during the 1960s. To say the Beat Generation was a source of inspiration for The Beatles would be an understatement, given the play on words in their name and the inclusion of Burroughs on the album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As revolutionary figures of the mid-20th century, many parallels can be drawn between McCartney and Burroughs, but one binding philosophy is particularly vivid.

In August 1964, The Beatles met Bob Dylan for the first time after performing at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York. As legend hs it, Dylan introduced the British band to the wonders of cannabis for the first time that evening. During an evening of giggling and trivial conversation, McCartney got so stoned he was convinced he had figured out the meaning of life.

“I could feel myself climbing a spiral walkway as I was talking to Dylan,” McCartney recalled in a promotional video for his 2016 compilation, Pure McCartney. “I felt like I was figuring it all out, the meaning of life… I was going, ‘I’ve got it!’ and wrote down the key to it all on this piece of paper. I told [Beatles roadie Mal Evans], ‘You keep this piece of paper; make sure you don’t lose it because the meaning of life is on there.”

For any Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans out there, I’m afraid to say the answer is not 42. “Mal gave me the piece of paper the next day,” McCartney continued. “And on it was written, ‘There are seven levels.’ Well, there you go, the meaning of life…”

Of course, the ol’ wacky baccy had clearly done a number on one of our greatest songwriters here, but McCartney wasn’t alone in this calculation. The late Beat poet Burroughs also adhered to a philosophy of seven levels – or “souls,” as he put it.

Burroughs first described these seen souls in his 1987 novel, The Western Lands. The book’s title references the River Nile’s western bank, which in Egyptian mythology is the Land of the Dead. Inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Burroughs explores different philosophies surrounding the afterlife and existentialism.

Prefacing his passage on the “seven souls,” Burroughs explains that the ancient Egyptians had first postulated the concept:

Top soul, and the first to leave at the moment of death, is Ren the Secret name. This corresponds to my Director. He directs the film of your life from conception to death. The Secret Name is the title of your film. When you die, that’s where Ren came in.
Second soul, and second one off the sinking ship, is Sekem: Energy, Power. Light. The Director gives the orders, Sekem presses the right buttons.
Number three is Khu, the Guardian Angel. He, she or it is third man out…depicted as flying away across a full moon, a bird with luminous wings and head of light. sort of thing you might see on a screen in an Indian restaurant in Panama. The Khu is responsible for the subject and can be injured in his defense – but not permanently, since the first three souls are eternal. They go back to Heaven for another vessel. The four remaining souls must take their chances with the subject in the land of the dead.
Number four is Ba, the Heart, often treacherous. This is a hawk’s body with your face on it, shrunk down to the size of a fist. Many a hero has been brought down, like Samson, by a perfidious Ba.
Number five is Ka, the double most closely associated with the subject. The Ka, which usually reaches adolescence at the time of bodily death, is the only reliable guide through the Land of the Dead to the Western Lands.
Number six is Khaibit, the Shadow, Memory, your whole past conditioning from this and other lives.
Number seven is Sekhu, the Remains.
These seven levels of existence, as Burroughs listed, have been discussed for millennia and may have surfaced on a subconscious level for McCartney that fateful night in 1964 while he was supposed to be listening to Dylan.

In 1989, Burroughs collaborated with the experimental rock band Material to create an album titled Seven Souls. As you might have guessed, the seven-track LP is based on the above postulation and features Burroughs’ narrated passages from The Western Lands throughout.

Listen to ‘Ineffect’, the first track from Seven Souls, below.

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