Whoa. The dice tumble, the dial spins…and the gods have chosen!
Oh, ye gods. What a sense of humor you have.
A work of genius? Yes. It’s a big one this time. A landmark in weird, mindblowing creativity. In context, maybe the strangest song ever written, and yes, I’m including Revolution 9 in that calculus. I think this song is stranger.
Yes, that’s right, we’ve landed on…
“I Am The Walrus” (Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon-McCartney)
Man. This is the Beatles in full flower. In fact, it used to scare me a little, when I was ten and listening to these songs for the first time. Not just because of the drugs, although I sensed that something was going on, something that grownups had warned me against. But because it felt to me insane.
There’s a great piece in the Anthology where they talk about John going insane at Shea Stadium. (“A little bit mad,” was Ringo’s quote, I think.) Look at him in this video, especially at the end:
That look—wild, exhausted, exhilarated, sweating, grinning, tipped out of our normal world and entering into some strange manic place—I’m not sure John intended to travel to this place, but whenever he found himself there, he knew what to do.
(Was it because of all the pain he had repressed? Maybe! And on top of all the pain we looked at the last time, there was new, fresh pain to deal with (or not). This song was recorded eight days after their revered manager Brian Epstein suddenly died.)
Onto the Walrus! What the hell is the walrus? Or semolina pilchard? Crabalocker fishwife? Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye? What did any of it mean? Or was the meaning that there was no meaning? You could scribble, scribble, scribble all the speculation you want on this (and I’m sure many others have), but what did the Beatles think of it?
One thing seems clear: they knew it was crazy. You don’t wear a 18th-century madman’s cap (that white egglike thing on John’s head) or dress up in fuzzy animal costumes and masks if you’re singing a normal song.
You don’t wear the madman’s cap for “In My Life.” You don’t put on the costumes for “Yesterday.”
What an evolution. In 1962 the Beatles were nervously flubbing their audition with Decca, running through Buddy Holly and Phil Spector songs.
Listen to Paul’s voice quiver on the Broadway chestnut “‘Til There Was You”:
He sounds terrified! And now, by the time they get to Walrus in 1967, they’ve got Hard Day’s Night and Help! and “Penny Lane” and “Nowhere Man” and Sgt. Pepper and “Michelle” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” and a hundred other songs you’ve heard of in their rear-view mirror.
They sang “Besame Mucho” at the Decca audition. Besame freaking Mucho.
From that to Walrus in five years.
You’ve come a long way, baby.
Ian MacDonald frames this song in the context of drug raids and a general establishment crackdown on youth in general and the Rolling Stones (who were facing trial on drugs charges) in particular. The droning “semitonal seesaw” was apparently inspired by a police siren heard in the distance as John was sitting down at the piano. He then turned it into “a perpetually ascending/descending M.C. Escher staircase of all the natural major chords.”
You just KNOW Paul had to admire this one. I love that look on his face when he’s playing the bass in the foreground while John’s playing the piano in the background. So serious, so focused on his instrument. Knowing what his partner was up to while he was working on “Your Mother Should Know” and “Hello, Goodbye.” Lovely songs, both, but still. Kind of tame by comparison.
Let’s see, what was Paul’s next recorded song after they recorded Walrus? Let’s take a look. Maybe it will shed some insight into Paul’s view of what was going on with his comrade in arms.
Hmm. Hmmmmmmmm. [looking it up]
You’re kidding me. “Fool on the Hill”?
You can’t make this stuff up. But there it is. “I Am The Walrus” from John. Then comes Paul with “Fool on the Hill.”
Poor Paul. Sometimes you jump in. And sometimes you can only stand back and marvel.
Childhood rhymes, playful nonsense, nods to Lewis Carroll (the eggman is Humpty Dumpty, the Walrus is from The Walrus and the Carpenter)—much of the time this is viewed as a druggy, tripped-out, meaningless, childish. I think more than a few people dismiss this as just goofing around. There’s an often-cited story in which John heard that people were starting to analyze his lyrics seriously, and so he threw out a bunch of nonsense just to keep them guessing and to make fun of people who overanalyzed them. That’s there, I suppose, but there’s also a much stronger point. This is a boy who had always chafed against the rules. And now he was a man, and the rules were still there.
Gradually turning into an angry sequel to the darkly melancholic “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus” became its author’s ultimate anti-institutional rant – a damn-you-England tirade that blasts education, art, culture, law order, class, religion, and even sense itself.
The Rolling Stones were on trial. John himself was a few years away from being spied on by the FBI and harrassed by the U.S. government. And it all goes back to the little boy, facing down the “expert-textperts” who crammed pointless facts into his head while missing what was going on his heart.
Does nobody care?
From engineer Geoff Emerick’s book:
“That one is called “I Am The Walrus” John said. “So, what do you think?”
George [Martin] looked flummoxed; for once he was at a loss for words. “Well, John, to be honest, I have only one question: What the hell do you expect me to do with that?”
So they gave it a score, and added the hee hees and ha has and years later George Martin talked about how he loved the anarchy of John’s mind and tried to enhance it as part of the recordings. And he did, and it was brilliant. But even so: bizarre.
While they were recording John turned on a radio and started fiddling with a knob until he landed on a version of King Lear going out over the BBC. So hey, why not record that and throw it into the mix? You can hear it better here (cued up to the radio fiddling and the play):
This is SUCH a strange song.
A POP QUIZ
Q: In the play King Lear, which character asks the king for an egg?
A: The Fool.
(I did not make that up.)
DOES IT EVER END?
Walrus has spawned all kinds of crazy on youtube. There’s the Frank Zappa version, the Jim Carrey(!) version, the backwards version with its multiple encoded messages, the slowed-down 800% version. There’s some meaning in all of the madness, people are certain. Some communication from other realms. Some larger mysteries revealed.
You can explore all those for yourself. But here’s one I’ll throw in.
What’s the randomly generated shortlink for the I Am The Walrus youtube video? The one I myself chose at random and linked to above?
Take a look at those last three letters. E underscore GG. Egg.
Yes, we are really through the looking glass on this one.
UNLOCK YOUR INNER BEATLE!
This week, find a safe, quiet place to do your best creative work. Once you are there, take all your inhibitions, ball them up into a fist, and fling them out a window. Leave that window open and see what flies in. Maybe it’s something new and slightly crazy. Or maybe it’s something new and very crazy. Maybe it’s a whole new person, coming to visit. Make friends with that person. Invite the crazy person in, push out a chair, and listen to what he or she has to say. It might be nonsense, but then again it might not be. It might be something that no one else is saying but that needs to be said. It might be you.
Happy Monday, everyone! Koo koo ka choo!