Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On "I Am the Walrus" by The Beatles

In an interview with Playboy conducted three months before his assassination on December 8, 1980, John Lennon claimed he had written the first two lines of “I Am the Walrus” on separate acid trips. This surprised no one. By January 1981, when the interview was published, anyone reading the article knew all about The Beatles’s use of LSD (and other drugs) in the 1960s. “I Am the Walrus” was one of the druggiest songs the band ever released, complete with dizzying stereo pans, a distorted, swooping string arrangement, and voices from the BBC. The lyrics are filled with dark images about “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” and witty couplets such as “sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun/if the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain.” Lennon delighted in confusing and confounding the fans and critics who would spend hours deciphering the reason why the Hare Krishna-singing penguins were kicking Edgar Allen Poe. “Let the fuckers figure that one out,” he reportedly said after finishing the lyrics. More than any of the intensely personal, confessional songs Lennon composed over the years (“In My Life,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Mother,” “Working Class Hero”), “I Am the Walrus” encapsulates John Lennon (both artistically and personally) because of its impenetrability.

John Lennon was not only the most difficult (and therefore most interesting) Beatle to figure out – he is rock ’n’ roll’s greatest enigma (even more so than Dylan). Lennon was the angry, violent young man, who became the most important celebrity protestor of the Vietnam War, the Beatle who was the most dismissive and defensive about the band’s catalogue, the tough, acid-tongued Teddy Boy who just wanted a mother to hold him. Lennon constantly evolved, both as an artist and as a human being, and this made it impossible for the press to pin him down. “You know I don’t believe in yesterday,” he told Playboy. “I am only interested in what I am doing now.”

The first line of “I Am the Walrus” alone is a strong enough example on which to rest my thesis. “I am he, as you are he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together,” Lennon sings in his most acerbic tone, and the listener is into the land of nothingness and everythingness. Lennon told Playboy that during the period of writing he was heavily inspired by Bob Dylan’s “trick of never saying what you mean but giving the impression of something more. Where more or less can be read into it. It’s a good game.” Nevertheless, we try and read the lyric. At first, it feels as if Lennon is making a hippie-esque statement along the lines of “we are all one,” something would not be out of place on song that was composed on LSD in 1967. But as a Wikipedia writer notes, the lyric clearly parodies the opening line of the song ‘Marching to Pretoria,’ by The Weavers: ‘I'm with you and you’re with me and we are all together.’” In other words, the fuckers have figured it out: it’s a joke.

The opening lyric’s “who is who” motif returns for the chorus, where the narrator tells us first that he is “the Eggman,” but soon changes his mind and tells us that, in fact, “they are the Eggmen,” before finally coming to a decision: “I am the Walrus.”

Earlier I mentioned the influence of Bob Dylan on Lennon. Let us reflect now on this chorus with a series of quotes from Lennon about Dylan:

I am the Eggman

ROLLING STONE 1968

LENNON: We’ve gone past those days when we wouldn’t have used words because they didn’t make sense, or what we thought was sense. But of course Dylan taught us a lot in this respect.

They are the Eggmen

ROLLING STONE 1975

Q: Is there anybody that you'd like to produce? For example, Dylan?

LENNON: Dylan would be interesting because I think he made a great album in Blood on the Tracks (1975) but I’m still not keen on the backings. I think I could produce him great.

I am the Walrus

PLAYBOY 1980

Q: Were you a Dylan fan?

LENNON: No, I stopped listening to Dylan with both ears after Highway 64 [sic] and Blonde on Blonde, and even then it was because George would sit me down and make me listen.

The musical construction of “I Am the Walrus” matches the lyrics in its bizarreness and restlessness. The musical intro begins with a slightly out of key electric piano and tambourine playing for one-and-a-half measures, just before George Martin’s hallucinogenic string arrangement enters and chops the second measure in half, a completely disorienting effect. The song’s home key is A major but the use of flats outside of the key make it difficult to discern, resulting in a sense of displacement. We are fooled again when Lennon follows the fifth verse ("Expert textpert choking smokers...") with yet another verse, rather than the chorus. The song ends in chaos, with a choir chanting “Everybody’s got one,” radio actors performing King Lear through radio speakers, and the music descending: A7, G7, F7, E7, D7, C7, and B7. When we think we’ve finally caught up with Lennon, just when the whole thing is beginning to make sense, he returns to the beginning of the sequence: feedback, cymbals crashing, and the sound of lazers being fired. The Walrus disappears.

Lennon may have claimed otherwise on “Glass Onion,” but there is no doubt that John was the Walrus and the Walrus was John.

The Beatles - I Am the Walrus

3 Comments:

Blogger clifford d said...

this just makes me want to listen to some more dylan.

1:26 PM  
Blogger clifford d said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You, sir, rock AND roll.

You're a good writer.

12:45 PM  

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