"I Am The Walrus": What it means....<br>

"I Am The Walrus": What it means....

Keywords: The short version
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Robert A. Granville most sensibly says:

>Just a few (irritatingly trivial) points:

>The book is "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" not the popular
>misquote, "Alice in Wonderland".

As a true pedant, I should have known better. I feel guilty enough using "Sgt. Pepper" and "The White Album" as shorthand for the real names; it's an abomination that I don't feel equally as guilty (but will from now on) using "Alice in Wonderland" as shorthand as well.

>... neither the walrus nor the carpenter was
>"the good guy". The walrus hypocritically cries into his handkerchief
>to hide from the carpenter that he (the walrus) is trying to sneak
>more than his share of oysters. But the carpenter had no qualms about
>eating the beguiled shellfish.

Quite true, but in John's comment (about which character he thought was the "good guy") we have a valuable clue to the way John used that character in his song...and he has left us with few enough provable interpretations throughout this enigmatic, bizarre and disturbingly brilliant work.

As much as I believe one can go overboard trying to find the hidden meanings in a song like "I Am The Walrus", it's so rich a harvest of images and evocations that one almost does it a disservice to leave it utterly alone. It requires a process of splitting the mind, more or less, to understand a) what the song *might* have meant to John; and b) what it means to you, the listener. If John claimed it was a meaningless morass of musings, intended to trip up the hot-shots of criticism, that's a valid point. But the song (like any work of art---a painting, a book, a poem) takes on extra life once it's released into the general populace. The context of existence, the effect on its audience--- both add variety and complexity to the work. It is not merely a practical joke. Beyond a certain point, it *is* arguably folly to read too much into a song like "Walrus." But you can make a stab at it nevertheless, balancing what you know of Lennon's own grasp of literary/cultural allusions with the message that, in the end, is communicated to you as the listener.

A general question: does "IATW" mean something different to listeners depending upon which decade they heard it? I'm really curious about this. There's a certain undercurrent of paranoia in the song, one linked to an inexpressible fear of what we quaintly used to call "the establishment"---to wit, the powers of authority, the government, schoolmasters, whatever force was pressing you down at the time. If a listener first heard this number in the mid-eighties, for instance, when according to our benignly beatific government it was "morning in America" and everything was coming up roses...would that haunting element be missing? Would the source of that creeping fear be rendered impotent? And would the song thus seem more randomly disjointed, connected to no particular apocalypse?

I think that promised apocalypse is a vital element of "IATW"; it gives chill meaning to the singer's words, creates a bond with the listener who must similarly be convinced that advancing chaos, political *or* mental, is real. Otherwise, I think, you *do* miss out on an essential dimension of the song, and it becomes little more than incomprehensible nonsense.

Looking at the lyrics of the song (as printed in Campbell and Murphy's excellent concordance "Things We Said Today", Pierian Press, 1980), and reading back through the chapter in "Through The Looking Glass..." which deals with Humpty Dumpty, I'm more convinced than ever that "IATW" evolved out of a mix of John's impressions of those sacred books of his childhood, his own rage against forces beyond his control, his visions from drug-induced psychoses...but the song became even more than that. "IATW" gained life from its in-studio genesis and the serendipty of layered elements (viz., the King Lear broadcast)---these could not all have been intentional, but fortuitously they add extra texture to the fabric. Is it my imagination, or is "IATW" often left in the dust behind Lennon's other compositional gems such as "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "In My Life"? I've always felt that "IATW" deserves an equal pedestal.

It's not surprising that the lyrics reflect a great compositional link with Chapter VI of "Through The Looking Glass"---the chapter that deals with the inherent meaninglessness of words, the arbitrary assignment of semantic content (a theory with which the Rev. Dodgson, i.e., Lewis Carroll, was familiar), word regeneration (the "portmanteau" word), and the explanation to one of Carroll's most enigmatic poems (seen first in Chapter I), "Jabberwocky". Was Lennon subconsciously recalling any of this as "IATW" came across his mental airwaves? His song celebrates the same linguistic chaos that Alice explores with a large, egg-shaped being called Humpty Dumpty---though *he* never admits to being an egg, per se. " `When *I* use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean---neither more nor less." Perhaps tracking down the *real* message behind "crabalocker" and "semolina pilchard" and "eggman" is thus futile. But we can guess. Is "crabalocker" some adjectival modifier of "fishwife"? Is it "semolina" the flour or the viscid pudding offered to British schoolchildren? Is the eggman a reference to some aberrant sexual practice, a symbol of florid fecundity, or shorthand for the nursery-rhyme character himself?

See how easily we can get sidetracked. :-)

Then there are a few of Lennon's own "portmanteau" words: "two meanings packed up into one word", as Humpty Dumpty put it. "Jabberwocky" is full of them: "slithy", lithe and slimy; "mimsy", flimsy and miserable. Lennon's might be "crabalocker" (though I can't quite decipher what it must mean, other than the image of something to do with fishing, the original role of a "fishwife"...or perhaps via "crab" an elliptical reference to other shellfish, the oysters over which the Walrus and the Carpenter argue), and certainly "snied" (most probably an amalgam of "sneer" and "snide"). Is "eggman" one of these too? Maybe we're being too literal with metaphorical interpretations. Maybe an eggman is in fact meant to stand for the fragility of humankind against forces beyond its control?

That would fit Lennon's implication in the song's dynamic. What's really happening in the lyrics? There are fragile, breakable beings harrassed by incomprehensible mental breakdowns and authority figures (policemen and corporations); it's a man trying to fathom reality out of psychotic visions. Alice stood her ground before the totality of illogic during her adventures; but the singer in "IATW" is losing the battle. Quite apart from its evocation of Alice's world, "IATW" is a perceptive word-portrait of what can happen to people under the effect of syndromes like schizophrenia. I imagine that Lennon's experiences with hallucinogenic drugs gave him the necessary insight. The lyrics sound like the aptly-named "flight of ideas", where images succeed others at random, and where impossible things really happen ("sitting on a cornflake", etc.). Who can withstand this unpredictable world? Only "the good guy", as Lennon saw him? Is that why he singled out the character of the Walrus, *whom he misinterpreted as the hero* of "The Walrus and the Carpenter"? Because the *only* firm statement of identity in the whole song is the singer's declaration "*I* am the walrus."

Other identities are mixed: "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together...." Pronoun trouble! :-) This "we" is also "they" of the next line: "Look how they run...." The psychotic distances himself from the group even while he is part of it, just one more dumb animal running from authoritarian weaponry (I should have warned you this was going to get deep :-) or mutely captured and herded into a pen later in the song. "Waiting for the van" sounds like a hospital or sanitorium van (with siren blaring!). The "corporation T-shirt" is another symbol of oppressive authority, the crime of "you let your face grow long" a suggestion that free emotional expression is an anathema to Big Brother.

Lennon creates some nice reverse parallelism in the next few lines. Whereas the pigs "run" and then "fly" (in the sense of "flee"), the "pretty little policeman" (to whom are they pretty?) "fly" and then "run". Here also is one of two Lennon allusions to a previous song: "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". But these policemen don't really "fly like Lucy in the sky"---it's an ironic contrast with the pastoral calm of the earlier work. "Lucy..." is full of non-threatening peaceful images, but that world is lost. And the singer at this point is near breaking. "I'm crying" is repeated in growingly anguished tones, four times. For those of you who have access to the American "Rarities" version of "IATW", check out the extra four beats that follow this passage (they were edited out of the version generally available); they provide an echo of those cries as well as a buffer before more increasingly desperate visions.

The line about "yellow matter custard" is in fact part of a gruesome children's rhyme popular in Northern England; but in the context of the singer's anguish, it's a stark visual image that is all too real. Listen to the stress in Lennon's delivery at this point; death is hovering closely, no longer just a childhood fancy. And nonsense words continue to bedevil the poor protagonist. So do incongruities: under usual circumstances a priestess is a sacred role, but here the image is debased as a "pornographic priestess". Is this a fear of the songwriter's, presaging his eventual disenchantment with the Maharishi, whose spirituality was eventually called into question?

John's second allusion to his own songwriting may be in the next lines. On the surface, it's more incongruity: "If the sun don't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain." Just a clever joke on the changeability of British weather? But look back at "Rain" (1966) for a moment. There we're told that "When it rains and shines,/It's just a state of mind." And the state of the singer's mind is none too stable right here; reality is inverted so that even if the sun disappears you still get the same effect.

I read the following verses as a dual attack: "Expert, textpert..." (the latter another probably portmanteau) deflects the attempts of folks (like me!) to explain what's happening in the song. However, within the song's context, these experts are more of those sneering, snide establishment folks, caught in the same trap as the desperate singer ("like pigs in a sty") but unwilling to admit that there's something real and fearsome to bewail. "...the joker laughs at you", the lyrics tell us, but in "IATW" pronouns usually refer to us *all*, not just the second person singular. And that goes for the singer himself, whose growing dementia will not be taken seriously by anyone.

More flights of ideas, more incongruity. No matter what "semolina pilchard" or "elementary penguin" refer to, we know they can't do in reality what the song *says* they're doing. Are these more expressions of the inability to link strings of logical thought, or vague references to a breakdown of respect for religion and art?

"IATW" collapses here after the chorus into an orchestrated cacophony of weird voices (actually the Mike Sammes Singers, session vocalists hired to laugh, whoop, and mutter mysterious inappropriate messages); schizophrenics often hear disjointed voices insulting them or telling them to do things, and it's remarkable how well this passage suggests it. Even the indistinct voices of the Fabs create a hallucinogenic aura. Compare this to an antecedent: The Yardbirds' "Happenings Ten Years' Time Ago" (Nov. 1966) and listen carefully to the middle break. You even have an alternating sequence of notes that sound like the siren-wail of "IATW" (could this be a subconscious influence on Lennon?) as well as the raucous British-inflected laughter and commentary.

But there's another stroke of accidental genius, admixed with serendipity. The "King Lear" broadcast is a perfect final commentary on the chaos of the song. Remarkable, too when you consider that the BBC aired plenty of plays on radio and it could have been *any* random offering. Instead it was one of Shakespeare's most bleak works, in which a king looses his sense and his kingdom, in which hierarchies of social structure unravel and cause the downfall of previously-coherent men and women. The briefly-intelligible excerpts underscore the mood of the song so perfectly that it's a wonder it *wasn't* planned that way. The singer could easily be described as a "most poor man, made tame by fortune's blows". And the last fade includes a reference to death, which the protagonist has feared along with his madness throughout the song: the inevitable nothingness, the last chaos. It's a masterful stroke of finality.

Does all this really exist in "IATW"? It's what I hear; you may hear something entirely different. And if Lennon were still with us, he'd probably deny that he meant anything at all :-). He wouldn't be the first artist to claim that his work had no more within it than what he intended. But what a limited view! Even John admitted that he had "spasms of being intellectual." And inevitably, even Shakespeare knew that there were more things in heaven and earth--- more visions, more explanations---than one man alone could dream. --


"`I write them in my spare time,' it says here."
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