Friday, September 14, 2012

I Am The Walrus: Part 1-A Dead Dog's Eye

Robert Bunter: I think this was the first time the terrifying monsters of John Lennon’s subconscious mind really bared their fangs. The unsettling scribbles and wordplay of his books (In His Own Write and A Spaniard In the Works) gave some clues, but back in 1964 and 1965, these could still be reassuringly dismissed as naughty schoolboy doodles. “Tomorrow Never Knows” delivered a frightening psychedelic shock to the senses, but ultimately guided the disoriented listener to a state of blissful, crackling rapture with benign homilies like “Love is all and love is everyone.” Of course, “Strawberry Fields Forever” (and the supremely creepy video clip which accompanied it) was no picnic, either, but the primary emotions evoked there were Lennon’s melancholy and confusion. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” was menacing and the orchestra swells of “A Day In The Life” were nightmarish in their own way, but the impact was still blunted by the colorful fairground atmosphere that suffused the Sgt. Pepper album. OK, that’s a lot of examples, but they’re all offered in the service of my original point: “I Am The Walrus” lets the snarling bad acid trip hallucinations completely off the leash, with seemingly no greater purpose but to leave the listener’s mind puddled on the floor like curdled milk, spilled violently from a blood-red dairy saucer while The Thing With No Face cackles dementedly behind the moldy lace curtain of sanity.

Richard Furnstein: Lennon declared "No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low" in the earlier mind-horror template "Strawberry Fields Forever." It may be the single greatest lyric in Lennon's portfolio as it highlights the duality of genius and madness. "Strawberry Fields Forever" stands firmly on the grounds of genius; it's a slightly fractured version of the gentle introspective side of Lennon (exhibited in "In My Life" and "Nowhere Man"). The vision becomes a bit cloudier once the acid kicks in: the ego collapses, the eyes pinwheel, and the pixelated black-and-white stock images of post-war England are filled with blinding primary colors. "I Am The Walrus" is the nightmare. Lennon traveled into his mind with a true heart and a steady hand ("You know I know when it's a dream") but the passages within dreams can lead you further into the darkness. There is a horrifying sense of lost ego in "I Am The Walrus." The song's refrain ("I am the eggman/They are the eggmen/I am the walrus") isn't a simple playful masquerade. Lennon's deception isn't a mischievous redirection of Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road. His goal is not to deceive, he simply has completely lost his sense of identity ("I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together."). Which part of us is me? Is that the superego or the id lurking behind the mask? Is that the holy ghost or an evil spirit? There is a lost soul behind this song. Remember, there was never a guarantee that Dorothy would make it back home. "I Am The Walrus" suggests a mass of technicolor flesh lying shivering and broken on the ground after a failed leap of faith.

Remember, there was never a guarantee that Dorothy would make it back home. "I Am The Walrus" suggests a mass of technicolor flesh lying shivering and broken on the ground after a failed leap of faith.
Robert Bunter: Lennon initially conceived “Walrus” as a mocking retort to the obsessive fans who read too much into his lyrics (he’d subsequently attempt the same thing with “Glass Onion”). Supposedly he’d been reading his fan mail with boyhood chum Pete Shotton when he found a letter from a student at his Quarrybank alma mater. The young fan told John about how his teacher was explaining the hidden meaning of Beatles lyrics. According to legend, John scribbled down a bit of half-remembered gross-out boyhood doggerel called “Dead Dog’s Eye” (presumably the Liverpool equivalent of “Great Green Gobs Of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts”) and gleefully declared, “Let the f___ers work that one out, Pete!” Maybe John was trying to vomit out a stream of nonsense in order to confuse the Beatleologists, but that’s not what ended up happening. The seemingly meaningless lyrics provide a window into his terrifying mental world. Bits and pieces of Lewis Carroll (the walrus), James Joyce (the eggman), Shakespeare (the King Lear dialogue segments at the fade) and Allen Ginsberg (the “elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna”) mix with fleeting visions of pigs, nuns, laughing joker clowns and improbable suntans. Non-words like “texpert” and “snied” contribute to the air of non-Euclidean unreality. In spite of himself, Lennon shows us his nightmare mindscape with such obscure clarity that we can all relate to it. I, you and we are all scared of “I Am The Walrus.” It’s the same instinct toward universal emotional connections that allowed John to touch our collective heart with “In My Life,” open our minds with “Tomorrow Never Knows” and weep for our sad, lost world on “A Day In The Life.”

Richard Furnstein: One thing that always intrigued me about "Walrus" is that it seemed to tap into hidden sinister vibes of the psychedelic age. The collage elements of the recording blend the shadows and vibrant colorscape of Jack Kirby's Silver Surfer artwork. The sleazy references ("pornographic priestess," "knickers down") touch on the increased commoditization of sex (particularly kink) in the 1960s, a theme Lennon would later pursue with the deviant characters that peppered "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" and "Polythene Pam." The Hare Krishna reference also seems plucked from the collective mind. The recording is the aural equivalent of a pornographic magazine left out in the rain, festering with mildew and tiny beetles. The adverts for antiquated sexual aides blending with the supple and soggy figures and confusing adult-oriented cartoons.

It's a testament to the song's unique imagery and production touches (surely George Martin's finest moment, especially the perfect arrangement) that we've only really touched on the mood of "I Am The Walrus." The song itself is unlike any other in pop music. It's like The Beatles went into the jungle and found an exotic animal that had never been seen before by human eyes. Then they had the nerve to stick it on a b-side! Holy My. I know I've said it before, but how did they do it?

Robert Bunter: You’re right, that’s a whole other can of worms. I could spend another four or five paragraphs just going deep into the implications of that moldy magazine and a fantasy sequences about the “Lennon/Shotton opening the fan mail at John’s house” scenario complete with hypotheses about what they were wearing and what the letter opener looked like. Let’s call this a wrap for today and take it further with a “Walrus, Pt. 2” installment next week. Are you still planning to stop by tomorrow to check out that “Take It Away” 12-inch single I just got from eBay? We’ve got pret-zels [tempting sing-song voice]!

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