Monday, October 1, 2012

I Am The Walrus: Part 2-Standing In The English Rain

Richard Furnstein: “I Am The Walrus” starts innocently enough. That is, if you consider acid-tinged marmalade leaking from a mildew covered carnival tent as innocent. The first few seconds are completely unsettling: keyboards blink on and off while Ringo shakes a leather satchel filled with rat bones. Suddenly, a flash of bats swoop down along with George Martin’s menacing string figure. Welcome to the nightmare. Lennon throws in some crippling shadow-play (“I am he”) and the listener is left trying to decipher the voices in his fractured mind. I’d argue that he didn’t need to introduce his ugly parade of pornographic priestesses and sun-deprived English gardens to let us know that things are slightly askew. The music—alternately playful and imbalanced—does the job for him

Robert Bunter: The sounds are weird. How did they do it? The bare-sounding demo versions that have escaped on bootlegs and Anthology 2 show that a lot of credit must be awarded to staid, conservatory-trained producer George Martin. His strings and horns perfectly complement the air of menacing dementia that John’s songwriting had already established. How many people did it take to create this song? The four Beatles, a handful of studio personnel, and perhaps a few dozen button-down session players and a choir … let’s say thirty. It feels like every single one of them (even gentle Ringo and the benign, sweater-clad cello players) is staring directly into the listener’s terrified eyes in an unthinkable psychic assault. Listen to those drum fills and try to imagine the pleasantly-downcast Ringo-figure from the “This Boy” segment of the Hard Day’s Night film. You can’t do it. That melancholy chap has seven eyes and a rainbow-colored cloak and his face smells like chrome STOP STARING AT ME RINGO STOP STARING AT ME EGGMAN AAAARrrrrrrggggggggggggggh???!?

Keyboards blink on and off while Ringo shakes a leather satchel filled with rat bones.

Richard Furnstein: You forgot the British actors drolly delivering Act IV, Scene VI of Shakespeare's King Lear and whatever other found sounds and music were plucked from the BBC acmon. Oh, and the trusty Mal Evans who probably delivered the tea, crisps, and purple windowpane segments to this cackling bunch. That's like a busload of people focused on giving the world this sinister and degenerate mess of art. The song's sound effects and string and horn lines simultaneously mock and hector the listener. At its core, "I Am The Walrus" is a children's comedy record, but one delivered with the shaking, sweating, and pulsing white eyes of a horrific nightmare.  Are you awake? Can you see that trembling mass in the corner? I swear, there was a  shadow man in the room. He told me that he is waiting for the van to the next dimension to come. Hold me.

Robert Bunter: The vocal track is slightly overdriven and ADT'd, which emphasizes the harshness of the alliterative consonants ("Pretty little P'Liceman," "Dripping from a Dead Dog's eye") and stretches the vowels into impossible dimensions ("I'm Cryyyyyyyying").  Speaking of which, "I'm crying" is a totally incongruous sentiment, delivered in John's characteristically breathtaking falsetto register. I mean, this demented walrus is haranguing the listener about incomprehensible mind-riddles, when he suddenly announces that he's crying (actually, he says "I'm crying / I'm crine / I'm crying / I'm cry") Is this a shift of perspective? Perhaps John is assuming the role of the terrified listener for a brief moment. More likely, he was just dredging around in the depths of his consciousness and stumbled onto the primal pain that was always there. It's possible that all this listener-terror is actually misplaced, that John was really singing to HIMSELF. But who is he? "I'm crying." "I am the walrus." Is the walrus crying? He is we as we are he. The shifting identities that underlay the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band concept and the acid-induced ego confusion of "Strawberry Fields Forever" reached a peak with "Walrus." I don't think John ever got this far out again; even the ominous "Revolution 9" sound collage had a certain experimental air of art-music detachment and opiated languor. "I Am The Walrus" is the unfiltered audio soundtrack to the nightmare that was John Lennon's fundamental brainspace.

Richard Furnstein: I think you nailed it. "I'm Crying" is the pain and suffering1 that underlies John's stream of riddles and horrorshow apparitions. The verses to "I Am The Walrus" find John stumbling around chilly and unfamiliar dreamscapes. Each ending with an altercation with dream reality. A deus ex machina, if you will. In this sense, one can look at "I'm Crying" as a mantra to return our troubled storyteller back to the start (troubled drag-addled adult->emotionally distant teenager->the collapse of childhood felt in his mother's death->Aunt Mimi's strict and steady hand->loss of his seaman father->the Strawberry Fields aether). "I'm Crying" is therefore the removal of the mask (why else would one have to declare that they are weeping?). It's the exposure of the emotion hiding under the distance hinted at in the lyrics. George Martin's primal rock n' strings swell under this raw demonstration to mimic the brain swell that accompanies these moments of clarity. You can't just declare "I love you" or "I'm mad" without the brain releasing five thousand mind warriors to chill your spine. The orchestration does an excellent job of covering the various emotions presented in "I Am The Walrus." Some highlights include the previously mentioned release of bats, the chugging and prideful cellos that underpin the suspension in the verses, and the playful interplay of the melody and orchestration on "singing Hare Krishna."

Robert Bunter: Ha! We sound like intellectuals, "reading too much into it," the kind of people John was mocking with "Walrus" (and later, "Glass Onion"). "A deus ex machina, if you will." Hoo boy. Let's briefly take a closer look at the musical side of this thing before we go off the rails. A few quick observations: the chord progression is unlike anything that came before or after, perfectly complementing the lyric's mood of unsettling fear. John's voice hits some nice blue notes (like the "together" in the line "We are all together"); even in the midst of his primal nightmare, he was a committed rock and roller. The bridge ("Sitting in an English garden") has no right to call itself a bridge; it's a totally baffling intrusion into a song structure that was already fractured. The creepy choir that sings "Oooooooh," "Ha ha ha / Hee hee hee," "Stick it up your jumper" was a nice touch. Anything else? I'm about ready to leave this one behind and get deep into something like "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" or some Please Please Me outtakes.

Richard Furnstein: The verse progression is completely baffling. It seemingly follows the same stabbing logic that Syd Barrett would employ on early The Pink Floyd singles. The bridge is, without a doubt, the scariest moment of the song. The chorus dissolves with a cleansing wash of clockwork and magic into a more menacing return on the bats. Lennon presents his most confounding riddle yet: "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." It's a highly improbably scenario and is presented like a forgotten meter of poetry (John's return to his early period monosyllabic focus in the second line). The English tan concept is the indicator that we are in a land where "nothing is real" while Martin's strings underscore the feeling that Lennon is indeed laughing at us. And, frankly, we deserve it.

I'm with you. I feel like I need to listen to "Chains" or "P.S. I Love You" to cleanse the pallet after thinking about this one for about two weeks. Grandma, take me home.

1Is the "yellow matter custard" actually the Lynchian construct garmonbozia?

Original Beatles fan art by Joshua Newman

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