Enjoy 'I am the Walrus'

John Lennon, circa Rubber Soul. by rlz
John Lennon, circa Rubber Soul. by rlz

Are you a bit befuddled by John Lennon’s multi-layered wordplay in this Beatles classic? Want to be able to really appreciate and enjoy this ground-breaking psychedelic tune from 1967? Well then, just fire up the music and follow along with this guide.

To begin your enjoyment of this song, first read what John Lennon himself had to say about it: “ ’I Am the Walrus’ is . . . one of my favorite tracks . . . because it’s one of those that has enough little bitties going to keep you interested even a hundred years later.” He was, in fact, encouraged to incorporate all those little bitties as a lark. He and an old friend had a good laugh over hearing that students in John’s old Liverpool school were being assigned Beatles song lyrics to analyze; so he thought it would be great fun to write a song that was as dense, complicated and yet meaningless as possible to confound any such future analysis.

Imagine the two-note sound of a typical British police siren going by his Weybridge home and you’ll have Lennon’s first inspiration — chant along the see-saw pitch “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” The circular logic of that first line invites and unites all of us, making the coming message universal. Next come the running pigs from a gun, flying. One can imagine Lennon, with this offhand phrase and it’s later refrains, perhaps castigating police and their weaponry? And, as so often in his other songs (‘A Day in the Life’, ‘Working Class Hero’, ‘Mother’, ‘Help!’), he’s literally or figuratively crying — presumably for the sad state of human affairs.

John was often “sitting on a cornflake”; he liked to start his days slow and lazy, and he was fond of corn flakes for breakfast. His song ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ on Sgt. Pepper’s was in fact inspired by the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial jingle. He also often sat ‘waiting for the van to come’, as, early in their career, none of the Beatles drove, but were instead run about in Neil Aspinall’s van. And, as a rebel and a rocker, he disdained the lifestyle of the “corporation t-shirt stupid bloody Tuesday man”, even when he let his face grow long (by growing a beard? by being saddened by conventional life?).

Next comes another snippet of Lennon’s best gobbledygook: something meaningless that almost means something, but also perfectly suits the music, the tempo and the overall mood. “I am the eggman! They are the eggmen! I am the walrus! Goo goo goo joob!” As he himself admitted, “What does it really mean I am the Eggman? It could have been the pudding basin, for all I care. It’s not that serious.” The walrus arrived by way of the works of Lewis Carroll. “It’s from The Walrus and The Carpenter; Alice in Wonderland,” John confirmed, but he got it wrong way around, for he thought the walrus was the sympathetic character in Carroll’s work, and adopted him on that basis.

“Mister city policeman sitting pretty little policemen in a row” is another precise stretch of alliterative wordplay riding the see-saw notes of the siren-like background. It is capped by a reprise of the running, flying pigs, with a dash of Lucy in the Sky thrown in. And then, more crying. Lennon might again be summoning up images of conventional, proper London showing its fault lines, with rows of pretty city policeman soon running about as flying pigs.

The next verse’s lead-in lines of ‘yellow matter custard’ are Lennon’s appropriation and modification of a Liverpudlian childhood rhyme to serve his purpose. He then coins a new word and strings it with more alliterative wordplay to create the ‘crabalocker fishwife pornographic priestess’ who serves as the female counterpoint to the ‘Tuesday man’ of the previous verse. He now has both men and women caught up in his surreal tale.

As the song’s break, relish the inserted snippet of a more pastoral song-to-be John was crafting — “sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun” — which he caps with a sardonic joke. Then return to more see-saw chanting and tightly rhyming alliteration: “expert texpert choking smokers, jokers” before revisiting the pigs and the crying.

Making an appearance at this point is Semolina Pilchard, possibly(?) a drag version of Sergeant Pilcher, a British bobby who made a brief career of harassing and arresting pot-smoking rockers, including several of the Beatles. John then puts down those who too readily follow false gurus with “element’ry penguin singing Hare Krishna”. And he preempts the music critics by suggesting that even Edgar Allan Poe was misunderstood, too.

The Beatles’ long-time producer, George Martin, crafted the strings arrangement for the song and assisted the group in creating the rich sound collage that weaves behind and through the lyrics. Singers were hired to chant seemingly random phrases. While John sat at the mixing console, Ringo tuned in waves of BBC radio programs, including an identifiable presentation of a production of King Lear. The resulting aural fabric sounds like all the surrounding chaos of modern life, with the walrus rising above us as some sort of all-seeing, all-knowing god.

To add to the surreal joy of the Walrus, watch its ‘music video’: that portion of The Beatles’ movie, Magical Mystery Tour, in which the Fab Four perform the song — outdoors, in costume and with extras. (You can find it on YouTube, as well.)

But before you take this song too seriously, tune in once again to John Lennon’s own words: “Walrus is just saying a dream — the words don’t mean a lot. . . . In those days I was writing obscurely. . . . never saying what you mean but giving the impression of something, where more or less can be read into it. . . . They get away with this artsy-fartsy crap. I thought, I can write this crap, too. . . .People draw so many conclusions and it’s ridiculous . . . You just stick a few images together, thread them together, and you call it poetry.”

For more images and words stuck together in interesting ways, see rickzworld.

Not quite what Lennon had in mind? by rlz
Not quite what Lennon had in mind? by rlz
'Call it poetry." by rlz
'Call it poetry." by rlz

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Comments 10 comments

burning bush profile image

burning bush 5 years ago

I'm just nowhere man. The walrus is a musical amusement park ride. Beatle music and lyrics should have one over-riding meaning to everyone....to enjoy. Every now and then, though, its fun to look behind the curtain and see who's at the controls. This hub is a brilliant look into the mind of a music master and poet. Thanks Rick, for sharing the view.

rickzimmerman profile image

rickzimmerman 5 years ago from Northeast Ohio Author

BB: Thanks for the kind comments.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

Great songs that brings back wonderful memories. When my son Dave was little, I used to sit him up on my shoulders and dance around the house with this song. (Maybe that's what's wrong with Dave, haha). But the music that kids listen to influences them forever. Maybe this song helped my son develop his weird, off beat sense of humor.

rickzimmerman profile image

rickzimmerman 5 years ago from Northeast Ohio Author

Thanks, Dolores: My daughter was also raised on a steady diet of The Beatles. She loved the musical 'Across the Universe'. If you haven't seen it yet, you might give it a try (available thru library or DVD rental). It's a great re-statement of memorable tunes.

CMCastro profile image

CMCastro 5 years ago from Baltimore,MD USA

You did a very good evaluation of John Lennon's lyrics. After reading this I realized that John Lennon was always singing about something to make us think. And this is what I think.

W ake up

A nd

L ook

R ight

U nderstand

S omething.

rickzimmerman profile image

rickzimmerman 5 years ago from Northeast Ohio Author

CM: Nice! Ogden Nash is one of my favorite authors: "Celery raw, develops the jaw, but celery stewed, is more quietly chewed."

CMCastro profile image

CMCastro 5 years ago from Baltimore,MD USA

My Mom gave me read all his books to read. Ogden Nash was her favorite too.

rickzimmerman profile image

rickzimmerman 5 years ago from Northeast Ohio Author

Some of Dylan's wordplay would, of course, rank right up there with Nash's.

MJ Martin profile image

MJ Martin 20 months ago from Washington State

Oh I certainly do love what you share here.

rickzimmerman profile image

rickzimmerman 20 months ago from Northeast Ohio Author

Thanks, MJ!

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