When you think of "The Beatles," what springs to mind? John, Paul, George, and Ringo? The mop-topped British boys who changed music forever? The greatest rock group of all time? A shiny, winged insect? (Just kidding.)
Let's take a guess: The Beatles are the band that you probably decided you were never going to ever like when you were about eight years old, simply because your parents loved them and anything your parents loved was deathly uncool. And then, one day, you actually decided to pop in a CD—you know, see what all the hype was about—and BOOM!, you were hooked.
Yoko Ono once said of the group: "I am sure there are people whose lives were affected because they heard Indian music or Mozart or Bach. More than anything, it was the time and the place when the Beatles came up. Something did happen there. It was a kind of chemical. It was as if several people gathered around a table and a ghost appeared. It was that kind of communication. So they were like mediums, in a way. It's not something you can force. It was the people, the time, their youth and enthusiasm."
The Beatles changed music as we know it. They and their sixties contemporaries, like Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, wanted to shake things up. The Beatles were many things: pretty boys, trendsetters, socially and politically volatile, thoughtful and profound, catchy and entertaining. They experimented with drugs, played psychedelic rock, made ladies swoon, and became perhaps the most commercially and critically successful band of all time. They sold over one billion records internationally. After their messy breakup in 1970, all four went on to successful solo careers.
To explain the entire Beatles saga would take about 800 pages, and some writers have actually done just that. Right now, though, we're going to focus more narrowly on "I Am the Walrus" and its creator, John Lennon.
John Lennon was one half of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting duo whose lyrics and music would change history. The other half, Paul McCartney, was his best friend from childhood. Paul was the go-to guy for catchy, happy lyrics and was beloved by the public. He was often called the "cutest" Beatle and had legions of adoring female fans. John, not to be outdone, also had millions of female devotees due to his intellectual good looks. He was the more philosophical, darker side of the songwriting team. The two of them made a pact back in grade school that no matter who wrote the majority of the song, both of their names would be credited. They kept that promise for the entire length of the Beatles' run. So even though "I Am the Walrus" was completely a Lennon composition, it still lists Lennon/McCartney as the writers.
However, in 1966, after the band had already completed such hit albums as A Hard Day's Night, Help!,
, Lennon started feeling a tugging that he couldn't ignore. He was starting to drift farther away from his musical fraternity. He was sick of pandering to the public and producing song after song to feed the insatiable appetites of his record label and his fans, but couldn't see a way out. And then he met Yoko Ono.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood women in history—certainly (and probably unfairly) one of the most reviled—Ono came along one night and stole John's heart, much to the dismay of his adoring fans and the other Beatles, who collectively behaved like a person bitter at their best friend for falling in love:
ONO: "Even now, I just read that Paul said, 'I understand that he wants to be with her, but why does he have to be with her all the time?'"
LENNON: "Yoko, do you still have to carry that cross? That was years ago."
ONO: "No, no, no. He said it recently. I mean, what happened with John is like, I sort of went to bed with this guy that I liked and suddenly the next morning, I see these three in-laws, standing there."
And the in-laws weren't happy. The tension eventually led to the Beatles' divorce.
Granted, Yoko was a force to be reckoned with and her no-bulls--t attitude had John falling ever deeper in love while the public resented her more and more each day. When John penned "Walrus" in 1967, he was fresh off his return a retreat to study transcendental meditation in India where he did not, as he had hoped, learn the "secret" of life. However, he soon discovered that perhaps this secret, which had eluded him for so many years, was Yoko Ono. She became his muse and his inspiration, and was ultimately the person who persuaded him to gather the courage to leave the Beatles for good to pursue other things.
First, however, he wrote some of his most brilliant songs. "Walrus" is so powerful because it was the brainchild of a man who was in the middle of a profound transition. Tensions in between band members rose as steadily as the new couple's obsession with each other. Lennon was contemplating leaving The Beatles, the only life he knew, to jump into an unknown world with a new woman (and he also left his current wife in the process). "Walrus" is a series of dualities: it is a mixture of angst and relief, anti-establishmentarianism and gleeful conformity, crying and laughter. And there was no turning back.
In 1966, The Beatles played their last live show. In 1970, they broke up for good. On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York flat by Mark David Chapman, who claimed that the novel Catcher in the Rye
made him do it. Lennon's life, although too short, was not lived in vain. His lyrics continue to live on in awe-inspiring albums and songs like "I Am the Walrus." His widow, Yoko Ono, continues to spread their message, "Imagine peace." Lennon was always the kind of guy who never looked back. He refused to do a reunion tour, because to him that era was long gone. In his last interview
, conducted just months before his murder, he expresses hope and excitement for the future:
INTERVIEWER: "What is the Eighties' dream to you, John?"
LENNON: "Well, you make your own dream. That's the Beatles' story, isn't it? That's Yoko's story. That's what I'm saying now. Produce your own dream. If you want to save Peru, go save Peru. It's quite possible to do anything, but not to put it on the leaders and the parking meters. Don't expect Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself. That's what the great masters and mistresses have been saying ever since time began. They can point the way, leave signposts and little instructions in various books that are now called holy and worshiped for the cover of the book and not for what it says, but the instructions are all there for all to see, have always been and always will be. There's nothing new under the sun. All the roads lead to Rome. And people cannot provide it for you. I can't wake you up. You can wake you up. I can't cure you. You can cure you."
INTERVIEWER: "What is it that keeps people from accepting that message?"
LENNON: "It's fear of the unknown. The unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusions, wars, peace, love, hate, all that... it's all illusion. Unknown is what what it is. Accept that it's unknown and it's plain sailing. Everything is unknown... then you're ahead of the game. That's what it is. Right?"