I Am the Walrus
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MeaningJohn Lennon first met Yoko Ono, the love of his life, the two got off to a rocky start. It was the night before Yoko's big gallery opening and the exhibits weren't even supposed to be open yet. However, Lennon was good friends with the gallery's owner, John Dunbar, and so got in early. Lennon thought of Yoko's anti art pieces (a green apple on a pedestal, a couple of nails on a plastic box) as silly and meaningless, and was inwardly poking fun at the bizarre works. In one interview, he says, "Now, at the time, all the avant-garde was smash the piano with a hammer and break the sculpture and anti-, anti-, anti-, anti-, anti. It was all boring negative crap, you know." But his perception of this avant-garde art was about to change forever. As Lennon later wrote in his autobiography, "I went up to this thing that said 'Hammer a nail in.'I said, 'Can I hammer a nail in?' and she said, 'No,' because the gallery was actually opening the next day. So Dunbar says, 'Let him hammer a nail in.' It [meant],'He's a millionaire. He might buy it.' [But] she's more interested in it looking nice and pretty and white for the opening…There was this little conference and she finally said, 'OK, you can hammer a nail in for five shillings,' so smart-arse here says, 'Well, I'll give you an imaginary five shillings, and hammer an imaginary nail in.' And that's when we really met. That's when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and that was it."
Though it may seem random, this little anecdote gives us a lot of clues as to what fueled Lennon's masterpiece, "I Am the Walrus." Right after John and Yoko first locked eyes, Lennon noticed Ono's Ladder piece: "Then I saw this ladder on a painting leading up to the ceiling where there was a spyglass hanging down. It's what made me stay. I went up the ladder and I got the spyglass, and there was tiny little writing there. You really have to stand on top of the ladder—you feel like a fool, you could fall at any minute—and you look through and it just says 'Yes'…And just that 'Yes' made me stay in a gallery full of apples and nails instead of walking out saying, 'I'm not gonna buy this crap.'" When these two artists met, they realized that they were kindred spirits and had a deep understanding between each other that most people couldn't understand. Although John was still married at the time to his first wife, Cynthia, Yoko had already transfixed him with a creative power that would inspire some of the most bizarre and profound songs of his career.
That year, The Beatles lost their beloved manager, Brian Epstein, to a drug overdose. They were forced to handle the band's alone. When he heard of Brian's death, Lennon went into total shock and grief, later saying: "I was scared. I thought, 'We've fuckin' had it now.'" This was also during the time period when the band decided to study under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India to get some spiritual guidance (though they had yet to go on their five-month-long retreat with him). During their discussions of what to do with The Beatles, Paul came up with an idea to make a movie with an album to go along with it, and The Magical Mystery Tour was born. The project didn't go over well. As Beatles biographer Philip Norman writes, "Few films have ever received a more universally venomous initial reception than Magical Mystery Tour…From first to last it could be held up as a textbook example of how not to make a movie. But for modern audiences, who have grown up with pop video and the unstructured comedy style of Monty Python's Flying Circus, it is very far from the 'blatant rubbish' that one outraged 1967 reviewer called it." It is a surreal journey, shot in color, that follows the band around on a psychedelic bus full of strange characters and scenarios.
The first two songs from the Magical Mystery Tour album were released in 1967 as a Christmas single. Paul McCartney's catchy, positive, and inoffensive "Hello, Goodbye" was on the A-side of the record and Lennon's disturbing, thought-provoking, and daring "I Am the Walrus" was on the B side. On the famous Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership, John said, "Well, you could say that he provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, a certain bluesy edge." Lennon griped in a lot of interviews that his song should have been the A-track since McCartney's didn't have much substance. In those days, however, "Hello, Goodbye" was simply easier for the public to digest… and "I Am the Walrus" also managed to get itself banned for line about dropping knickers. The public was too obsessed with the epic failure of the Magical Mystery Tour film to really appreciate the songs themselves, and the single, at first, was a flop. Hard to imagine now, considering that most Beatles fans rank "Walrus" as one of the best songs the band ever made.
"I Am the Walrus" represents the culmination of years of thinking, dreaming, and experiencing life with a fervor that only an endlessly tormented artistic soul like John Lennon's could withstand. As Norman writes, "The result was a string of random images, fulminating against the repressive forces of law and order, with a sideswipe at credulous souls who pored over his words as if they were Holy Writ." Lennon's songwriting here could even be seen as a product of the collective unconscious, the thoughts and ideas of millions of people and events, influencing Lennon all at once, with each person or idea playing a small part in the larger fabric. It perfectly parallels Yoko's hammer and nails piece. Her invitation for each person to contribute a nail to the work demonstrates that many, many people adding a tiny bit of their creativity to a large project can, in fact, create some very powerful art. Or that was the idea, anyway. From the very beginning, it's clear that "I Am the Walrus" is more interested in tickling our imaginations than making some grand statement on the state of the universe. That doesn't stop die-hard Beatles fans (and Shmoop writers) from trying to unpack the song's lyrical meaning. But maybe what we're missing here is that a piece of art or music doesn't need to have a specific "meaning" for it to profoundly affect us. It's hard to say exactly why we love "I Am the Walrus," and perhaps this is what art is all about: the magical mystery that will forever entertain and please us, but whose power comes from a source that is beyond description and wholly unknown.