The Delights of Parsing the Beatles' Most Nonsensical Song

Released 50 years ago, “I Am the Walrus” is endlessly analyzable, and yet somehow analysis-proof.

The Beatles attend a lecture given by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
—Alice, upon first reading “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass

Inspired nonsense has held me in its spell for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a house full of books, I spent the most time with the ones that were seriously silly. I graduated from Dr. Seuss to The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, a well-thumbed Dover paperback adorned with Lear’s own absurd pen-and-ink drawings, so you could see just what he meant by the dolomphious duck and her runcible spoon. And I dove deep into The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner’s illuminating exposition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, its margins bursting with side notes that made the curious main text even curiouser.

My parents, enlightened children of the ’60s, also had John Lennon’s In His Own Write on the shelf, and though it didn’t make much of an impression at the time, I recognized a kindred spirit. Lennon too must have grown up cherishing the surreal, imagistic language of Lear and Carroll. But his greatest work of nonsense was not on our bookshelves, of course. It was over in the record cabinet, on the raucously colorful Magical Mystery Tour LP: “I Am the Walrus,” the final track of side one.

A musical childhood memory: The turntable on our Heathkit stereo spins, and I hear Lennon’s electric piano wobbling between two notes. The strings enter forebodingly. Ringo’s drums kick in. And then Lennon, continuing the two-note wobble with his thin voice, delivers that recital of deceptively simple words, with “I,” “you,” “he,” “me,” and “we” all coming together. I got that right away, or thought I did. At least it was easier to grab onto, at age 7 or 8, than mouthfuls like crabalocker fishwife or semolina pilchard.

The LP had lyrics for some of the songs in the gatefold, and I began studying them as the record played. Like Alice reading “Jabberwocky,” my head filled with half-formed ideas. I remember wishing that Martin Gardner had done for “I Am the Walrus” what he had for Carroll’s nonsense. In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty, that master of words, offers some dismissive explanations of “Jabberwocky” to Alice. But Gardner’s annotated version breaks out of the narrative walls with a flurry of commentary—24 numbered notes for “Jabberwocky” alone. So if you follow the note for uffish you can read what Carroll himself said about the word in a letter to a young friend: “It seemed to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish.”

There were no annotations for the “I am the Walrus” lyrics, but it soon dawned on me that Lennon had playfully built in his own kind of side notes, embedding links between the song and other works. The bit about flying like Lucy in the sky linked back to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” obviously enough. (Quick, pull out the Sgt. Pepper’s LP!) Later, delving into the White Album, I found “Glass Onion” linking back to “I Am the Walrus”—among other Beatles songs—with that lovely bit of misdirection, The walrus was Paul.

Of course the walrus was John, and wait a minute, wasn’t there a walrus in Through the Looking-Glass? Like the Jabberwock and the frumious Bandersnatch, the Walrus only appears in a text within Carroll’s text: a poem recited by Tweedledum and Tweedledee. “The Walrus and the Carpenter” isn’t as nonsense-heavy as “Jabberwocky,” but one verse is beautifully meaningless:

The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

A walrus expounding on the flying potential of pigs? That must have made as much of an impression on a young John Lennon as it did on me. In the lyrics, pigs are flying, or things are flying like pigs, just like Lucy in the sky. Or are they running? See how they run makes yet another link backwards to childhood, to the three blind mice running from the farmer’s wife. (Paul got in on the act in “Lady Madonna,” quoting See how they run to make a joke about how both children and stockings run.)

As a budding exegete of “I Am the Walrus,” I never got much further than spotting allusions to Lewis Carroll, nursery rhymes, and other Beatles songs. In the later verses, I could feel the song pushing back at me, or anyone who might dare pick it apart. The “expert-texpert” is  advised that “the joker” just might be laughing at him. And then the voices in the background chortle in ridicule.

Well, what can I say? I ignored the laughter and grew up to be an expert-texpert anyway.

* * *
Magical Mystery Tour is one of my favorite albums, because it was so weird. “I Am The Walrus” is also one of my favorite tracks—because I did it, of course, but also because it’s one of those that has enough little bitties going to keep you interested even a hundred years later.
—John Lennon to Dennis Elsas on WNEW-FM, Sept. 28, 1974

As I got older and devoured book after book about the Beatles, some stories about “I Am the Walrus” spoke to me more than others. I didn’t much care to hear about how “the Eggman” supposedly came from a nickname for Eric Burdon of The Animals, thanks to his penchant for breaking eggs on his sexual conquests (or, as Burdon later clarified, having eggs broken on him). I preferred to think of Humpty Dumpty as the original Eggman.

I did enjoy the recollection of Pete Shotton, Lennon’s school chum and fellow Quarryman, who explained the origins of the “yellow matter custard” that disgustingly drips from a dead dog’s eye. It was based on a British playground rhyme that went, Yellow matter custard, green slop pie, all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye. On my American playground, we had a gross-out song like that too, but it started off with Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts.

Shotton further explained that the memory of “yellow matter custard” was sparked by a letter to Lennon from a student at Quarry Bank, their old high school in Liverpool. The student said that his literature class was analyzing lyrics to Beatles songs, which Lennon found utterly ridiculous. The image of a “Quarry Bank literature master pontificating about the symbolism of Lennon-McCartney” inspired him to come up with “yellow matter custard” and similarly cockeyed lines. As Shotton tells it, after Lennon wrote down the line about “semolina pilchard” unaccountably scaling the Eiffel Tower, he smiled and said, “Let the fuckers work that one out, Pete!”

Fine then. Maybe the song is just a put-on, or a kind of a dare. No wonder I felt like it was resisting me. It is endlessly analyzable, and yet somehow analysis-proof. Any interpretive effort runs aground on the limits of interpretation. Lennon sneers at the overanalyzing expert-texperts like that Quarry Bank literature teacher who would kick Edgar Allan Poe if given half a chance.

To further tantalize literary types, at the end of the song listeners hear a scene from King Lear in the background, with Oswald’s final words, “O, untimely death!” standing out. (That line ended up as grist for the “Paul is dead” conspiracy mill, of course.) As it turns out, the performance of Lear just happened to be on a radio that was tuned to the BBC while they were mixing the song. The studio engineer Geoff Emerick said it was Lennon’s idea to get some “random radio noise” from “twiddling the dial,” an injection of John Cage–style found audio. Talking about the song with the New York radio DJ Dennis Elsas, Lennon claimed he “never knew it was King Lear until years later” when someone told him.

People read too much into Lewis Carroll too, as Martin Gardner, my guide through the looking-glass, pointed out in an annotation to “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Carroll gave the manuscript of the poem to the illustrator John Tenniel, telling him that he was free to make the walrus’s companion a carpenter, a butterfly, or a baronet, since any of those dactylic words would fit the meter. Tenniel picked the carpenter. Let that serve as an antidote, Gardner advised, to “the tendency to find too much intended symbolism in the Alice books.”

But isn’t it the human condition to find meaning in even the most arbitrarily assembled words and sounds? At least it’s my condition.

What about the song’s first line, I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together? If you want to find a precursor in Carroll, you could, as Walter Everett does in The Beatles as Musicians. When Alice goes down the rabbit-hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she suffers an identity crisis, wondering if she might have turned into her sister Mabel: “Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and—oh dear, how puzzling it all is!”

Others point to “Marching to Pretoria,” a song dating back to British soldiers in the Second Boer War. Some versions of the old tune go, “I’m with you, and you’re with me, and so we are all together.” Could Lennon have heard one of these versions and riffed on it, consciously or subconsciously? He never said, though he did tell Playboy that he wrote the first line of “I Am the Walrus” on an acid trip one weekend in 1967, and the second on an acid trip the next weekend.

George Harrison, for his part, told the Beatles biographer Hunter Davies in 1968 that the first line of “I Am the Walrus” was a good example of people taking the Beatles too seriously. “It’s true, but it’s still a joke. People looked for all sorts of hidden meanings. It’s serious and it’s not serious.” That reminded me of Paul McCartney’s own preemptive strike against meaning-mongers, in his introduction to Lennon’s In His Own Write. “There are bound to be thickheads who will wonder why some of it doesn’t make sense, and others who will search for hidden meanings,” McCartney wrote. “None of it has to make sense and if it seems funny then that’s enough.”

But if we allow ourselves to get serious and scholarly, there’s another way to think about that first line: as a play of pronouns and shifting perspective that expressed the culmination of lyrical trends the Beatles had been exploring since their early days. This hadn’t occurred to me until I read The Secret Life of Pronouns by the social psychologist James Pennebaker. As part of his demonstration of how pronouns and other function words serve as “keys to the soul,” Pennebaker plumbs Beatles lyrics and finds that over time they grew “more complex, more psychologically distant and far less positive.” Their pronoun use shifted, with first-person singular pronouns—I and me—dropping from a rate of 14 percent in the Beatles’ first years to 7 percent in their final three years. (“I Me Mine,” Harrison’s first-person foray at the very end of the band’s existence, was a bit of an outlier.)

When Lennon and McCartney started writing original songs, I was invariably paired with you. As McCartney explained in The Beatles Anthology documentary series, “All our early songs had always had this very personal thing,” such as “Please Please Me,” “P.S. I Love You,” “From Me to You,” and “Thank You Girl.” But a shift began to occur in the summer of 1963, he said, when they collaborated on “She Loves You.” “We hit on the idea of doing a kind of a reported conversation: ‘I saw her yesterday, she told me what to say, she said she loves you.’ It just gave us another little dimension, really.”

What can combining first-, second-, and third-person pronouns in one song accomplish? If done well, it can create a kind of personal identification, an empathy, shared across the boundaries of the singer, the imagined listener, and the world of the song. Lennon’s “Nowhere Man,” from 1965, is a bit too on-the-nose in this department: Isn’t he a bit like you and me? The show of identification feels forced. But two years and who knows how many acid trips later, Lennon could find new profundity (pseudo- or no) in the string of pronoun equations that opens “I Am the Walrus.” First-person I equals third-person he, second-person you equals third-person he, second-person you equals first-person me. Then fuse all of the above into an inclusive first-person plural we. All together now. That’s some serious unseriousness.

* * *
But even nonsense words have to come from somewhere, there must have been a thought process that threw them up.
—Hunter Davies on “I Am the Walrus” in The Beatles Lyrics

Nonsense comes in many shapes and sizes. You can use relatively plain language to conjure absurd or incongruous images, like the act of sitting on a cornflake. You can juxtapose words that don’t seem like they belong together, like semolina and pilchard (coarse wheat and sardines, an odd mix—though Hunter Davies says they were both “foods from the ’50s that we all hated”). You can make new, silly-sounding words by playing with preexisting words, like rhyming expert with texpert, or melding crab and locker into crabalocker. Or you can make goo-goo noises.

Lennon fills out the chorus with the purest of nonsense. In the lyrics printed in the Magical Mystery Tour gatefold, it says GOO GOO GOO JOOB, but most prefer to transcribe it as goo goo ga joob or goo goo g’joob. The third syllable is unstressed, both in terms of the syncopated meter and the phonology of the nonsense words, so it’s not a full-fledged goo.

It’s unforgettable gibberish, though it often gets mixed up in people’s memories with coo coo ca-choo from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” as the two songs came out around the same time. “I Am the Walrus” was recorded in September 1967 and released on record that November. The Graduate hit movie theaters in December, featuring an early partial rendition of “Mrs. Robinson,” but the complete version with coo coo ca-choo in it didn’t come out until April of the following year, on the album Bookends. So Paul Simon might have been nodding at Lennon, but not vice versa.

Some Beatle-ologists claim that goo goo ga joob is taken from James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness epic, Finnegans Wake. It certainly sounds Joycean, and it would be nice to think of “I Am the Walrus,” Finnegans Wake, and Carroll’s Alice stories forming a kind of wordplay-laden intertextual triangle. Finnegans Wake, after all, has many echoes of Carroll, and the eggman Humpty Dumpty figures in it as well, with his great fall paralleling the Fall of Man. One would-be expert-texpert on the “Turn Me On, Dead Man” website wrote that goo goo ga joob are “the last words uttered by Humpty Dumpty before his fall.”

The closest you’ll find to those words in Finnegans Wake, however, are googoo goosth, in a passage that has nothing to do with Humpty’s fall. That bit of goo-goo talk has more to do with the words goose and ghost, as the passage alludes to an Irish fairytale about King O’Toole, whose old goose is miraculously made young again by Saint Kevin. In the book, Joyce’s protagonist Earwicker disturbs the sleep of Kate the cleaning woman, and when she awakes she wonders if she has seen “old Kong Gander O’Toole of the Mountains or his googoo goosth” (his goose/ghost). Could Lennon have randomly plucked googoo goosth from the middle of Finnegans Wake and changed it to goo goo ga joob? It’s pretty implausible, especially since I know of no evidence that he ever read the book, or even riffled through its pages.

Poking around online, I discovered even more far-fetched theories about goo goo ga joob. A Canadian proponent of the “Paul is dead” school of thought takes the cake: “In Inuit it means ‘Living is easy with eyes closed’ and was used to establish a connection to the Inuit. The reason for that is that the Inuit see the walrus as a symbol of death.” There is not a shred of truth to this, and it is fair to say Lennon was not studying Inuit animal symbolism anyway. (The notion that the walrus symbolizes death can be traced to a 1969 article in the University of Michigan student paper satirizing the then-new search for “Paul is dead” clues. It claimed that “walrus” is Greek for “corpse,” among other bogus factoids.)

Joyce and the Inuit notwithstanding, I eventually zeroed in on a more likely source of inspiration for goo goo ga joob (and Simon’s coo coo ca-choo) in popular music. The phrase shares the syncopated cadence and childlike frivolity of boop-boop-a-doop, made famous in the 1930s as the catchphrase of everyone’s favorite cartoon pin-up, Betty Boop. Less well-remembered is Helen Kane, billed as the original “boop-boop-a-doop girl,” who inserted the phrase into such hit songs as “I Wanna Be Loved By You” from 1928. (Marilyn Monroe’s cover in Some Like it Hot preserved that song for posterity.)

Musing about the roots of goo goo ga joob and coo coo ca-choo in boop-boop-a-doop led me down an Alice-like rabbit-hole of musical history. Who was really responsible for the nonsense phrase? In 1932, Helen Kane actually sued the makers of the Betty Boop cartoons for $250,000 in damages, claiming that they had stolen the phrase from her act. But as The New York Times reported, her case fell apart when a theatrical manager testified that “Baby Esther, a Negro girl under his management, had interpolated words like ‘boo-boo-boo’ and ‘doo-doo-doo’ in songs at a cabaret here in 1928, and that Miss Kane and her manager had heard her there.”

When the judge was presented with a sound film of Baby Esther, that was enough for him to decide against Miss Kane. Unfortunately, that film was not preserved, and there are no other sound recordings of her. I would have loved to hear if Baby Esther’s boo-boo-boo / doo-doo-doo interpolations had the same syncopated pattern as goo goo ga joob, with that extra little unstressed syllable.

Baby Esther herself is a mysterious figure. One press account of the 1934 trial gave her full name as Esther Jones. But it’s possible that this was a pseudonym for one Gertrude Saunders, who was referred to as “the original boop-boop-a-doop girl” in African American newspapers later in the 1930s. Yet at the time of the trial, Baby Esther was presumed to be dead. Online, the story has been obscured even further by false identifications of Baby Esther in photos and sound clips. The ultimate origin of boop-boop-a-doop, and by extension goo goo ga joob, remains elusively out of reach.

Once again, interpretation has its limits. Still, searching for the roots of syncopated baby-talk, even if ultimately fruitless, reveals a fascinating chain of appropriations and reappropriations across races and cultures. Nonsense can contain its own historical sense, though the history may always be incomplete.

I can’t help seeking that sense in nonsense. The urge might be genetic, as I see it replayed now in my son Blake, who started up his own Beatles obsession around the age of 5. He’s 11 now, and is skilled in a kind of information-gathering that I could only have dreamt of at his age. My wished-for lyrical annotations and textual linkages are now commonplace online, thanks to sites like Wikipedia and Genius. I asked Blake where he would look if he wanted to understand the lyrics to “I Am the Walrus,” and his answer said it all: “Goo goo ga Google.” But even with the never-ending electronic stream of information and interpretation that can be served up instantaneously through a search engine, the song stubbornly stands on its own, perplexing new generations of listeners with its delightful opacity.

This article has been adapted from In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs.