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.