Jul 15, 2023
“Popular music after World War II is a treasure trove for the philosophically curious… Paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, there’s a time to wind and a time to unravel, and now is the time to unravel.”
Unraveling the ‘inner meaning’ of popular lyrics can be a full-time job…and a half. And then there’s the question of whether you ultimately accomplish anything worthwhile.
Some folks say, “It’s just music; enjoy it.” Others, “The lyrics are the lyrics; they mean what they say they mean, and that’s all there is to it.” (This group is channeling Archibald MacLeish: “A poem should not mean but be.”) Finally, “Who are you to say what the artist meant? What was on her mind? What was his intent? I’ll only believe it if I hear it from the artist herself.”
In summary, the majority of folks believe that our work is a waste of time…or worse; and yet we labor on: “There has to be a pony at the bottom of this pile of…”
Popular music after World War II is a treasure trove for the philosophically curious. Paralleling contemporary developments in art and literature, lyrics began to resist ‘ordinary language’ interpretation. That’s a polite way of saying, “They don’t make any sense!” At least not on the surface!
Paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, there’s a time to wind and a time to unravel, and now is the time to unravel. But perhaps no popular song has more successfully resisted our deconstructive efforts than the Beatles’ classic, I Am the Walrus.
One reason, it opens with just about the last thing you’d ever expect to hear: a full throated exposition of Christology that is as crisp and clear as anything you’ll find anywhere in the New Testament:
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together…
Is this Buck Mulligan intoning the words of the Eucharistic rite while standing atop the Omphalos? Or the liturgical hymn that begins Paul’s Letter to the Colossians? Or the opening lines of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God?”
‘I’ (the walrus), of course, is Christ. He is one with his father (I am he), as are we (as you are he); we are also one with Christ (as you are me) e.g., in the Eucharist; and we are all together as Christ’s Mystical Body, as Church, as the Kingdom of Heaven.
Ok, seems like we may be on a roll here… but we’re not! What follows next is a bunch of ‘dream imagery’, possibly intended to parody the ‘less transparent’ parts of the Roman Catholic Liturgy:
See how they run like pigs from a gun; see how they fly; I'm crying. Sitting on a corn flake, waiting for the van to come, Corporation T-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday, man you've been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
Ok, not so simple after all. Any attempt at an ‘interlinear translation’ of the entire text is doomed. But that does not mean that the lyrics are nothing more than the Chef’s signature Word Salad. There’s plenty of ‘dog whistle’ philosophy woven into the rest of the text.
First, there is a profound contempt for ‘civil authority’ (the police) and its client and principal beneficiary, ‘corporate culture’; then there’s a nod to the ‘nun-of-this-and-nun-of-that’ morality of the Decalogue and the rest of the Torah.
The Beatles are on their way to identifying a new Great Commandment, specifically developed for our era, replacing the ‘outmoded’ Mosaic commandment quoted to great effect by Jesus in the story of the Good Samaritan. (Matthew 22: 34-40) Perhaps not surprising for our time, the new commandment is gender-specific.
In the 1960s, boys were still expected to assume society’s leadership roles. ‘A long face’ was the first sign that a boy might not be adjusting to society’s expectations. Ditto ‘crying’. ‘Fake it ‘till you make it’ might have been our motto growing up. Remember, “You better not pout, you better not cry…” and there’s a whole lota cryin’ goin’ on in this song.
Feeling adrift? Not to worry. The chorus will get you back onside:
I am the egg man. They are the egg men. I am the walrus.
As clearly as the opening verse expounds Christology, the chorus expounds Ecclesiology. The ‘egg man’, of course, is Jesus and the ‘egg men’ are his disciples, specifically his 12 apostles, the cornerstone of his church.
But why ‘egg man’ specifically? Just as an egg is the ‘incarnation of chicken’, so Jesus is the Incarnation of God. Also, the egg is a potent symbol of rebirth (resurrection), of a new generation (church), of a ‘new age’. Remember, according to the astronomical and astrological communities, Jesus ushers in the Age of Pisces.
And then there’s that other ‘egg man’, you know, Mr. Dumpty. Like Humpty, Jesus was fragile. Humpty fell, Jesus was pushed (i.e., crucified), but like Humpty, he broke. But whereas “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”, Jesus rose intact (‘body and spirit’) from the dead!
Mister City policeman sitting, pretty little policemen in a row. See how they fly like Lucy in the sky, see how they run; I'm crying.
The earlier symbols reappear. From the beginning, Christianity has had a love/hate relationship with civil authority. On the one hand, “my kingdom is not of this world,” but on the other hand, it was civil and ecclesiastical authority that crucified Jesus and martyred all the apostles save one (John).
Bottom line: civil authority is fine, just as long as it doesn’t conflict with divine authority, but I doubt if the antics of the UK police in 1967 met this criterion. On the contrary, celebrating the police ‘running’ is a bit on the revolutionary side for the Beatles. After all, we’re not talking Barry McGuire here!
Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye, crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess, boy, you've been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.
Of all the controversial themes embedded in Walrus, it was this verse that got the song banned by the BBC. In Puritanical London, the only thing more compulsory than male privilege was female propriety: ‘Keep your knickers on, girlie (sic)’.
Yet there was one thing even worse than male sloth and female promiscuity – gender ambivalence. In the immortal words of Archie Bunker, “Girls were girls and men were men”… on both sides of the Atlantic!
Here the chorus repeats, once again clawing us back from the edge of a semantic abyss; and then…
Sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun. If the sun don't come, you get a tan from standing in the English rain.
“Waiting for the sun” is the lot of every English man and woman…and of every Christian. Intentionally or not, Jesus left the early Church with an expectation of Apocalypse Soon, i.e., the Second Coming of Christ.
Christians have come to terms with the elongated time frame by recognizing ‘anticipation and patience’ as salvific in their own rights. English men and women have come to terms with their weather by paying close attention to their tans.
The Beatles anticipated the Rolling Stones by 2 years: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find…you get what you need.”
A body tan, meant to be a souvenir of ‘fun in the sun’, has become an end-in-itself, devoid of the associated process and experience. The separation of ends from means is a hallmark of our civilization. The chorus returns, but this time with an added twist:
I am the egg man (now good sir) They are the egg men (a poor man, made tame to fortune's blows) I am the walrus (good pity).
The chorus now has a chorus of its own. In the background, someone is paraphrasing text from Isaiah (the ‘Suffering Servant’) or Shakespeare (King Lear).
Expert, texpert choking smokers, don't you think the joker laughs at you. See how they smile like pigs in a sty, see how they snide, I'm crying.
The first 4 words of this verse sum up the entire human condition at the end of the Industrial Revolution: fragmentation of labor, technocracy, industrial pollution, and our own unhealthy strategies for relieving stress (e.g., smoking).
The Joker, of course, is none other than Satan himself; and why shouldn’t he laugh? An entire culture is effectively discarding God’s gift of life in pursuit of vain pleasures and empty honors. I’d laugh too…if I wasn’t one of those people.
Semolina Pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower; elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna, man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.
I’ve saved the worst for last! Referring just to this final verse, John Lennon himself called it gibberish. Reportedly, he was trying to thwart folks like us who tend to over-analyze his lyrics. Perhaps we should take Lennon at this word.
Others, however, have found meaning in these words. Pilchard might be a reference to Sgt. Pilchard of the London Met, famous for his drug raids carried out against rock and roll celebrities.
‘Semolina’ (wheat flour) could be a disparaging reference to ‘Whitey’, but it could also signify a kind of anti-Eucharist, ‘the Eucharist of the anti-Christ’. References to the Eiffel Tower, penguins, and Hare Krishna signal Lennon’s desire to extend the message of Walrus beyond the geographical and cultural limits of ‘Christian England’.
And the alleged ‘kicking’ of Poe, quite possibly at the feet of the UK police (above), is emblematic of how post-industrial civilization treats its artists. Like the egg men before him, Poe is the victim of ignorance and intolerance.
Satisfied? Ok, maybe, but does anyone think this is really what Lennon had in mind when he wrote Walrus? How should I know…and does it make any difference anyway? MacLeish (above) says that a poem should ‘be’. I agree. But if it ‘is’, then it has a life of its own, apart from the artist who created it. In any event, this is how Walrus lives in me!
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.