In 1967, John Lennon received a letter informing him that an English teacher at his old high school had been analyzing his lyrics. So, like any good compulsively contrarian British schoolboy, Lennon responded with a song that defied all comprehension. Cobbling together his vaguest whims and impressions of police sirens, English gardens and corn flakes, Lennon set out to intentionally befuddle not just this one teacher, but all self-appointed Beatles scholars. The result was I Am The Walrus, a song crafted of finely honed, wry ridiculousness.
My fondness for this song comes mostly my father, from whom I’ve inherited many things—some more easily appreciated than others. The thick, dark hair that covers not just my head but also the rest of my body; the well-defined calves of an Ancient Greek (male) athlete; an exhausting addiction to endorphins and intense dinner table conversation; and a characteristically British, gently antagonistic aesthetic that appreciates the intellectual and the absurd in equal measure. I also inherited his music tastes: a unique canon of synth pop and prog rock, soulful and satirical. I grew up bouncing around, stuffed Barney in hand, as my dad’s speaker system blasted David Bowie, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, U2, Frank Zappa, Natalie Merchant (one of the “wailing women,” as my mother calls them) and of course, the Beatles.
In the early days of the pirate internet, my father proudly announced himself captain of his own ship, amazed by the possibilities for free music at his fingertips. I would pass by his office door after school each day to see him sitting in his high backed office chair, the computer screen reflected in the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses, surrounded by boxes full of bulk orders of bulldog clips and the cheap blue pens with felt tips that I never saw anyone but him use. I’m not sure why his obsession with I Am the Walrus began but at some point he decided to collect as many cover versions as he could, always with that subtly amused smile on his face. To him, collecting covers was probably a way to fill the new swathes of time he suddenly had after leaving an intense banking job. To me, it was a new excuse to interrupt him without accidentally provoking one of his occasional and fearsome outbursts of rage, which seemed to be triggered by the least predictable things like a clump of dirt in the hallway from shoes not taken off, a poorly loaded cup in the dishwasher, or an uneaten piece of chicken.
Last time I checked, my dad has found at least 40 unique covers. But back in the collection’s early days, I would stand by his chair as he eagerly played me his latest find by Oingo Boingo (composer Danny Elfman’s funky pet project), Die Toten Hosen (a screaming German heavy metal band), Men Without Hats, Styx, or Oasis (he included this in the collection only for completion’s sake—he scoffs at the Gallagher brothers’ cheap imitation). We would crouch over his Dell monitor, watching the lime green Kazaa window slowly downloading new tracks with eager anticipation.
Lennon wrote most of I Am The Walrus while on acid, which explains its dreamlike references to egg men, pornographic priestesses, and a wild-animal-like refrain: “goo goo gajoob.” I’ve never taken LSD (thanks to some great shock-factor middle school educational videos, even weed scares me), so I can’t say I relate to experiencing the world through an addled state of consciousness. But the song’s sense of humor can be appreciated without hallucination. It dares the listener to find meaning and significance in the lyrics—a recurring theme throughout the Beatles’ ‘experimental’ phase after they stopped performing live, and resisted being labeled either by their fans or by those who attempted to neatly analyze them. I see I Am The Walrus as their most overt satire of the over-intellectualization of music.
The disjointed, odd, yet vivid lyrics produce a cacophony of images in the listener’s mind. They fill the ears with a glorious exploration of the sounds of language—alliteration and internal rhyme abound. Elements of clarity occasionally fade in and out of focus, mirage-like, amidst the semantic chaos. Take Lennon’s dig at anyone who blindly places all their faith in one idol, fueled by his disenchantment after a series of experiences with Indian mysticism: “Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna.” Even the figure of the walrus himself is a literary reference, stepping from the pages of Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass. The overall lack of meaning in the words themselves is offset by the song’s clearly defined, predictable musical structure. The steady, solid background rhythm tethers us to the realm of the real. (In case you were wondering, yes—I do fully appreciate and relish in the irony of this analysis.)
I Am The Walrus will always remind me of my father not just because he and the song are cross-wired in my memory, but also because at times I used to—and still do—find them equally inscrutable. The song’s incongruities remind me of his: his long periods of silence, focus and solitude interspersed with goofy outbursts of affection and warm sociability. His deep wealth of caring and intellect, so often disguised behind a stoic and humble front. His simultaneous joy in the intellectually complex, and rejection of anyone who takes their own ideas too seriously. His quirky sense of humor that nonetheless has its limits.
Most importantly, like the lyrics written to playfully toy with Lennon’s old schoolteachers, my father is a man who feels no need to explain himself to anyone. He’s the type of guy who, during bored nights as an undergraduate math student at Oxford, would visit unknown college bars and pretend to be a grad student in a field he knew nothing about. Engaging in lengthy conversations about art history or sociology, he could get by for hours purely on his skill in the art of bullshit. As a kid, he used to play complex psychological mind games with his youngest sister, such as convincing her that she was an old woman trapped in a child’s body. Nowadays, I can always count on him for daily emails with photos of our two cats sleeping in every possible location around the house, strange political cartoons or memes, or links to heady articles about philosophy, history or geopolitics.
Perhaps my father’s I Am The Walrus collection was never more than a frivolous pastime. Maybe I’m falling into exactly the same trap the song warns against, by earnestly attempting to analyze and find meaning where none exists. Being a proud master of the art of bullshit myself (another ability I’m proud to inherit from my father), maybe I’m just excellent at eloquently and analytically fooling myself. But I do wonder, without this song, would I know him the way I do now? What if he had never stopped working and had time to take up his I Am the Walrus hobby; to spend many long afternoons sitting at home, downloading and listening with me instead of being in the office? What does it say that this song in particular so appealed to him?
For his latest birthday, completely at a loss for what to get the man who wants nothing (and will wear a pair of socks until they disintegrate), I bought my father one of those cheap, dreadful mugs from a DIY crafts site. On it is a cartoon walrus wearing a pair of ambiguous glasses, probably intended to be, but not quite, Lennon-circular. I’m sure the mug will give my dad a cheap chuckle, at the very least, as he pours his morning coffee. I wonder if he’ll notice that those glasses look a little like the pair he wears on the end of his nose.