September 27, 2017

The Bard and the Dreamweaver: Celebrating “King Lear” and “I Am the Walrus”

By Stuart Mitchner

Fifty years ago this week at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, the Beatles were recording John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” a rock and roll tour de force unlike anything in popular music before it, including other Beatles pinnacles like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon has claimed on numerous occasions that the bizarre, unabashedly nonsensical lyrics were written to baffle listeners looking for hidden meanings, including in particular the English teacher at Lennon’s old school whose class was studying Beatles lyrics.

With King Lear’s surprise guest appearance at the end of “I Am the Walrus” in mind, I began rereading the play along with Harold Bloom’s chapter on it in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Penguin 1988), where Bloom observes that King Lear “ultimately baffles commentary,” showing “an apparent infinitude that perhaps transcends the limits of literature.” Bloom finds the experience of reading Lear “altogether uncanny.” Since terms like these can also apply to “I Am the Walrus,” I may be falling into Lennon’s trap by putting serious literature on the same page with something he went out of his way to make un-serious. Yet John took his identification with the song seriously enough in 1970 to bring it into “God,” his solemn, moving, beautifully sung farewell to the Beatles: “The dream is over/Yesterday I was the dreamweaver/But now I’m reborn/I was the walrus/But now I’m John.”

In 1978, he told a New York DJ that the song was among his favorites “because it’s one of those that has enough little bitties going to keep you interested even a hundred years later.”

Literature’s Fab Four

“Joyce, Proust, Beckett, and Kafka were the Beatles (but not ‘the moderns’),” is a statement attributed to Harold Bloom I found floating around in the cybersphere. This pairing of the giants of 20th-century literature with the Lads from Liverpool prefaces a video interview with Bloom on in the context of his “fierce” early convictions. Who or what the “moderns” exactly are is not for me to say. I just find the quote irresistible, though I know better than to take it any further. Lennon and Joyce you can make sense of, but try matching Paul with Proust (well, there’s “Yesterday”) or maybe Ringo with Beckett (“I can’t tell you what I see when I turn out the light, but I know it’s mine”), which leaves George with Kafka (“It isn’t me, it’s just my mind that is confusing things”).

Shakespeare in the Air

So how did an excerpt from a BBC broadcast of The Tragedy of King Lear turn up in the haunting fade-out of “I Am the Walrus”? According to Mark Lewisohn’s Abbey Road Studio Session Notes for Friday, 29 September, 1967, it happened during a most “unusual” and “inventive” remix session in which John Lennon “took an active role.” It was Lennon’s idea that mix 22 should be “done with a live feed from a radio,” the tuning dial landing on Act IV, Scene VI of the Third Programme’s 190-minute King Lear. While John had no idea which play the passage was from, the words “untimely death” would have attracted his attention a month after the shock of Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s death and at a time when the Paul is Dead craze was at its peak with people scanning album covers and songs for clues to perpetuate the morbid rumor. What mattered to John during a session that lasted till 5 a.m. was the opportune discovery of yet another exotic ingredient to add to his already fabulously allusive feast of a song, one more tidbit to keep listeners guessing; or, as he puts it a year later in “Glass Onion” on the White Album, “another clue for you all/The Walrus was Paul.”

Like most reasonably sentient rock and rollers in post-war England, Lennon grew up with BBC-disseminated culture in the background of daily life, bringing Shakespeare and Dickens and a whole company of national media household names into the air he lived and breathed — one reason the Beatles were at home performing a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the 1964 television special Around the Beatles. The acknowledged literary inspiration for “I Am the Walrus,” however, was Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” as Lennon has noted in numerous interviews (“To me, it was a beautiful poem”); the ambitions of his lyric, the way it gathers up an amusing melange of unrelated objects, can be traced back to the Walrus’s declaration, “The time has come to talk of many things/Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax — /Of cabbages — and kings.” As Lennon told Playboy in 1980, he had no idea when he wrote the lyric that the Walrus was the “bad guy” and the Carpenter the “good guy.” Although he playfully turns it around (“I should have said ‘I am the carpenter,’ but that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?”), he sings the words as a snarling, sneering, devious, wildly inventive, totally irresponsible bad guy.

Playing the Fool

In The Invention of the Human, Bloom refers to Shakespeare’s “pervasive presence in the most unlikely contexts: here, there, and everywhere [subconsciously quoting the Beatles?] …. He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. Libraries and playhouses (and cinemas) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or ‘spell of light,’ almost too vast to comprehend.” When Bloom says that “Shakespeare created us,” the idea is that he constructed a paradigm so complex and so complete that it becomes timelessly, humanly relevant to an extent that transcends “the limits of literature.”

After reading King Lear and listening to Lennon singing “I Am the Walrus,” it doesn’t require a great leap of the imagination to find parallels to Lennon’s mad lyrical virtuosity as the Walrus and the Eggman in the passionate inventiveness of “transcendent, altogether uncanny” characters like Lear’s Fool and the Earl of Gloucester’s devoted son Edgar, whose antic performance as Mad Tom is one of the many wonders of the play. Rock musicians often profit by playing the fool in the court of culture, the Beatles above all, whether in Edwardian gear or Sgt. Pepper band uniforms or the egg-man/walrus regalia John wears in the film Magical Mystery Tour. Referring to the Fool’s speech in Act III beginning “I’ll speak a prophecy before I go,” Bloom describes “a fine chant of nonsense” in which “priests, brewers, nobles, and tailors all cheerfully are condemned,” a fate not unlike that of Lennon’s cheerfully nonsensical policemen, fishwives, priestesses, and choking smokers.

The power and wonder of “I Am the Walrus” is in the way John Lennon’s inspired singing, one of his most compelling performances, merges with the pounding, richly orchestrated score, a string-driven juggernaut of eight violins and four cellos, over which he chants “I am me as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” It’s not an invitation he’s offering, it’s togetherness by command; he’s not telling you to listen, he’s demanding it; he wants you in the song not outside it. There’s no room to breathe or hesitate or think as the words come at you, charged with the singer’s take-no-prisoners style — “See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly” —  and the line he was born to sing, “I’m crying,” a cry from the soul of the song, repeated six times and lifted each time by George Martin’s magnificent arrangement.

Masters of Invective

Few other songs so unsparingly convey the caustic, fiercely emotional essence of John Lennon, and of all the plays in Shakespeare, few can equal King Lear’s rhetoric of invective as words seem to physically attack the victim of choice, Lear’s evil daughter Goneril’s insufferable steward Oswald, the “serviceable villain” who utters the words “untimely death” in the fragment of Lear that accompanies the song’s slow march into silence. Reading the play after listening to Lennon’s “pretty little policemen,” “stupid bloody Tuesday,” “pigs in a sty,” “crabalocker fishwife,” “pornographic priestess” “expert texpert choking smokers,” “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye,” you can find a kindred spirit in Shakespeare’s “whoreson dog,” “eater of broken meats”; “beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave”; “whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue” who “art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.”

This Realm, This England

One of the most symphonic moments in Beatles music comes amid the invective, abruptly, seemingly out of nowhere in a kind of frozen transition, time to catch your breath in the crazed glory of it all as Lennon ascends to another richer level of feeling, singing “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.” Here again you’re aware of Shakespeare’s way of claiming “this earth, this realm, this England” for his subject muse, as if he alone were chosen to sing its praises. So it is with the England claimed here by the Beatles. The garden referred to may be Lennon’s own at Weybridge, but breaking through the lyric’s mixture of menace and derangement it appears as the one and only eternal English garden.

There’s more to come in the year ahead — the splendor of “Hey Jude,” called by one listener “the Sistine Chapel of Rock”; the beauty of “Blackbird,” which captures the English countryside in just over two minutes of music; and then the proto heavy metal storm of “Helter Skelter,” perhaps Paul McCartney’s answer to “I Am the Walrus” where amid the crashing chaos you can almost hear Shakespeare’s mad king crying “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout: Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”