Occasionally someone will contact me to ask if I think the Beatles intentionally placed the “Paul is dead” clues on their records. My answer is that I do not believe the Beatles had anything to do with the rumor that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and was replaced by a lookalike. I take John at his word when he said that he was taken aback that people were reading such significance into the lyrics he wrote, let alone that he was trying to suggest that Paul was dead.
John Lennon interviewed by John Small of WKNR Detroit in 1969 [source: The Ottawa Beatles Site]
I think most all of the clues are easy to explain and many of them are so ambiguous that you could read almost any meaning into them. To me, the significance of the “Paul is dead” rumor is the hysteria it generated–how much the public wanted to read into the Beatles every word and action.
When I say that most of the clues are easy to explain, there was always one that puzzled me, which was the line in “Glass Onion”: “Well here’s another clue for you all/The walrus was Paul”. That line always bothered me because I didn’t know what John could be referring to. That he mentions a “clue” suggests that he is trying to communicate something to the audience that isn’t immediately apparent. But what? I was mystified by this until I read “The Walrus and the Deacon: John Lennon’s Debt to Lewis Carrol,” a 1984 article in the Journal of Popular Culture by Michael E. Roos. Roos suggests that several of John’s songs draw heavily on imagery from the writings of nineteenth-century author Lewis Carroll that John had read as a boy. “In “Glass Onion” John makes reference to several Beatles songs, including “I Am the Walrus,” which in turn is a reference to the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Through the Looking Glass, written by Lewis Carroll in 1871. Roos explains that John was becoming disillusioned with the altruistic ideals he had associated with the Beatles. In Carroll’s poem the Walrus and the Carpenter lure youthful, unsuspecting oysters to follow them only so they could eat them. Where he had once been idealistic, John was coming to see the Beatles playing the same role with their audience. Their young unsuspecting fans were looking to the Beatles for answers but Lennon had none to give, so he came to see the Beatles as con artists. John’s line in “Glass Onion”, “Well here’s another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul” was a put down of McCartney because Paul continued to encourage the audience to believe in the heady ideals of the Beatles.
To me, the line in “Glass Onion” was the only thing that made me consider the possibility that the Beatles intentionally placed the “Paul is dead” clues on their albums. Once I read Roos’s article, however, I became convinced that the “Paul is dead” rumor was nothing more than obsessive fans constructing meaning where there was none. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the author of that article held a different view. When this website had a forum, Roos posted the following, “I have always believed there really was a conspiracy among the Beatles to create a “Paul is dead” rumor, and over the years I’ve also come to believe that John may well have gotten the idea from Bob Dylan.” he went on to explain,
Here’s my theory: Dylan and Lennon had been conducting a sort of dialogue in song over the years of 64-66 (maybe even as late as 68). There was mutual admiration (and competition) as well as influence back and forth, culminating in one of the most blatant exchanges when Dylan very distinctly parodied John’s 1965 song “Norwegian Wood” in his song “4th Time Around” from Blonde on Blonde (1966). Dylan and Lennon hung out together in London during Dylan’s infamous spring 66 tour of England, recorded in a widely bootlegged outtake from Dylan’s film Eat the Document. Shortly after the tour ended, Dylan had his famous motorcycle accident and disappeared from public view for well over a year, generating a tremendous rumor mill over what happened to him or what his condition was. I don’t know if there was any contact between Lennon and Dylan during Dylan’s period of seclusion, which ran from July 66 through at least Feb 68, but the first clues of Paul’s death start showing up in late 66, right? Is there anything earlier than the “I buried Paul/I’m very bored” line at the fade out of “Strawberry Fields”?
Lennon was such a trickster (and so competitive with Dylan, too) that I can easily conceive of him getting the boys together and concocting this highly elaborate scheme to pull one over on the public. His comments about “I Am the Walrus” only support the idea that he thoroughly enjoyed playing tricks on the public.
I’ll admit that many of the clues seem very far-fetched to me too, but some of them just seem too obvious to ignore. I certainly still do believe that “I am the Walrus” is based on the Lewis Carroll poem and that John was telling the world, as he told Hunter Davies in that biography, that the Beatles were a con. I also still believe that “Glass Onion” was about what I said it was back in the article, that John was slamming Paul, saying that Paul was still into the whole Beatle mythmaking machine. But when John says, “Here’s another clue for you all…” it’s so clear that he was very well aware how he was toying with the public, no matter how we interpret the rest of this song or any of the others that have been cited for clues. More than just slamming Paul, he was telling all of us how foolish we are to spend our time pouring over these songs, playing them backwards, looking for clues that lead nowhere. Of course Paul never died, and the joke, intentional or not, was really on us.
I don’t have any definitive proof that there was a conspiracy, but it is fun to think there was one. Perhaps I want to believe in the hoax because I think it’s such a great joke, and I love the jokester in Lennon. The ultimate irony is that there is a very real, legitimate artistic statement in what he was saying, through all of what he himself called gobbledeegook. And “I Am the Walrus,” as well as most of John Lennon’s work through the period of the late 60s and 1970, was really about the notion of the artist/celebrity and his relationship to his audience. Much of Dylan’s best work deals with that as well.
[A few years ago], for the first time, I went to Abbey Road, saw the studio, and made the walk across the street with some of my students. We did the photo, as thousands have done before us, and it was spooky to be there. I could really “feel” the imprint of Lennon’s tennis shoes, Ringo’s dress boots, Paul’s bare feet, and George’s suede boots. And I can hear John saying, “Hey, I’ll be the doctor, Ringo, you be the undertaker, Paul, you, of course, are the dead man, and George, you’re the grave digger. Won’t the public get their knickers twisted over this one! Ha ha ha!” I love it. But then again maybe I’m just looking through a glass onion.
To that I replied, “The irony! Your article was the thing that convinced me that the Beatles had no intention of starting the “Paul is dead” rumor! I was always skeptical, but as I said before, the only clue I couldn’t explain was the line in “Glass Onion”, “Well here’s another clue for you all/The walrus was Paul”. The explanation you gave in your article laid to rest any doubts I had about the Beatles having anything to do with a hoax about Paul being dead. I agree with you, though. Part of me does want to believe that John and the boys were having a little joke on us all. I hadn’t thought of the Dylan death rumors as having any connection with the Paul is dead rumor before.”
Here are a couple of interesting interpretations of “The Walrus and the Carpenter”. The first is from the Disney animated version of Alice in Wonderland (1951).
and a rather unorthodox interpretation of the poem’s significance from the movie Dogma (1999):
Michael Roos is currently a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. At the time of this writing, he was “preparing to teach two Beatles related courses this spring and summer. In the spring, I’m doing a course on Dylan and the Beatles, in which I’ll be covering in detail all of the ground mentioned in my commentary below plus a lot more. Then in June, I’m leading a study abroad group to Britain, where I’ll be doing a writing course with the cultural evolution of ’60s and the Beatles as the basic theme. It should be a lot of fun. We’ll be crossing Abbey Road again and seeing more Beatles places I haven’t seen before, including Liverpool.”