“Paul Is Dead” Clues on Abbey Road

AbbeyRoadAbbey Road, the last album the Beatles recorded together, was released in the fall of 1969 (September 26th in the UK and October 1st in the US). Rumors that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and had been replaced by a lookalike had been in the air for many months before the release of Abbey Road, but this story had mainly just circulated on college campuses. People in the know claimed that the Beatles had left clues about Paul’s death and replacement on their albums. Abbey Road served to fuel these rumors and fears that Paul McCartney had died became the focus of media attention shortly after the album’s release. On October 12, 1969, Russ Gibb, a DJ for Detroit radio station WKNR, took a call from a listener who identified himself as Tom. The caller was concerned about the rumors of Paul McCarLifetney’s death and he thought “Uncle Russ” might be able to explain what was going on. This was news to the DJ, however, and Russ Gibb kept Tom on the line for an extended period as they discussed many of the “Paul is dead” clues on the air. From that point on the story took on a life of its own and within days it was reported in major newspapers and on network TV news. The story remained in the news for a few weeks until Life magazine tracked down Paul McCartney in Scotland and showed a picture of him with his family on the cover of the November 7, 1969, issue under the heading “Paul is still with us.”

Though it’s difficult to identify the specific detail that triggered the “Paul is dead” hysteria, Abbey Road contributed several new “clues” to the story. The cover, which shows a photograph of the Beatles walking in step across the street away from Abbey Road Studios, resembles a funeral procession. Leading the procession is John wGreatHoaxearing white, symbolizing the clergy. Ringo, dressed in black, is a pallbearer or an the undertaker. George, dressed in work clothes, is the gravedigger. Paul, the corpse, is out of step with the other Beatles, leading with his right foot instead of with his left. Also, Paul’s eyes are closed and he is barefoot. Asserting that because people in many areas of the world are buried barefoot, Paul McCartney Dead: The Great Hoax stated that this was “a strong death symbol.” Also, Paul is smoking a cigarette, also known as a “coffin nail“. He is holding the cigarette in his right hand, even though the real Paul McCartney was left handed.

Behind the Beatles on the left side of the street is a Volkswagen Beetle with a li28IFcense plate reading “28IF”, suggesting the Paul would have been 28 if he were still alive. Actually Paul would have been 27 when Abbey Road was released. For those who thought that this was just too tantalizing to let pass, Paul Is Dead: The Great Hoax explained, “To the believer, 28 IF does symbolically state Paul’s age—since people (especially in the Near East where Paul learned mysticism) believe we are all one year old at birth (counting the nine months of pregnancy). True, in this light, Paul would have been 28 IF he had lived!.” (Emphasis in original) The first three letters on the license place, “LMW,” has been interpreted as “Linda McCartney Weeps”. One prPoliceTruckoblem with this interpretation, however, is that Paul had yet to meet Linda Eastman in 1966 when Paul’s fatal accident supposedly occurred. A police van was parked on the opposite side of the street in the Abbey Road cover photo. Joel Glazier, author of “Paul Is Dead… Miss Him, Miss Him” in the fanzine Strawberry Fields Forever #51 (1978), asserted that the police who came to the scene of Paul’s fatal accident in 1966 were paid off to maintain secrecy. To Joel Glazier the police van parked in the background is a reference to this.

The back cover, which shows a young woman walking by a wall marked with an Abbey Road street sign, was also scrutinized for “Paul is dead” clues, and the images on the back cover have given rise to some of the strangest clues. Embedded in the concrete are a set of tiles spelling out “Beatles” and the “S” at the end of “Beatles” has a crack running through it. In The Walrus Was Paul: The Great Beatle Death Clues of 1969, R. Gary Patterson suggests that this is an allusion to literary “supernatural characters who assumed any shapes desired. This shape appeared perfect at first glance, but upon closer examination, a slight deformity was evident.” He cited the character of Geraldine from “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “Lamia” by John Keats—easily the most literary (and far-fetched) of the “Paul is dead” clues.

To the left of the tiles spelling out “Beatles” are eight dots, which when connected form the numeral “3”, so the back cover actually reads “3 Beatles”. In 1970 Joel Glazier 3Beatlesvisited the wall where this photo was taken and he counted 13 dots. His conclusion was that the Beatles had intentionally cropped the picture to reveal the number of remaining Beatles. Also, he noted that to the right of the tiles is a very odd shadow that looks like a skull.

R. Gary Patterson reports that a number of conspiracy theorists thought that the woman pid_Armwalking by was Jane Asher, Paul’s girlfriend at the time of his fatal accident.Conspiracy theorists believe that she must have been aware of Paul’s death and replacement by a look-alike, so she must have been paid to keep quiet about the whole matter. Joel Glazier, however, asserted that the woman’s image was included on the back cover because it contained a visual reference to Paul McCartney. He suggested that if you look at the elbow of the woman in the photo from a distance, you can see Paul McCartney’s profile, with his nose in the upper right hand corner of the picture and the woman’s elbow forming his mouth.

Those looking for references to Paul’s death listened closely to the lyrics of the songs on Abbey Road. As R. Gary Patterson points out, the tone of “Come Together” suggests that “an underlying tragedy was hidden beneath the lyrics,” and the cryptic imagery of the song lends itself to imaginative interpretation. The opening line of the song “Here come old flattop” might refer to the injuries to the head Paul sustained in his fatal crash. “He wear no shoeshine” may refer to the barefoot Paul in the cover photo for the LP. “Got to be good looking ’cause he’s so hard to see” may refer to the absence of the “cute Beatle.” “Got to be a joker/He just do what he please” might refer to the “great hoax,” Paul’s replacement by a lookalike. And the line “One and one and one is three” might mean that there are now three Beatles instead of four.

The medley that dominates side 2 of the LP offered plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists, as well. The interlocking set of eight songs from “You Never Give Me Your Money” to “The End” may not have been thematically related but the song fragments fit together well. This form was fairly novel in 1969 and the reputation of this piece has grown over the years. Rolling Stone calls it “the matured Beatles at their best: playful, gentle, acerbic, haunting and bonded by the music.” Inevitable, then, that conspiracy theorists would examine this piece closely. Joel Glazier pointed out that the “Sun King” was the French monarch Louis XIV. In Part III of The Vicomte de Bragelonne or Ten Years Later by Alexander Dumas, “The Man in the Iron Mask” is Louis XIV’s twin brother who, through an elaborate plot, comes to replace the “Sun King”. To Glazier this reference supported the story that Paul had been replaced by a lookalike. Also, Andru Reeve, author of Turn Me On, Dead Man: The Beatles and the “Paul Is Dead” Hoax, points out that the songs in the medley contain a number of references to death. “You Never Give Me Your Money” contains the line “All good children go to Heaven,” “Golden Slumbers” is “the Big Sleep—death,” and the medley concludes with “The End.” He also mentions that “Carry That Weight” could be interpreted as a pallbearer’s task (which is how this song was used in the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton musical adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), as well as the heavy burden on the remaining Beatles after Paul’s death.

“It is all bloody stupid,” complained Paul McCartney when he was interviewed by Life magazine in the fall of 1969. “On Abbey Road we were wearing our ordinary clothes. I was walking barefoot because it was a hot day. The Volkswagen just happened to be parked there.”  Clearly Paul McCartney was bothered by such strange interpretations of the Abbey Road cover and he has made references to it at various points over the years. In 1993 he released the album Paul Is Live, choosing the title not only because it was a live album, but also as a counter to the “Paul is dead” story. In the cover photo McCartney consciously addressed the “Paul is dead” PaulIsLivemythology that had emerged surrounding the Abbey Road album cover. The cover shows an updated image of him crossing Abbey Road with his dog, Arrow, who was a descendent of Martha, immortalized in the song “Martha My Dear” on the White Album. Paul is balancing on his left foot (rather than leading with his right foot) and holding the dog’s leash in his left hand. Paul’s eyes are open and he’s wearing shoes. Gone is the police van but the the white Volkswagen Beetle remains. Close inspection reveals that the license plate has been changed to read “51 IS”, as Paul was 51 when this album was released in 1993.

In 2009 Paul McCartney was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. Dave asked him about the “Paul is dead” hysteria, and McCartney pointed to the Abbey Road cover as the trigger for the rumors.

What happened was we did a cover for a record called Abbey Road and we–[applause] see, even the cover gets applause! The idea was to walk across the crossing and I showed up that day with sandals–flip flops–and so, it was so hot that I kicked them off and walked across barefooted. So this started some rumor that because he was barefooted, he’s dead. I couldn’t see the connection myself…. It was American DJs so you guys are to blame. Not you personally. The thing is, you know, I just laughed it off but it was a little bit strange because people did start looking at me like… is it him or a very good double?

It’s interesting to consider why Abbey Road was the album that triggered the “Paul is dead” hysteria. Perhaps the growing awareness that all was not well with the Beatles contributed to this phenomenon, but this does not completely explain why the “Paul is dead” story took on a life of its own at this particular time. In his book Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth, Curtis Peebles suggests that the incident that took place in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 did not have much of an impact on mainstream culture until decades later because the mythology about UFOs was not yet in place to support the story. Only after key elements of UFO mythology had been established did the story spread beyond a small group of conspiracy theorists. Similarly, the “Paul is dead” mythology was not fully in place until 1969 when college students organized the “clues” into a narrative. I would point in particular to Fred LaBour, who created key elements of the story that would later be repeated as true, such as the identity of Paul’s double, WIlliam Campbell. Fred LaBour had listened to Russ Gibb’s radio show on October 12, 1969, before writing a review of Abbey Road for his college newspaper. He structured the review, which appeared in the Michigan Daily two days later, as an obituary built around a number of the “Paul is dead” clues that he had either heard or invented to fill in the gaps. Once this narrative was in place, the “clues” took on new meaning and the story spread rapidly after that.

Bill Hicks on David Letterman

Outspoken stand-up comedian Bill Hicks was invited to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman on October 1, 1993. Though he had often felt constrained by the limited amount of time he had to work with in his appearances on David Letterman’s show, he typically used his strongest material for these segments. And Bill Hicks was particularly looking forward to this appearance, his first on David Letterman’s 11:30 show on CBS, which had only been on the air for just over a month. Just a few months earlier Bill Hicks had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and knew he had little time left.

Rather than wear his customary black attire, Bill Hicks chose “bright fall colors–‘an outfit bought just for the show and reflective of my bright and cheerful mood.'” He was happy with the way his segment had gone and left the studio feeling like it had been a success. Later in his hotel room, however, Bill Hicks received a call from producer Robert Morton telling him that the entire segment was going to be cut from the show.

Bill Hicks had appeared 11 times on David Letterman’s NBC show. Though Late Night with David Letterman had aired at 12:30, Bill Hicks had had his share of problems with the censor on that program. But this was different–his entire segment was cut from the show and Bill Hicks was understandably upset. His routine had been “approved and re-approved” by the segment producer, Mary Connelly. Robert Morton told Bill Hicks that the culprit was CBS Standards and Practices, and that Dave was furious about it. They had fought “tooth and nail” to keep Hicks’s segment in the show but to no avail. Hicks asked for a tape of his segment, but he never got one.  He was so incensed that he wrote a 39-page letter to John Lahr of the New Yorker, including a detailed account of his routine as best he could remember it. Lahr’s article appeared in the New Yorker on November 1, 1993. Bill Hicks still wasn’t done talking about the unreasonableness of the situation, but he didn’t have much time left to make his case. He died on February 26th of the following year at the age of 32.

But the story doesn’t end there. On January 30, 2009–over 15 years later–David Letterman invited Bill Hicks’s mother, Mary Hicks, to appear on The Late Show to talk about her son’s life and work.

Then, admitting that the decision to cut Bill Hicks’s segment had been his own, David Letterman sought to right a wrong by airing Bill Hicks’s entire censored routine.

It’s interesting to speculate not only about why David Letterman did this, but also why he waited until 2009 to do it. I would point to two reasons. One reason Dave was willing to air Bill Hicks’s censored segment is that he had long since given up in the ratings war with Jay Leno.

The Late Show with David Letterman premiered on CBS on August 30, 1993–the end result of a rather messy, public battle over who would succeed Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show. David Letterman was bitterly disappointed when NBC selected Jay Leno as Johnny Carson’s permanent replacement. David Letterman left NBC and took the 11:30 time slot with CBS in direct competition to the Tonight Show.

A few features of the show had to be renamed in order to avoid intellectual property issues with NBC, but The Late Show with David Letterman was much like his old show on NBC. In same ways, however, David Letterman changed how he approached the show in order to broaden his appeal.  He took to wearing tailored suits and monitored the content of the show more closely.  Bill Hicks’s routine, with its references to Christians and the pro-life movement, hit too many hot buttons for David Letterman to allow it on the air.

For a couple of years Letterman’s new approach to the show worked, as his show’s ratings were consistently higher than those of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It wasn’t until Jay Leno’s interview with Hugh Grant (“What the hell were you thinking?”) that the ratings of the Tonight Show topped those of David Letterman’s show. Since that time Jay Leno has maintained his ratings dominance in late night programming.

In an interview with Rolling Stone quoted in Bill Carter’s book The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, when asked why the Tonight Show has consistently scored higher ratings than The Late Show, “The answer is me,” Dave said, “I just think that Jay has wider appeal than I do.” Bill Carter also provides further reasons why Jay Leno has consistently bested David Letterman in the ratings game. Quite simply, Jay Leno follows the ratings of all the late-night talk show hosts with great interest and he has tailored his show to suit popular tastes based on his study of the ratings. According to Bill Carter, none of the other late night talk show hosts even came close to Jay Leno’s level of interest in these numbers. Also, unlike Jay Leno, Letterman shows little interest in working with the network’s affiliates, Letterman rarely does remote segments anymore, and he has taken to only working four days a week–the Friday show has gone from being taped on Friday to Thursday to Monday so that Dave can have a relaxed long weekend.

Another (perhaps related) reason David Letterman chose to air Bill Hicks’s segment in 2009 is that it appears he is no longer so wary of expressing a political viewpoint. Johnny Carson had established the image of the talk show host as a genial, neutral presence.  He certainly made reference to political events of the day, but he joked about them in a lighthearted way that caused few to take offense.  Letterman’s humor was always more caustic than Carson’s, but much like Johnny Carson he shied away from making political statements to the point where his political leanings were anyone’s guess. David Letterman has shown greater willingness to tangle with political figures in recent years, however, particularly during the 2008 presidential campaign. Granted, his sarcastic jabs at John McCain arose in large part from McCain’s abrupt cancellation of his appearance on the Late Show in the midst of the financial crisis–only to be interviewed by Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News at the time we would have been taping his appearance on David Letterman. But it goes beyond that. In one of John McCain’s appearances on The Late Show, David Letterman made the observation, “It seems like everyone’s gone wacky in the Republican party.”

Perhaps this helped clear the way for David Letterman to revisit the censoring of Bill Hicks. In a sense, David Letterman gave Bill Hicks the last word, even though Bill Hicks had effectively given his “last word” in a statement he wrote just before his death.

I was born William Melvin Hicks on December 16, 1961 in Valdosta, Georgia. Ugh. Melvin Hicks from Georgia. Yee Har! I already had gotten off to life on the wrong foot. I was always “awake,” I guess you’d say. Some part of me clamoring for new insights and new ways to make the world a better place’

All of this came out years down the line, in my multitude of creative interests that are the tools I now bring to the Party. Writing, acting, music, comedy. A deep love of literature and books. Thank God for all the artists who’ve helped me. I’d read these words and off I went – dreaming my own imaginative dreams. Exercising them at will, eventually to form bands, comedy, more bands, movies, anything creative. This is the coin of the realm I use in my words – Vision.

On June 16, 1993 I was diagnosed with having “liver cancer that had spread from the pancreas.” One of life’s weirdest and worst jokes imaginable. I’d been making such progress recently in my attitude, my career and realizing my dreams that it just stood me on my head for a while. “Why me!?” I would cry out, and “Why now!?”

Well, I know now there may never be any answers to those particular questions, but maybe in telling a little about myself, we can find some other answers to other questions. That might help our way down our own particular paths, towards realizing my dream of New Hope and New Happiness.


I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is available for free viewing (with commercial interruptions) on Hulu.