Paul Was Not Dead, and Was Not a Walrus Either

A student at the University of Michigan, Fred LaBour, decided to make something up one day in 1969. The ‘something’ was a story that Paul McCartney, of the Beatles, was dead.

As Peter Ames Carlin, in his recent biography of Paul, tells the tale: LaBour didn’t produce the idea completely out of thin air. He had taken a phone call while working in the newsroom on something else, from someone who had put together a few “clues.”

There is a strange incantation at the end of Strawberry Fields Forever. Didn’t that sound like “I buried Paul?” the caller asked.

Strawberry fields

Strawberry fields

LaBour’s first reaction had been just to shake his head, and mutter that people can be odd. His second reaction, though, was that the Michigan Daily needed some dramatic copy anyway, and this might be just the ticket….

He put together some of the initial caller’s clues with some more-or-less random observations of his own, and wrote “McCartney Dead: New Evidence Brought to Light.” Some of the “new evidence” was imaginative, and some of it was just invention. The article contended for example that the word “walrus” is Greek for “corpse.” That claim came out of thin air. In classical Greek one simply combines the words for “dead” and “body” when speaking of a corpse – those words are “nekros” and “soma” respectively. In no combination do they sound anything like “walrus.”

In later versions of the tale, the walrus would be said to be a Greek symbol for death. This wasn’t true either, but is more difficult to falsify. Socrates and his associates lived along the Aegean and probably didn’t think much about arctic creatures one way or another.

LaBour went further, developing a wild story about a fatal auto accident in 1966, and a Scottish look-alike who was standing in the dead guy at public appearances. The look-alike was supposedly named “William,” which explains why the alter ego to Paul in the Sgt. Pepper album is named “Billy Shears.” It was, according to LaBour and a long line of theorists after him, meant to be code for “Billy’s here.”

Even before LaBour’s story saw print, the same rumor (again in the form of an anonymous phone cal) appears to have come separately to the attention of a Detroit disk jockey, Russ Gibb, who talked it up on his show on October 12, 1969 on WKNR-FM. Gibb – at the suggestion of his caller—played the song “Revolution Number 9” backward on the air. It does sound like “turn me on, dead man.” Within minutes, his station’s phone lines were ringing off their hooks, and his producer was telling him: Milk it!

Sir James Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney

Nobody has really gotten to the bottom of all this. According to the source on which I’m chiefly relying here, the Peter Carlin biography of McCartney, LaBour and Gibb seem to have gotten separate phone calls, whether from the same tipster or two different tipsters is unclear. The story seems to have been circulating around college campuses in the US for some time. Anyway: the Michigan Daily and its story appeared just two days after Gibb’s show, and the coincidence of timing helped turn what had been a simmering rumor into a boiling-over mass-media sensation.

In fact, of course, the Beatles had been thinking of mortality at least since the death of their friend Brian Epstein, so death-imagery “clues” weren’t difficult to find in their late albums. Also, the odds that someone who is eagerly looking for a sign of X will find a sign of X in any random collection of sounds and images is pretty much 1.00.

The Beatles

WKNR returned to the subject of Paul’s death on October 19, with a two-hour documentary called “The Beatle Plot.”

But let’s talk a bit about the walrus imagery. The actual inspiration for the Beatles’ walrus imagery was Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” to be found in Through the Looking-Glass. This is a rather macabre versified story in which the two title characters lure some oysters into taking “a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk” with them – and the walk ends with the consumption of the poor oysters.

“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

So, yes, a college prank notwithstanding, within the post-Carroll English-language literary tradition one can associate “Walrus” with both deceit and death. But the poor oysters die a quite deliberate death, not the accidental sort that comes from an auto accident where one simply fails to notice that “the lights had changed.” That phrase, by the way, comes from the lyrics to “A Day in the Life,” and was itself sometimes cited as a clue to the fatal accident that didn’t really happen.

There is something faintly ridiculous about a theory that says that a group of people is going to a great deal of trouble to cover up a death on the one hand, and that the same group of people is going to an ever greater amount of trouble to sprinkle about clues to that fact on the other. It is as if NASA were to fake a moon landing, and then work very hard to let everybody know they had faked the landing. If you play back tape of Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s transmissions from the surface of the moon, can you find a lot of only slightly veiled reference to the “fact” that it is all a hoax?

So far as I know, even those people who do believe that it was all a hoax (an absurd bunch ) don’t engage in the additional absurdity of pretending that the astronauts have been trying to clue us all in.

Maybe I should start a theory of that sort, and make myself famous.

Nah, on second thought, I’d rather die in obscurity than obtain notoriety in such a way.

One happy incidental fact in all of this is for Fred LaBour, the U. Michigan student-journalist who helped kick the thing into high gear, that not-especially-reputable incident is not his only claim to fame. He is also Fred “Too Slim” LaBour, the bassist of the group “Riders in the Sky,” a cowboy-music quartet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *