For whatever reason, this was a particularly fruitful period for The Beatles — in the space of just a couple weeks they’d laid down “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Dear Prudence,” the final version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and “Helter Skelter.” The momentum continued into mid-September with a new John Lennon composition, “Glass Onion.”

“Glass Onion” is not just another Beatles song: It is perhaps the first piece of consciously meta rock’n’roll, both commenting on and contributing to the swirl of myth, legend, and rumor surrounding the band. Beginning with a reference to “Strawberry Fields,” it goes on to name-check three Paul songs (“Lady Madonna,” “The Fool on the Hill,” and “Fixing a Hole”) and offer some exegesis for “I Am the Walrus.”

A couple of interesting inversions happen here: John says “I told you about the fool on the hill,” when of course it was Paul who did that, while also explaining:

I told you about the walrus and me, man
You know we’re as close as can be, man
Well here’s another clue for you all
The walrus was Paul.

In doing so John unwittingly contributed to the “Paul is dead” meme that would start to circulate in 1969. The walrus, said hippie conspiracy theorists, was a symbol of death in ancient cultures — and whether this was true or not, once it got out into the world it took on a life of its own.

Before I started studying this subject in depth, I’d always assumed that John was consciously referencing Paul-is-deadism, but the historical timeline says that this could not be the case. According to the man himself,

I threw the line in – “the Walrus was Paul” – just to confuse everybody a bit more. It could have been “The fox terrier is Paul.” I mean, it’s just a bit of poetry.

In addition to calling back to existing songs, John introduced a few new mysteries for the heads to ponder:

  • “Looking through the bent-backed tulips”: Says Derek Taylor: “You’d be sitting in Parkes [a posh London restaurant] and you’d realize that the flowers were actually tulips with their petals bent all the way back, so that you could see the obverse side of the petals and also the stamen. This is what John meant about ‘seeing how the other half lives.’ ”
  • “Standing on the cast iron shore”: Wikipedia tells us that “Cast Iron Shore (colloquially known as ‘The Cazzy’) was a name given to the banks of the Mersey in south Liverpool due to the presence of an iron foundry.”

  • “Trying to make a dovetail joint”: This is technically a carpentry reference; a dovetail joint is a series of “pins” and “tails” that join two pieces of wood together, to wit:

But John knew that using the word “joint” would get people’s attention, and it did.

The biggest mystery of all may be the title itself. What exactly is a glass onion? Here are a few of the answers I found online:

  • “A glass onion is something that would have layer after layer peeled away, only to realise that it was transparent all along.”
  • “An onion is a multilayered thing, complex and delicate. Its layers are often semi-transparent, but no two of them are visible simultaneously. Each one must be peeled away singly in order to disclose its complex cellular patterns and striations. As such the onion is reminiscent of the human psyche, which also consists multiple layers, whether conscious or unconscious. Bearing this in mind, it can be surmised that the image of the glass onion represents John’s ideal of a state where all those levels of consciousness are revealed in the same instance, giving a totality of being, a comprehensive knowledge of self.”
  • “A glass onion is a coffin with a see-through lid.” (ed. note: Another “Paul is dead” connection.)
  • ”I think he’s talking about a monocle:”
  • “I have always thought Glass Onion was a Crystal Ball. You know, seeing into the future and all that.”
  • “Glass Onion means not having to think.”

So it appears that we will never have a definitive answer, which is only right. John wanted to give us all something to think about, and I consider the excessive length of this post a tribute to how well he succeeded.

Meanwhile, in the course of all this textual analysis I’ve kind of lost track of the music. At this early stage “Glass Onion” sounded as follows:

When George Martin returned from vacation he would convince John to take a different approach, scrapping a lot of the sound effects and adding strings, and I think he was right; the album version rocks, while this one kind of plods. But that’s looking through a glass onion into the future. It’s long past time to cut this thing off and move on to the weekend.

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