I’ve always prided myself as a person who doesn’t fall for hoaxes or give way to conspiracy theories. But a recent article made me realize that I indeed had once been sucked in by one of these far-fetched rumors. It happened in October 1969, around the time I turned 11.
Maybe I was home from school that afternoon, or maybe it was a Saturday, but I remember being home alone when I heard the announcement on my favorite radio station, WKNR-AM (Keener 13) in Detroit. I don’t know precisely what the announcement said, or how long it lasted, but it was enough to propel me downstairs from my bedroom to pull out the most recent Beatles albums we had. I spent a good while tracking down the clues the radio had said pointed to the conclusion that Paul McCartney was dead.
Paul was said to have died two years before and the Beatles were using a McCartney double to hide the tragedy. Despite the cover up, the Beatles had laced their recent work with clues that revealed the truth about Paul: There on the back cover of Sgt. Pepper was Paul, his back turned to the viewer, separated from his front-facing, living bandmates. There he was on Abbey Road, crossing the street barefoot, past a Volkswagen whose license plate read “28IF” — Paul would have been 28 years old if he had lived. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” John Lennon seems to be saying, “I bury Paul.”
The house felt creepy, as if I had just woken from a bad dream.
Over time the Paul is Dead phenomenon faded, then ceased to be relevant. Along the way, John explained that he was saying “cranberry sauce” on the record, not “I bury Paul.” And a few years back I learned that Keener 13 (which in the early ’70s I abandoned for FM radio) was instrumental in spreading the rumor nationally.
In October, an article appeared in Michigan Today that detailed the role a mischievous University of Michigan student named Fred LaBour played in energizing the Paul is Dead rumor. LaBour wrote a full-page story in the student-run Michigan Daily, offering details of McCartney’s death in a car accident. He repeated the clues then circulating and offered more of them, saying the Beatle’s death was fact, not rumor. Many of the clues LaBour made up.
Today the whole thing seems like a quaint heirloom from the increasingly distant 1960s, nothing more than a feverish alternate reality no longer populated by truth seekers. The truth is pretty obvious now.
But I still don’t think John was saying “cranberry sauce.”