I am not a natural idoliser. Emotionally, the whole thing is uncomfortable. Rationally, knowing what people are like, the perfection required is unrealistic. It was in the case of John Lennon that I came closest to idolising someone. I decided to find out more about him, thinking this would take me closer to the magical quality in his songs. I read biographies and visited Beatles’ places in Liverpool and London. Maybe it’s not surprising that the person I discovered was not the one I expected. Saintly icons are not likely to write good songs.
Here, then, is my journey through disappointment, towards a more grown up kind of appreciation of what might lie at the other end of the zebra crossing.
John Lennon did not start out in life with any apparent promise to greatness. He was born in Liverpool’s Maternity Hospital, Oxford Street, on the evening of 9th October 1940 during an air raid. Early family life was turbulent. Albert Goldman, in his biography The Lives of John Lennon, makes much of these difficulties. But Philip Norman in John Lennon The Life argues for a much more ordinary picture. While John’s parents could hardly be described as enjoying a stable relationship, Norman presents John as enjoying the benefits of an extended family. He was in the pleasant position of having a number of secure homes to go to, that of his loveable but flighty mother Julia, or the well organised household of his Aunt Mimi. He could also wander off to Aunt Harrie’s if he wanted to.
John had an unremarkable school career. Goldman tries to tell a Tennessee Williams tale of violence and bullying, but once again the reality was probably more mundane. Philip Norman does not portray the Lennon school days as particularly troubled. Comedian Jimmy Tarbuck who was at school with John remembers he used to get into fights, though not with Tarbuck, who at that time was a terrifying Teddy Boy. John stuck to small-time fighting, and games of Cowboys and Indians with his best friend Pete Shotton. He did enough work to pass his Eleven Plus exam, starting at Quarry Bank Grammar School in the top stream, before slipping to the bottom. With Pete Shotten in tow there was much mischief, playing truant, shop lifting, and the running of a dinner ticket scam after accidentally finding thousands of tickets in a school bin. In his room at Aunt Mimi’s house, John would read Just William books and listen to music. Mimi grew tired of having “Elvis for breakfast, lunch and tea”.
Mendips – Aunt Mimi’s House
Although Elvis seemed like a distant god, the music that the young enjoyed in the 1950s was unusually accessible, even to boys in the bottom stream at Liverpool grammar schools. By the mid 1950s, skiffle had became a major youth craze. As George Harrison says in the Beatles Anthology: “Skiffle came out of the blues, but the way it was performed made it accessible to us white Liverpudlians. It was dead cheap – just a washboard, a tea chest, a bit of string, a broom handle and £3 10s guitar.” The musical structures were equally simple. Skiffle used the traditional twelve bar blues pattern of four chords, which in their simplest version could be played with only two fingers on a guitar. They could be learned very quickly. Julia – a banjo player – provided £10 to purchase John a mail order guitar, and gave him lessons. In March 1957 John Lennon formed his first band, originally called the Black Jacks, soon changed to the Quarry Men because most band members went to Quarry Bank School.
In October 1957, after failing all his “O” Level exams, John managed, on his headmaster’s recommendation, to get into Liverpool College of Art in Hope Street. Here he took a lackadaisical attitude to his studies, became good friends with the college’s most promising student, Stuart Sutcliffe, chased after girls, drank Black Velvets at lunchtime in Ye Cracke in Rice Street, and continued playing with the Quarry Men. Earlier that summer, on 6th July 1957, a promising guitarist and singer named Paul McCartney had seen the Quarry Men playing at St Peter’s Church garden fete in Woolton. Paul met John, played a few tunes, and proved that he was a good musician, better in fact than John. Once in the band, Paul started talking about his friend George Harrison, who after some grumbling about his young age was also asked to join. Knowing what happened later, it might seem that this was the start of something big. But it wasn’t. John’s life was traumatically disrupted in July 1958 when Julia was killed in a car accident on Menlove Avenue near Aunt Mimi’s house. The Quarry Men broke up early in 1959 after a disastrous gig where the boys all got drunk. From the original band, only John, Paul and George stayed together, with John’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe attempting to play bass, even though he had little musical talent. The future Beatles were four guitar players – one of which could hardly play – with no drummer and few prospects.
John lasted two years at art college before music became his livelihood. Always struggling to find drummers, his band played on the Liverpool dance hall circuit, and famously at the Cavern Club in Mathew Street. Although John was moving on now from skiffle, the Liverpool dance hall scene continued the feeling of a rough and ready music for all. In other parts of the country Mecca and Rank ran dance halls on authoritarian lines, displaying signs with messages such as “No Jiving”. In Liverpool most people couldn’t afford these places, so local events were organised instead. These ranged from the family fun of village fetes, such as the one at Woolton where John met Paul, to altogether tougher affairs. During one riotous gig Stuart Sutcliffe was attacked and – in spite of John’s desperate efforts to defend him – sustained a head injury which may later have led to a fatal haemorrhage.
Attacks on his friend aside, it seemed that most of the time there was nothing John liked better than an evening in front of, or fighting amidst, a violent audience. One of their drummers, Tommy Moore, eventually left the group, now calling itself the Beatles, disenchanted with John’s obvious relish for crowd trouble. Pete Best took over on drums, just in time for an engagement in Hamburg in August 1960. Rock n’ roll impresario Bruno Koschmider, hired a number of Liverpool bands, including the Beatles, to play in Hamburg. Playing for a tough crowd the Beatles adapted accordingly. At times things got out of hand, particularly during an embarrassing attempt to mug a drunk sailor. Although Paul and George lost their nerve, John and Pete Best carried on with the attack, only to get beaten off by their intended victim. This might not have been the only trouble John got into. Even the most sympathetic biographers admit that John could be violent when drunk. Stuart Sutcliffe’s younger sister Pauline, in her 1984 memoir, The Beatles Shadow, even suggested that the head injury which killed her brother in April 1962 was sustained not in Liverpool but in Hamburg, during a fight with John – though no one else corroborates this. Whatever the truth of the Hamburg period, it seems clear the Beatles became a willing part of their harsh environment.
This was all to change, however. During 1962 record producer George Martin of EMI was looking for an act to package as his own Cliff Richard and the Shadows. The Beatles got the call during a stint in Hamburg, offering a recording session at EMI. This session went fairly well, Martin thinking that he might be able to do something with the Beatles. Pete Best, for some reason, wasn’t considered right for the emerging band. He was sacked and the job of drummer given to Richard Starkey, known as Ringo Starr, who had played with Liverpool band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
The Beatles in their final line up of John, Paul, George and Ringo, quickly won a wide audience. At the elitist end there was The Times classical music critic William Mann, who wrote that Lennon and McCartney “were the outstanding English composers of 1963”. Mann talked impressively of “major tonic sevenths and ninths, flat submedial key switches, and the concluding Aeolian cadence in Not A Second Time which had the same chord progression as Mahler’s Song of the Earth”. On the other hand there was a huge general audience for the Beatles. Fittingly for a band with such a wide appeal, Lennon and McCartney were typically finding poetry in ordinary things. First it was boy girl relationships, with Love Me Do in October 1962, and Please Please Me in February 1963. Then in a massive rush of creativity anything from trips to the Isle of Wight (Ticket to Ride 1965), memories of friends and places in Liverpool (In My Life, 1965), pine cladding (Norwegian Wood 1965), sleeping (I’m Only Sleeping 1966) and visits to the doctor (Doctor Robert 1966) became the source of classic songs.
John was now a star. After years of struggling to reach “the topper-most of the popper-most” he had made it. Once the initial thrill had worn off, however, he found himself spending his days trapped in hotel rooms. Between exhausting tours there were periods of recovery at a suburban home in Weybridge, Surrey, where he kept his wife Cynthia – who he met at art school – hidden away because she was bad for the Beatles pin-up image. Then in March 1966 the dream music career took a dangerous turn, when John gave an interview to journalist Maureen Cleave, carelessly remarking that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. This interview was initially little noticed, until in July 1966 it was published in the American teen magazine Date Book. In the more fundamentalist environment of America there was a huge uproar, which coincided with an American tour. Amidst death threats, the Beatles could no longer sell out their stadium venues. The sound of fire crackers at a show in Memphis had all the Beatles turning to John expecting to see him drop dead. This tour finished at Candlestick Stadium in San Francisco on 29th August 1966, marking the end of the Beatles as a live act.
After the break up of his marriage to long-suffering Cynthia, the start of a relationship with artist Yoko Ono, and two hugely creative albums – the Sergeant Pepper and White Albums – John’s journey reached a kind of culmination in 1969. This apotheosis came not on world tours, or at the mountain retreats of Indian gurus, but on a zebra crossing outside Abbey Road studios. On the Abbey Road album’s famous sleeve picture, the Beatles are crossing to the other side. Aware that the group was coming to the end of the road, there are allusions in the sleeve picture to death – Ringo’s undertaker’s outfit, Paul’s bare feet, John’s angelic white suit, with George perhaps as the grave digger in his jeans. These are all references to the kind of unfathomable, final, irrevocable journey that occurs at the end of a life: but in this case the journey is happening on a zebra crossing in St Johns Wood, London. Perhaps the picture is suggesting that all crossings over, no matter how major they might appear to be, are in fact like walking over a zebra crossing. As John said in 1968’s Across The Universe: “Nothing’s going to change my world.” These words are frustrating and reassuring in equal measure. Crossing at the Abbey Road zebra crossing was the best kind of ordinary everyday trip to the other side.
John married Yoko in March 1969 just before the Beatles finally broke up in 1970. He then started a new career as a solo artist, and peace campaigner. Much of John Lennon’s later saintly image comes from the peace campaigner phase, though as Ray Connolly points out, this ignores some less than peaceful decisions, such as giving financial help to the Irish Republican movement in the US at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. How that promotes peace I can’t really fathom. But in his song Imagine, written in 1970, John left the imperfection of his life behind and found one of those moments of balance that only great works of art provide. He explored the contradictions of peace through the word imagine, a word which suggests both peace and restlessness in equal measure.
In June 1973 the Lennons took up residence across the Atlantic in the Dakota Building, New York. Most of 1974 was spent away from Yoko in Los Angeles, living with Yoko’s secretary May Pang, whilst trying to make an album with Phil Spector. This chaotic time of drinking, partying and drug taking is often referred to as the Lost Weekend. Following the Lost Weekend John lived quietly at the Dakota with Yoko and their son Sean. He emerged in 1980 and went on a five month sailing trip to Bermuda. This adventurous holiday seemed to re-ignite a desire for song writing. Returning to New York he made the Double Fantasy album with Yoko, released on 17th November 1980. The following month, on the evening of 8th December, a disturbed former Beatles fan shot John at the entrance to the Dakota building as he was returning from a day of recording in the studio. His death was greeted with worldwide grief, confirming an iconic status. John himself, however, would not have wanted to be remembered as a god, but as someone who walked across Abbey Road.
I suppose this sums up my journey of discovery about John Lennon – a journey across a zebra crossing, not finding what I expected to find on the other side, but learning to appreciate it.
Best album titles. This week – Help!
Cry for assistance, promise of assistance, and title of the Beatles’ fifth album, released in August 1965.
The title track explores the paradoxes that hide in the idea of help. In this song, someone has suffered problems which result in a loss of confidence. Their independence “seems to vanish in the haze”. But if the problem is a loss of independence and confidence, isn’t it possible that help might make the problem worse?
The word help itself also holds contradictions. It can be both a noun and a verb. Help, as a noun, is a thing with a substantial reality. You can offer help in the same way that you can offer someone a chair or a bowl of soup. As a verb, however, help has no such certainty. It could be all good intentions and unpredictable outcomes.
There is a lot of history reflected in the complexities of the word help. There’s all that political struggle between, for example, 1960s prime ministers Mr Wilson and Mr Heath. There are those who want to offer help, and those who think that help might damage our ability to look after ourselves. The contradictions in the word we use to describe assistance, suggest that neither side is wholly right or wrong. The arguments will go on forever.
While they all argue, we can listen to Help! It might seem difficult to see how we can get real help listening to an album. It’s not like someone is going to jump out of the music and provide a cup of tea, or love or money, or whatever it is we might need. Yet the record tells us that real assistance can emerge in unexpected ways.