An emotional rollercoaster ride
Recently my wife and I were in a shopping mall in Africa and went into a music store. Up on a massive flat screen TV was an advert for the recently issued remastered Beatles LP collection.
Then we went into a computer store only to be confronted by a Beatles drum kit, plastic Hofner Bass and, and a store assistant lost in concentration, in front of a large monitor, trying to play ‘Revolution’ on the Beatles Rock Band game.
Isn’t it strange that in Africa, nearly 50 years after their first hit, the Beatles have a strong place in peoples’ affections? No, it’s not just marketing and money making. There’s something about this incredible band that continues to appeal, decade after decade.
This new biography of John Lennon by Philip Norman is a very swift read. It may be 850 pages but you don’t notice that, as you are drawn into the life of one of the so called legends of modern music.
Like many others Lennon had difficult family relationships. That’s no excuse for his appalling disloyalty to both his wives and his first son, but John Lennon did suffer as a child.
While still very young, his mother, Julia, had an affair in which she became pregnant, while Alf, John’s father, was absent at sea. Alf was willing to continue living with Julia and raise the child Julia was carrying as though it was his own. But it was not to be.
One particularly moving moment is when his dad takes John on a holiday to Blackpool, with a view to possibly emigrating with him to New Zealand. Suddenly Julia appears (with her new man) bringing things to a terrible head.
Norman writes, ‘Alf then told John he must choose between going with Mummy or staying with Daddy. If you want to tear a small child in two, there is no better way. John went to Alf and took his hand; then, as Julia turned away again, he panicked and ran after her, shouting to her to wait and to his father to come, too. But, paralysed once more by fatalistic self-pity, Alf remained rooted in his chair. Julia and John left the house and disappeared into the holiday crowds.’ (Philip Norman, John Lennon – The Life, Harper Collins, p.21)
Alf disappeared once more, and John went to live with his mother’s sister, Aunt Mimi. But the tragedy wasn’t over. Julia was knocked down by a car and died when John was just 17.
Not doing brilliantly at school, John began learning the guitar, and formed a band called ‘The Quarrymen’. Soon Paul and George joined the band and they began playing small gigs in Liverpool, mainly covering popular rock songs.
The combination of John’s wild showmanship and Paul’s smoothness seems to have been a winner from the beginning but was harnessed wonderfully as they began to write songs together, on the principle that if they could still remember the melodies the next day then they were worth keeping.
As The Beatles took shape, finally becoming a foursome with drummer Ringo Starr, the Lennon-Macartney songwriting dynamic, the matching suits and the Goon Show humour of the ‘fab four’ became irresistible.
The Beatles became a phenomena, first in Britain (travelling the country in a cramped, freezing cold van) and then in America and around the world.
What is perhaps disappointing is that John never seemed to lose that cruel edge which could be terribly hurtful to those he loved and depended on. Brian Epstein, their manager, suffered from it, Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles original bass player suffered from it, as did Cynthia, Lennon’s long suffering wife.
Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia was kept secret in the early years of Beatlemania. It is, frankly, painful to read of John’s lack of care for his own wife during their marriage and his ever growing stardom.
In the foreword to his mother’s book, Julian Lennon writes, ‘Dad was a great talent, a remarkable man who stood for peace and love in the world. But at the same time he found it very hard to show any peace and love to his first family – my mother and me.’ (John, Cynthia Lennon, Hodder, 2005, p.xi)
Indeed, he continues, ‘While Dad was fast becoming one of the wealthiest men in his field, Mum and I had very little and she was going out to work to support us.’ (xii)
Every father probably feels the pang of neglected responsibility during the journey of raising and loving our children. Perhaps Lennon’s story will cause us to increase our efforts to make the most of the brief years we have with our precious children.
John’s father, Alf, seeking reconciliation, was so frightened by John’s furious threat to have him killed that he actually made a statement to his lawyers in case John followed through.
Fame and Wealth – Emptiness
Fame and wealth neither softened nor satisfied John Lennon. He soon became resentful of the adoring audiences and the various duties of fame. Like his fellow Englishman Mick Jagger cried out, he could also ‘get no satisfaction’.
Normal writes, ‘For John, once he had all the recognition he could ever seek, all the sex he could ever desire, all the expensive food and drink he could ever consume, all the shiny new guitars he could ever play, and all the many-coloured, vari-collared shirts he could ever wear, the promised land was quicker than usual to reveal its drawbacks.’ (Norman, p.329)
More Popular than Jesus
But the Beatles had become fabulously famous. Their music was like a breath of fresh air on both sides of the Atlantic. The Lennon-Macartney magic was truly inspiring as gem after gem was written and flew up the charts.
And John was always ready to give interviews and speak unguardedly and at length. During one such interview for the Evening Standard (London) he made a remark about the phenomenal popularity of the Beatles in England – one which was to haunt him on their second trip to the USA:
‘Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right, and will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’ (ibid p.446)
John was visibly shaken by the hostility he encountered in the US in response to his comments. Shaken, then annoyed, resistant and finally hardened. The Beatles flirtation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India represented their search for meaning outside of the apparent sterility of the Christianity they had seen in Liverpool and the LP burning hostility of the Christianity that frightened them in America.
Off to India – and back again!
Even so, their interest in the Maharishi, although massively publicised and remembered even now, was actually short lived and ineffective. Only George, a little later renewed his interest in Transcendental Meditation. All the others felt the trip had been a disappointment, even a mistake.
Norman writes, ‘Amazingly, it occurred to none of the international Beatle press corps to pursue the inside story of this speedy disillusionment…So great was the relief that the Beatles had come to their senses, no further questions need be asked.’ (p.538)
The break up of the Beatles, Yoko’s role in John’s thinking and the pull away from Paul, and then John’s partially successful solo career are all covered thoroughly by Norman.
John’s life long competitiveness with Paul (‘They always cover Paul’s songs – they never cover mine.’ p.782) is intriguing. Their reconciliation as friends in later years and the fact that they came tantalisingly close to making an unplanned appearance on a US talk show, all makes fascinating reading.
Imagine no Possessions
We are all inconsistent at times. We need grace. John needed grace but apparently never came to Christ for it. There’s no doubt that the icon of ‘War is over!’ struggled to be a man of peace.
Larry Norman once said, ‘The Beatles said ‘All you need is love’ and then they broke up!’
John lived in luxury, enjoying the best of the best. Someone jokingly pointed this out to him suggesting, after his own lyric, ‘imagine no possessions’, to which he replied, ‘It’s only a b***** song!’
Simon O’Hagan, writing in the Independent said, ‘In hindsight, Lennon was a preposterous character, sanctified by an extraordinary talent.’ (Independent, 3 Oct 2008)
Without Paul though, the brilliance was rare and the anger and pain and experimentation seemed to block the simple passion of one of our greatest songwriters. Occasionally the sun broke through the bewildering clouds.
‘I just believe in me!’
But perhaps the saddest note was struck on the tragic Plastic Ono Band album (1970), which is now very difficult to listen to, when, after listing a variety of things he doesn’t believe in (including I-ching, the Bible, Hitler, Jesus, Buddha, Yoga, and the Beatles), he sings
‘I just believe in me!’
And a little later adds, ‘Yoko and me.’
Even the upbeat, ‘Starting Over’, released on Double Fantasy (1980) doesn’t suppress the tragedy of a stunted talent. But perhaps he was finally re-emerging as a writer. We’ll never know, as, shockingly, he was gunned down by a fan outside his apartment in New York in December 1980. He was only 40.
Just 7 years of Recorded Genius
From their first LP in 1963 to ‘Let it Be’, released only 7 years later in 1970, the Beatles made a huge impact on both popular music and popular culture in the UK and the US.
6 years of creative genius which undoubtedly included the wonderful abilities of the other Beatles, but was primarily driven by Paul and John’s collaborative writing skills, has left a legacy of genuine enjoyment for generations to come.
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© 2009 Lex Loizides