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The Death and Life of John Lennon

The Liverpool side of the story is now part of pop myth. John Lennon, in some crucial ways, was the center of the myth. He was the leader of the Beatles for most of their time together; he was the driving force, the hard guy who helped shove Paul McCartney, and to a lesser degree George and Ringo, past the adolescent stereotypes into a kind of music that dragged all other pop music along behind it. Lennon was the first to admit that he wasn’t a very good technical musician; he never did learn to read, and his guitar playing was as elemental as that of his early rock-’n’-roll heroes. He might agree that the Beatles were not ever the greatest rock-’n’-roll band of the era; reluctantly he might admit that such an honor probably belongs to the Rolling Stones. But the Beatles were something bigger than pop music, and John Lennon knew that better than anybody else. And it didn’t make him happy.

“We just wanted to play rock ’n’ roll,” he said to me once. “At least I did. I wanted to write something as simple and elegant as ‘Rip It Up.’ I loved it at the beginning. The Star Club in Hamburg was the best, eight hours a night, all you could drink and screw. It was bloody paradise, if you came out of Liverpool, the Liverpool Irish. We dressed like thugs, hair all grease, leather jackets; we fought with the drunks, or we went on in our drawers. And the drunks’d yell for ‘what I say,’ and we’d play it again and get pissed on this cheap German champagne. It was a good old time. Better than later. We were playin’ rock ’n’ roll.”

Hamburg was in 1960. John Lennon was only twenty years old, but he was already carrying around those things that, in Auden’s phrase about Yeats, hurt him into art. His father was a seaman named Fred Lennon who once worked on the Queen Mary but who abandoned young John shortly after his birth, while Liverpool was being bombed by the Nazis. The father later did time in jail for desertion, but when he came out, John’s mother, Julia, had already found a new man. John was sent to live with Julia’s married sister, Mimi Smith, whose husband was in the milk-delivery business.

“She just couldn’t deal with life,” Lennon said of his mother in an interview in the current Playboy. His mother lived nearby, at once a presence, a shadow, a badge of rejection. And slowly Lennon began to emerge from the loneliness and the Liverpool streets. He became a leader of a street gang, shoplifting, hitching rides on trolley cars. But he also began to draw, writing books at the age of eight, embracing Lewis Carroll; it was as if art helped him express his sense of absurdity about a world whose movies and pop songs spoke of perfect love while fathers took off for sea and mothers surrendered their children. By the time he was thirteen—in his second year at the Quarry Bank school—his report card said, “Hopeless. Rather a clown in class. He is just wasting other pupils’ time.”

Lennon himself was already feeling detached from most of the lives around him. “I felt different,” he said to me once. “I always felt different from the rest. But I didn’t know what the hell to do about it.”

Julia Lennon showed him the way. The year that he was thirteen, she arrived one day at her sister’s house with a gift for her son John. It was a guitar. She had learned a few chords on a banjo and taught him how to play them. The rage in England then was skiffle music, a casual, shuffling music that used one-string basses and washboards. Lennon began playing skiffle, but at the same time, coming across the Atlantic was Elvis Presley. Rock ’n’ roll soon entered the port of Liverpool and changed John Lennon’s life.

“Rock ’n’ roll was a place to put everything,” he told me in 1975. “You could have pictures in your head and make pictures into words, and the music would carry the words along, like a big bloody boat. And that’s what everybody started to do.”

In early 1956, John Lennon rounded up some classmates and formed his first group. They were called the Quarrymen. One night as they played a gig at the Woolton Parish Church, a left-handed guitar player showed up, looking for girls. He lived in council housing and dressed like a teddy boy.

That year, his mother had died of cancer. After the performance he introduced himself. His name was Paul McCartney.


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