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The Death and Life of John Lennon

“I showed them how to play ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and told them the words,” McCartney told writer Hunter Davies. “I remember this berry old man getting nearer and breathing down my neck as I was playing. ‘What’s this old drunk doing?’ I thought. Then he said ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ was one of his favorites. So I knew he was a connoisseur.”

A week later, John asked Paul to join the Quarrymen. Within a month, the most successful songwriting team in pop-music history had begun to work together. John had taught himself to pick his way all the way through Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” and their first songs were rehashed Holly. But they had begun. A year later, McCartney brought around a younger friend named George Harrison. He was only fifteen, a student at McCartney’s school, but he could play. As John Lennon entered the Liverpool Art College, Harrison joined the group. The Beatles were three-quarters there.

The Quarrymen became Johnny and the Moondogs; one of John’s fellow art students, Stuart Sutcliffe, sold a painting for $60, was talked into buying a bass guitar, and immediately joined the band, although he didn’t know how to play. They began to perform in a coffee bar called the Jacaranda Club in 1958, using a man named Tommy Moore on drums; then, changing their name to the Silver Beatles, they played their first tour outside Liverpool, wandering through Scotland. The tour was not a success; they worked in a strip joint; Moore went off to be a forklift operator. Then they picked up Pete Best on the drums, mainly because his mother ran a coffee bar called the Casbah and put them to work. Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe were with the band when it traveled to play the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg in the fall of 1960. That gig made them into the Beatles. Sutcliffe fell in love with a woman named Astrid Kirchherr and stayed behind in Hamburg when the job ended, and Ringo Starr later replaced Best. But the craziness had begun. Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife, remembered it as a wild time.

One night in Hamburg, she wrote later, John “fell about the stage in hysterical convulsions with so much booze and so many pills inside him that he was no way in control. . . . That night ended with John sitting on the edge of the stage in a very unsteady manner with an ancient wooden toilet seat round his neck, his guitar in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, completely out of his mind.”

Back in Liverpool, their playing seemed harder, more driven than anything else on the British scene. They were in the Cavern Club when Brian Epstein walked in to see their lunch-time show on November 9, 1961. Epstein was then the 27-year-old owner of the Nems Music Store; he was homosexual; he had failed as an artist and had failed during eighteen months as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But he became the manager of the Beatles, and his gift for promotion and packaging made them into gigantic stars. He had them clean up their act. He had them trim and shape the long, unruly haircuts, and wear those silly collarless suits (which John hated). He encouraged them to write their own songs. In one sense, John looked at Epstein and found the father he had never had.

“Brian was the only person I ever saw dominate John Lennon,” said attorney Nat Weiss, who later worked for the Beatles. He also thought that Epstein had a crush on Lennon: “I’m convinced that this was the strongest single reason for him wanting to manage the Beatles in the first place. At first, he was very attracted to John.” Later, John would say that he and Epstein never sexually consummated their relationship, but in 1971, four years after Epstein’s suicide, he still talked about him with strong feelings:

“We had complete faith in him when he was runnin’ us. To us, he was the expert. I mean, originally he had a shop. Anybody who’s got a shop must be all right. He went around smarmin’ and charmin’ everybody. He had hellish tempers and fits and lockouts, and y’know he’d vanish for days. He’d come to a crisis every now and then, and the whole business would f - - - - -’ stop ‘cause he’d be on sleepin’ pills for days on end and wouldn’t wake up. We’d never have made it without him and vice versa. Brian contributed as much as us in the early days, although we were the talent and he was the hustler. He wasn’t strong enough to overbear us. Brian could never make us do what we really didn’t want to do.”


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