on 20 June 2017
This is John before John, a local cheeky lad like any other, not the legend and icon the world would come to know. He’s wild and unruly, a Teddy Boy prankster with little regard for authority. This attitude, this defiance, has come from neglect. His dad Alf Lennon is long gone. John never knew him. His mother Julia is unstable, a woman who can hardly care for herself, let alone her young son. She gave up trying when John was five years old. He’s with his Aunt Mimi instead, Julia’s sister, and with his Uncle George, Mimi’s husband. School is a bore, classes a waste of time, apart from the birds in them he tries to chat up. He doodles and daydreams in class. The headmaster pulls him in for private consultation, hostility on both sides. The teacher says to him:
“You’ll be lucky to find a job on the docks because you’re going nowhere.”
“Is nowhere full of geniuses, sir? Because then I probably do belong there.”
Cocky or confident or both, it’s clear he has self-belief early on, or at least a definition of self not subject to what others think. Rock ’n’ roll is in the air, a liberating American sound. John loves it. It suits him. It has a rebel edge. That’s where he is, or feels he is — an outlaw, an outsider. Society isn’t his. He’s on the outside looking in at it, the nowhere boy who will become the nowhere man, the man who at the height of his success will write another song called “I’m a Loser.” So we see where some of his demons come from — from abandonment, working-class poverty, judgemental headmasters. The chip on the shoulder was real. It drove and hindered him, an internal tug-of-war. But he channelled his complexities positively through the creativity of song — songs he would make with three others that would change the world.
But all this was in the future, a future no one could imagine, not even him, the man who would one day write “Imagine”, recently voted the greatest song of the 20th century by the National Music Publishers Association in America. When we meet him now, aged 14 in 1955, he’s not even a musician, as he can’t play an instrument at all. But he will learn. He will have to. Rock ’n’ roll is getting to him and he can’t keep still. The Isley Brothers are telling him it’s O.K. to twist and shout.
He learns his first chords on the banjo. Who knew? Julia would teach him it. She re-entered his life at the funeral of Uncle George in June 1955. Who was she? He didn’t know, couldn’t remember. All these years he’d been lied to by George and Mimi, the surrogate parents who loved him, protecting him from the truth of her. John felt cheated, suffering the guilt victims often feel.
‘Mother, you had me
But I never had you
I wanted you
But you didn’t want me’
‘Half of what I say is meaningless
But I say it just to reach you, Julia’
These lyrics to “Julia” were inspired by the writings of Kahlil Gibran.
Despite everything, he loved her. The source of life, the beginning of all things. He longed for her and missed all those missing years without her.
After the funeral, Mimi knew John was seeing Julia again, Julia the errant, selfish, irresponsible sister who had run off with another man and left her small son behind. When does he see her? On schooldays in the afternoons. John’s no longer in school, expelled for insubordination and poor grades. Mimi doesn’t know this, as John and Julia have kept it from her. Their afternoons are not idle. Julia plays the piano and sings. John plays the banjo and ukulele. So it’s Julia who gives him both life and music.
But just as she re-entered his life in a flash, she departs it as suddenly, hit by a car and killed on a rainy night in Liverpool in 1958 when John was 17. He had known her for eight years: five as a child and three as a teenager. Her death would traumatise him for life.
The school John was expelled from was called Quarry Bank. Ever the wit and ironic tease, John named his first band the Quarrymen, lads who mined almost nothing of value from the school. John would get his own back at the school, and at all the other detractors who had no hope and belief in him.
Key point in the film for future reference is of course John’s first meeting with Paul. It happens at the garden fete at St. Peter’s Church on 6 July 1957. The Quarrymen are playing on a makeshift stage. Paul stands in the crowd, listening attentively. He likes the sound but thinks it can be improved. Afterwards John scoffs at the thought, figuring Paul is bluffing. John likes the band how it is (they mainly play skiffle). But John’s face changes, the camera lingering on it, when Paul picks up the guitar and plays. Silence as Paul finishes. Though two years younger than John, Paul is miles ahead of him musically. John may have been the charismatic leader of the Beatles, but it was Paul who taught him to play. Ever the chancer, John seized both Paul and the moment when they arrived.
George Harrison some time later. The lad was only 14 and looked even younger. He auditioned for John on a Liverpool bus, or at least it’s depicted this way in the film. The guitar licks by George are even better than Paul’s. You’re in! Three quarters of the Beatles are formed by 1958, though it will take time for the world to discover who they are.
This was all before Merseybeat, the Cavern Club, Brian Epstein, Cilla Black and her school chum Richard Starkey (aka, Ringo Starr). We know the history, so the film doesn’t go into it. We leave John and the others before they embark for Hamburg in 1960. Of course they couldn’t have known what would happen to them there, how their simple, wild, raw sound would be tamed and tightened. Hamburg was their crucible, the genesis of the Beatles sound. It’s what Brian Epstein heard back in Liverpool a year later; George Martin too at Abbey Road Studios in London, courtesy of Epstein.
The film ends with John packing for Hamburg. Just before the end credits roll this message appears on the screen:
“John phoned Mimi as soon as he arrived in Hamburg…and every week thereafter for the rest of his life.”
The boy grew up to become a man of the world, one who could imagine a world without countries and borders. But at heart he was Mimi’s boy, a boy who grew up near Strawberry Fields, a place he hoped would last forever. He loved her the way he always wanted to love Julia. These were the women who made him who he was.