John Lennon was the chippy, clever, quick-witted Beatle, a snarl of contradictions: both vicious brute and snivelling baby. He was hardly halfway through his natural life when it was extinguished.
More than any other artist, he has come to be regarded as the symbol and the conscience of his age. But who, or what, was the real John Lennon – and when did the ‘real’ John Lennon die?
Was his happy-go-lucky boyhood demeanour extinguished by the death of his mother?
Yoko was the alpha female John needed, the partner he felt he deserved. She could hold her own in sophisticated company where John tended to feel inhibited. He would look to Yoko for guidance and approval in most things, as a child looks to his mother. Tellingly, he called Yoko ‘Mother
Having fashioned himself as a leather-clad rocker, what made him relinquish that edition of himself so readily, allowing the gritty band he had founded to be restyled as a mop-shaking cop-out? And why did he allow himself to be subsumed by a bubblegum popstar?
At the height of the Beatles’ fame, John jacked it in and reinvented himself as a musical activist and peacenik. But his philanthropy was perhaps no more than a cynical smokescreen for how little he really cared for mankind – imagining no possessions while owning cattle herds, fur-coat fridges and multi-million-dollar homes.
To me, as a journalist who has interviewed most of the rock stars that most people can name, he reveals himself most plausibly and reliably through the formidable females in his life, regardless of whether they cherished or neglected, repaired or damaged, fortified or weakened him.
For all the fierce, influential, indomitable men in John’s life, it was the women who dominated it.
From his bohemian mother Julia, to his stern Aunt Mimi, his first wife Cynthia and his secret love Alma Cogan, to his soul-mate and formidable second wife Yoko Ono, and their production assistant May Pang, who became his short-term companion and lover at Yoko’s scheming behest.
They all shaped him, whether they enhanced or emasculated him, whether they gave to, took from or were indifferent to him.
John Lennon is pictured above with Cynthia in 1964. At the height of the Beatles’ fame, John jacked it in and reinvented himself as a musical activist and peacenik
Lennon met the singer Alma Cogan, the UK’s first female pop star known as ‘the girl with the laugh in her voice’, when she and the Beatles appeared together at the London Palladium in 1964.
She oozed glamour and he could not take his eyes off her. ‘John was potty about her,’ said George Harrison. ‘He thought her really sexy.’
Alma and John were soon enjoying a full-blown affair, which they conducted in London hotel rooms. They arrived in disguise and signed the register as ‘Mr and Mrs Winston’ (Lennon’s middle name).
Neither the fact that Alma was eight years his senior, nor that he was married to his college sweetheart Cynthia and had a baby, Julian, seemed to matter.
‘John thought I knew nothing about him and Alma. I never let on,’ Cynthia told me years later.
John had a soft spot for older women. Alma, in Cynthia’s words, was ‘sexy, vivacious and fun. A woman of the world. Why wouldn’t John be drawn to her?’
But with the Beatles often away on tour, Alma and John’s trysts grew less frequent. Then Alma was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1966. She collapsed during a concert tour and died in hospital at the age of 34.
She and John were denied the chance to say goodbye as he was in Spain with Cynthia, who told me that John believed Alma was ‘The One’, and was ‘inconsolable’ when she died.
However, in her heart she believed that had Alma lived, the affair would have fizzled out ‘like all his other flings’. And there were many.
According to his friend, publicist Keith Altham, John was always ‘desperately looking for love’.
‘The trouble with John, whenever he found it, he grew terrified of losing it. So he would react against it, and push it away.’
Lennon was born on October 9, 1940, to the pretty, effervescent Julia Stanley, who was married to merchant seaman Alf Lennon.
With Alf away at sea, Julia found work as a barmaid, and soon enjoyed herself with local servicemen. When her husband returned home, he found her pregnant with another man’s child – a baby girl whom she gave up for adoption. Alf whisked little John away to stay with his brother Syd, where he remained until 1945 when Alf returned.
But John did not go to live with his dad. He lived for a while with his mother and her new boyfriend, a local spiv, in a tiny flat where all three shared a double bed.
Julia’s sister, Mimi, was horrified and called social services, who duly awarded Mimi and her husband custody of five-year-old John. He would never again live with his mum or dad, even though Julia’s home was within walking distance.
What was a little boy to make of the fact that his mummy apparently didn’t need him any more?
For her part, Mimi was all about table manners and bedtimes, about speaking when spoken to and articulation. John’s pipe-smoking Uncle George was a kind, patient, fun-loving man. John adored him. But when John was 14, George died unexpectedly. John was devastated.
John Lennon is pictured above with May Pang in 1974. She became his short-term companion and lover at Yoko’s scheming behest
The bereavement coincided with a furtive rekindling of John’s relationship with his mother. Unbeknown to Mimi, John had started taking detours on his way home from school to spend time with her.
John adored and was in awe of Julia. She was warm, welcoming and bohemian, with a cheap but appealing glamour. Both were daring, spirited sorts with a disdain for authority. It was Julia who paid for John’s first guitar, Julia who taught him the chords, Julia who invited him to practise at her place, since Mimi disapproved. Soon, he was spending nights at Julia’s.
In retaliation, Mimi had John’s beloved dog Sally destroyed. The pet had been a lifeline to John, a link to Uncle George. John was shattered, and gravitated towards Julia. But one evening in July 1958, Julia was hit by a car as she crossed the road outside Mimi’s house and was killed. She was just 44.
‘I lost my mother twice,’ John said later. ‘Once, as a five-year-old when I was moved in with my auntie. And again, when she actually, physically died… and that was really a hard time for me. It just absolutely made me very, very bitter, my mother being killed, just when I was re-establishing a relationship with her.’ He raged against the loss.
Each morning he drew his curtains to see the exact spot where his mother was killed. Isolated in his anguish, he was in desperate need of someone to cling to. He found her at Liverpool College of Art.
Cynthia Powell was a year older, pretty, demure and sweetly spoken ‘posh totty’. Always disorganised, John would help himself to her pencils and pens. He couldn’t resist making fun of her accent, her outfits, her ‘properness’. She wasn’t his type. Nor could he be described as hers. But there was chemistry. Their courtship began.
John introduced her to his best friend, Pete Shotton, who was ‘struck by how different this attractive, well-bred young woman was from all the low-life scrubbers John had lately been associating with… she was perhaps too fragile a flower to be in John’s hands.’
IN 1989, Cynthia told me: ‘The effect of his mother’s death on John was profound and damaging. He was 17 and I don’t believe he ever recovered. It disrupted his ability to have normal relationships with women.’
As a boyfriend, John was a challenge. Cynthia said: ‘He was sullen and moody most of the time, and his rages could get out of control.’
Once, he even slapped her across the face. ‘He didn’t seem to have any respect for life... perhaps it was because of everything he’d been through. No wonder John was the way he was. He was vulnerable, and obviously needed mothering.’
John was displaying signs of a narcissistic personality disorder. He was instinctively critical and judgmental, given to lashing out in ways that conferred the delusion of superiority. His deeply complex, dysfunctional childhood was, we can reasonably assume, the root of his problems. John, the abandoned, needy child had never grown up.
Two years before meeting Cynthia, John had formed a skiffle group with Pete Shotton and two others from Quarry Bank Grammar school. They called themselves the Black-jacks, then the Quarry Men, and played local gigs.
While performing at a garden fete, a 15-year-old Paul McCartney in the audience was mesmerised. He strummed several hits on a guitar in the church hall afterwards, and was soon invited to join John’s band.
‘I’d been the kingpin up to then,’ John recalled. ‘Now, I thought “If I take him on, what will happen?” ’ He swallowed his doubts, and a legendary partnership was born.
After three years playing clubs around Liverpool, touring Scotland, and changing their name to the Beatles, in August 1960 they travelled to Hamburg for the first of several stints. By then, John was convinced they could make it and they soon had a regular slot back at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.
Record store boss Brian Epstein saw them and offered himself as their manager, supporting and encouraging them in the face of record companies’ rejections.
Epstein made clear to his boys that serious relationships with women would dent their popularity with their female fans, and had to be kept under wraps.
Cynthia understood, but when she became pregnant, she had no idea how to tell John. ‘I was terrified of how he was going to react.’
When she finally plucked up the courage, she recalled: ‘I watched the blood drain from his face… But then he said, “We’ll have to get married.” I told him he didn’t have to but he insisted. He said he loved me and that was that.’
Cynthia cried with happiness and relief. ‘We were going to be a proper little family.’ They married in August 1962, with Epstein insisting that it remain a secret.
The following April, after a long,