John Lennon and me

My first memory of John is of swimming in his pool in Weybridge. He wouldn't talk. Then, on hearing a police siren, he went to the piano and wrote a song.
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I have just received a copy from Paris, France, of the catalogue for their major John Lennon exhibition. It's opened at the Musée de la Musique to coincide with the anniversary of his death and will run till June next year. The catalogue is a whopper, 240 pages, with earnest essays entitled "John Lennon, Héritier des Fifties" (inheritor of the Fifties) and "L'Attitude Psychédélique de John Lennon".

I haven't seen the exhibition, but it sounds fab, or whatever the French is for fab. The same probably. They're just copycats. I was invited to the opening party and to a banquet to meet all the big fromages. This is because I have loaned them one of my Lennon manuscripts (the original of Help!) for their exhibition. Didn't go though. Well, it is the football season.

The catalogue makes me smile, seeing and feeling all the reverence oozing out of its pages, especially when I think back to the beginning of Beatlemania in 1963. The French were very slow to catch on, to show much interest in buying Beatles records, unlike the Americans and Scandinavians, preferring their own old-style French be-bop stars and soppy ballads.

It also made me think back to not long before John's death in 1980 - 25 years ago this week. I remember noticing how John's image had changed. The British public, if they thought much about him, seemed to regard him as a figure from the past who had gone off with that funny woman, hadn't produced anything for years, was now a bit potty, become a recluse, what a shame, I used to like him.

The moment he died, of course, it all changed. He became an immediate icon - and has stayed there ever since.

His iconic status has increased every year because an unexpected thing has happened. Unexpected, at least to me. The further we get from the Beatles, the bigger they become.

In musical influence, they head almost any poll that ever gets taken. As a subject for academic research, you can do a PhD in Beatles studies at almost any university anywhere. As a source of employment, there are Beatles shops and dealers in every country. A Beatles Fair is held every day somewhere round the world. Prices of Beatles memorabilia shoot up all the time.

Politically, there's a body of opinion which thinks that the Beatles, and John Lennon in particular with "Give Peace a Chance", helped to persuade America to get out of Vietnam - and also brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The latter sounds a bit far-fetched, but I was aware when I made a trip to Russia in 1987 how middle-class Russian teenagers had read my biography of the Beatles even though it was banned at the time - as were the Beatles. They grew up refusing to consider all Western culture as decadent, preferring Lennon to Lenin.

"It sounds ridiculous," so Milos Forman, the Czech-born film director, has been quoted as saying, "but I'm convinced the Beatles are partly responsible for the fall of Communism".

It is, of course, the music that matters and why John's death will always serve as a focus for our attention and, yes, devotion. They gave us 100 songs which will be sung as long as we are on the planet and have the breath to hum the tunes.

I didn't always think this. While working on their biography in 1966-68, I loved doing it so much that I didn't want it to stop, to research it for ever - to hang around in Abbey Road rather than sit down and write the book. But at the same time, I used to think that some other group would come along and replace them, who would be just as creative at composing and playing and recording, but who would do even better, sell more records, make more money. It seemed obvious. That's how humanity works. Everything gets replaced. But it never did.

Michael Jackson has perhaps sold more of certain records, but no one since the Beatles has come anywhere near their level of creative genius. The nearest, in my personal opinion, has been Bob Marley.

So, we are stuck with them, in a sense. And anniversaries of John's death, and other events in the Beatles chronology, will be celebrated for ever. TV will constantly be making Beatles programmes, trotting out the same archive material. The cover of the Radio Times every year at this time will always show John Lennon.

I'll listen and watch and read while scoffing because their music has not dimmed in my ears nor their memory gone from my mind.

The first memory that always comes back is swimming in John's pool at his house in Weybridge. I'd gone to spend the day with him, but when I arrived, it turned out he had decided it was a day for not talking. I walked round his garden with him, not talking. Cynthia made lunch and we ate it, not talking. I sat with John in his cramped little den, under a sticker saying "Safe as Milk" while he watched children's television, not talking.

Then we had a swim, round and round in his pool, not talking, but while we were swimming, we suddenly heard the noise of a police siren floating up the hill from Weybridge itself. It was giving that familiar two-note wail - Ah, ahh, ah ahh, ah, ahh. John started playing with the two notes - humming them, while not actually talking.

Then he went inside, went to his piano, till he had turned the two notes into a song, or at least half a song. John was very good at half songs, quickly growing bored, often needing Paul to coax the other half out of him. A lot of their joint working sessions were like competitions - to show the other what they could do, or make the other do better.

That particular tune didn't appear on any record till Let It Be, when I recognised it on "Across the Universe". I should imagine John had forgotten its origins by then.

On 25 August 1967, I travelled with the Beatles on a train from London to Bangor in North Wales to meet the Maharishi. Their road managers and wives got left behind at Euston in the crush, so I was in a first-class compartment with the four of them, plus Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, all in their flower-power clothes.

I watched carefully the atmosphere between John and Jagger. They seemed friendly enough, but a bit distant, guarded. That was the weekend Brian Epstein died - it wasn't suicide, although he did have suicidal tendencies.

Some weeks later I asked John about his relationship with Jagger. He said he'd always envied Mick - not his music, but the way from the beginning the Stones had dressed on stage, all scruffy and menacing, whereas Brian had put the Beatles in neat little matching suits and told them not to smoke on stage. John told me that he had hated all that. But of course he'd done it, been persuaded that it had to be done, to be accepted by audiences in 1961.

I argued that but for the Beatles, who of course had quickly changed their style with success, the Stones would never have got away with being so scruffy. So the Beatles made the Stones.

I also have an image of John at the party for family and friends which the Beatles gave for Magical Mystery Tour just before Christmas in 1967. Everyone had to come in fancy dress. Mine was pathetic - a Boy Scout's uniform, borrowed from a kid in our street, and my wife was dressed as a Girl Guide.

John turned up as a rocker, with greased back hair, drain pipes, brothel creepers, just as he used to look in the 1950s. Or how he liked to believe he looked. His hard-man image, as a tough Teddy boy, was mainly romance. He always ran a mile at the first sight of any physical trouble.

How tragic that on 8 December, when approached for his autograph outside the Dakota apartment in New York where he lived, that he hadn't sensed any danger...

Hunter Davies, author of the band's only authorised biography, 'The Beatles', available in an illustrated version from Cassells, £15, is working on his memoirs, 'The Beatles, Football and Me' to be published by Headline next autumn


Julie Burchill, COMMENTATOR, 46

I've no idea where I was. I was a punk at the time so we were all quite pleased really. We weren't into things like the Beatles. I was the first to write 20 years ago in an article in Time Out that I thought John Lennon was the biggest scumbag that had ever lived with the worst voice in the world. Lennon was a wife-beater, an anti-Semite, a closet homosexual, a bully and just a nasty piece of work in general. When 'Imagine' came out he had a closet full of white fur coats. He was a hypocrite. I also think that not only was Paul McCartney a better musician but Ringo Starr was too. I got so much flak for writing that he was a nasty piece of work, but lots of people have said similar things since. My views haven't changed.


I was doing mock A-levels and I had the radio on, like you do when you are a kid. I remember waking up at 4am and hearing the news. It's almost unavoidable to be a Beatles fan, because they are still a great part of our music heritage. But when I heard that Lennon died, it wasn't mourning but sadness. I knew a bit of Lennon, I had started listening to him doing rock'n'roll. People on local radio were always talking about the Beatles and the old days, but as a teenager I wanted to hear about the Clash and the Pistols. All the wallowing in Liverpool's history makes me embarrassed. Apparently he was a pain in the arse, but everyone has a vested interest in reinventing Lennon for themselves. Statements have been made that would make you think he was Jesus.

Antony Gormley, ARTIST, 55

I was 30 years old and squatting in King's Cross at the time. It was completely shocking. Like somebody that you always thought was there and was somehow part of you was gone. His death was the antithesis of everything the Beatles had stood for: love, peace and flower power. For me, he was always the most artistic of the Beatles. He was the one who pushed the boundaries in style and content. He was also the most political and what he managed to do when he got together with Yoko Ono was combine her brand of conceptual realism with agit-prop. It was very clever. When he died, a certain kind of idealism was killed and a new sort of reality where the world was not at peace with itself emerged.


When I heard what had happened, in some ways I wasn't surprised. He had been courting disaster for some time, particularly living near Central Park at a time when New York was a lawless place. He was such an easy target. I went to the same school as Paul McCartney and George Harrison back in the 1960s, while John was at Liverpool College of Art next door. I used to see them hanging around in their black leathers looking very skinny and very cool with unwashed hair and a cigarette in their mouths. John was the one that gave them the edge and the brilliance. He was in a different world to the others. He had a really difficult childhood, and Yoko.

Rosie Boycott, COMMENTATOR, 54

I was working in Kuwait so the news would have filtered through slowly. At the time, it felt a whole way of life had been snuffed out. He was a personal hero of mine because the first interview I had ever done was with him when I was 18. I remember spending the entire time worrying about the tape recorder working. But he was unbelievably kind and he wrote me a letter from the QE2 to say thank you and to correct the mistakes I'd made. He was so original and extraordinary that it's impossible to imagine what he would have been like in old age. It would have been ghastly if he'd ended up a rock and roll star like Mick Jagger or playing commercial music. But the fact is he stayed frozen in time and is forever young.

Corin Redgrave, ACTOR, 66

I was in London and the shock was huge. John Lennon was so young and so alive that it seemed doubly shocking for him to be killed in that way. It meant that a line had been drawn under growing up. The Beatles had been the soundtrack of my younger years. Lennon symbolised my young life more than anyone else. The Beatles as a whole affected me not so much in terms of their lifestyle, more that they seemed to speak with their own voice in a way that few singers had managed before. It was totally new. I still feel very sad about his death today. He was one of the most honest figures I knew at that time. He seemed to sing straight from the heart. I think that's rare then and today. Honesty is his legacy.

Beryl Bainbridge, WRITER, 71

I didn't weep or rush out to lay flowers. I simply felt it was a very tragic thing. My ex-husband had taught Lennon at the Liverpool College of Art and I do remember, in the very early days, how they played in my house at a party that went on for two days. I had two young children at the time so I moved out of the house and down the road. I remember John Lennon's floppy hair and his youth. And the fact that they made a terrible noise. Stuart Sutcliffe also babysat for us. At the time of Lennon's death, I was very sad that a maniac would shoot a man like that. It was a very tragic happening. I now realise, whenever I hear his music, how it is infinitely superior to anything that is made today. His music is his legacy.


I was presenting the lunchtime news for ITN. It came as a shock, not just because of the futility but because I had known him slightly - we went to the same primary school. We also shared, in our teens, a close friend, the late Ivan Vaughan. I've often thought that Ivan had a big influence on John Lennon - a totally off-the-wall outlook. I was the only TV reporter allowed in when John and Yoko lay in bed for peace in Amsterdam in 1969. He was much more laid back (literally) than the Lennon I had known, friendly, and with a very simple outlook. Perhaps a man looking for something to believe in. I don't know if he found it.

Interviews by Joy Do Lico and Danielle Demetriou