John Lennon Before the Beatles: Music, Pain and Tragedy

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John Lennon Born October 9. 1940

On October 9, 1940, in Liverpool, Julia Stanley Lennon brought John, her one and only son, into the world. Julia did not know that her son would one day become a world famous rock star. Unfortunately, she was not able to provide young John Lennon a stable and permanent home environment. Until his mother’s death, John spent part of his childhood and most of his youth, bouncing back and forth between his Aunt Mimi and Julia’s households; the two sisters and matriarchs who differed quite a lot in temperament and in personality. For this reason, John never had a sense of security in knowing that he belonged to a family unit.

Tired Of Waiting

At the time of John’s birth Julia was married to Alf, a young man who took a job as a waiter on a ship. As a result, he spent long months at sea and only visited Julia and his son in Liverpool occasionally until John was eighteen months of age. Eventually, Julia decided that she did not want to wait any longer for Alf. “She was young and exuberant, she loved life and wanted more than waiting around for a feckless husband who was no longer helping to support his son,” Cynthia Lennon wrote in John, her autobiography of John Lennon, her ex-husband.

When John was age five, Julia met John Dykins, aka Bobby, and fell in love with him. The Stanley’s believed that Bobby wasn’t good enough for her, but they were even more dismayed when they learned that Julia had moved in with him. Mimi, Julia’s older sister, took John away from Julia, insisting that she was unfit to raise him. Julia loved her son dearly, and so had Bobby even though he was not Lennon’s biological father. Regardless, they were a happy family, so when Mimi took John to live with her, she tore him away from two caring, nurturing parents.

A Lasting Negative Impact On John

Although Mimi was stable financially, her decision to take John away from his mother was one that would have a lasting, negative impact on John’s attitude. George, Mimi’s husband, loved Lennon, but Mimi was not affectionate: she was domineering, anxious and stern. “She was a frightening woman. She wasn’t homely-she was more like a headmistress, librarian-type person. And you were frightened to knock on that Mendips front door,” said Len Garry, Lennon’s former school mate.

When John was a child, he saw Julia only when she visited Mimi, which was actually quite regularly. However, as he got older, he began to visit Julia and Bobby at their house on his own. By that time, Bobby and Julia had had two small daughters, yet that did not stop John from getting to know his mother on a deeper level. It was in the latter years of his childhood that the bond between him and his mother grew strong.

How The Music Started

Julia loved music; she played the piano and the banjo. Unlike Mimi, she was free spirited, and she loved life. John undoubtedly inherited his love for music from Julia. So, when he expressed a desire to learn how to play music, his mother bought him a guitar. Julia was John’s music teacher: she taught him how to play the guitar and she introduced him to rock and roll, starting with Elvis Presley records.

It was the 1950s and, at that time, Elvis Presley had emerged as a music sensation throughout the United States and the world. His music was so immensely popular because it spoke to the desires of the young generation, a generation that was in the process of breaking away from the strict conservative traditions and values adhered to by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. A new youth culture was taking form: it was a culture that was defined by freedom, individuality, creativity and imagination. Suddenly, it was okay to be young, to fall in love, embrace life and pursue dreams even if they seemed far out of reach. Elvis Presley was the living symbol of those ideals. Through his music and success, Presley showed his fellow young Americans, and youth all over the world, that they could succeed at anything they put their heart and soul into; that it was not a sin to break away from tradition.

John, young and decisively unconventional himself, embraced those ideals and chose to follow in Presley’s – and other famous British rock stars’ – footsteps because he genuinely wanted a career in music. Fame and rock stardom was his destiny. Julia supported Lennon every step of the way, and she liked how he embraced the slick haired, rough and tumble ‘Teddy-Boy’ look. “She gave me my first colored shirt,” John remembered. “Julia became a sort of young aunt to me, or a big sister. As I got bigger and had more rows with Mimi, I used to go and live with Julia for a weekend.”

John And The Quarrymen

“When John started the Quarrymen, Julia was delighted,” Cynthia wrote. Julia allowed the boys to play their music in her house. “In fact,” wrote Cynthia, “she often joined them, playing washboard, when they shut themselves into the tiny bathroom-where the acoustics were best – to rehearse for hours on end.” Julia and her two daughters even went to see John and the Quarrymen perform a number of gigs.

In Julia and Bobby’s household, John was accepted for who he truly was: Bobby was kind to him, and John’s little sisters adored him. With them, he was free to laugh, joke around and have fun. Life at Mendips, on the other hand, was completely different. Mimi expected John to be obedient, dutiful and clean. She didn’t think a career in music was practical, so Mimi highly discouraged him from this pursuit. Mimi also expected him to excel in school. However John didn’t’ care about school, so when he went home with low grades, Mimi berated him for not working hard enough.

John wanted, like every child, for Mimi to accept and love him unconditionally. While Mimi undoubtedly did love him deep down inside, she was too proud and prim to give him the affection he needed. Nothing that John did matched Mimi’s high expectations and that hurt him deeply. To make matters worse, John was torn between two worlds. He loved spending time with his mother, but he didn’t really belong in her household because he couldn’t live there even though he wanted to.

Tragic Shocks To John’s System

John’s teenage years should have been brighter and more peaceful, but they were marked by tragedy. When John was age fourteen, his Uncle George died suddenly one Sunday afternoon from a massive liver hemorrhage. John had shared a close relationship with George. George had made his life at Mendips tolerable; he was a kind-hearted, easy-going fellow, and so John considered Uncle George as his surrogate father. For this reason, George’s unexpected death came as a huge shock to him.

The second, most devastating thing of all, happened three years later one July evening just seconds after Julia left Mendips. Normally, Mimi walked Julia to the bus stop, but on that particular evening, she did not. As Julia walked across the street – Mendips in plain view – she was hit by a car. After hearing a thud, Nigel Walley – a longtime friend of John’s – turned around to see “Julia’s body flying through the air.”

“I ran back to see Mimi, and we rushed to wait for the ambulance…white with terror, and crying in hysterics,” Nigel said.

Several years passed before John was able to speak about his mother’s death. He had not been with Mimi at the time when Julia was killed.

“An hour or so after it happened a copper came to the door to let us know about the accident. It was awful, like some film where they ask if you’re the victim’s son and all that. Well, I was, and I can tell you it was absolutely the worst night of my entire life.”

“…Of course, there was no way I could even bear to look at her. Bobby went in to see her for a few minutes, but it turned out to be too much for the poor sod and he finally broke down in my arms out in the lobby. I couldn’t seem to cry, not then anyway. I suppose I was just frozen inside,” John admitted several years after his mother’s death.

John couldn’t openly mourn with Mimi because she was the kind of person who didn’t want to talk about their loss: Julia was gone, so it was time they move on with their lives. John couldn’t even talk about his mother’s death to his little sisters. “The aunts took over and would not let anyone tell the girls, who were then eleven and eight, that their mother was dead…Bobby was distraught and the aunts decided that the girls couldn’t be left with him,” Cynthia wrote. With no one to turn to, John poured all of his pain, anger and sadness into his music and kept those emotions bottled up inside. Never, when he was young, did John allow himself to break down and cry over the loss of his mother and Uncle George.

Most of the music that John Lennon wrote – music that rose to the top of the charts, bringing him and the other Beatles wealth and worldwide fame – reflected his unresolved anguish over his broken childhood and the tragic losses he endured as a teenager. John often displayed a callous, darkly sarcastic attitude to those closest to him, an attitude that, in his adult years, severely strained his relationship to the people closest to him. Yet, no one has forgotten the passion and talent he possessed. His music and his story lives on, and it will live on for many years to come.

Bibliography

Lennon, Cynthia. John. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005.

Riley, Tim. Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music-The Definitive Life. New York: Hyperion, 2011.