But what about those who did know him? Fergus Kelly spoke to five people who became close to John at varying stages of his short but memorable life. He asked them two questions: what was their abiding personal memory of him and what do they think John would be like were he still alive today?
`I want to believe that old age would not have mellowed him’
Thelma McGough became John Lennon’s girlfriend at Liverpool College of Art in 1958. Today, after a successful career in TV production and as an award-winning artist, she is finishing her own memoir about growing up in Liverpool in the heart of the cultural and sexual revolution of post-war Britain.
I met John the day I enrolled at college. He had been there a year already and, at 17, was a year older. My friend introduced me as Thelma Pickles, my name then, and he said in a mock Yorkshire accent: “How do! How are yer? Any relation to Wilfred?” [Wilfred Pickles was a household name at the time thanks to a long-running radio show, Have A Go.]
I took an instant dislike to him. But then, moments later, another girl arrived and said to him: “Hey John, I hear your mother’s dead?” [Julia Lennon had died after being hit by a car in July].
To which he just replied: “Yeah,” without batting an eyelid. I was captivated by his bravery and emotional strength. Then I became beguiled by his wit and outspokenness.
Thelma as a young woman when she met John, left, and today
John was possessive and needy, and always wanting me to sag off though I loved college.
He could be very tender in private but verbally nasty to others in public.
We broke up after an art college dance when we went upstairs to a darkened room for what he euphemistically called, a “five-mile-run” – because he’d read having sex expended the equivalent energy. We weren’t alone, so I said: “I’m not staying here”. John yanked me back by my hair and punched me. That ended it for me.
Ultimately, when goaded by him – because I wouldn’t resume the relationship after he’d hit me – I found my voice and became as verbally cruel as he was when I told him: “Don’t blame me just because your mother is dead.” It was the only occasion I ever witnessed that he didn’t have a vitriolic retort.
I want to believe that age would not have mellowed him, that he would not have turned into a comfy old man in his New York apartment.
The couple staged a ‘bed-in for peace’ to protest war and violence
John suffered enormously from not having his father around, but then inflicted the same fate on his own son, Julian – I hope that he would have apologised for deserting him.
And I hope he would have found some level of independence, free of the need always to be half of a couple. From what I’ve read, he allowed himself to be controlled by Yoko.
`Play stopped so he could goo-goo Julian’
Ivor Davis was the Daily Express reporter sent to accompany The Beatles on their first US tour in 1962. The journalist and author, 82, today lives in Los Angeles.
One abiding memory is playing Monopoly with John in his hotel room at 2am on that first American tour. During the games – in which he enjoyed cheating – he would stop rolling the dice, get on the phone to Cynthia in Liverpool, and spend five minutes goo-gooing to his baby son Julian, who was then barely a year old. Then it was back to the game.
Another thing I’ll always remember is when John told me if he had been called up to do his National Service, he would have fled Britain – and moved to Ireland. He said: “Look what happened to Elvis when he had to go into the Army”. National Service ended in 1960, so John didn’t have to make the decision.
Ivor on tour with George Harrison
He would have been an irascible old man, because John suffered from that disease where you speak first and damn the consequences. He was never a diplomat. His vocal cords never coordinated with his brain. He spoke his mind, and he loved to provoke. When we first met I told him my name was Ivor, but he insisted on calling me Ivan the Terrible.
I don’t think he would be doing any touring these days like Paul, because he once told me: “We are like performing fleas: people come to see us but not to hear our music”.
`Despite his faults he was impossible not to like’
Bob Harris, 74, presented the 1970s TV rock music show The Old Grey Whistle Test. Today he presents The Country Show on Radio 2.
It was the mid-70s and I bumped into Elton John on the stairs of a London club. He said: “I’m off to New York tomorrow, and I’m playing Madison Square Garden. And – don’t tell anyone – but John Lennon has promised to come up on stage with me”.
I said: “When you see him, will you tell him we’d love him to do something for the Old Grey Whistle Test?”
The following week the phone rang in the office, our producer Mike Appleton picked up, and I heard: “It’s John Lennon from New York. Is Bob there?”
John Lennon would have been turning eighty on October 9
John with Yoko in 1968, at the start of his new life
He said: “Why don’t you just come over here. I can’t get out of America at the moment” [he was trying to get his Green Card to live there, and President Nixon wanted him out]. Which is how I came to spend three days with him in New York at a time when Yoko had just discovered she was pregnant with Sean.
He had reached a point where he could be self-deprecating. He was willing to recognise his faults and what he had got wrong particularly the way he’d treated Julian, and seemed to want to start putting things right.
Despite those faults he was impossible not to like. We got on incredibly well. I’m of the same generation as John.
There is no way I’m ever going to sit down, put my feet up and just watch daytime TV. I will always want to be out behind a mic and on stage. John would have been no different.
What would have suited the John of today is that he would have been able to take his pick of anyone in the world to play with him on stage. Every door in the world would have been opened. I am sure John would have taken advantage of that. And I’m sure he would have opposed Donald Trump every inch of the way.
`He would still be crusading for peace’
Rod Davis, 78, was a member of John Lennon’s group the Quarrymen from his Liverpool schooldays.
After a career in the travel business and teaching tourism and marketing, he still plays and tours in a revived version of the Quarrymen that includes fellow original members Colin Hanton and Len Garry. John and Paul McCartney first met on July 6, 1957. It was the church fete that we Quarrymen were performing at and Paul had come along to watch.
Rod Davis when he was in The Quarrymen with John Lennon in the late Fifties
Yet the truth is that though it was probably the most momentous day in rock ’n’ roll history, I didn’t remember Paul being there!
Instead I made up some story that I’d had to go for a pee when they met but it soon became legend. In fact, when a fan recreated the meeting in a painting, everyone is in the picture, but I’m represented by my instrument, a banjo, left on a chair while I made my supposed call of nature.
I first recall seeing Paul a week or two later, when we were practising at John’s Aunt Mimi’s house where he lived. I saw this guy I didn’t recognise, until John said: “This is Paul, he’s come to listen to us practising”. It wasn’t that much longer before I drifted away from the band to concentrate on the sixth form and my exams.
I’m sure that if alive today John would be pursuing crusades on peace and the environment, but it’s hard to say because by the time of his death he was already so different from the John I’d known at school. He was what they’d today call a disruptive pupil, one they could not tame.
`Meeting Elvis left him so very disappointed’
Chris Hutchins, 78, journalist and author, was working for New Musical Express when he became friends with The Beatles. He set up the only meeting between the group and Elvis Presley in 1965.
I’d arranged to take them to Elvis’s house in Bel Air, something John had been asking me to do since the previous year.
Chris Hutchins said The Beatles were disappointed by their Elvis meeting
Elvis had prepared a little party for when we got there, but it was rather stilted and felt too obviously set up by me and Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis hadn’t been keen when I first got in contact, saying to me: “You are just trying to get these boys some publicity off my back”. John was disappointed in Elvis, and was surprised at the level of control Parker had over him.
It was an awkward atmosphere, with John trying to lighten the mood by putting on an Inspector Clouseau voice, which just baffled Elvis.
As we left and were walking down the drive, Parker called out after me: “Tell the fans it was a wonderful night”. John turned to me and said: “Tell them it was crap”.
Surprisingly, perhaps, I think John might be a bit more mellow and tactful these days if he was still alive. The thing is that he could be a really kind person and didn’t want to upset people, but did anyway because he was so blunt.
Published at Sun, 27 Sep 2020 08:53:00 +0000