The famous five: Who made John Lennon?
Updated: Feb 18, 2021
(This article first appeared in Far Out Magazine 4/9/2020)
John Lennon had already achieved unprecedented levels of fame, wealth and acclaim by the time he was 27 despite being as lazy as a cat in sunshine sat next to a mouse factory. Noted by those who witnessed it first hand, when left to his own devices, Lennon would float off into a daze for days on end, drifting over fields through his opened mind to places that required no pharmaceutical transport, though often had anyway.
Constantly having to be scraped off the ceiling from the responsibility of being a pop star, a performance peace artist and an icon before finally floating off forever as a martyr to rock and roll idolatry, John’s artistic energy was so often at odds with his personal malaise that it’s a minor miracle that he got anything done at all. ‘Bigger than Christ’ peddler Maureen Cleave said of Lennon:
“He can sleep almost indefinitely…he’s probably the laziest person in England.”
So, how does this dreamer of dreams and thinker of things become, alongside Paul McCartney, the hardest working man in showbiz?
As a child Lennon, usually found laid on his back with a leg cocked up the wall, would lose himself in imagination, books and cartooning; often falling into pseudo-psychedelic daydreams to places where nothing and everything appeared real. In his meditations, before and after he realised that’s what they were, came constant streams of instant epiphany. A clarity so clear and obvious to him that he’d become perplexed (annoyed) when others didn’t see the world about him in quite the same way. When he communicated his observations, which he was prone to do, invited or not, he made those around him either fall about in fits of laughter or feel decidedly uneasy in his company. This, in widescreen, is the duality of John Lennon — love/hate, peace/violence, funny/terrifying, lazy/hyper-productive.
His mental retreat, a subconscious state of being, is where he’d spend much of his free time throughout his life. It’s where he’d come to recognise himself as either mad or genius though he claimed later not to care which. This was the place where he found his unremitting truth; he discovered early that truth allowed him to see right through people and social practice, right into their hypocrisy or faux earnestness… something he had plenty of practice of during his hectic years as a touring Beatle. In his adolescence, through these piques of fantasy and self-discovery, came little bursts of linguistic gymnastics and fragments of blistering wit, but left to fester he may still be lying somewhere, looking at a ceiling.
So what happened to this difficult, lazy, whip-smart boy to jolt him out of his dream and into ours? Inspiration, that’s what. John Lennon happened to a lot of people, but on a handful of occasions, some crucial people happened to him.
So, here are the five people that inspired John’s life. Without whom, we’d likely have never heard of him.
William Brown (aka Just William)
John Lennon’s life was so bewilderingly unlikely that it’s befitting of the man to count his first great inspiration as a work of pure fiction. The Just William story collection is a series of books by Richmal Crompton based upon the eternally eleven-year-old, William Brown. First published in 1922, the stories and adventures kept coming all the way through John’s youth and Beatle years until finally coming to an end in 1970. William was the independently minded, stubborn leader of the ‘Outlaws’, an unruly gang of youths lead into misadventure by a boy with an outlandishly original world view and spurious social graces. Young William cared little about his appearance, wore a scowl as his ‘best company manners’ and was often to be found editing his own newspaper for the amusement of his gang of hangers-on and to the chagrin of the elders of the village that were under his spell. Sound familiar?
Young Lennon was an enigma. A startlingly bright boy, he was reading and writing at three and was initially impeccably behaved around the grown-up company despite the turbulent surroundings he was thrown into. Up until the age of five, he was living with his mother and her partner (in sin) and sharing their un-marital bed. Discovering this, his aunt Mary (Mimi) Smith, morals sticking out through her starch pressed collar, immediately grassed her up to ‘the social’ and took steps to remove him from this situation and into her own, childless, home. His mother Julia, who when reading between the lines appears to have suffered with some kind of mental health concern, most likely a manic depression or bi-polar disorder, something largely untreated in 1940’s northern England, let John go.
This must have been an excruciatingly difficult time for both mother and son, and thus the son’s muse was born. Increasingly from here, at home at Mendips and outside, he was two different boys. The prodigally creative John Winston Lennon and Just William. In his new home, John was surrounded by Mimi’s stoic stability, emotional detachment and her extensive book collection. He claims to have read Mimi’s leather-bound complete works of his namesake Winston Churchill by the time he was ten or eleven, as well as the contents of everything else he could get his hands on, but a young boy’s mind is often on things other than such elite establishment figures as his namesake and Britain’s wartime PM.
Lennon was said to have devoured, amongst others, the Just William books over and over again and John “reality leaving a lot to the imagination” Lennon brought this fantasy figure to life, enacting William’s adventures in the village suburb of Woolton and creating his own gang of cronies. He’d need such a gang for most of his life, and with such little room for the romance of childhood adventure beyond the printed word at home, William inspired the likes of John, Pete Shotton and Nigel ‘Wallogs’ Wally et al to terrorise his neighbourhood and be known locally to all parents as ‘that Lennon’. A disrupter of the order was born…Just William helped inspire That Lennon.
Mary ‘Mimi’ Smith’s relationship with John is both endlessly endearing and highly problematic. Regardless, she became one of the most important people in his life, a never moving rock on which he could lean. A guardian more than a parent and later a friend more than a mother, she gave him what nobody else apparently could: a home.
A life full of turbulent adventure was often punctuated with tragedy. John was as ill-equipped as any child to deal with the constant upheaval and rejection his youth and adolescence served up, and he spent much of his artistic life trying to come to terms with the anger and sadness he felt at being abandoned by both parents and then, just as he was recovering, his best friend left too. This wasn’t the whole story, though.
The fable goes something like this: His father, Alf Lennon leaves wife Julia and baby John to serve in the merchant navy during the war. Upon his return, he discovers Julia pregnant with another man’s baby. She claims rape, though professed this as a lie later. Alf leaves his wife and son to go on a drunken rampage across the ocean and back with his pals. Julia, bereft of a home and up the duff makes do until Alf returns, making do with several men before settling on one rather odd one. Alf regains contact and tries to smuggle little ‘Johnny’ away to New Zealand under the noses of his mother and family. A brutal tug of war occurs between mum & dad in Blackpool until John chooses the exotic Alf before running back into the loving arms of Julia…who then promptly hands him over to her sister.
Nearly, but not quite.
The truth is something more like this: Alf loved Julia. He was, by all accounts, besotted with her. She suggested marriage to him on a whim early in their relationship to annoy her father—an act that not only worked but one that sparked a sequence of events that ended in tragedy and heartbreak for every branch of the family, not least John’s younger two half-sisters. ‘Ignoble Alf’, the blue coat graduate (orphanage) did what many did during the war—he served. The merchant Navy was one of the cruellest and most dangerous arenas of war, and he did anything but skive during the conflict. When he returned home to his family, he found his wife pregnant by a serviceman known only as ‘Taffy’, but what was never revealed to John, though Mimi knew, was that Alf had offered to take her back and raise the child as his own. She refused him asked for a divorce and gave the baby up for adoption. Alf was bereft and heartbroken. He disappeared.
Wanting to make amends and reach out to his boy, Alf appeared again when John was around 5 years old and claiming to take the boy shopping, instead took him from Liverpool to Blackpool to stay with friend Billy Hall’s aged parents. Billy adamantly contests the ‘tug of war’ story, claiming that Alf simply returned him to Julia when she came looking for him.
This is no less heartbreaking for any child of five, but the sensitive, acutely aware John was sent into a spiral of doubt and self-loathing. Confused and pulled apart by unstable parents, the whole situation was likely contrived by Mimi to rouse Julia’s state of fragility and to further her own claim to the boy. Instead of going home to Julia and her new partner, John ‘Bobby/Twitchy’ Dykins, Mimi took John. How desperately confusing for all concerned. Mimi, upper working class, with a mortgage living around dentists, was in a sexless but sweet marriage and likely rued the fact that her opportunity for children of her own had passed. 75 years later, the events seem likely to have been part of an unfortunate plan to adopt the ‘special boy’ who Mimi had adored since the day he was born.
Despite these possibly sinister events, Mimi played an undeniably crucial role in John’s development. Bookish, smart with a waspish wit and brutally unbendable in her own right, she kept John at arm’s length, scolding where kisses (squeakers) could have served but driving him to be better in a way that Julia was less equipped to do. John was much like Julia—a Liverpool character who needed a partner to stabilise her more unpredictable urges. In Mimi, John had this. He had a comfortable, stable home—the perfect foundation from which to thrive, should he have wished to. That he didn’t is a different story.
He lived with Mimi at Mendips from 1945 on and off until 1963, after the Beatles had achieved their first number one. After moving out and into the world that couldn’t get enough of him, he would return home often (buying a new one on the south coast for her as soon as he could) and phone Mimi every week until his murder in 1980, outside the only other home he ever knew.
Many may argue that Mimi’s place on this list should be Julia’s. She was who he sang about, yearned for and was heartbroken over. However, Mimi is what John chose in his second wife—not a flighty, unstable myth, but a strong, determined personality that could manage John’s more unmanageable qualities. Mimi was the home that John wanted to return to. 251 Menlove Avenue is now in the possession of the National Trust, after his second wife ate it and donated it back to them. Yoko wasn't Mimi's cup of tea.
If Richmal Crompton wrote about a naughty boy, lashing out at societal norms and establishment figures in petty rebellion, Lewis Carroll wrote about an adolescent girl who was being encouraged by societal norms to enter the establishment and leave childhood behind against her will. Falling into her own daydream under a tree (possibly inspiring the Plastic Ono Band cover), Alice follows a White Rabbit in a waistcoat down a rabbit hole into an alternative universe of nightmare imagery, creating an elaborate allegory of her whole life in an attempt to escape it. Here we meet the Fab Four of the grinning Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the crazed Queen of Hearts and The Walrus.
Lennon had come to terms with the fact that he didn’t see the world around him in quite the same way as everyone else. Children that suffer from ADHD (I’m not suggesting that John did, but see: Julia) are prescribed Ritalin, an amphetamine, in order to stabilise their behaviour. It seems counterintuitive, but a little bit of what kills you… When Lennon discovered Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he ripped through it and soaked up the visions of psychedelic fantasy and saw someone he could relate to. For possibly the first time, he wasn’t alone. His insanity was normalised.
“When I was about twelve I used to think I must be a genius, but nobody’s noticed,” Lennon once said, “If there is such a thing as a genius I am one, and if there isn’t I don’t care.” - Lennon
When introduced to psychedelic hallucinogens in 1965 by, of all people, a dentist (Mimi would've been proud) Lennon was astounded to find a jet fuelled gateway to this fantasy world he’d been summoning at will up since childhood. Where it terrified his wife Cynthia beyond reason, it prickled his fancy and soon he found himself tripping endlessly. That he didn’t end up an LSD casualty like Peter Green or Syd Barrett is testament to the robust nature of his personality and mind, but it was a narrow escape.
The existential damage of the drug was once so great that Derek Taylor, Beatles’ sometime Press Officer and confidante had to sit with the Beatle and show him all the great work he had done in order to resuscitate his personality and confidence. John found his wonderland and used it as a semi-permanent escape from the hurricane of Beatledom and an unfulfilling domestic scene. That it brought great art like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ etc. out of him is fortunate for him and us, but this is Alice taken to the extreme. Alice woke up and went back to her house and her life, John did too, but that was thanks to one of his other great inspirations.
John found and revisited Alice at least once a year for the rest of his life. To find what he had kept private in his mind written by an Oxford University Mathematics prodigy (Carroll didn’t work hard, but graduated top of his class at Oxford) nearly a century before must have been a welcome shock.
“Before Elvis there was nothing.” – John Lennon
It’s impossible to overestimate the effect first hearing Elvis Presley had on a 16-year-old Lennon. Putting ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in context, its impact on a generation of postwar teenagers was akin to first hearing The Beatles or the Sex Pistols, and as world-changing as the atomic bomb. Here was nothing so cerebral as Alice, Crompton’s William or his own pointedly gobbledegook poetry, but something that appealed to the other side of Lennon. Here was something animal, lustful, alive and dangerous.
We know now that Elvis was as quick to join the paranoid establishment elite of American Republicanism of the ‘70s as he was to gyrate his hips on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. But for two short years before being neutered by the US Army Admissions Service, he was the signpost of a new type of youth—rebellion with hair.
Elvis Presley altered the direction of John’s life from the moment he heard the echo-laden noise that constituted Heartbreak Hotel. He couldn’t make out the words but dug the sound so much he decided that it didn’t matter. That ‘sound’ was all John was concerned with until deep into his own recording career, which excuses some questionable early Beatle lyrics and forgives the carelessness attributed by one of the 20th centuries great wordsmiths to his own work.
No-one sang like Elvis (no-one on white mainstream radio, anyway). Before Elvis was Sinatra, Nat King-Cole, Bing Crosby and Acker Bilk. All rhythmic control and silk. Ballads and big bands were the established order of popular music until a dirt poor teenager from Tupelo, Mississippi wandered into Sun Records in 1953 and paid to record a song for his mum. Immediately earmarked by Sam Phillips as someone to keep an eye on, his note from the session simply said: “Good ballad singer: hold”. Elvis and Phillips tried a handful of times to put something meaningful to tape, to no avail. Meanwhile, Presley himself was being rejected from singing auditions, “They told me I couldn’t sing” he complained to his father after the last no from vocal quartet the Songfellows. It was only later when Phillips began searching for a white man with a black sound to cross over and make him ‘billions’ did he call Elvis in for a run-through of some material.
The July 1954 session was a bust, and it was only when, well into the evening Scotty Moore and Bill Black began packing their instruments away (a stand-up bass that Paul McCartney now owns by way of a birthday present from Linda), did Presley pick up an acoustic and begin hacking away at ‘That’s Alright Mama.’ His bandmates joined in and Phillips stood to attention. He told the men to start again, pressed record and rock and roll was born.
About 18 months later, four lads from Liverpool caught wind of it and grew some sideburns. In a perfect storm of rebellion, the seed that Presley had sewn in John flowered in the wake of the most significant tragedy of John’s life. In July 1957 Julia, only a few months after mother and son had been properly reconciled, was killed in a hit and run accident in the view of his own bedroom window. That the driver was an off-duty unlicensed police officer was all we need to know about the concreting of John’s constant will to rail against societal norms and niceties.
Elvis gave him a platform to exorcise his anguish. His voice was born at the same time as his muse. At 17, John was already the man that would be made famous five years later. We have Elvis and Julia to thank for this, her sacrifice lost in time as selfishness and John’s love of Elvis lost in the fact that Elvis despised him as soon as he had the chance, didn’t matter. John loved Elvis 'til the day he died.
If you were expecting Paul McCartney to be here, then I’m sorry. No one was as big an influence on John’s life than Yoko Ono. Were this list about Paul McCartney, then John would likely have been the most significant inspiration on the list, but John was going to be John, with or without Paul. Macca helped make him a Beatle, and without him, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been, but Paul clung onto Lennon’s tailcoat during the first several years of their friendship and partnership, although absolutely integral to what the Beatles were and came to be, he only came into his own as an artist well into the Beatlemania years.
Lennon was the voice of Beatlemania and his personality and songwriting dominated and drove the group in the manic early years – writing hits like ‘Please, Please Me’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘A Ticket To Ride’, ‘Help!’ and most of the A Hard Day’s Night album on his own. John’s voice and spirit were plastered all over the group and the charts. Paul dominated in his own way later, but that’s another story.
There are many schools of thought on Yoko Ono. Harbinger of doom, breaker of the band, a Japanese parvenu or alternatively, the strong woman who married the most famous man in the world and saved him from himself. Make no mistake, Lennon without Yoko in 1968 was a man in a deep depression (he likely suffered a quite severe nervous breakdown in early ’68, summoning the band to a meeting and claiming himself Christ among other strange behaviours). Here was a man who’d achieved everything, had everything he wanted, could do anything he wanted, but he was lost.
Paul, his equal in this enterprise, was never happier than at this moment of peak Beatle fame and critical personal acclaim, but John was strung out, bored, tired and alone. Post Sgt.Pepper, he’d gotten to the top of the tree, the one he alludes to in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ written whilst alone in Almaria, Spain, only to look around to realise there was nothing there, and looking down, realised that everyone else was clambering to reach him. He hid from himself and his current wife, poor, lovely Cynthia in a bucket of LSD and remained pretty vacant for the best part of two years. That he was writing some of the best, smartest popular music ever made during this period is…well, like I said at the beginning, a miracle, but the quantity of output was suffering.
Gone was the amphetamine fuelled rabid energy of the early years. Here, now in 1967/1968 was a thin man, holed up in his attic in Weybridge making weird tape loops and reading the news avoiding his fame and family. A man who wrote ‘Across the Universe’ but couldn’t understand how to record the simple acoustic arrangement (he tried on several occasions, none satisfactory) is a far cry from the man a year before who brought ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ into the studio and helped create a new kind of 'tone sound poem'.
Around the time of writing SFF, he visited an art gallery run by his friend John Dunbar to see an exhibition by Avante-Garde lunatic, Yoko Ono. He told the tale himself on numerous occasions in the years that followed, to David Frost and American chat show hosts, about how their eyes met over a ladder and under a sign that said ‘yes’ in a microscopic font but the truth was something slightly different.
There have long been tales of Yoko making plays for several high ranking pop stars including Paul McCartney no less. And this rumour, no matter how unsubstantiated it may or may not be, was surely something John would’ve been aware of, and his jealous streak would have done his relationship with Macca no favours.
However, upon ‘meeting’ John (tales of Yoko sneaking up on him and Cyn, handing him letters in front of her), and later embarking on a protracted to and fro of sneaky postcards and notes, Yoko claimed to have never heard of The Beatles. For someone living in and operating in the art scene in 1960’s NYC and London to claim this does raise certain questions. Could it be possible? I’m not convinced.
Yoko hails from one of Japan’s most wealthy banking families, where, as a child, she excelled at high ranking public schools. After her father was recommissioned to work in NYC she was shipped off to Sarah Lawrence College, where she may have brushed shoulders with, unbelievably, Linda Eastman (later McCartney). She studied classical piano and art and was considered to be what she was—an exceptional intellect. She was/is no parvenu.
Pre-fame John was an expert at rapid and shockingly irreverent humour, a willingness to be as rude as he needed with an ability to dominate and intimidate and to impose on those in his immediate circle, a demand of acute loyalty and willingness to follow. He was able to communicate what he thought with a deftness and brevity that set him apart from everyone from an early age, that it was often permeated with four-letter words and brutal observations was par for the course. He’d write fantasy poems, full of alliteration, double-entendres and malapropisms and cover his pain and joy with wit and song. By the time he met Yoko, he was the global prince of prose. The world hung on his every word, so being the subversive he was he’d fudge the language to keep people guessing. Yoko’s art, however, seemed to have all of this distilled into a half-eaten apple, or a table cut in two. John was moved profoundly by her style of immediate communication. If 'brevity was the soul of his wit', her 'brevity was wit's soul'*. (*a lovely Gary Delaney joke.)
She was who he barely dared to be (and as an artist, he was as brave as they came). In a significant challenge to his will to dominate, she was smarter than he was. Like his decision to either allow McCartney to join the Quarrymen and make them better and he weaker or not, he had to decide whether he wanted to be challenged by a woman and dare to call her his equal…or even superior.
Trying desperately hard not to fall in love with her, despite having whored his way through most of Babylon during Beatles tours, John and Yoko fell into a dance, each obsessing over the other via drawn out and distant communications. It took something like 18 months to resolve, both parties feeling trepidation and fear. Yoko worried her association with a Beatle she’d never heard of would end her art career, Lennon worrying that if he were to show his new love that it would be rejected. Both were alarmingly right. Neither were ever mentioned without mentioning the other ever again.
Yoko’s influence on John was immediate. He began writing in an immediate, first-person form—language became more simple, direct. In the peak of this idiom he’d write ‘Julia’ —one of the most powerful and direct pieces he ever wrote. That it described him transferring the unrequited love he had for his mother ‘Julia’ over to Yoko, the two merging into one is a Freudian nightmare we haven’t got time to get into here, but it was a statement, and a profoundly moving one. In its trough, we find the Sometime In New York City album, full of politico-sloganeering and woes of semi-literate cronies of extreme social agitators, something they both came to regret. Saying that, ‘New York City’ and ‘Woman Is The N***** of the World’ found on that album are powerful, smart pieces and amongst his best solo work, but no one wants to talk about those anymore.
John began shedding his numerous skins—the folk poet, the psychedelic walrus, the dreamweaver (I’ve only ever heard John call himself this, but he sheds this view of himself anyway), the acolyte of Dylan, Elvis, God and lastly, Beatles—on his best conceived and performed solo album, Plastic Ono Band. This is a Lennon/Ono album, one that he’d never have made without her influence. For anyone, let alone a Beatle, to make this album in what can be viewed as an act of pop self-sabotage in the aftermath of the break up of the world's biggest band is frankly, astonishing.
John was likely to have suffered another form of breakdown here, and was most certainly suffering from PTSD—all four of the Beatles did in some way or another. Who could live that life and get away with it? He slowly overcame, and although his solo career faltered, he regained some kind of stability once again. Five years of a marriage that was intensely scrutinised and demonised followed. It was by his own account on the whole loving, but he railed against it and the demise of his status as the biggest pop star in the world by eventually, and noisily, having sex with a fan in earshot of Yoko at a party in 1973, thus ending the first five years of their partnership and initiating his drunken shamefest in LA during the next two years. Yoko took him back on her terms and depending on what account you read, they had five further years of domestic ‘normality’ ahead, which produced a son, Sean, and brother to Julian (both extremely talented and likeable people in their own right).
As he began his own resurrection, he was mown down outside his home, in front of his wife and within earshot of his infant son.
His failures, successes, highs, lows, cruelty, kindness make him one of the most openly human stars of the last century, probably ever. His martyrdom. just as he was returning to us all, gave him a place on the top shelf of tales to be told for eternity. The love and joy he gave millions, and then the love he found for himself make his one of the great stories, and without Yoko, I’m not sure it would have played out the same way.
I always think of it this way: if you don’t like Yoko, then how can you like Lennon’s work? She permeated twelve years (66%) of it. He sang about and to her more than anyone else, and I for one am all for it.