Maureen Cleave remembers John Lennon
Sam Taylor-Wood's evocative biopic has made Maureen Cleave recall her
time as a young reporter, hanging out with the Beatle. 'Come and
stay,' he once said, 'I'll put the gorilla suit on and we'll go for a
drive in the Ferrari...'
14 Dec 2009
We've just had another year of the Beatles. Who would have thought
it? Two of them, John and George are dead, Ringo and Paul in their
late sixties. First there was the BBC documentary about their visit
to the United States in 1964, the nation still tapping its feet to
their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show 45 years later. Then their
albums were digitally remastered and re-released. And now artist Sam
Taylor-Wood has made a feature film about the young Lennon, called
He's played by a tall handsome young actor called Aaron Johnson, not
at all like the original Lennon whose looks were against him that
long pointed nose, long upper lip, those small narrow eyes. How could
someone who looked like Henry VIII become a pop idol? And his clothes
were all wrong: "Look at these trousers," he'd say, "must've sat in
What mattered to the Beatles was their hair. "Get your hair down,"
was the first thing they said to Ringo when he joined them. The
writer Jonathan Miller thought theirs was the fascination of
repetitive siblings, the almost uncanny attraction of identical
quads. How different they were, yet strangely alike. Shaking their
heads was a signal to the audience to scream even louder. They used
to worry they would get too sweaty and their hair would stick to
their foreheads, making them look like Hitler. They were accused of
wearing wigs. "In that case," Lennon said, "mine's the only wig with
I first met him in 1963, put on to the Beatles by an Oxford friend
who came from Liverpool, the journalist Gillian Reynolds (now The
Daily Telegraph's radio critic). They wore boots, she said, and their
appearance inspired frenzy. "They look beat up and depraved in the
nicest possible way." I was writing a column in the London Evening
Standard called horrors! "Disc Date". But I had a fringe and red
boots which was a good start. When they went to the US for The Ed
Sullivan Show, I suggested to my editor I go, too. He was scathing.
Take rock'n'roll to America? "Coals to Newcastle?" But I went.
Two days later I had a telegram from him: BEATLES POSTERS STOLEN ALL
OVER LONDON. They soon became the most famous people in the
English-speaking world. For two years they were out of breath: they
had to run everywhere to escape screaming mobs of which they were
understandably frightened. I used to wonder what would happen if one
of them fell over. Would he be torn to pieces? Ringo used to say the
only place he felt safe was in the lavatory; the Standard once took a
photograph of them all there, with Paul sitting on the washbasin.
People sometimes ask what they were like and the answer is more fun
than anyone else and terrible teases. The interviewer was outnumbered
four to one: they might put your coat in the wastepaper basket, offer
to marry you, seize your notebook and pencil, pick you up and put you
somewhere else, demand you cut their hair. In hotel rooms, John's
favourite game was shuffling his feet on the carpet, then touching
you on the cheek to give you a mild electric shock. On the other hand
they were kindly disposed, offering you cigarettes or a swig from
their bottles of Coke, making sure you never got left behind. "Come
on, Thingy," they'd bawl when it was time to move. They'd get you a
taxi. Once I thought the driver was taking an odd way home, hardly
surprising as they'd told him, "10 Downing Street".
What actor Aaron Johnson does catch on screen is the Lennon who was
always the difficult boy in the back row, imperious, unpredictable,
indolent, playful, charming and quick-witted but nervy, too. When
they asked him to speak at the Cambridge Union, he refused on the
grounds that he was a born heckler. He used to read the Just William
books by Richmal Crompton. Like William, he battled against the odds
and dreamed of empire.
One day I picked John up in a taxi and took him to Abbey Road for a
recording session. The tune to the song A Hard Day's Night was in his
head, the words scrawled on a birthday card from a fan to his little
son Julian: "When I get home to you," it said, "I find my tiredness
is through…" Rather a feeble line about tiredness, I said. "OK," he
said cheerfully and, borrowing my pen, instantly changed it to the
slightly suggestive: "When I get home to you/I find the things that
you do/Will make me feel all right." The other Beatles were there in
the studio and, of course, the wonderful George Martin. John sort of
hummed the tune to the others they had no copies of the words or
anything else. Three hours later I was none the wiser about how
they'd done it but the record was made and you can see the birthday
card in the British Library.
Three years went by, the novelty wore off, the Beatles were fed up.
"Here I am," said John, "famous and loaded and I can't go anywhere."
It was time for Rolls-Royces with black windows and lots of shopping
at Asprey. Paul, always better at ordinary life than the others,
stayed in London; John, George and Ringo, with wives and children,
moved to daft stockbroker Tudor houses in the Weybridge-Esher area.
They were in and out of each other's houses all the time, watching
television, playing rowdy games of Buccaneer, making mad tapes. At
midnight, they might set off, plus chauffeur, in Rolls-Royces or
Ferraris for London. Paul would come to see John to write songs.
You might get invited to stay. "We've got a pool," he would say, "so
bring your body." This was after he'd asked with interest which day
of the week it was. There was all day to chat. I'd just got married.
He was disappointed in my engagement ring, which was a ruby that
glowed rather than glittered. (He was interested in my husband. I'd
never introduced them he was too tall. The Beatles didn't like men
taller than they were.) I put forward a case for marital fidelity and
he was interested in this as he was in all ideas. "Do you mean to say
I might be missing something? I hope I grow out of being so sex mad.
Sex is the only physical exercise I bother with."
He would show you around the house, little Julian panting along
behind clutching a large porcelain cat. The house was full of winking
lights, there since Christmas eight months earlier. There was a suit
of armour called Sidney, a large crucifix, a pair of crutches (a
present from George), a gorilla suit… "I thought I'd put it on and
drive round in the Ferrari." He said it was the only suit that fitted him.
John talked a lot about the past. Nowhere Boy is set in his teens
when having been brought up by his strict and starchy Aunt Mimi
he rediscovered his mother, Julia. Julia was quite the opposite,
exciting and huge fun, and he spoke bitterly about the off-duty drunk
policeman who ran her over and killed her.
Shortly after he'd brought his grand house in Weybridge, he'd had a
visit from Fred Lennon, the father who'd abandoned him. "I showed him
the door," he said cheerfully, "only seen him twice in my life." No
sentimental nonsense, no reconciliation.
He talked of other things too. "I used to read ads for guitars in
Reveille and just ache for one. Like everyone else, I used God for
this one thing I wanted. 'Please God, give me a guitar.' Elvis was
bigger than religion in my life. We used to go to this boy's house
after school and listen to Elvis on 78s; we'd buy five Senior Service
loose and some chips and go along. Then this boy said he'd got a new
record. He'd been to Holland. This record was by somebody called
Little Richard, who was bigger than Elvis. It was called Long Tall
Sally. When I heard it, I couldn't speak. You know how it is when you
are torn. I didn't want to leave Elvis. We all looked at each other,
but I didn't want to say anything against Elvis."
Elvis was, by all accounts, a pretty moderate fellow but he could
sing and, above all, he could move. His movements came from imitating
the bumps and grinds of burlesque strippers but in photographs they
were a stance that was wild, free and fearless. That was how he
looked in penny-pinching England where you wore clothes until they
wore out. His was the torch the Beatles carried.
The last time I visited John, he had been reading about religion and
typically John had strong views about it. "Christianity will go,"
he said. "It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that. I'm
right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now;
I don't know which will go first, rock'n'roll or Christianity."
It was March 1966 and the quote appeared, not in the headline but
well down the page. Only John Grigg in The Guardian picked it up.
"God is not mocked," he wrote. Months went by until July when an
American magazine called Datebook printed it and all hell broke
loose. Radio stations banned the Beatles, shares in Northern Song
plummeted, the Beatles finished their last US tour and never played
in public again.
In 1986, Yoko Ono published a little book by John called Skywriting
by Word of Mouth, written two years before he was murdered in 1980.
He never wanted to grow old but he was only 40 when he died. In an
autobiographical fragment, he writes: "I always remember to thank
Jesus for the end of my touring days; if I hadn't said the Beatles
were 'bigger than Jesus' and upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan,
well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing
fleas. God Bless America. Thank you, Jesus." And thank you, John, for
John might well have been jealous of the handsome actor who plays him
in the film. As someone who could only afford to buy cigarettes loose
and in fives, he would certainly have envied the number of cigarettes
he gets to smoke. But he wouldn't have minded. He hadn't much time
for reality. As he once said: "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination."
John Lennon's lover superior
A new film suggests the Beatle secretly lusted after his own mother.
The producer says it's not as bad as it sounds
December 20, 2009
"And this," says Douglas Rae, gesturing to a large, unspectacular
room in the bowels of the Abbey Road studios, "is where The Beatles
recorded Sgt Pepper." Ah. At this, my inner librarian bridles a bit.
Actually, Doug, it longs to pipe up in a peeved and pedantic John
Major voice, it's where they recorded virtually every note they ever
released, from their first session on June 6, 1962, to their last.
This is the sanctum sanctorum, mate, it demands Mastermind-grade
exactitude. Anything else is akin to claiming Judea was just the
place where Jesus knocked up a loaf and fish-based main course.
Having said that, though, Edinburgh-born Rae is a movie producer, a
print-the-legend kinda guy, the founder and frontman of Ecosse Films,
makers of Mrs Brown, Monarch of the Glen and many other huggable
mainstream entertainments. The broad sweeps are what what he trades
in. The finer, fiddlier details of biography often blur at 30 frames
a second. And Beatle fans are about to appreciate this fact afresh,
as Rae tests the principle to a startling new degree.
Nowhere Boy is the forthcoming Rae-produced biopic of the teenage
John Lennon. Marking the directorial debut of conceptual art
superstar Sam Taylor-Wood, it thrums with unsentimental candour and
exquisite period precision; its production probably stripped
Liverpool of every Bush radiogram and Playtex girdle it could spare.
It's a film that fleshes out this most obscure and troubled era in
the singer's life. But it's also a film that claims that Lennon
perhaps the most revered popular entertainer of the last century, a
man once voted the all-time eighth greatest Briton spent his
formative years harbouring sexual fantasies about his mother.
The bare facts of Lennon's childhood comprise perhaps the least fab
episode in the nativity of the Beatles. After his father vanished
into the merchant navy, the five-year-old John was taken from the
flighty, impulsive Julia Lennon and billeted with his stern aunt
Mimi. A rapprochement between mother and son was not brokered until
Lennon's late teens, when Julia and John discovered their mutual
partiality for wine and song and a shared derision for Mimi. It
survived until the summer of 1958, when Julia, returning from a
conciliatory summit at Mimi's, was run over and killed.
The power struggle between the sisters is the main theme of Nowhere
Boy; the discord lies in its claim that Lennon compensated for the
years of lost love in a singularly feverish fashion. Encouraged,
goaded almost, by his good-time girl of a mother, played by
Anne-Marie Duff, Lennon in the movie transmutes this new-found filial
affection into dreamy erotic longing. As the pair jitter-bug in
Italian cafes, Lennon, played by Aaron Johnson, the 19-year-old actor
who finished the film engaged to its 42-year-old director, allows his
gaze to linger just a little too long on Julia's stocking-tops.
Mother and son share languorous afternoons with the three-bar fire
and a stack of 78s. The term rock'n'roll, she tells him, is a
euphemism for sex. They listen as they lie in one another's arms,
tentative in their apprehensions of what might happen next. A brutal
jump-cut to Lennon's alfresco coupling with a schoolgirl makes its
The film is based, notionally, on Imagine This, the memoir of Julia
Baird, Julia Lennon's daughter and John's half-sister. That book,
however, makes no mention of any such impulse on Lennon's part.
Rather, the suggestion comes from John Lennon: The Life, Philip
Norman's herculean 2008 biography. In it, Norman quotes from a newly
discovered interview in which Lennon remembered the afternoons he
spent with Julia, wondering "how far she would let me go".
Some measure of confirmation was granted when the singer's widow,
Yoko Ono, a woman pathologically protective of Lennon's memory,
approved the script, as did his sons, Julian and Sean, and permitted
use on the soundtrack of Mother, Lennon's unsettling hymn of love and
hate to Julia. "Yoko said she'd give us the track if she liked the
film. The drawback was that we'd have to make the film in order to
find out if she liked it," says Rae.
Paul McCartney, the father of Taylor-Wood collaborators Stella and
Mary, chipped in with script suggestions. "It could get quite spooky
at times," remembers Rae. "We'd be discussing scenes featuring John
and Paul, showing things that had happened a lifetime ago, wondering
how the events we were portraying had really been. Then Sam's phone
would go and it'd be Paul calling for a chat. It was a bit like
having a hotline to Napoleon or some other massive historical figure."
It's another matter, however, to corroborate Nowhere Boy's thesis
that in his own mother, Lennon found his perfect synthesis of
waywardness and sexual allure. "Oh, that's just silly, I really can't
see it," says Stanley Parkes, Lennon's first cousin, who lives in
retirement in Largs. "I mean, John might have said to a school friend
that he fancied Julia a bit or something like that. He might have
made a few jokes in the playground, that's the sort of person he was,
but there would never have been anything physical.
"You have to remember that even though she had an older child, Julia
was only in her early forties when she died. She was a young and a
very vivacious woman. But it's still an outrageous claim. What can
you do? We've had to put up with this sort of thing year after year.
What these filmmakers and writers forget is that this is our family,
this isn't just showbusiness, we are real people and it hurts to have
this kind of mud slung at us.
"I know that Julia is not pleased to have her memoir distorted like
this," he adds. "She feels that this isn't a film of her book." In
Nowhere Boy it is Parkes who is shown arranging the reunion of Lennon
and his mother, when he takes his cousin to the home Julia has set up
with her new partner. "I believe in the film I'm shown as speaking in
broad Scouse," he says. "Now that is another mistake, as my parents
had the Liverpudlian accents beaten out of us. We spoke in refined
Lancastrian voices. Only John had a broad Liverpool accent."
For Rae and Ecosse, meanwhile, Lennon is the latest in a series of
totemic figures treated irreligiously. Mrs Brown in 1997 suggested
that Queen Victoria exercised her royal prerogative with ghillie John
Brown, played by Billy Connolly, more flagrantly than Victorian
decorum found decent. In Becoming Jane (2007), Jane Austen risks her
social status as she considers breaching the greatest taboo of her
age, marrying for love, with dashing Oirish fly-boy Tom Lefroy. Even
Nessie gets the soft-focus, Vaseline-lensed treatment, in 2007's The
Meanwhile, the 62-year-old producer has shed a few skins himself. He
was Britain's youngest newspaper editor at 17 on the Kirriemuir
Herald, then worked at STV alongside Gordon Brown (he now sits with
Brown's wife, Sarah, on the board of the Maggie's cancer charity). "I
remember telling him in the early 1970s, ' Gordon, you're too ugly to
become a politician and your party is utterly unelectable.' We were
on opposite sides of the political fence. Now, as a mate, I just feel
sorry for anyone who wakes up every morning to the headlines he gets.
Nobody deserves that."
Throughout the 1970s, under the name Dougie Ray, he was a presenter
of the children's television magazine programme Magpie. He
encountered his current cinematic subject only once, from a distance,
at a cacophonous 1965 Beatles show at the Caird Hall in Dundee.
When it came to Nowhere Boy, Rae was looking, he says, for a hero
more modern than Ecosse's previous subjects but with the same
question in his mind: what was the turning point that changed their lives?
"We were looking for a moment of epiphany in a contemporary icon's
life. And John seemed a man of such complexity, who had lived such a
tumultuous life that he was perfect doubly so, considering that
next December sees the 30th anniversary of his murder in the year
when he would have turned 70."
Then Rae came across Baird's memoir. The conundrum of why such an
aggressive and tormented youth turned later so wholly towards peace
and love was solved within its pages, he says. "For a crucial period
in his life, John effectively had two mothers, at a time when boys
tend to reject their mothers," says Rae. "Then he lost the mother he
wanted. I think he became very accustomed to alternating quite
violently between profound anger and profound gentleness." The
suggestion of incest in Norman's book was then incorporated into the
script by Matt Greenhalgh, who previously worked on Queer As Folk.
In the end, however, Rae refuses to be saddled with the notion that
he and Taylor-Wood are trading in a salacious kind of grave-robbing,
sticking yet another Post-It note of infamy onto a figure accused at
various times of sleeping with his manager, Brian Epstein, killing
his friend Stuart Sutcliffe, of claiming the Beatles were bigger than
Jesus and though this one is trickier to deny of recording Merry
Christmas (War Is Over). "I don't think it's an Oedipal film," Rae
concludes. "What we wanted to convey was that John and Julia's
relationship was almost like a love affair.
"It's about a boy rediscovering his love for his mother, and a mother
with a condition we'd now call bipolar. It's a film about a young
adolescent's love for a woman he's just met, but the woman happens to
be his mother."