Imagine Beatles' John Lennon at 70: story and photos
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He was the feisty, outspoken genius of the Beatles, who struggled through a conflicted life. Thirty years after his murder, a British writer who knew him wonders how John Lennon would have lived into his golden years
By Ivor Davies, Featurewell
John Lennon was only 23 when I first met him in a San Francisco hotel room in August 1964. But even then he was a total original.
John Lennon would have turned 70 on Oct. 9 had he not been senselessly gunned down outside his New York apartment in December 1980. Like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, Lennon went too soon.
He was the real, eccentric genius of the Beatles. Back then they were the raw new group from 'Liddypool' (as John liked to call the city of his birth) embarking on their first North American tour. I was assigned by my editor in London to cover their trip.
So on a sunny August afternoon in 1964, I showed up at the San Francisco Hilton, elbowed my way past hordes of screaming young women to a penthouse suite where I met the Fab Four.
Ringo was callow. George was inclined to be distant -- not comfortable in the presence of strangers. Paul was already displaying early signs of becoming a kind of male 'Stepford Wife' -- a super friendly, smooth-operating schmoozer, who remembered your name from the get-go, made you feel that you were really important to him, and that was before I saw him with women where he was the master of the art of the Lothario.
But John. Well, he was an oddity from the outset who never strove to please anyone.
I sensed that he was by far the most complicated and therefore the most interesting. He was already an unmerciful cynic and the most mercurial of the lot with a dark, sick Monty Python sense of the ridiculous. He was constantly battling with manager Brian Epstein, with whom he had a strange love-hate relationship.
On our 35-day odyssey in the Beatles' chartered jet, in guarded hotel rooms there was John: 'ciggie' and rum and coke in hand, and often fortified with an assortment of pills to keep him running. He'd invite us media types to join him in a game of Monopoly.
He displayed a surprisingly capitalistic tendency while ferociously wheeling and dealing as he snapped up properties in games that often went on all night.
Yet, unlike the other three Beatles, he had a strongly developed social conscience. He sounded off about gun-obsessed Americans, particularly on our Dallas stopover a year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and unlike most rock and rollers he paid attention to the news.
He was angry after seeing reports of police attacking blacks with water cannons during the Philadelphia race riots, which occurred that September during the tour. It was he who insisted that Epstein get a commitment from the local promoter that audiences at their concerts at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., would be integrated.
"Watch it," John told Epstein, "they may try to stick a few Negroes in the corner and say it's integrated."
One of the most memorable times I recall was the night we were supposed to go to Jacksonville.
Hurricane Dora was raging and, in mid-storm, our flight, the most nerve-racking of the whole trip, was bucking and bouncing.
So we detoured to Key West and the next day, just 144 km from Havana, with the rains thundering down outside, we sat in John's room, eating, gossiping and playing Monopoly while in the background, Fidel Castro railed on endlessly in Spanish on the TV direct from Havana.
John had been popping Preludin, which he kept in a little black bag tucked away in the bathroom. He and all the Beatles swallowed the 'Prellys,' as they called the uppers, like jelly beans. They had become part of their daily routine in Hamburg, helping them to sustain eight-hour, seven-day-a-week club sessions.
John also smoked pot that day and he made no excuses for any of it. He'd been pill popping since he was 17. He was in a mellow though critical mood about the tour, sounding off about the awful sound systems at venues.
As Castro bellowed on, John declared: "We're like a bunch of f--ing budgies. We'll all end up like performing fleas in suits."
He was also fed up, he said, with the "rubbish" line of Beatle wigs that the concert promoters were peddling.
"They ought to take all those souvenirs and burn the bloody lot," he said.
The other thing that drove John crazy was the idea some of the fans believed that the young rockers had magic healing powers. At almost every stop, the sick and the handicapped would be wheeled into the front three or four rows of the arena.
While trapped in his hotel room, John, looking for some kind of release, would suddenly launch into a pantomime act: contorting his body and walking around like a deformed person, he mimicked the disabled. To outsiders that might appear cruel, but it betrayed a real outrage at the ridiculousness of believing that they were anything else but a quartet of young British artists doing their best to entertain fans. Other times, he'd strut around the hotel room in Chaplinesque-Hitlerian pose, finger below nose, to mimic the Fuhrer.
Lennon always remained true to his beliefs. In the late '60s, he became a vitriolic and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War: In 1969 he and Yoko went to bed 'for peace' for a week in Montreal and followed it by unveiling the new song, Give Peace a Chance, in Toronto. His antiwar beliefs were completely sincere. He even took an uncredited role in Richard Attenborough's movie musical about the First World War, Oh What a Lovely War. He played an anonymous soldier opposite Laurence Olivier, not to be confused with the 1967 Richard Lester movie How I Won the War highlighting the inept military, which starred Lennon.
His outspoken beliefs landed him in hot water in the U.S. He was proud to be on Nixon's enemy list. He'd already become something of a pariah, of course, with his outspoken comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Fans in America burned Beatles records as John vainly tried to explain that what he said had been taken out of context. Had he lived today, the anti-religionist who grew up in a city bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants would have had a good laugh at the news two years ago: the Pope had finally forgiven him for his comments!
The older he got, the quirkier he became. In the '70s, after making his home in New York, he split from Yoko Ono and showed up in 1974 for an interview at record producer Lou Adler's Bel Air mansion with his girlfriend May Pang -- who was John and Yoko's former secretary.
We met early that afternoon and he was already sipping a drink. He was strangely unfocused and jittery and while he posed for pictures at the pool he seemed somewhat troubled. Much later I learned it was Lennon's most confused period. He was drinking heavily, and taking LSD and pills -- a habit that had killed Brian Epstein several years earlier.
And it wasn't until years later that we learned that John's on-the-edge, high-wire lifestyle stemmed ultimately from his unhappy and unsettled childhood.
A few years earlier I had interviewed Dr. Arthur Janov, the originator of Primal Scream therapy in whose centre in Los Angeles John and Yoko had been treated in 1970, as Janov said, "to kill his childhood pain."
Lennon had read Janov's book and underwent treatment in Los Angeles. It involved being isolated from friends and family in a soundproof room and recreating his actual birth as he lay in a fetal position. That presumably released him from his original childhood trauma.
Janov filmed it all, noting that the therapy had wiped John's childhood slate clean, enabling him to shift burdens that had troubled him all his life.
So what would John have been like at 70?
No doubt the same feisty, outspoken original he had always been. While he abhorred pomp and circumstance, there is little doubt that he would have eventually accepted a British knighthood. Not so much to strut around as Sir John, but more so because he would have liked the idea of his wife being Lady Yoko. She harboured great resentment for the British who treated her like a leper when she first came into John's life after his divorce from first wife Cynthia.
And there is little doubt he would have remained a fierce critic of the wars fought by Britain and his adopted homeland in the name of peace.