John Lennon, the boy we knew
Before the Beatles, John Lennon was a school friend, a bandmate, a boyfriend - and a big personality. We talk to the people who knew him best during his Liverpool youth
Imogen Carter, The Observer
Sunday 13 December 2009
http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/de ... -liverpool
Comedian JIMMY TARBUCK went to Dovedale primary school with John Lennon and knew him all his life. In Nowhere Boy Tarbuck (played by Christian Bird) features briefly: Lennon (Aaron Johnson) cycles past him and shouts "Tarbuck! Keep out of the chippy ye fat bastard!"
I always got on very well with John. He took the piss out of me, which made me laugh. He was a character, sarcastic, full of quips. When the Beatles had their first record out, "Love Me Do", John played it to me and I came out with a classic: "You should sell this to the Everly Brothers." Shows you what I knew! He never let me forget that. Whenever I saw him he'd say "We're still writing songs for the Everly Brothers" and piss himself laughing.
I was at Dovedale with John and we lived quite near so we'd bump into each other all the time. He lived in a very nice semi-detached house on Menlove Avenue. He wasn't a working-class lad as many people make out, that's a load of crap. He had a very nice childhood – I know he didn't in terms of the mum and Aunt Mimi situation – but he was never wanting for food and things. I remember kicking a ball around with him in the playground, shouting and being daft. He was like any other kid. He wasn't a sit-in-the-corner, a quiet Harry; if there was a bit of uproar he'd be amongst it like myself. Later with Yoko Ono he became a pacifist but he was far from that before. He wasn't a hard case but he wouldn't back off anything. Mind you, we went to the Isle of Man on a school holiday and I got into more scrapes than he did.
When we were older John had a great party piece – he'd put speed in your drink. When I was about 24 I nodded off one night at someone's house and he stuck some in my drink. I was like a rabbit in the headlights for four days!
He was a good lad, one of the troops, that's how I remember him. The Beatles opened the door for Liverpool talent, and Gerry Marsden, Cilla and myself came in on the carousel and all moved down to London. People suddenly got interested in the northwest of England, and for the first time your accent didn't matter. It was wonderful.
ROD DAVIES began playing with Lennon's schoolboy skiffle band the Quarrymen in 1956 and drifted away when Paul McCartney joined. Since 1997 he has been playing guitar for the revived Quarrymen.
Part of the point of us playing in the Quarrymen was to charm the ladies. One time we were playing on the back of a stationary lorry for a street party and there were various lads who weren't impressed by the attention their girlfriends were giving John. At the end of the set we all had to leg it off the lorry and cower in somebody's house until a policeman escorted us to the bus stop and we headed home. As far as I remember, that was the first time John generated any serious crowd problems.
I met John at St Peter's Sunday school when I was about five. He quickly ended up there when he came to live with Mimi. John was a bit of a villain even in those days – he would spend his two pennies for collection on bubblegum. Him and [his friend] Pete Shotton often had to give up their gum at the start of the hour-long class. But I was too frightened of hellfire and damnation.
In 1956 at Quarry Bank school I bought a banjo, and a friend of mine, Eric Griffiths, got me into John's skiffle band. They knew I couldn't play it but Eric used to shout the chord changes to me. Later I bought a banjo tutor and started playing chords further up the neck, and John said "No, you're not doing that". He didn't want me to look too flash. John was the best singer in the group by far but I don't think any of us recognised him as a major talent. The talent obvious at the time was his cartooning. His cartoon book, the Daily Howl, used to pass around the school. Even some of the teachers would have a good laugh at that in the staffroom. But he was a disruptive pupil; he didn't always know where the boundaries were. Eric said that he basically ruined his education by fooling around too much.
I was blissfully unaware of the John-Mimi-Julia triangle. I knew his mother. We'd go to hers to practise, she'd let us stand in the bath and play to get the echoes. She was very encouraging. Whenever we turned up she'd say, "Put those horrible guitars away, give me that banjo", and she'd play my banjo with her back to the fireplace. She wasn't like everybody else's mum, she didn't stand on ceremony, she was more like a big sister to John really.
A close friend of John Lennon's from Liverpool art college, BILL HARRY launched Mersey Beat at college, a publication about the Liverpool music scene which was instrumental in the Beatles' success. He has written several books about the band.
When I first saw John he was strolling amidst the students at Liverpool College of Art, dressed like a teddy boy. All the other students were in duffle coats and turtle necks, and I thought, "Art students are supposed to be bohemians and rebels and they're all dressed the same, they're all conventional. He's the rebel, I must get to know him."
He was a bit aggressive at first. If he found he could browbeat you then you were under his thumb. He used to treat Stuart [Sutcliffe] really badly at times, humiliate him in front of people. At college girls would be chatting in the corridor, and when John walked by they'd shut up and shiver. He had a bit of an acid tongue. But if you stood up to him he liked that.
I introduced my mates Stuart and Rod Murray to John, and we used to go to Ye Cracke, the art school pub in Rice Street. The four of us decided to call ourselves the Dissenters and made a vow to make Liverpool famous: John with his music, Stuart and Rod with their painting, and me with my writing. I coined the phrase "Mersey Beat", launched a newspaper of that name and got John to write the story of the Beatles for the first issue. "On the Dubious Origins of Beatles, Translated from the John Lennon" was a wacky thing about how a man came down on a flaming pie and gave them the name. John was so delighted I'd published it that he brought me a bundle of 250 stories, poems and drawings he'd done, so I began publishing them. One of his favourite writers was Richmal Crompton who did the Just William books, and he was into the radio show The Goons. But his favourite book was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, he loved Lewis Carroll. One time Margaret Duxbury, who shared the flat with Stuart and John at Gambier Terrace, fell asleep so John made us get potatoes, put matchsticks in them and dangle them above her so when she woke up she'd think there were spiders on her. He'd do things like that all the time.
I loved John's art because it reminded me of Steinberg, the American artist. He had a great fluidity of line with his cartoons and things. But he was such a rebel. We'd get commissions at college, the teacher would say "I want you to paint the docks", and when he collected the work and ordered it by merit, John's would be last because while everyone would depict cranes and dockers and things he'd just draw a foot.
Or instead of drawing the life model, he'd draw her watch. Aunt Mimi said she always remembered me because I was the first person to call John a genius. His mind was different. He always tried to stretch himself, often in mischievous ways.
THELMA MCGOUGH née Pickles was John Lennon's first girlfriend at Liverpool College of Art. She is now an award-winning textile artist and is currently working on her memoir, Illustrious Liaisons.
My first impression of John was that he was a smartarse. I was 16; a friend introduced us at Liverpool College of Art when we were waiting to register. There was a radio host at the time called Wilfred Pickles whose catchphrase was "Give them the money, Mabel!". When John heard my name he asked "Any relation to Wilfred?", which I was sick of hearing. Then a girl breezed in and said, "Hey John, I hear your mother's dead", and I felt absolutely sick. He didn't flinch, he simply replied, "Yeah". "It was a policeman that knocked her down, wasn't it?" Again he didn't react, he just said, "That's right, yeah." His mother had been killed two months earlier. I was stunned by his detachment, and impressed that he was brave enough to not break down or show any emotion. Of course, it was all a front.
When we were alone together he was really soft, thoughtful and generous-spirited. Clearly his mother's death had disturbed him. We both felt that we'd been dealt a raw deal in our family circumstances, which drew us together. During the first week of college we had a pivotal conversation. I'd assumed that he lived with his dad but he told me, "My dad pissed off when I was a baby." Mine had too – I wasn't a baby, I was 10. It had such a profound effect on me that I would never discuss it with anyone. Nowadays one-parent families are common but then it was something shameful. After that it was like we were two against the world.
I went to his house soon after. It seemed really posh to me, brought up in a council house. We were alone, he showed me round and we had a bit of a kiss and a cuddle in his bedroom. Paul and George came round and we all had beans on toast, then they played their guitars in the kitchen. I had to leave early because Mimi wouldn't allow girls in the house. She was very strict. She wouldn't let him wear drainpipe trousers so he used to put other trousers over the top and remove them after he left the house.
We used to take afternoons off to go to a picture-house called the Palais de Luxe where he liked to see horror films. I remember we went to see Elvis in Jailhouse Rock at the Odeon. He didn't take his glasses. We were holding hands and he kept yanking my hand saying, "What's happening now Thel?"
John was enormous fun to be with, always witty, even if it was a cruel wit. Any minor frailty in somebody he'd detect with a laser-like homing device. We all thought it was hilarious but it wasn't funny to the recipients. Apart from the first instance, where he mocked my name, I never experienced it until I ended our relationship.
We were close until around Easter of the following year, 1959. At an art school dance he took me to a darkened classroom. We went thinking we'd have it to ourselves but it was evident from the din that we weren't alone. I wasn't going to have an intimate soirée with other people present. I refused to stay, and he yanked me back and whacked me one. He had aggressive traits, mainly verbal, but never in private had he ever been aggressive – quite the opposite. Once he'd hit me that was it for me, I wouldn't speak to him. That one violent incident put paid to any closeness we had.
I took care to not bump into him for a while. I didn't miss drinking at Ye Cracke with him but I missed the closeness we had. Still, we were friendly enough by the end of the next term. Because he did no work, he was on the brink of failure, so I loaned him some of my work, which I never got back.
I've never wondered what might have been. It sounds disingenuous, but I wouldn't like to have been married to John – that would be quite a gargantuan task! He would've been 70 next year and I just cannot imagine a 70-year-old John Lennon. I'd be fearful that the fire would've gone out."
ALLAN WILLIAMS became the Beatles' first manager in 1959 and in 1960 took the band to Hamburg, where their career began to take off. He dropped them a year later after a dispute over commission fees. He has written a memoir, The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away.
I had him down as a coffee-boy layabout, as I used to call him, and thought he was rather arrogant. But when I got to know him – it's quite tragic really. I had an unhappy childhood, too, so there was a bit of an understanding there, although we never talked about it. I remember Stuart Sutcliffe saying that he once saw John at the top of the stairs at art school, crying on his own. That, to me, was the real John, but on stage, of course, he was arrogant.
I had confidence in the band, even though they weren't rated in Liverpool. It was mainly their personalities because most of the groups were a bit on the thick side, whereas they all had good educations; they were a bit posher and more articulate. So I thought, "No, I will take a chance", and that's when I drove them over to Hamburg. I took a wrong turning and we finished up in Arnhem in Holland. We had time to kill so we went round the town centre and into a music shop, and when we came out they were all laughing their heads off. I said: "What's the joke, lads?", and John pulled out a mouth organ – he'd stolen a bloody mouth organ! I thought, "Christ, we're never even going to get to Hamburg, we'll all be in jail." The first time abroad and he had the audacity to rob a shop!
He was a sensitive lad but not that sensitive because he'd swear at the Germans, say "we won the war" and that sort of thing. Once I got a phone call from Stuart, saying, "we're in deep trouble". It turned out John Lennon was swearing so badly that the promoter sacked them.
When it became famous, the Cavern Club started boasting, "This is where it all began, we made the Beatles". John sarcastically made a public announcement: "No, the Cavern didn't make us, we made the Cavern." That was typical John Lennon style.