John Lennon was the chippy, clever, quick-witted Beatle, a snarl of contradictions: both vicious brute and snivelling baby. He was hardly halfway through his natural life when it was extinguished.
More than any other artist, he has come to be regarded as the symbol and the conscience of his age. But who, or what, was the real John Lennon – and when did the ‘real’ John Lennon die?
Was his happy-go-lucky boyhood demeanour extinguished by the death of his mother?
Yoko was the alpha female John needed, the partner he felt he deserved. She could hold her own in sophisticated company where John tended to feel inhibited. He would look to Yoko for guidance and approval in most things, as a child looks to his mother. Tellingly, he called Yoko ‘Mother
Having fashioned himself as a leather-clad rocker, what made him relinquish that edition of himself so readily, allowing the gritty band he had founded to be restyled as a mop-shaking cop-out? And why did he allow himself to be subsumed by a bubblegum popstar?
At the height of the Beatles’ fame, John jacked it in and reinvented himself as a musical activist and peacenik. But his philanthropy was perhaps no more than a cynical smokescreen for how little he really cared for mankind – imagining no possessions while owning cattle herds, fur-coat fridges and multi-million-dollar homes.
To me, as a journalist who has interviewed most of the rock stars that most people can name, he reveals himself most plausibly and reliably through the formidable females in his life, regardless of whether they cherished or neglected, repaired or damaged, fortified or weakened him.
For all the fierce, influential, indomitable men in John’s life, it was the women who dominated it.
From his bohemian mother Julia, to his stern Aunt Mimi, his first wife Cynthia and his secret love Alma Cogan, to his soul-mate and formidable second wife Yoko Ono, and their production assistant May Pang, who became his short-term companion and lover at Yoko’s scheming behest.
They all shaped him, whether they enhanced or emasculated him, whether they gave to, took from or were indifferent to him.
John Lennon is pictured above with Cynthia in 1964. At the height of the Beatles’ fame, John jacked it in and reinvented himself as a musical activist and peacenik
Lennon met the singer Alma Cogan, the UK’s first female pop star known as ‘the girl with the laugh in her voice’, when she and the Beatles appeared together at the London Palladium in 1964.
She oozed glamour and he could not take his eyes off her. ‘John was potty about her,’ said George Harrison. ‘He thought her really sexy.’
Alma and John were soon enjoying a full-blown affair, which they conducted in London hotel rooms. They arrived in disguise and signed the register as ‘Mr and Mrs Winston’ (Lennon’s middle name).
Neither the fact that Alma was eight years his senior, nor that he was married to his college sweetheart Cynthia and had a baby, Julian, seemed to matter.
‘John thought I knew nothing about him and Alma. I never let on,’ Cynthia told me years later.
John had a soft spot for older women. Alma, in Cynthia’s words, was ‘sexy, vivacious and fun. A woman of the world. Why wouldn’t John be drawn to her?’
But with the Beatles often away on tour, Alma and John’s trysts grew less frequent. Then Alma was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1966. She collapsed during a concert tour and died in hospital at the age of 34.
She and John were denied the chance to say goodbye as he was in Spain with Cynthia, who told me that John believed Alma was ‘The One’, and was ‘inconsolable’ when she died.
However, in her heart she believed that had Alma lived, the affair would have fizzled out ‘like all his other flings’. And there were many.
According to his friend, publicist Keith Altham, John was always ‘desperately looking for love’.
‘The trouble with John, whenever he found it, he grew terrified of losing it. So he would react against it, and push it away.’
Lennon was born on October 9, 1940, to the pretty, effervescent Julia Stanley, who was married to merchant seaman Alf Lennon.
With Alf away at sea, Julia found work as a barmaid, and soon enjoyed herself with local servicemen. When her husband returned home, he found her pregnant with another man’s child – a baby girl whom she gave up for adoption. Alf whisked little John away to stay with his brother Syd, where he remained until 1945 when Alf returned.
But John did not go to live with his dad. He lived for a while with his mother and her new boyfriend, a local spiv, in a tiny flat where all three shared a double bed.
Julia’s sister, Mimi, was horrified and called social services, who duly awarded Mimi and her husband custody of five-year-old John. He would never again live with his mum or dad, even though Julia’s home was within walking distance.
What was a little boy to make of the fact that his mummy apparently didn’t need him any more?
For her part, Mimi was all about table manners and bedtimes, about speaking when spoken to and articulation. John’s pipe-smoking Uncle George was a kind, patient, fun-loving man. John adored him. But when John was 14, George died unexpectedly. John was devastated.
John Lennon is pictured above with May Pang in 1974. She became his short-term companion and lover at Yoko’s scheming behest
The bereavement coincided with a furtive rekindling of John’s relationship with his mother. Unbeknown to Mimi, John had started taking detours on his way home from school to spend time with her.
John adored and was in awe of Julia. She was warm, welcoming and bohemian, with a cheap but appealing glamour. Both were daring, spirited sorts with a disdain for authority. It was Julia who paid for John’s first guitar, Julia who taught him the chords, Julia who invited him to practise at her place, since Mimi disapproved. Soon, he was spending nights at Julia’s.
In retaliation, Mimi had John’s beloved dog Sally destroyed. The pet had been a lifeline to John, a link to Uncle George. John was shattered, and gravitated towards Julia. But one evening in July 1958, Julia was hit by a car as she crossed the road outside Mimi’s house and was killed. She was just 44.
‘I lost my mother twice,’ John said later. ‘Once, as a five-year-old when I was moved in with my auntie. And again, when she actually, physically died… and that was really a hard time for me. It just absolutely made me very, very bitter, my mother being killed, just when I was re-establishing a relationship with her.’ He raged against the loss.
Each morning he drew his curtains to see the exact spot where his mother was killed. Isolated in his anguish, he was in desperate need of someone to cling to. He found her at Liverpool College of Art.
Cynthia Powell was a year older, pretty, demure and sweetly spoken ‘posh totty’. Always disorganised, John would help himself to her pencils and pens. He couldn’t resist making fun of her accent, her outfits, her ‘properness’. She wasn’t his type. Nor could he be described as hers. But there was chemistry. Their courtship began.
John introduced her to his best friend, Pete Shotton, who was ‘struck by how different this attractive, well-bred young woman was from all the low-life scrubbers John had lately been associating with… she was perhaps too fragile a flower to be in John’s hands.’
IN 1989, Cynthia told me: ‘The effect of his mother’s death on John was profound and damaging. He was 17 and I don’t believe he ever recovered. It disrupted his ability to have normal relationships with women.’
As a boyfriend, John was a challenge. Cynthia said: ‘He was sullen and moody most of the time, and his rages could get out of control.’
Once, he even slapped her across the face. ‘He didn’t seem to have any respect for life… perhaps it was because of everything he’d been through. No wonder John was the way he was. He was vulnerable, and obviously needed mothering.’
John was displaying signs of a narcissistic personality disorder. He was instinctively critical and judgmental, given to lashing out in ways that conferred the delusion of superiority. His deeply complex, dysfunctional childhood was, we can reasonably assume, the root of his problems. John, the abandoned, needy child had never grown up.
Two years before meeting Cynthia, John had formed a skiffle group with Pete Shotton and two others from Quarry Bank Grammar school. They called themselves the Black-jacks, then the Quarry Men, and played local gigs.
While performing at a garden fete, a 15-year-old Paul McCartney in the audience was mesmerised. He strummed several hits on a guitar in the church hall afterwards, and was soon invited to join John’s band.
‘I’d been the kingpin up to then,’ John recalled. ‘Now, I thought “If I take him on, what will happen?” ’ He swallowed his doubts, and a legendary partnership was born.
After three years playing clubs around Liverpool, touring Scotland, and changing their name to the Beatles, in August 1960 they travelled to Hamburg for the first of several stints. By then, John was convinced they could make it and they soon had a regular slot back at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.
Record store boss Brian Epstein saw them and offered himself as their manager, supporting and encouraging them in the face of record companies’ rejections.
Epstein made clear to his boys that serious relationships with women would dent their popularity with their female fans, and had to be kept under wraps.
Cynthia understood, but when she became pregnant, she had no idea how to tell John. ‘I was terrified of how he was going to react.’
When she finally plucked up the courage, she recalled: ‘I watched the blood drain from his face… But then he said, “We’ll have to get married.” I told him he didn’t have to but he insisted. He said he loved me and that was that.’
Cynthia cried with happiness and relief. ‘We were going to be a proper little family.’ They married in August 1962, with Epstein insisting that it remain a secret.
The following April, after a long, terrifying labour that she was forced to endure in hospital without John as the Beatles were on tour, Cynthia gave birth to a boy. John did not meet his son, John Charles Julian, for three days. Three weeks later, he left the worn-out nursing mother and tiny baby at home to swan off on holiday with Epstein.
John had never been faithful to Cynthia. From coming on to other students under her nose at parties to behaving like a sewer rat during the Beatles’ sojourns in Hamburg – where barely a night didn’t end in an orgy – keeping it in his pants was never a John thing.
As the Beatles’ former drummer Pete Best remembered, John even described himself as a ‘randy sod’. He delighted in tales of his wilder pursuits, many of which involved multiple partners and gravity-defying gymnastics. ‘The more the merrier!’ he would laugh.
He confessed his liaisons to Cynthia and she told him she didn’t mind. Not that she knew the half of it. So fearful of divorce, she was prepared to put up with almost anything.
Almost. She drew the line at the ‘wicked’ insinuations that Epstein and John had a sexual relationship.
John was well aware that Epstein was gay. Why then, accept an invitation to accompany him to Spain for an almost two-week break, while the other three Beatles went to the Canary Islands?
Looking back in 1980 on his relationship with Epstein, John said: ‘Well, it was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated. But it was a pretty intense relationship.’ But John Reid, former manager of Elton John, told broadcaster Paul Gambaccini that Lennon had confessed to sleeping with Epstein ‘twice – once to see what it was like, and once to make sure I didn’t like it’.
BY 1966, the Beatles phenomenon was killing John. He was trapped in a nightmare – a loveless marriage, too much pressure, too many people, jets, blondes, brunettes, death threats. He was going under.
And then along came Yoko.
They met in November 1966, just two weeks after Alma Colgan died, and when John wanted out of the Beatles. He was bored. He craved freedom and was desperate to work with others. The break-up was inevitable, even without Yoko.
On August 27, 1967, Brian Epstein died. Suicide was suspected although an inquest verdict was accidental overdose. Nothing much stopped John in his tracks, but this floored him. How come every time he opened himself up to someone, they went and died on him?
Without Epstein, the Beatles began to go off the rails. In February 1968, they went to India to join their new-found guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in the foothills of the Himalayas, to learn Transcendental Meditation.
Cynthia went, too, leaving four-year-old Julian at home with her mother. She hoped the trip would afford an opportunity for her and John to rediscover each other and to revive their marriage. But John was snappy and insisted that they sleep in separate rooms.
‘It was humiliating and hurtful,’ Cynthia recalled. What she didn’t know at the time was that John used the excuse of separate rooms so that she would not notice him getting up early each day to collect the copious telegrams sent by Yoko. As soon as they had returned from India, John urged Cynthia to join friends on a holiday to Greece, excusing himself because he was inundated with work.
John then invited Yoko to the matrimonial home, where they had sex in Cynthia’s bed. Instead of doing the decent thing and sitting down with his wife to explain that the marriage was over, he contrived for Cynthia to walk in on them.
Was it arrogance, cowardice or just carelessness that caused him to hurt her so savagely? John’s callous behaviour beggars belief.
For John, there was a sense of relief, of liberation. He was free to get on with his life in the arms of the woman who made him feel alive. For Cynthia, there was only emptiness, desperation.
There was more ugliness to come.
Why John fled to New York
It was not Yoko ‘breaking up the Beatles’ that led to John’s self-exile in New York. His escape to the Big Apple was a desperate bid to find the apple of his eye.
Having gained ‘two wonderful girls for the price of one’ when he married Ono – who arrived with a daughter, Kyoko – he was enraged when the child’s American father abducted her.
At first, Yoko’s ex-husband Tony Cox appeared to get on with John. But as the Lennons settled into their Surrey mansion, Cox bolted for Majorca with Kyoko and second wife Melinda.
John and Yoko followed and snatched the child from school. They were arrested and imprisoned. An emergency court hearing granted the Lennons permission to take Kyoko to England, but Tony and Melinda absconded with her again. Believing they’d gone to America, John and Yoko raced after them. But their leads went dead.
Nevertheless Yoko applied for full custody, which was granted, on condition Kyoko be raised in America.
Which proved the impetus John needed to start a new life. He was exhausted by media attention; revolted by Britain’s failure to accept his new wife. There was no plan to emigrate permanently. He merely wanted a break.
The Coxes washed up in Texas, where they joined an evangelical church, and befriended Meredith Hamp, the 17-year-old blind daughter of a Granada TV boss who had given the Beatles their television break.
Meredith was invited to be godmother to Kyoko, whom she knew as Rosemary. Then Tony and Melinda told her they had to go away, and left their daughter with her. Meredith told me: ‘I did not suspect that Melinda was not Rosemary’s real mother.’
Nor did she know that they were on the run from the police, and that the most famous couple in the world were pursuing them.
The Coxes returned for the child, then vanished.
‘I never heard from them again,’ said Meredith.
Yoko never got her daughter back – and because that loss rendered her incapable of being around children, John effectively lost the father-son relationship with Julian, too.
John never saw his beloved stepdaughter again. And Kyoko was only reunited with her mother 30 years later, when she became a mother herself.
Divorce is never fair. John played dirty. Cynthia was accused of adultery and threatened with losing Julian. She was paid off with a pittance. Heartbroken, blindsided and bewildered, she never stood a chance.
Yoko was the alpha female John needed, the partner he felt he deserved. She could hold her own in sophisticated company where John tended to feel inhibited.
He would look to Yoko for guidance and approval in most things, as a child looks to his mother. Tellingly, he called Yoko ‘Mother’. Previously, John had indulged his feverish sex drive whenever he liked. Now he had ‘only’ Yoko to satisfy his needs – and by her own assessment she was not sexually adventurous. John soon became bored.
In November 1972, three years after they married, the couple attended a party where John was worse for wear. He spied a woman sitting on her own and led her into an adjoining room. Soon, the entire party became uneasily aware of what John and the woman were doing. Yoko, paralysed, clay-faced with passive indignity, just stood there. Although she protested indifference, the humiliating experience proved a turning point, sowing seeds of doubt that would provoke her next move.
John would spend time in Los Angeles, where he could lark to his heart’s content without embarrassing her. He would need a companion to keep an eye on him, hold his hand, whatever else.
For this, Yoko selected May Pang, the 22-year-old Catholic daughter of Chinese immigrants who worked as their Girl Friday. Pretty, sweet, kind and smart, with hip-length glossy black hair, the suggestion that she should become John’s concubine shocked her, particularly as it came from his possessive wife.
Nonetheless she moved into a borrowed Hollywood apartment with him. She put up with his endless phone conversations with Yoko, whom he needed more than ever, and with his interminable pleadings with her to be allowed home.
May gritted her teeth and soldiered on as his lover, his muse, his collaborator, his dogsbody. He declared his love to her, she said. With Yoko out of the way, she encouraged him to restore his relationship with Julian, whom he had not seen for three years, and who was by now 11.
May cooed over Julian, befriended Cynthia, and convinced herself that John was The One. She said John returned to her again and again, long after he and Yoko were reunited. But to many who witnessed it, she was no more than a PA with benefits.
Lennon met the singer Alma Cogan, the UK’s first female pop star known as ‘the girl with the laugh in her voice’, when she and the Beatles appeared together at the London Palladium in 1964. She oozed glamour and he could not take his eyes off her. ‘John was potty about her,’ said George Harrison
‘What on Earth made you agree to Yoko’s proposition in the first place?’ I asked May. She shrugged. ‘I couldn’t say no to him. Nobody could. Plus, he needed me.’
David Bowie told me that when John was on yet another break from May, he and John ‘hooked up’ in Los Angeles. ‘There was a whore in the middle, and it wasn’t either of us,’ David smirked. ‘At some point in proceedings, she left. I think it was a she. Not that we minded.’
But John still needed Yoko.
The prodigal son returned to ‘Mother’ and they renewed their marriage vows at a private ceremony. In a beat, 42-year-old Yoko was pregnant. John was ecstatic.
After Sean’s birth in October 1975, John became a house-husband while Yoko took care of business. But in 1980, he realised he wanted to make music again.
He and Yoko had just recorded their comeback album when on December 8, 1980, at the age of 40, John was murdered by obsessed fan Mark Chapman outside his New York apartment in what the world regards as a pointless tragedy but which John, for all we know, may have considered to be a fitting end.
He was in a good place. From his late teens he had been driven to destroy virtually everything that came good for him, from romantic relationships to professional success.
At last, he was at peace.
© Lesley-Ann Jones, 2020
Who Killed John Lennon? by Lesley-Ann Jones is published by John Blake on September 17 at £20.
To order a copy for £16 with free delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Valid until September 13.