Sing a song of love

John Lennon's unresolved feelings for his mother were part of what made him who he was, says Gary Day

July 1, 2010

The difference between John Lennon and Paul McCartney was that Paul washed his hands after he'd been to the toilet. A scene in Robert Jones' Lennon Naked (BBC Four, Thursday 24 June, 10pm) showed the two of them in the toilet after a press conference about their next project, The Magical Mystery Tour.

Paul thought it would be wonderful. It would be fair to say that John had reservations. And not just about Paul's right to head the group now that their manager, Brian Epstein, was dead from an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates - probably the only man in a suit to die a rock star's death.

John was also having doubts about his identity. "Sometimes I think I am Jesus Christ," he confided to Derek Taylor. "Jesus Christ?" came the retort. "Isn't being John Lennon enough?" Derek, remember, was a press officer, not a psychologist. "I'm trying to talk to you," John persisted. "Well, don't," said Derek. He was picturing Brigitte Bardot, whom they were going to visit, and understandably didn't want to be disturbed by John asking for directions to himself.

So John decided to find out if he really was the son of God by attempting to walk on water. The film started with him stepping into his swimming pool. He sank, of course, but very beautifully. The whoosh at the beginning of Come Together provided the perfect accompaniment to him spinning and rolling in H2O. Not for him a quick rinse under the tap. It had to be total immersion. He was looking to be reborn.

The source of Lennon's insecurity was his feeling of rejection. At the age of five his parents took him to Blackpool for the day, bought him a balloon and then announced that they were splitting up. Who did he want to stay with, Mummy or Daddy? He chose daddy. Then he changed his mind and ran after mummy. Mummy. Daddy. Daddy. Mummy. Which? Julia, his flighty, flame-haired mother, dragged him to the station. He kept looking back. Always looking back. But Daddy had gone. In all the pulling and pushing the young John lost his balloon. His eyes glittered with unspilled tears as he watched it disappear over the sea. Years later, he was to abandon his own son when he hooked up with Yoko Ono. They mess you up, your mum and dad.

When they got back to Liverpool, John was sent to live with his Aunt Mimi, who is often depicted as a prim, buttoned-up woman. But she bought him his first guitar. She didn't appear in Jones' drama and neither did Julia, who, in another film about Lennon, Nowhere Boy (2009), was shown flirting shamelessly with her teenage son. That she was run over by a car when he was 18 meant he never fully resolved his feelings for her. He apparently told Maureen Cleave he'd always regretted never having sex with his mother. Lennon could be very candid. If everyone were like him, psychoanalysts would soon be out of business.

He did, though, get a chance to make it up with his father. Freddie Lennon reappeared in his son's life in 1964. "What do you want?" John asked. "Nothing. I want nothing. Come on son, sit down." For a while it seemed as if there might be a reconciliation. Lennon was always looking for a way to be whole. He sought it from drugs, from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and even from a macrobiotic diet. All he really needed was love. But when he got it, he couldn't accept it.

Being abandoned by his parents left him feeling he wasn't worthy of affection, a feeling that was rekindled when Freddie said he wanted to move into a flat with his new girlfriend, 19-year-old Pauline Jones. Lennon saw his father only once more after that, and what actually happened was quite different from what appeared on screen. Lennon did not play his father the dirge-like Mother, nor ask him what he thought it meant. But he did threaten to have him killed. Not so much a mop-top as someone who would have you topped by the mob. Only with Yoko did Lennon find peace. He became a better man but a worse performer because he used his music as a form of confession rather than as an artistic medium.

The script was a fascinating blend of truth and invention. Christopher Eccleston was Lennon come back to life. After seeing him, every other actor will be frightened off the part for years. Ditto Naoko Mori as Yoko. In real life, Lennon made her follow him to the loo. That didn't happen here. Art thrives on difference.

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