John's Chapter 2 completes with this post, chapter 2-C. George Harrison is introduced to John, and then John's mother dies. John starts Art College and meets two people who will figure largely in his life: Stu Sutcliffe and Cynthia Powell. Paul will be left feeling marginalized...Hope you will enjoy this ENTIRELY FICTIONAL AU Lennon memoir. :)
Then there was the time I showed up unannounced at Paul’s house one Friday night because I wanted to hang out with him. He was all dressed up and ready to go on a date with his latest fancy, a girl called Celia. When he saw my disappointment, he said, “Well, come ahead then, John,” and he took me along! This greatly disappointed Celia, who had clearly been fantasizing all day about her night alone with Paul. She looked bewildered and confused the whole time.
I had a very strange reaction to this whole event. When I had arrived at his house all excited about seeing him, and found out that he was going out on a date, I was crestfallen. Severely disappointed - all out of proportion. At dinner, when I saw the girl staring at him, and trying to give him signals (“can we lose this guy?”) I was overcome with jealousy. It was definitely jealousy. Even I – not liking to see the worst in myself – recognized it as jealousy at the time. So I couldn’t help myself. I started in on her, making snide remarks and not-so-subtle putdowns, which Paul would chide me about. Paul did a lot of changing the subject that night. I walked back with them to Celia’s house, and the two of them were standing there awkwardly at her front gate, and I just stood there too. This stretched out for a minute or two until Paul finally cleared his throat and said, “Well, John, I think I’ll walk her to the door now.” He was giving me the look – like, ‘hey man, you’re cramping my style!’ I finally shrugged, and walked away. I remember feeling extremely jealous and miserable as I did so. When I got back to Mimi’s I was rude to her and went straight up to my room, slamming the door.
When I read about this episode in my journal decades later, my curiosity was aroused. So I asked Paul if he remembered the incident. He did, although he hadn’t thought of it in years, and he laughed. “She was all bent out of shape about your being there, and said you were not very nice. And I said to her, ‘yeah, he is kind of mean, but didn’t you at least find him just a little bit funny?’” What Paul had to put up with from me! When I told this story to my son Sean (when he was in his early twenties) he said, “You were really a jerk back then, weren’t you?”
Having sex with girls in tandem was not the only sexual mischief Paul and I got up to in our teens. The truth is, we each had enormous sex drives. I suspect that this was tied to each of us having involuntary sexual experiences when we were far too young, and maybe we each felt that pursing sex on our own terms was a necessary step towards reclaiming control over our own sexual lives. Paul’s sex drive was actually stronger than mine. The guy was insatiable. So much so, that in the mid ‘60s I dubbed him with the Among-the-Beatles-only nickname of “The Sex Gladiator.” Paul liked to shout out when he was horny and frustrated (which was most of the time), “There aren’t enough women in the world!’ This never failed to make me fall out on the floor laughing. I once suggested we write a song called ‘There Aren’t Enough Women in the World’, so we did. George Martin wouldn’t let us record it, and it wouldn’t have mattered if he did, because Brian Epstein would never have let us release it. But it was good for about five or six hilarious hours in each other’s company, trying to outdo each other with ever more outrageous lyrics. I was recently trying to find the demo for it that we made with Paul’s tape recorder, but couldn’t. I asked Paul if he knew where it was, and he said, “I’ve always suspected that Brian ‘disappeared’ it.” Brian had a tendency to do that, right enough. He wouldn’t let us release Paul’s hilariously unctuous faux-dinner club song, “Suicide”, either. (Although several versions of that one survive, and are alive and well on the Internet if you’re curious.)
Although Paul was the horniest one by a slight margin, I was the one who came up with the notorious Group Wanking Sessions idea. I never would have come up with this activity but for the molestation I had received, I’m sure. But one of our friends, Nigel Whalley, had a bloody great rumpus room in his basement. There were lots of chairs and sofas in there, arranged in a circle. One day I was lounging there along with Nigel, Paul, and a bunch of the other guys in our group of friends. I was feeling horny, and it dawned on me that this was a perfect stage for a circle jerk. So, without giving it any more thought, I shouted out, “Let’s all jack off at the same time, and see who can hold out the longest!” The others agreed, but only if the lights were off. “We don’t actually want to see each others’ members, you know” Paul pointed out diplomatically. And left unsaid - but probably more the reason why we wanted the lights off - none of us wanted the others to see our “come face”. That would be just too embarrassing.
Anyway, while we were wanking in the dark, each one of us would have to shout out the name of some actress or girl from the neighborhood they were thinking about as they wanked. I usually shouted ‘Brigitte Bardot’. You’d hear them all go, ‘Oh, woo…” Then the next person would shout out a name. Paul was the only one who invariably would shout out a real girl’s name - someone he knew – and he never shouted out the same name twice! Of course, as we grew more carefree and less shy in our wanking sessions, I would occasionally throw a spanner in the works. When it came my time to shout out a name, I would sometimes yell ‘Winston Churchill!’ and everyone would moan (not in a good way) and I’d get all these ‘crap, John! Why’d you do that?’ responses from the other guys as they all dried up.
As another aside, in 1964 when the Beatles were in New York on our first U.S. tour we were interviewed live on the radio by a local New York DJ called Murray the K. He was in his thirties but was talking trash as if he was our age, and was full of trendy slang and loud, breathy announcements. We understood he was important to us, since they were playing “All Beatles all the time” on his station and it had already raised a huge buzz for us. But his energy was a bit too much for the mood we were in. I was especially stressed out, (this was just hours before our first Ed Sullivan show) and falling into one of my “iffy” moods (ask Paul, he’ll tell you about those in minute detail). Meanwhile, oblivious to the tension in the room, Murray the K was asking us to each shout out our name and his name into the microphone: “Hello, I’m John Lennon, and you’re listening to Murray the K!” It felt like a sell-out to me, and whenever I got that feeling, I would get “iffy”. Paul clearly noticed this, and was no doubt worried I’d go off at any minute, because when they got around to him, he said, in his sexiest voice, “You’re listening to Murray the K, and this is Winston Churchill.” It immediately propelled me out of my bad mood, and shortly thereafter I said to Murray the K live on the radio, “you’re a wanker, Murray the K.” It was the Beatles’ little private joke, and it immediately caused my tension to release. To make it even better, the DJ had no idea what a ‘wanker’ was (he thought I said ‘wacker’) and he kept repeating ‘wacker’ on the radio, which was hilariously funny to the four of us. This little vignette was caught on film by the Mayslie brothers in the ‘Beatles’ First U.S. Visit’ documentary film, if you want to take a look at it.
We did the Wanking Sessions for years – eventually initiating George Harrison and then Ringo Starr into the ritual - right up through mid-1966. It stopped unceremoniously when we stopped touring. It had been a way to get rid of the sexual tension that built up in us while living on the road in a way that wouldn’t get us arrested, infected, or sued for child support.
Throughout 1958, Paul and I explored each other’s emotional and musical depths. We did so with equal intensity, and while there were other things going on in our lives, it was as if there was the life we shared, just the two of us, which we treasured and lived for, and the separate lives we had to endure when we were apart. Of course, if you had tried to tell this to the teenaged John and Paul, we would have looked at you as if you were a lunatic. I was the master of self-deception who never heard or understood a thing he didn’t want to know, and Paul was the lord of his own inner world where everything irrelevant flew straight over his head.
Paul forgave me my illusions, and I forgave him his tendency to disappear inside his own head.
This came in handy when I had what I came to refer to as my “twinges”. This was the shorthand term I internally settled on for when I was writing in my journal about the sexual arousal I would feel when I was near Paul. This was happening to me almost every time I saw him, and then, as time progressed, even when I wasn’t around him for a while and I just thought about him. I had managed to persuade myself that when you are a teenage boy almost anything would give you a hard on. Strong emotions of any kind, or anything exciting, titillating or even scary, would cause you to – well – blossom. It was an embarrassing fact of life for every teenage boy. My rationalization was that Paul’s musical abilities by themselves were a turn on for me. I didn’t examine these feelings closely for years.
During the late ‘60s and the ‘70s there was a certain image I had to maintain, and I worked hard at doing so. The image I successfully perpetuated was one with me at the center of the Beatles universe. It was “my” band, and I was the “leader” of the band. I was the intellectual - a tough and gritty genius - and Paul was the soft, charming craftsman, seething with hidden envy over my superior talent. Since most rock critics and reporters in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s were guys - and the type of guys who thought they were intellectual, tough and gritty - mine was the version they adopted and documented. This quickly became orthodoxy, and so whenever anyone spoke up with a different point of view, they were shouted down and marginalized by the rock press and many rock fans. And I was often leading the pack.
I bring this up because, from the very start of our friendship, Paul saw me as his absolute equal and he didn’t feel threatened or insecure about my talent or popularity. But, from the start, I saw him as far more gifted than I was (which he truthfully is, music-wise). This led to a deep sense of insecurity in me. When I was insecure, I‘d revert to my ‘go to’ emotion: anger, as defined by sarcasm and insult. As a result, from the very first time we met I felt as though I had to somehow make Paul look smaller to others. I justified this in my own mind by telling myself that I wasn’t trying to make myself look bigger than Paul, but rather equal to him in height.
This strategy might not have been successful but for a quirk of Paul’s personality. Paul is a very practical person. He sorts out the wheat from the chaff very swiftly. He isn’t immune to losing his temper, as we all know, but he has a very long fuse. And he chooses his fights very carefully, most of the time. Almost instantly upon meeting me, with that weird ESP of his, Paul realized that if he was going to be my friend he was going to have to let a whole lot of insults and sarcasm flow past him unanswered. In Paul’s words, “I had to let a lot of stuff go, because otherwise I’d be reacting all the time.” So, when I would announce that the Beatles was ‘my band’ to anyone who would listen, Paul would not contradict me publicly. Most of the time he would let it go altogether, and not even say anything to me privately. He didn’t even argue when I would proclaim myself the ‘leader’, although privately we had agreed between us that I would never try to be his leader. When a reporter from our first American tour asked us “who is the leader?” Paul responded with a very tactful but skillfully worded comment: “If we have to have one, I suppose it would be John.”
To complicate matters even further, I forced Paul into a double-bind type of relationship. People who regularly seek out relationships like these are called “co-dependent” in the psychiatry books. A co-dependent is someone who wants to appear, and does indeed appear to outsiders, to be a very independent person in charge of his own life. But, in truth, he is hopelessly dependent – usually on one parent, or one friend, or one lover. These symptoms are most frequently seen in men who never experienced a nurturing ‘mother’ relationship. By turns abusive and clinging, hence the ‘double-bind’, the co-dependent turns this one person into an all-purpose caretaker. The caretaker learns to live with the stress of never knowing how the co-dependent will react. Frequently co-dependents have sociopathic tendencies, meaning they have little to no empathy for how the caretaker feels, or what the caretaker needs. It’s all about me, me, me. That was who I was for the first 40 years of my life. And Paul was my chosen caretaker for much of that time.
I have come to believe that this double-bind aspect of our friendship was a “poison pill.” The time would come when it would ravage our friendship from the inside out. Ultimately, this is what destroyed our first partnership.
But sadly, in the ignorance of my youth and lack of emotional maturity, this same aspect of our friendship was like heaven to me when I was 17 and 18. I had only known Paul for a few months before I felt completely embedded in his life. I finally had found someone who I could respect and trust. I felt utterly secure when he was with me. I knew he had my back – both as a friend and as a music partner. He satisfied almost all of my needs, from the emotional to the musical to the intellectual, and, at least in my fantasies, sexual as well.
From Paul’s perspective, I became the outlet for all of his considerable gifts and best qualities. A loner by nature, he had – before me – only very perfunctory friendships which never scratched the surface of his extraordinary personality. By meeting my needs he was learning how to be emotionally close to another person, and this in turn made him feel good, too. When I needed to be nurtured, he was my mother. When I needed to be put straight, he was my father. When I needed to kick up my heels and act crazy, he was right there with me. Brother, best friend, worst enemy, foxhole buddy, creative partner, spokesman, dream lover. You name it. If I wanted or needed one, Paul was it. In a weird way, we were both getting what we wanted. And for the first 10 years of our friendship at least and for the most part, it worked magnificently.
As band mates trying to make a band fly, and keep it from cratering, we brought our separate skills to bear. I was the emotional leader of the group, drawing people to the band, and charging everyone up about it emotionally. I had a rockier edge (however much it was faked) that lent a hint of danger to the band. Paul was organized, strategic, and relentlessly driven, in addition to being so frighteningly talented. He also knew how to spark off me in the rockers, and then turn around and dominate the stage with the ballads. I used to admire how he could look audience members in the eyes while he sang to them. I was too shy to do that.
In February 1958, Paul asked me to consider accepting a young, socially awkward 15 year-old, George Harrison, as a guitarist in the band.
I was dubious about George Harrison. The first time I met him was at a gig the Quarrymen played across town from us in Liverpool. On the way back on the bus, George (who had been in the audience) traveled with us. Paul encouraged him to play for me, announcing, “What we need, John, is a third good guitarist to give us a bigger sound. We should put George in the band.”
George looked to be 12. He was 15 to Paul’s almost 16 and my almost 18, and, unlike Paul (who looked older and hipper than his years), he looked his young age. He did have a mouth on him though, complete with one of the heaviest scouse accents I’d ever heard. My Aunt Mimi didn’t approve of George because of his accent. She had already had to swallow Paul – the Irish R.C. from the council flats – but by the time she found out about these unfortunate facts, he had already wormed his way on to her approved list (she called him my ‘little friend’, and would go on about how ‘polite and proper’ he always was). For such a little kid, George could stand up for himself, and he had that deadpan expression all the time, which can pass for ‘cool’ to another teenager. Later on, after knowing George for many years, I realized that the scornful look almost always present on George’s face was an accurate depiction of what he was thinking. Have you ever met someone who could find the fly poop in any situation? Well, that was George, bless his heart.
Paul insisted that I listen to George play, and his ‘Raunchy’ won me over. He had an unusual picking style. While some later said that he struggled with the role of lead guitar because he wasn’t fast on the frets, I agreed with Paul that his tasteful, deliberate and clean approach was both fresh and unusual. It gave our band a signature sound. One audition was enough for me to accept Paul’s recommendation.
But I found it difficult to bond with George because of what was, at the time, a big age gap. Two and a half years is a big deal to teenagers. I had been sexually active for 2 years, and was about to start at art college, and George was still a virgin with 3 years of high school to complete. Paul, who was 9 months older than George, was much more mature. Sexual experiences were important in teenage boy hierarchy. Still, what he lacked in teenage boy cred, he made up for with his intense devotion to his instrument, his dedication to the band, and his own particular style of guitar playing.
I left Quarry Bank in June 1958. My last year of school was a near thing. I failed to pass the maths, the sciences, and the liberal arts (both English and History, not to mention Geography).
The dirtiest secret of my childhood was not that I was sexually abused, or that my parents were separated. It was not that my parents had a ridiculous, almost Keystone Kops-like custody tug-of-war over me before both giving up immediately. It wasn’t that my mother pretended to be my aunt for years, even though everyone in the family including me knew she was my mother. It wasn’t that my mother was mentally ill, with at least 3 separate hospitalizations in her past. It wasn’t that she had an illegitimate daughter out of wedlock. It wasn’t that she lived in sin with a common law husband and two daughters, just blocks from where I was growing up, or that my Aunt was carrying on an affair with the lodger who was 20 years younger than her. No, these lurid details were not the deepest, darkest secrets of my childhood, because I was not consciously aware of them while I was a child, or I had no idea about the impact they would have on my life.
No, the worst of the secrets that festered in my breast as a child was how badly I performed in school, right from the start. I’m not stupid, really. I just could not sit still. I think nowadays I would be diagnosed as ADHD, because I simply could not sit still and listen to people talking. It was just torture to have to do it. I could probably manage to do it now at this great age, but even this I’m not sure of. Maybe if they’d had some kind of alternative school back then, I could have prospered.
But the one shining moment of my Quarry Bank career was that I had gotten a recommendation to the Liverpool Art College from one of my art teachers. Although he gently disapproved of my anarchism, he had an actual sense of humor, and saw some glimmer of talent in my cartoons and drawings, and recommended that I be accepted by the Art College, which happened to be right next door to the Liverpool Institute where Paul was still a grammar school student.
So it was right then, at the moment I was finally free of school, knew I was headed for the art college, and the relationship with my mother had finally come into balance, that my mother left me again. This time the leaving was for good. She’d gone around to have tea and a chat with Mimi on a bright summer afternoon (July 17, 1958), and on her way home, she was hit in the crosswalk by a drunken, off-duty cop. She died instantly. I remember that I was away from home, hanging with some friends at Nigel Whalley’s house, and looking forward to hanging with Paul that evening when my cousin Stan telephoned to say my mother had been in an accident. He didn’t say that she had been killed. I went charging up the walkway and into Mimi’s house, and I found her in the front room, looking as strained as she had when her husband George died. When she told me what happened, my knees buckled, and I fell to the ground. I was holding my stomach as if someone had kicked me, and I rocked back and forth on my heels with no sound coming out of my open mouth. Mimi wasn’t much for physical affection, and she didn’t know what to do. Instead, she said several times I needed to pull myself together, and calm down. She didn’t say this unkindly; she just didn’t know how to handle the situation. (What I didn’t know until years later was that Mimi had collapsed on the road next to her sister and had wailed in grief for quite some time before one of her other sisters came, and took her home.) I don’t know how long I was down on the floor. It could have been mere minutes, or even as much as a half hour. I do remember that suddenly I knew where I had to be.
Without a word to Mimi, I got up, ran out the door, down the street, across the park, and straight to Paul’s door. He was expecting me anyway because he was going to give me a guitar lesson, so he wasn’t overly surprised when I started pounding on the door. He knew me well enough by then to know that my enthusiasm sometimes got the better of me, and so it didn’t seem weird to him that I’d be pounding relentlessly on the door and screaming his name over and over. I could hear him coming down the hall from the kitchen, saying “alright, John, alright, I’m coming” and then the door came open and he was standing there with a dish towel over his shoulder and an apron tied ‘round his waist. He froze in place when he saw me, and – in a scared, soft voice – cried, “What’s wrong?” Without answering, I flew into his arms.
So there we were standing in the doorway for a good three or four minutes, locked in an embrace while I was racked with sobs. In fact, it was the first time ever in my life that anyone had held me that closely, and with such dedication and intensity. I knew he would stand there holding me for as long as I needed it. He still had no idea what had happened, but was mature enough to wait until I was able to tell him. When the worst of the sobs ended, he held me away from him by both arms, and looked straight into my face. He had tears on his face, too.
“Why are you crying?” I asked him, confused.
“Because you are.” This simple, beautiful answer is still just about the most touching thing anyone’s ever said to me in my entire life. I would remember it over and over as the years went by. It never fails to choke me up. As he pulled me inside the house and closed the front door, he then said another sensitive and compassionate thing: “Can you tell me what happened?”
Little by little I choked out what had happened. In between sentences I would grab on to him and sob for a few minutes before I could go on. He waited patiently. We were now sitting on the floor in the front hallway, with our backs leaning against the staircase wall, and Paul was cradling me in his arms. Tears continued to stream down his face, as I tried to form words and phrases that made sense. But he didn’t interrupt me or ask any questions. Eventually, I ran out of words, and we both ran out of tears. But still we sat there in the hall as the light started to fade for what must have been over an hour. We didn’t move until the clock on the mantle in the living room chimed 6 p.m. It was now dark in the house.
We began to stir. Paul stood up, leaned down and offered me his hand, and then pulled me to my feet. He switched on the lamp, and then led the way into the kitchen. I followed him meekly. He pointed at a chair, and I sat at the table. He put the teapot on, and then finished making dinner. We hadn’t spoken a single word. His brother Michael suddenly came flying through the front door, and down the hall. Paul told him to get cleaned up for dinner, and asked him what kind of homework he had. Michael – far from being put out by this – responded as though Paul was a parent. He listed what his homework was, and Paul helped him plan out his study session, and then Mike went obediently up to the bathroom to wash his hands. I was staring down at the table in a kind of daze when I saw the teacup slide in front of me. Paul then pushed the sugar bowl and cream in my direction. I wordlessly doctored my tea and started sipping.
The phone rang. It was Aunt Mimi looking for me. I could hear Paul in the hallway, answering her questions. “Yes, he’s here...No, he’s fine...I think he wants to stay here for dinner – would that be alright?...Thanks, I’ll walk him home myself after dinner.” He came back into the kitchen, and continued cooking. I leaned back
in my chair, sipping my tea, and finally started breathing again. When Michael joined us, he was all cheerful and full of ribald jokes, and didn’t appear to notice that Paul and I were so dour. Jim McCartney then came home, and soon after that we were sitting down to dinner.
“You’re awfully quiet there, Mr. Lennon.” Jim had taken to calling me “Mr. Lennon” in a droll way, probably because he sensed that I was a smart ass. I never behaved like a smart ass around him, though.
Paul answered for me. “It’s been a hard day.”
“Oh?” His father asked.
“Umm. Oh, by the way, Da, did you see the mail I put out for you?” and he skillfully changed the subject.
After dinner, Paul walked me out into the hallway – he was literally holding my upper arm and leading me – found my coat, and helped me into it. He then walked me home all the way to Menlove Avenue. As we walked, I finally said something. (I recorded it faithfully in my journal that night.)
“Why didn’t you say anything to your Dad?”
“I didn’t know if you wanted me to or not. What would you prefer I do?”
“Well, I guess you will have to tell him. Everyone’s going to know.”
“Yes, that may be true, but John, you don’t have to tell anyone. It’s your business, and if you’d rather not talk about it, then don’t.” At that moment I remembered how he never discussed his mother’s death with his friends, and other than acknowledging her death to me when I asked, he had never mentioned it again.
“I’m not like you Paul,” I told him, “I won’t be able to hide it. It will all come out of me, so you might as well tell him.”
“I’ll do that.”
The rest of the walk was completed in silence, and he walked me straight up to the door, knocked for me (I had gone off without my key) and Mimi answered the door to see us both standing there. “I promised to deliver him, so here he is!” Paul said with a little smile. Mimi looked very grateful, and then pulled me into the house.
“We’ll talk tomorrow, eh Johnny?” He said, as he turned to leave. He had never called me Johnny before.
“Yes. Please,” I said, as Mimi closed the door.
Later that evening, my uncle and my cousin Stan took me out to a pub, and we all got drunk.
The funeral was three days later, and Paul came along with a small group of my closest friends. The reception afterwards at Mimi’s house was much more widely attended, with all of my friends and the neighbors as well. I was in a daze, but the anger about losing her was starting to take a hold of me. At some point, a few of the blokes, led by Paul, playing a banjo, were singing some of the songs my mother loved and had taught us. This was Paul’s idea, and I am sure it is because he was Irish, and in his family when people died they had a wake, with a lot of singing and jokes. But I suddenly became enraged. It could have been anything that set me off, but it just happened to be the singing. I barged into the room, and grabbed Pete Shotton – who was on leave from the navy for the funeral - by his arm, pulling him off the fireplace stoop where he had been sitting, swung him around, and then head-butted him as hard as I could. Pete saw stars, and went down to the ground, blood flying out of his nose. I turned and charged out of the house, and Paul was right behind me.
I thought he was going to lecture me again, but he stopped me just before I got to the gate, and faced me. “It was me you wanted to hit, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Do you want to hit me, John?” he demanded fiercely, “If you want to – then do it and get it over with! Don’t run away again, it’s so stupid!” All my anger bled out of me in that moment. My rage instantly disappeared. I immediately pulled him into a locked embrace.
I was sobbing again, and I remember crying out, “My mother’s dead, Paul!”
Paul, held me tighter and said, after a few long seconds, “I know.”
“I’ll never see her again!” I cried out, in between sobs.
Several more silent seconds went by before I heard him respond, “No. No you won’t.”
After about five minutes we pulled away. “Let’s go back in,” he said, and so we did. As we got to the living room, Paul gestured to poor Pete, still nursing his nose. Paul gently pushed me in Pete’s direction. Taking his cue, I went over to Pete and apologized, and we hugged.
Biographies about Paul and me always point to my mother’s death as the event that caused us to bond. In truth, however – as you can clearly tell after reading this account – we were already bonded before she died. While it certainly further cemented our bond, it didn’t create it. I would spend the better part of the next five decades trying to understand why we had this bond, where the hell it came from, and why it would not die no matter how hard we tried to kill it. I still don’t really know the answers to those questions, and neither does Paul, so don’t ask us anymore!
The rest of the summer was surreal. I was walking around but I didn’t feel as though I was all there. Sometimes I would just start to weep. On such occasions I was alone, or I was with Paul or another kind friend of mine, Jeff Mohammad. Jeff was an older art student friend of mine, who had lost close family members too, and so he could empathize, like Paul could. I would not let anyone else see me weep. Paul has a calm and soothing presence when someone is suffering. He is not intrusive, but he sort of co-exists quietly in your space, thinking his own thoughts, or strumming on a guitar, or hitting chords on a piano, until you want to talk. He lets you come to him so you never feel pressed or intruded upon. And he doesn’t ask questions. For example, one of my friends at the time wanted to know “how did she die? Where did it happen?” Paul never asked me these questions – even the night I went to tell him about it. He waited until I was ready to tell him, and then he did not show any excess interest in it. From his own experience he knew that the details weren’t important; just the fact she was dead. It’s hard to explain, but he seems to understand that when someone is suffering emotionally, you just have to be there, and you don’t have to do anything unless you’re asked.
My first day of art school in September 1958 was wonderful. The school was filled with hundreds of hip young people. I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven. We’d all sit around in the student cafeteria and talk about politics, philosophy, and art. Music was not a big subject there, I noted, and I was completely diverted from the band. Gigs dried up, and we had no rehearsals, although Paul and I would still meet to write songs and practice our instruments and vocals. George Harrison even went off and joined another combo for a while. I had become infatuated with the art world instantly. It was the first of many instances where I fell in love with someone else’s lifestyle, and decided to adopt it overnight and wholesale for my own without going through all the hard bits. Just jumped straight to the front of the line. I’m not sure why everyone let me crash their scenes like that, but they always did.
About a month into the school year I began to notice a very slight, very slender young man who sat in the back of the lecture hall, surrounded by a group of hyper-cool and attractive men and women second-year students. The whole group was treated as if they were special – above the rest of us. I asked a mate who he was.
“Stu Sutcliffe,” my friend said. “He’s the star of the college. All the Profs think he’s tops. He has won awards and stuff.”
That got me thinking. I didn’t want to be anywhere if I wasn’t at the top of the cool group. A new challenge for me was to become the coolest guy in art college, with this Sutcliffe fellow as my faithful lieutenant, just as I had in my band, with Paul. I had my work cut out for me.
Also in one of my classes was a shy, curvy girl with light brown hair named Cynthia Powell. She, like me, wore heavy horned rim glasses. And she, like me, was embarrassed about them. At least she had the nerve to wear them in class. The fact that I couldn’t see the friggin’ blackboard never worried me so much that I’d put me glasses on in public! I began a flirtation with her. At first it was just to pass time, and to entertain myself when I was bored. But there was something about her that touched me in a way that girls generally didn’t. She had an inbred maturity - a stable femininity - and these qualities attracted me after spending my childhood surrounded by the strong, opinionated and bossy women of the Stanley family. Turned out Cynthia was a year older than me, and – like Stu - this was her second, not first year at the art college.
On our first date I took her to a pub, where we met up with Paul and some girl. When Paul and I started in on our usual intense discussions about music and the band, Cynthia – rather than rolling her eyes, and trying to get attention - pulled out a sketchpad and, while she sketched she engaged Paul’s date in small talk. Paul, noticing, uncharacteristically stopped talking about the band and music, and began talking to Cynthia, asking about her sketches. We walked the girls to their homes and then, after we dropped off Cynthia, started walking towards Paul’s house.
“You know, John,” Paul said, “I really like this new girl of yours. She is a class act.” I looked up in surprise. This took me aback. He’d never commented – good or bad - on any of the girls I dated. In fact, girls were meaningless to me at that age – other than vessels to have sex into. I used to think Paul was soft in the head, because, although controlling and a little paternalistic like all Northern men were, he was so thoughtful and considerate when he was out with a girl, and he would worry about hurting their feelings and stuff like that. Seemed like a bloody waste of time to me, because they all would have shagged him gladly even if he had not given them the time of day. Still, no one’s opinion mattered more to me than Paul’s. It was for that reason I continued to pursue Cynthia.
In my third month in college I finally worked up my nerve to introduce myself to Stu and his group. It had to be all of them at the same time, because Stu was never alone. He was always surrounded by his posse. I thought it must be because he was a big head, and realized I was going to have to confront him on his own terms. So, one evening I saw the group sitting around in the student lounge having pints, and I walked right up to them with my guitar, and said, “What’s so special with you lot that you can’t talk to anyone new?” They all stopped talking and looked up at me. I can still see the tableau in my mind’s eye. They were all quite shocked and taken aback.
One of them said to me, finally, “Who said we wouldn’t?”
To this I responded cheerfully, “I’ll take that as an invitation to join you all.” I plopped down on the sofa between Stu and the girl he appeared to be dating. She had to move quickly to avoid my sitting on her, and she gave me the angriest look I’d ever got from a girl. I turned to Stu, ignoring her outrage, and said, “Well, son, what do you have to say for yourself? I’ve never heard you say a word!” I was making one of my funny faces at him, and then slowly I realized he was very embarrassed. He couldn’t meet my eyes, and it dawned on me – he’s painfully shy! His friends were there to protect him, not to do his bidding. This realization shamed me. I looked around the group, and saw all of their eyes were on Stu, and they were worried about him.
“Sorry, mate,” I said to him with a much quieter, more respectful tone, “for barging in. It’s just that I saw some of your work, and I really love it. I thought we could just talk about it if” - I looked at all of his friends in turn - “it is alright with you lot.” Everyone relaxed and laughed.
“You really know how to make a splash,” said one member of the group.
“That’s my specialty, you know – splashing. I’m a bleeding genius at it.” They all laughed and leaned in toward me.
“Why do you walk around with that guitar all the time?” one of the girls asked. She was the dishiest of the bunch – with platinum blond hair, and wearing very tight black slacks and high heels. (Later that night we had standing up sex in the stand of trees in back of the school.)
“I’m the leader of a band,” I bragged, trying to keep from sounding too proud.
“What kind of music?” I was asked.
I thought about lying and saying ‘jazz’, but then I realized I’d be sunk if they asked me to play anything. Where the hell is Paul when you need him? I thought. Paul could have faked jazz easily. “Rock ‘n roll music,” I said with a pugnacious expression. They all looked at me dubiously. Then I heard a soft voice to my right:
“Can you play us something?” It was Stu. His voice was high and tinny. The voice – frankly – was a disappointment. But he had exquisite cheekbones, and icy blue eyes. The acne was unfortunate, but you can’t have everything.
“Sure,” I said. I played a few pieces on the guitar. They were really easy, I’m sure, because I was not much of a guitarist, and certainly not a picker – just a strummer in those days. I have no recollection of what I played. To my delight, all of the group got right into it, and encouraged me to continue to play. Stu was smiling and clapping to the music like everyone else. People from around the lounge began to approach our group, but they all stood away from us leaving a 10-foot moat, as if recognizing our joint superior coolness. After that evening, I became the darling of the group – just as I had hoped and planned for.
Immediately, Stu and I became fast friends. I was thoroughly infatuated with him. He was the newest and brightest shiny object on my Christmas tree. I only
ever wanted to see and talk to Stu when I wasn’t practicing in the band or playing guitar with Paul. This new heady relationship did mean that I saw far less of Paul. I am afraid I treated him very badly during this period. At the time, I didn’t think he noticed it. He was back at school plodding away, making dinners at night, working odd jobs and giving the money to his dad, balancing the 1800 things his father expected of him while still making all the band practices and the few gigs we had, and keeping the girls happy. Even then he was a multi-tasker, and he juggled all of these responsibilities with panache. But many years later Paul admitted to me that my sudden dropping him from my highest priority to a much lower one really hurt him badly.
Still, heedless of the way in which I was hurting my best friend, I had a new fascination, and while Paul was important to me because of our bond, in my newly found friendship with Stu who was older and cooler than me, I convinced myself I didn’t need a close friendship with the younger Paul any more, and I never gave a thought to how this might feel to Paul.
I wish I knew why I kept doing that to him - suddenly becoming enamored of some flashy new person with a shiny new lifestyle. I did this repeatedly to him over the years. I didn’t really understand the damage I caused until much later. I guess, if I’d been asked to rationalize my behavior at the time, I would have said that Paul was very self-contained with a million things going on in his life and didn’t mind being put on a back burner. I would have said that Paul was still a grammar school boy, and he had a curfew, and his father watched over him like a hawk. He was like Rapunzel in the tower, and no matter how I had tried to get at him for over a year by then, I was always frustrated by Paul’s sense of responsibility to his family and school. What I might not have said (although I would have thought it) was that it was painful for me to be around Paul. It had gotten to the point where it was just too painful to be that close to him. The physical urges and emotional desires were too powerful, and I was convinced not only that they were unreciprocated, but that I would be drawn and quartered by his ferociously protective family if I ever found the courage to make a move on him. It was just easier for me to move my attentions to someone else - someone older, without so many clinging ties to bind him; someone more Bohemian, who might even consider experimenting sexually with me. I also believe that my mother’s death had opened up a bottomless pit in me, and the divided nature of Paul’s compartmentalized attentions was not sufficient for me any more. I needed it to be all about me, me, me.