John Lennon's 80th birthday - Grow Old With Me
To celebrate what would have been John's 80th birthday, I have released a cover of his wonderful song, 'Grow Old With Me'. Follow this link to download with two bonus tracks.
I have no doubt bored you before with the story of my dad interviewing John Lennon in 1969 when he was doing the "bed-in for peace" with Yoko at the Amsterdam Hilton, so I won't retell it again. (If you're interested, follow this link.) Suffice to say, I have been a Beatles fan since my dad told me this story as a child. My interest in the band was, of course, deepened after that fateful day in 1980 when John and The Beatles became the centre of the universe once again. I refer to this in my song 'Rock 'n' Roll Dreams' on HMS Blake.
From 2007 until earlier this year, I played the role of John in a Beatles tribute band and that experience improved me as a musician, as a singer and as a songwriter, I'm sure. All You Need Is The Beatles didn't just play the '20 Greatest Hits' but performed each Beatles album live at theatre shows (culminating in a live performance of the Let It Be album in February) and we encouraged the people who booked us for private events to choose any songs they liked from our repertoire. This meant learning how to play everything from 'I'll Follow The Sun' to 'I Me Mine' and we learned to appreciate The Beatles' craft (and brilliance) even more. A few years ago we performed a John Lennon celebration concert where we featured many of John's songs from his solo career. This was one of the most enjoyable gigs of my life.
As a man, John appeared to epitomise Walt Whitman's famous phrase from Leaves of Grass, "I am large, I contain multitudes." Dylan, too, seems to wear it as a badge of honour on Rough and Rowdy Ways. John's contradictory personality makes it difficult to work out who the real Lennon was. He was certainly a very flawed human being but nevertheless an honest one. He demanded the truth and didn't suffer fools, even though he was happy to play the part himself. He was honest about who he was in each moment, as evidenced in the songs he wrote. Yet, as his son Sean said in the recent BBC radio programme where he interviews Julian Lennon (and Elton John and Paul McCartney) about his memories of their dad, the thing that was constant in John's life was change. The avowed atheist of 1970 who declared God to be a concept is seeking his blessing by the decade's end. John was never given the privilege of growing old, so we'll never know how he would have continued to evolve, what causes he would have adopted and where his muse would have led him.
The thing about Lennon, for me, is that, for whatever reason, I feel an affinity with him and with his music. His songs have been a constant in my life from a young age. When I hear 'Nobody Told Me' or 'Nowhere Man' or 'Intuition' or 'Dear Prudence', I feel like it's my team on Match of the Day. I don't feel this way with many other artists. With The Beatles, it's different. They occupy a place deep within my soul. I know millions of people feel the same way.
'Grow Old With Me' has always occupied a special place in my heart. Written in summer 1980 and held back from Double Fantasy to be the centrepiece of its follow-up, Milk and Honey, it's so poignant, in the context of what happened in December. John didn't get the opportunity to complete more than a demo recording, yet just this rough take (with one vocal overdub) encapsulates the beauty of the song.
I didn't know until this week that John discovered the 'Rabbi ben Ezra' poem by Robert Browning, which was its inspiration, after watching a movie on TV when on holiday with Sean in Bermuda in June 1980. "A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story" was about the baseball player whose life was cut short by a rare health disorder at the age of 37. Lennon was very moved by it, apparently. The parallels to his own life are shocking in hindsight. In the film, the Eleanor Gehrig character thanks her husband for sending her a book of poems. She says, "I especially liked that one by Robert Browning that goes, 'Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be.'" Lennon uses these first two lines to begin his beautiful song for Yoko.
This brings me back to my dad, now 82, who sent me a newspaper cutting from The Observer on 4th October covering this revelation that is disclosed in Kenneth Womack's forthcoming book, "John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life". While my dad's letter was in the post, I was recording this song. When I phoned him to thank him for sending the article, I told him that I'd just finished recording 'Grow Old With Me' for John's 80th birthday. He told me that his favourite poem at school was 'Rabbi ben Ezra', which was why the article had caught his eye. It seems it was meant to be.