Gary James' Interview With John Lennon's Half Sister
Julia Baird and John Lennon have something in common. They both have the same mother - Julia Lennon. Do people even realize that John Lennon had a sister? Well, Julia Baird has written a book about her famous brother titled "Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon". Julia talked with us about that book, her famous brother, The Beatles and their mother.
Q - Julia, a copy of the book of yours that I have is "The Private John Lennon: The Untold Story From His Sister", published by Ulysses Press.
A - Hold on, that's the title in America. The title here in England, right from the start, the English publication and the one that went to Australia, Canada and everywhere is "Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon".
Q - Why the title change?
A - That's because they changed it. It's just been shortened to "Imagine This". When it went to America they changed the title. Of course when another publishing company like Ulysses Press in the States do what ever it is they do, buy the contracts that they can publish themselves, apparently they have the right to change the title. Now, the actual book itself I have to say is beautifully presented and I think is a better edition then the paperback edition of "Imagine This". The content is absolutely identical, but the quality of the paper is better, the production is better. I did ring them and ask "why are you changing the title? Everyone on the planet associates Imagine with John." The response was "we bought it. We have the right to do what we want. If we want to change the title, we'll change the title." I said, "Oh my God. What did you do?" Obviously legally they can do what they like with it. I'm sitting here waiting to be told when I'm going to the States to promote this book. An innocent abroad here. I've just written the book, have to come to terms with that technology to write it. I wrote it myself. I didn't have a ghost writer. They offered me one and I said "absolutely not." They said "but we don't know if you'll be capable of writing a book." I said, "Well, should I send you the first bit? I'm already working on it." They said, "Yeah, all right." So I sent them the first bit and they said "Go ahead! Fantastic!" So I did write my own. I'm sitting here waiting like an idiot for the invitation to publicize the book. Nothing. So, I got in touch with them. I said "When am I coming to the States?" They said "You let us know if you're in the States and we'll organize a reading thing for you." I said "Pardon? We're not doing a tour? How do you expect to sell the book then?" Now, I want to sell the story. They should want to sell the book, shouldn't they? We both want to sell it for different reasons. I want to sell the actual story. I want people to know "the story." They should want to enhance their business. So, in either case was it going to get done. I said "You've got to be joking!" They said "When you next come to America let us know when you're arriving and we'll see if we can organize something."
Q - A bigger publisher wouldn't have done that.
A - Of course not!
Q - You would've been on a media blitz.
A - And that's what I expected! So, they've obviously done a very small print run. It's obviously a small company. I'm not blaming them. I'm just saying maybe they shouldn't have bought it. Maybe they thought it would sell itself. People have got to know it's there, haven't they?
Q - Yes. There are just so many books on the shelves. There was a time when there were no Rock books on the shelves. I just looked on the New York Times Best Sellers list and four out of ten books listed were on Rock!
A - Yeah.
Q - The private side of John Lennon doesn't seem to fit a guy like your brother. He didn't seem to have much privacy. He seemed to live out his life in front of cameras.
A - This is it. Even the alternative title wasn't very good. I'm sure you'll agree anyone associates the word Imagine with John.
Q - I would agree.
A - It didn't make sense to change that title. So, the private life? You're obviously right. John famously said, when someone asked him if he was going to write his autobiography and I think he was in New York at the time, I'm not sure, he said "I'm never going to write about my private life." Every single song documented his life. He was writing his autobiography all the time. But, at the time he made some comment sort of as a put down; "as if I would write my autobiography. I'm a private person." I thought, you've got a be joking John.
Q - But he was writing his autobiography in the Dakota.
A - Well, he was writing his diaries. Famously, you correct me if I'm wrong, because I'm not in the States and you would know more, Fred Seaman, their (John and Yoko's) helper, if you like, in the flat, nicked the diaries after John had died and put them with somebody. I don't know where. I don't know how. But Yoko pursued it and it went to court and he had to give them back to her. I would imagine if John was writing diaries then that would've been it.
Q - Mark Lewisohn is putting together a three volume book on The Beatles.
A - That's right.
Q - The first volume is 1500 pages! Has he contacted you?
A - Well, yes. We did an interview about two years ago in Liverpool and he and Philip Norman at one point; I don't know who researched for who, but they both got so into it, they sort of split off. I honestly can't remember who was working for which one. I have a feeling it was Mark working for Philip. I'm not sure about that though. Anyway, eventually they split off. Philip Norman's book has come out, hasn't it? Mark's book is supposed to be the end game of The Beatles and John. I just don't know where it's going. To tell you the truth, I don't know why they do these things, devote their lives to crawling completely inside the capillaries of another person. It's a bit beyond the pale to me.
Q - I know why. It's because of the impact The Beatles made on the world.
A - I do know that the interest is there. I know that. I accept that. I just find it hard to comprehend, that's all.
Q - With the first volume being 1500 pages, it would have to be the end game. I don't know how much there is to write about The Beatles after that.
A - Well, this is what I'm saying. It 'tis like the end game, isn't it? How much more could anyone do?
Q - Page 89 of your book, "before they were named The Quarrymen they were named The Blackjacks." I never knew that.
A - Yeah. They had a series of names, Johnny And The Moon Dogs, Johnny And The Rainbows, The Blackjacks. When Paul came along they were The Quarrymen because John and Len went to Quarry Bank School. That's how they got that name.
Q - Your mother went to see The Quarrymen at the Vespa Scooter Club. There were many people there, but she sat in front and clapped at the end of every song. So, she was behind John. She encouraged him.
A - All the way. That's why I've written the book. There's so much of what is written is so wrong. Now people can read obviously whatever they like. I just hope they include my book, that's all. Just read this one too, and think "John's sister wrote this, perhaps it's a bit more truthful. Perhaps she was there. Perhaps she does know these things."
Q - Did your mother ever say to you "John is going to be famous one day"?
A - No, but John thought he was. (laughs)
Q - Your aunt Mimi didn't think John was going to go anywhere with his music.
A - They were worried sick about what he was going to do to make a living. In that respect, he'd gone to Art School and he was going to do Fine Art 'cause you know he was a gifted artist. He could actually draw. He was an artist that could actually draw, which is a gift. He was going to be a commercial artist at the end of the day. That's what the talk was. I don't know if it would've worked out. Of course he met Cynthia there and they were playing and they went to Hamburg and all the rest of it. But he was already on track to get an Art degree.
Q - Where do you think this talent to write these beautiful love songs came from?
A - My mother.
Q - Did your mother write songs?
A - I don't know about write songs, but she sang, she danced. She taught John to play the banjo, the piano accordion. She was just an extremely talented woman. A woman before her time. She had gifts. She could draw as well. John could draw. My youngest son can draw. I mean really draw. Give him some paper and ask him to draw something and you'd recognize that person in seconds. It isn't a labored effort. It's just a gift and it seems to run in the family, but I have to stress I haven't got it. But musicianship and loving of music and art, it's sort of a family trait. My maternal grandfather had the original banjo. My mother acquired that banjo. He was at sea and he brought it home from the sea, played it all the time had taught my mother to play and my mother taught John to play.
Q - You write your mother was crazy about Elvis.
A - Yes.
Q - She was a big fan of Elvis.
A - Apart from me, we're all Elvis lovers. We were brought up with him. I've remember my father coming home with a record, an old 78, saying "Is this it Julia? Is this what you wanted?" And it was "Hound Dog". And yes it was. My father liked to listen to Caruso. But he'd gone out to seek out this record my mother liked. John absolutely adored Elvis. Well, you know that. I don't have to tell you that.
Q - You would've loved to have been in Beverly Hills in 1965 when the Beatles met Elvis.
A - Yes. A fly on the wall though. That would've been better, wouldn't it?
Q - I don't know.
A - (laughs)
Q - It would've been better to meet him.
A - It was something that so many of his British ardent fans regret, of my age, that he never came to Britain.
Q - You can blame Col. Parker for that one.
A - I know. He seems to have been a wicked old boot at the end of the day, doesn't he? Of course we didn't know anything then. But at our age, I'm 65, we were all complete Elvis fans. The nearest he came was when he was in Germany during his two years. He actually touched down in Prestwick airport and I think he got off the plane in Scotland when he was on the way to Germany. Had I have known, had any of us had known that he was going to do that, we would have all been there.
Q - At 17, "John threw himself into alcohol, music and cynicism." Where did he get the alcohol?
A - I can't say that it's as stringent in the United States. You know how you have states where you can't drink until you're 21?
Q - Most states are like that.
A - Right. Well, it's not here. You can go into a pub as long as the landlord agrees. Most of the restaurants, you can take your children in. A few of them say no children after 7 o'clock or no children in this bar after a certain time. But most pubs are restaurants as well. But people can drink from 18 here.
Q - Where did John get the alcohol from?
A - You can buy tons of beer. He certainly wouldn't have got it from Mimi's. She didn't drink. It was him and Len Garry and Paul and they'd get on a bus and sit upstairs and go into town and stay on the bus and come straight back out again. He was just utterly distraught with no support, little or no support (after the death of John's mother). We were children, Jackie (John's other sister) and I were much younger and we didn't have any support either, believe me. It was just something that three of us had to crawl through, like crawling through mud. In the beginning of my book it says it's like climbing a mountain and John was still climbing when he died. My sister and I are still climbing that mountain because it was never openly dealt with at that time, just the way some families do with grief, or not dealing with it if you like. Ours was one of those families.
Q - The support system that was in place didn't exist back then.
A - Not even from the families themselves. It was just never mentioned. It's like she'd never been or something. It's the old "children should be seen and not heard." We were just left to cope on our own.
Q - In 1962, when you were in school, The Beatles were becoming famous and your teachers would ask you about John. How old were you then?
A - Fifteen. Every town in the whole of Britain had groups. A band was an orchestra with violins, oboes, trombones and a conductor in the front. That was a band. It was a group. There were groups in those days. Every person who had a brother; it was going on everywhere, but we were in Liverpool. Liverpool is a very Catholic city, large, large cities. So, if a girl had three or four brothers, and I was in an all girls grammar school, then they'd all be in a group. It wasn't a matter of is he in a group? Does he play an instrument? Does he sing? Does he do both? What's the group called? So, in my school, mine played the guitar and he sang as well. And he was a Rock 'n' Roller through and through. As the other groups dropped by the board, the boys carried on with their schoolwork, wanted to go to the University and their parents wouldn't let them do it anymore. In
Rod Davis' case of The Quarrymen, they hated him being in a group and got him out. At the end of the day it goes on and on, and my brother is still in a group. I remember my Spanish teacher saying "but he's gone to Art School now. He's at Liverpool Art School, which is famous for its art." I'd say, "yes, but he's in Hamburg at the moment." (laughs)
Q - How was the teacher able to single you out and ask you questions about your brother?
A - Because I told them. We all talked about our brothers in groups. They were all being whittled away, but mine was still going. By the time I got to the sixth Form, A level, I was saying "we've just been to London to see them play. We've just been to stay with John. We went to a party." They'd be saying "mention it during the lesson", which meant the teacher herself was so fascinated there would be a one hour and 45 minute lesson gone while she asked questions. We'd arranged it before hand because somebody hadn't done their homework.
Q - Certainly by 1963 the hits were starting to appear like "Please Please Me". What is so incredible even today, is that The Beatles had a fan base of 100,000 and yet nobody ever heard of them in the United States.
A - Yes. That was in the Saturday Club, and I've got all the recordings from the Saturday Club, every Saturday morning reading out postcards saying "Happy birthday Nellie, invite us to your party." They'd be passing these postcards around. When they first went to America in 64...
Q - George had actually been in America in 1963 to visit
his sister. He actually saw President Kennedy drive by in his limousine.
A - I didn't know that. When they went and did the Ed Sullivan show, they were still talking back to the Saturday club with Brian Matthews back in England and I've got all the recordings of it. They are fabulous. They're in a hotel room in New York, they've just been brought from the airport. Ringo said "they sent four stretch limos as if we can't all fit into one!" We're all laughing and I remember it actually being recorded. I have it on CD now. Then they were saying "Right, Saturday club. Don't forget us." And they started reading out "Happy birthday Lillian. Have a great party on Saturday." They had taken the postcards with them so they could still do the Saturday show. Isn't that lovely?
Q - It is! The footage I've seen shows the Beatles in one limo.
A - According to this, they'd sent four.
Q - And a group of fans were following their limo and the limo had to speed up to 75 mph to try and lose them.
A - Well, that happened here. I've been in a car in the group days when they were in Liverpool, my sister and I and my cousin, two cousins, went to see them at the Empire, they were supporting Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison was the headliner. We wanted to see Roy Orbison would you believe. I thought the fans were so rude because they were shouting right the way through Roy Orbison at the end. You couldn't hear him. I was really disappointed. We went 'round to the back to the dressing room 'cause we were going home with John and we got outside the dressing room and got in the car. Fans were leaping over the bonnet, leaping onto the roof and shaking the car. It was really, really scary. When I read later in 1966 that the same thing had happened even though they were now in a big car, probably a stretch limo, I don't know, the fans were rocking that car from side to side. It's not normal, is it?
Q - Some people get carried away.
A - They (the fans) are supposed to love them. I don't doubt that they do. Why do they put their own lives in danger and the lives of the people they've come to see and adore in danger? It's very scary. As I say, we were in a small car, John's Mini. That was a very small car. You couldn't see through the windscreen, the girls on the bonnet screaming.
Q - You just have to wonder, had they ever gotten a hold of them, what would they had done.
A - You don't know. Tear them apart because it didn't look like they were going to help them. It's scary. So, that was in the early '60s, maybe '63 and then in '66 it's three years later, there was that terrible time that John actually wrote about saying they were really, really scared in that car.
Q - What if anything did John tell you about Hamburg?
A - He just came back and went to bed. We didn't see him for a week or 10 days.
Q - He did tell you there was no time to eat or sleep. Did you ask him why?
A - Well, we knew he was on stage all the time. I talked to Paul about it later. I remember going around to Mendips to give Cynthia the downstairs, so that she could stay there with Julian as a young, young baby waiting for John. John had gone off to Hamburg and he came back and I went to get them tea and toast, to make them tea and toast, and walked in with it. John was just like comatose. Cynthia sat up with Julia. I sat on a bed. We chatted. We drank tea. We ate the toast. John didn't move. They were exhausted. Since then, when people say "you made it very quickly," or other people have just said "oh, overnight sensation." Paul said it right, "we did 800 hours of rehearsal in Hamburg before we got to the Cavern."
Q - Let's say your mother had lived, would she have approved of John going to Hamburg?
A - Yes. She wouldn't be one to stop anyone following a dream. George's mother famously made them cakes and put them in very traditional biscuit tins, which holds quite a lot, because she was afraid they wouldn't have food in Germany. (laughs) Not food that they recognized.
Q - What do you remember about Stewart Sutcliffe? Did you meet him?
A - I remember meeting him, but I didn't know him. I met him certainly many times. I know that John loved him very much. I do know that.
Q - In your book, John was talking about The Sex Pistols. He said "that's how we used to behave at The Cavern before Brian Epstein told us to stop throwing up and eating on stage and swearing."
A - That's right.
Q - The eating on stage and swearing I've read before. Throwing up on stage? I never read that before.
A - I never read that. That was a quote that I got. I don't know about that. It's never, ever mentioned in The Cavern or anything like that. I mean, I never heard that before. When he says "throwing up", I suspect that they meant when they got too drunk, they threw up. As you know, in those days there was no alcohol license in The Cavern. It was all soft drinks. It was all Coca-Cola and orange juice. But it doesn't mean that they weren't drinking. I don't know.
Q - I just thought that was a very strange quote.
A - I don't think John meant on stage over the audience. (laughs) Believe me, they would have made a big story out of that. It never happened.
Q - You asked John what it was like to be famous and he'd laugh and say "great!" Did you really believe him?
A - No.
Q - If you look at photos and film of The Beatles, when you see John smiling, it's like he's in pain. It's almost like he's saying "get me out of here!"
A - Yes. Well, I think they all were at the end of it, weren't they? They said they couldn't go on. It was after the 1966 Candlestick Park; I don't know if you'd call it a fiasco. Famously it appears that they actually didn't sing. They opened their mouths, but didn't sing. You'd have to ask Paul about that one. The fans were screaming so loudly that it didn't matter whether they sang or not. John said "that's the end. We can't go on doing this." That was the same tour when the car had been rocked as well. They must've come back pretty shocked from that. You can't live like that, can you?
Q - No, you can't. As the years have passed, I've come to a greater understanding of what The Beatles had to contend with, being famous.
A - Which we really didn't understand at the time, did we? We didn't. My whole family, we didn't really understand quite what was going on.
Q - Being that famous, you lose your privacy.
A - Yes.
Q - You can't do anything. You can't go to a store, or a restaurant.
A - Exactly. That's it.
Q - You're locked up in a hotel room. You can lose your mind!
A - I did say to John about the hotel rooms and traveling around the world, "you lucky thing. All the things you see." He said "Julia, I haven't. We are locked in a hotel room. It might be a fancy one, but we are completely locked in. We don't see the places that we go to. We have a fabulous room. We eat something. We drink something. We go on stage. We fly out. We fly in." I'm thinking their seeing this, this and this, seeing the world. They weren't seeing it, were they?
Q - No. A Hard Day's Night. One of the more interesting things about John is how he kept reinventing himself and changed his image. You could not keep your eyes off of him. Can you imagine a group like Kiss taking off their make up and singing "All You Need Is Love"? Can you imagine Mick Jagger putting on granny glasses and singing "Sympathy For The Devil"? No other group could change their image and musical style like The Beatles did and have their fans stick with them.
A - That was surely one of their enduring and endearing points. With many bands, not particularly The Rolling Stones, although Mick Jagger has a very distinctive voice and presentation, many bands their style is the same time after time after time. Although Oasis is very good and sort of does a fair imitation of The Beatles, you can tell within two bars, oh that's Oasis, even if you've never heard the song before. You know it's Oasis. A lot of them are like that. With The Beatles you could almost hear to the end of the song the first time you heard it, "was that the Beatles? There was something familiar about that." It would be completely different. The tempo would be different. Of course, Paul's singing, John's singing. Different presentation. Sometimes George's singing. Different styles. They really were multi-talented.
Q - Every song sounded different from the one before it.
A - Exactly. It took you a time to recognize The Beatles in the latest song. Coldplay, the same old boring stuff. I don't know when there will be another band like The Beatles.
Q - Probably never, well, at least not in our lifetime.
A - If The Beatles had stayed (together), I'm sure we'd be on to more things and more things and more things. John and Paul together were what I called the Dream Team. They had such talent between them, that they could take those eight notes and tossed them about in the universe, Across The Universe indeed.
Q - They were so tired at the end, maybe all they needed was to take some time off, rather than break up.
A - If John had lived, that might have been. You just don't know. Paul was always knocking on John's door, wasn't he?
Q - You went to the Apple offices in London to see John one day. You told whomever that you were his sister and you were turned away. I'm thinking as I read that, that fans had used that line before.
A - Well, exactly. When we talked about it later he said "you just should have barged your way past them and up the stairs." I said "It's not what you do." He said, "I can't believe you were in the building and you just walked away." I said, "John, it was embarrassing." I'm not a rude person that's going to do that and I had my cousins' youngest child with me, 18 months in a push chair. They lived in London. They actually lived in John's flat. I moved in with her to care for her three children. Two of them were in school and one was still a baby. It was one of those young, puffy nosed girls (at the Apple offices) . It was rude of her and I would've had to be 10 times as rude to barge past her.
Q - I think your mother would've been proud of John's accomplishments, don't you?