It’s the birthday of John Lennon. He was born in Liverpool, England, in 1940, during a German air raid, or so the legend goes. The nurses put him under his mother’s hospital bed to protect him. John’s mother, Julia Stanley, was one of five sisters, all of them fierce in their own way; she was the free spirit, and married Freddy Lennon on a whim in 1938. Freddy was away with the Merchant Marine when his son was born and, not really ready for family life, managed to find a ship to be away on for most of the boy’s first five years. Julia, with an absent husband, decided she might as well live the single life, so she gave John to her sister Mimi to raise. In 1945, Freddy returned and invited the five-year-old boy on an outing to the seaside, intending take him to New Zealand, but Julia found them, and the parents decided to make their son choose between them. Since Freddy had been more like a playmate than a parent, John chose him at first, but when Julia walked away, crying, John ran sobbing after her. Their reunion was short-lived, however, because Julia brought him back to Aunt Mimi’s, and that’s where he grew up.
He didn’t show any musical inclination as a child, but he did love drawing and reading, especially Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and the Just William stories by Richard Crompton. He had a knack for puns and wordplay at an early age, as well as a fondness for absurd humor. He was bright, but often in trouble in school; he had an angry streak that expressed itself through insolence, petty crimes, and tough talk. When Elvis Presley came on the scene in 1956 with his single Heartbreak Hotel, Lennon had a new focus: rock and roll. “Nothing really affected me until Elvis,” he later said. Liverpool kids were among the first in Britain to hear the records coming over from America; they got them from American sailors who docked in the port city. Soon Lennon was listening to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. A year later, he’d formed his own band, the Quarrymen, with some school friends, and soon after that, Paul McCartney and George Harrison joined the band. By 1960, they were calling themselves the Beatles.
Even when caught up in the riptide of Beatlemania, Lennon never lost his love of wordplay. In 1964, he published a slim volume of line drawings and nonsensical short stories called In His Own Write. A Spaniard in the Works (1965) followed a year later. Critics believed he had been influenced by James Joyce, though in a 1968 interview on BBC-2, Lennon said he’d never read Joyce. “So the first thing I do is buy Finnegans Wakeand read a chapter. And it’s great, you know, and I dug it, and I felt as though he’s an old friend. But I couldn’t make it right through the book, and so I read a chapter of Finnegans Wake and that was the end of it. So now I know what they’re talking about. But I mean, he just went … he just didn’t stop, you know.”
In the psychedelic era, his childhood favorite, Lewis Carroll, inspired his surreal lyrics at least as much as LSD did. His song “I am the Walrus” (1967) was inspired by Carroll’s poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” “To me, it was a beautiful poem,” Lennon later said. “It never occurred to me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what it really meant, like people are doing with Beatles work. Later I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy.”
One of his most poetic songs, “Across the Universe,” was written in response to an argument with his first wife, Cynthia. He went downstairs after she fell asleep and wrote the lyrics, which include, “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup …” and “thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox.” In a 1970 interview, he said, “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written … the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody.” In 2008, NASA transmitted the song as part of an interstellar message to the star Polaris, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the song’s release, the 45th anniversary of the Deep Space Network, and the 50th anniversary of NASA itself. It was the first time a song was deliberately transmitted to deep space.
– Writer’s Almanac