‘Oh yeah’ was the only thought in my mind as I stood outside John Lennon’s childhood home, Mendips — a semi-detached Liverpool villa now owned by the National Trust (donated to them by Lennon’s second wife, artist Yoko Ono). Limited numbers of tourists are allowed inside. Of course, I wasn’t smart enough to book an advance ticket, but I’m happy to gawk across the wall. I’ve been a fan since I was 10. Lennon was the same age when he sat on that porch strumming his guitar.
Lennon’s major growing-up trauma took place here, too. While crossing to the opposite side of Menlove Avenue, his mother Julia was mowed down by a drunk-driving cop without a driver’s licence, who mistook the accelerator for the brake pedal. Lennon mulled over his loss in his most touching songs such as Julia and Mother .
The Woolton suburb is dotted with many more spots relating to his song-writing. Around the corner on Beaconsfield Road, the Strawberry Field orphanage used to have events for kids. Lennon composed Strawberry Fields Forever on the theme of childhood nostalgia and the Beatles did a promo shoot at the orphanage gates, which today are covered in fan graffiti. Like all other fans I take a selfie.
There’s something weird about it all. I never met the guy. Yet he’s more real to me than any memory I have of my own childhood friends. The hours spent listening to cassettes and singing along — Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! — means I can practically see him before me as I wander about here in Liverpool.
Other Beatle spots include a traffic signal where Paul McCartney had a bicycle puncture, the church where he first met Lennon in 1957 (and where a woman named Eleanor Rigby lies buried), and Penny Lane — it was while shopping there that Cynthia, Lennon’s first wife, went into labour to give birth to pop star Julian Lennon in 1963. It is a very quiet neighbourhood and, except for some businesses that cash in with names such as ‘Sgt. Peppers Bistro’, it doesn’t outright scream Beatlemania.
Instead, much of Beatlemania happened downtown in central Liverpool. I visit the Jacaranda (23 Slater Street), a low-key joint where they played in 1960 before they got famous. It was run by their first manager. In the crammed basement concert room are murals by the Beatles’ original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, fellow art student at the college Lennon went to. One profile on the wall looks like Lennon’s face. Selfie? I’d like to think it is him.
Pubs like Jacaranda bring me closer to the Beatles than the official Beatlemania tourism industry does — the Magical Mystery bus tour, the Yellow Submarine harbour cruise, the Cavern Walks shopping mall with Beatles memorabilia made in China, the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds café supposedly built on the actual location of the demolished Cavern Club’s stage (where Beatlemania started after the Beatles performed there 292 times), the reconstructed Cavern Club nearby (where Beatlemania obviously didn’t start but where McCartney recorded a concert DVD in 1999) and Lennon’s Pub, Abbey Road House, Rubber Soul Oyster Bar, the Hard Day’s Night Hotel and, to top it all, the amazingly tacky Beatles-inspired public art.
I suspect all of this would have weirded Lennon out. Until the 1970s, the Beatles were just another band that had originated in the city, but after Lennon’s assassination in 1980, Liverpool started capitalising on their names — for example, by renaming the airport after Lennon. McCartney says, in a bonus interview on the abovementioned DVD, that when he’s in Liverpool he sometimes stops his limousine outside his childhood home (also a museum) but has never felt like stepping in, ‘I can’t face it.’
I visit all the pubs that have the slightest connection to the band. Grapes in Mathew Street is where they would have pints before heading to the Cavern Club to do their shows, because the Cavern didn’t serve booze. Blue Angel, in Seel Street, where they auditioned for their first tour. The Pilgrim in Pilgrim Street, famous for some Beatle thing or the other. And so on.
I eat whatever they might have eaten — they weren’t into fine dining but loved jam butties (jam-butter sandwiches), fish and chips, and curries out of packets. When they flew to India to meditate, Ringo Starr famously brought with him a suitcase full of tinned baked beans. So at the Philharmonic (Hope Street), one of the snazziest pubs among Beatles hangouts, I order a typical British dish called, somewhat weirdly, Toad-in-the-Hole. It’s basically sausages baked in egg batter, something between an omelette and a Yorkshire pudding. Rich. I rinse it down with £17.50 worth of draft beer, and then visit the urinals, which must have been utilised by the Fab Four more than once.
Another day I ease myself down on the wooden bench in Ye Cracke on Rice Street, next to Lennon’s art school. This is where he and Cynthia met. It was the first time she had stepped into the pub. By the end of the evening she and Lennon found themselves in bed with each other, in the flat he shared with Stuart at 3 Gambier Terrace (a five-minute walk away). Lennon, on another unrelated occasion, puked his brains out in a corner here. That’s the kind of reputation this pub has among Beatles-aficionados.
A blind drunkard accosts me. “So you’ve come to do the Beatles things?”
“Yes, sir.” It obviously didn’t take a seeing man to see that, so there’s nothing to do but admit it.
He moves closer on the bench. “I’m a record collector.”
“What records do you collect?”
“Ah different, various artistes. I know Paul,” he says, swiftly changing the subject. He appears to look around the room, despite being ostensibly blind.
I start to wonder if I’m dreaming. “Oh really?”
“Actually his brother Mike and I are tight buddies. Mike McCartney. We’re like this tight,” he says and slams his fists together.
The abruptness of the violent gesture makes me spill some ale and I back off a bit. But I’ve read about Mike McCartney; he was involved in turning the McCartney home into a museum and his ex-wife Angie and Cynthia Lennon ran a bed-and-breakfast together in Wales after their respective divorces.
“Nah, wouldn’t hurt a fly,” the blind man continues. “I’m a peaceful sort.”
“So what’s Mike up to these days?” I ask to resume the conversation.
“Collects records, doesn’t he? He and I, we do.”
“Various artists. Got a dime for a friend?”
I dig out enough to buy him another pint, but when I hand over the money a coin slips and rolls down the floor. With remarkable speed, the blind geezer bends and catches it before it vanishes under the benches. And in my mind echoes Lennon’s song, “He’s as blind as he can be… Just sees what he wants to see… Nowhere Man can you see me at all?”
Zac O’Yeah is a Bengaluru-based author,travel writer and literary critic. His upcoming novel is titled Hari a Hero for Hire