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John Lennon’s Most Autobiographical Song

John Lennon in Paris courtesy of Getty Images

“What’s your favorite Lennon song?” my friend, Dwayne, asked me several months ago. “I’m guessing it’s ‘Imagine’ or maybe ‘In My Life.’” But he guessed wrong, and I think my response rather shocked him.

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“Well, my favorite song that John sings is his cover of ‘Baby, It’s You.’ I mean, it’s almost his mantra. It’s his life’s ballad to his mother, Julia. But if you’re talking about Lennon originals, I’d have to go with ‘I’ll Cry Instead.’ I mean, if you really want to know who John is, just listen to the lyrics. John is there — as he would say, ‘warts and all.’”

Written in late Spring 1964 for A Hard Day’s Night and recorded in EMI Studios on 1 June (initially, as backdrop for the “fire escape/romp in the field” sequence) — months before John met Bob Dylan in New York City and chatted with him about the importance of writing from one’s own experiences — John’s “I’ll Cry Instead” is his biography in brief. It takes the listener from his childhood abandonment (for complicated reasons) by his father, Fred, and more significantly, by his mother, Julia, up through John’s final loss of the woman he cherished when Julia was slain by a drunk driver in Liverpool on 15 July 1958.

“I’ve got every reason on earth to be mad ’Cause I just lost the only girl I had…”

The lyrics succinctly chronicle the dark weeks following Julia’s death as seventeen-year-old John refused to leave the small upstairs room in his aunt’s home, Mendips — locking himself away with grief and anger. They reveal the inconsolable agony the teenager endured without a single shoulder to cry on, without a single friend to comfort him. His beloved uncle George had passed in 1955. His best friend had just been taken from him for a second time, and only his rigid, decorous, “crying-merely-spoils-your-face” aunt was left to assuage the boy’s bitterness and pain. John was desperate, and he tells us that.

“If I could get my way, I’d get myself locked up today, But I can’t…so I cry instead.”

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The dilemma facing the boy, however, was that through all of the tragedies life had handed him, he’d been stoic. John Lennon had always played the tough guy. He was the “bad boy” that everyone at Quarrybank Grammar (his Woolton high school) feared and revered. John couldn’t afford to come apart. So, he isolated himself.

A full three weeks passed. Then, “when the phoenix emerged, it was hideous. Reborn to the wails of rock’n’roll, it lived again, but violently…bearing scars…wearing them like a badge.”  John returned to life with an enhanced hardness and with an unbreakable determination to take his young band, The Quarrymen, to the “toppermost of the poppermost.” John emerged obsessed with fame, success, and the power of the upper-hand. Life, he’d justifiably decided, was out to get him, but the boy was now hell-bent on emerging as victor, no matter what.

And over the next four years, John did just that. He re-tooled The Quarrymen into The Beatles, badgered entrepreneur Allan Williams into getting the group a gig in Hamburg, pushed his mates to focus on becoming “bigger ’n Elvis,” hounded them to practice, improve, and become unequaled, and elbowed his way to the top. Taking a wild risk on 27-year-old Brian Epstein as the right manager at the right time, John spoke for the group when he decided, “Right Brian, manage us then.” Lennon risked everything to pursue happiness, via his band.

Unfortunately, adeptly achieving every goal brought John no closer to Nirvana. The band — now a worldwide phenomenon — engendered Beatlemania and incomparable record sales, as well as a United Artists film, a book deal for Lennon, and myriad world tours. But the immense popularity did little to salve John’s soul.

“I’ve got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet, I can’t talk to people that I meet. If I could see you now, I’d try to make you sad somehow, but I can’t So, I cry instead.

Don’t want to cry when there’s people there, I get shy when they start to stare…”

Instead of finding healing in his singular success, John found enhanced isolation. His life (and the lives of Paul, George, and Ringo) swiftly became “a train and a room and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room.” All of The Beatles were now, famously, prisoners of their remarkable triumphs. No longer could they walk the streets (or even peer out of windows) without the very real fear of being mauled by fans and criticized by the press.

In response to this public madness, John withdrew even more. He moved from an accessible flat in Emperor’s Gate, London, to a secluded, walled and gated mansion far out in the lush countryside of Weybridge, Surrey. He acquired a chauffeur/bodyguard. He only dined where people as privileged as he dined: people who would let him be, although they were the very people he despised. He vacationed in remote locations, on isolated yachts. John retreated from public life entirely. And he resented every second of it.

“I’m gonna hide myself away, hey, But I’ll come back again someday…”

Powerful, young, rich, talented, handsome, articulate, respected as a writer and a musician, John Lennon was completely miserable. Nothing about fame had diminished the wounds of childhood abandonment. He still yearned for his mother to see his achievements and realize that he was capable, lovable, and worthwhile. But fame could not resurrect Julia; nothing could bring her back. And the more John pondered his loss, the angrier he became.

“…and when I do, you’d better hide all the girls, I’m gonna break their hearts all ’round the world! Yes, I’m gonna break ’em in two To show you what you’re lovin’ man can do! Until then, I’ll cry instead.”

John had always told his life’s story in song (“If I Fell,” “I’ll Be Back,” “I’ll Get You,” and many more) but “I’ll Cry Instead” was his most revealing Ancient Mariner-esque saga. He sang the story out of need; he felt compelled to impart his life’s tortured journey to the audience he held in thrall.

Meeting Bob Dylan in late August of 1964, “rubber-stamped” John’s innate tendency to pen lyrics that shared the “slings and arrows” of his “outrageous fortune.” Listening to Dylan’s “Freewheelin’” LP gave John endorsement that what he had always been doing — writing openly about his feelings and his life — was, indeed, the right thing to do. Talking with Zimmerman in New York City gave John the impetus needed to continue being revelatory. But from the earliest Cavern Club days, John had always been the Beatle who stepped up to the mic and spoke his mind, sang his heart.

Nowhere was this tendency more evident than in “I’ll Cry Instead.” In this rather unheralded offering, John invited us all into his darkest heart. In two minutes of music, we met the boy and knew the man.

-Jude Southerland Kessler

Photo: John Lennon in Paris (Getty Images)

 

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23 comments on “John Lennon’s Most Autobiographical Song

  1. Avatar

    THE BALLAD OF JOHN AND YOKO

  2. Avatar
    Richard Short

    Nice call Jude. “I’ll Cry Instead” is a great underrated song. You could have gone the easy route with”In My Life” or “Help” or “I’m a Loser”, etc. But you didn’t and kudos to you sir! Also liked the shout out to “Baby, It’s You”.

  3. Avatar
    Rick DeLena

    Great insight and well written. Well done.

  4. Avatar

    Hey Jude ;} Really good stuff. The guy never shied away from revealing his soul. Love ’em all but that’s why he’s my fave of The Fab 4.

  5. Avatar
    Rex Anderson

    “Mother” the first track from his “Plastic Ono Band” album is by far the most profound song about his life.

  6. Avatar
    Timothy E Richter

    Lennon didn’t think much of it. I think anyone reading into an artists lyrics is just guessing at best. Especially when the person himself didn’t think much of this or any of the early songs as he was trying to write a pop song ( ie Ill Be Back , John said he never called a girl on a phone in his life , that was something american’s do and he got the idea for the song from the song ” silhouettes ” )

    • Avatar
      Bob Fishman

      Timothy, the song about calling a girl was “No Reply”, not “I’ll Be Back”. But even that sentence speaks to your comment. Is it a FACT, or is it my OPINION? The lyric to which you refer is, “I tried to telephone, they said you were not home, that’s a lie” – and is from “No Reply”. There’s no lyric about using the telephone in “I’ll Be Back”. Those are FACTS, not my OPINION. On the other hand, the point of article above is the author’s OPINION – a well-informed and thoughtful opinion, but an opinion nonetheless. Yes, in your words, she’s just GUESSING. That distinction is often lost in today’s world. Of course, that’s just my opinion 😉. And thanks for your’s.

  7. Avatar
    Michael Murray

    ‘Jealous Guy’ is also plainly autobiographical and a wonderful song

  8. Avatar
    Bob Taylor

    No, it’s just a rocker, and a great one, about a guy who’s lost his girlfriend.

  9. Avatar
    Nancy Fernandez

    I agree it was Mother, summed up his life without Mum or Dad, Paul wrote Hey Jude but it is about Julian

    • Avatar
      John Howard

      Julian was the “inspiration” behind the song ‘Hey Jude’….but doesn’t mean the song was “about” Julian. I firmly believe Hey Jude was about Julian’s father, Paul’s best friend – John Lennon.

      • Avatar
        jeanette martinez

        Wrong
        IT was about and for Julian by Paul he was trying to step up as some kind of surrogate father or be of some consolidation to the boy after new baby brother Sean was born and John was doting on his new son

  10. Avatar
    Don Messner

    I love John’s songs the best as they’re about Life his and the rest of us mere mortals! Hard to pick which ones are his best, but I love Working Class Hero!!

  11. Avatar
    John Howard

    Julian was the inspiration behind the song ‘Hey Jude’, but that doesn’t mean the song was about Julian…

  12. Avatar

    “Watching the Wheels” was my guess before I read the article. It’s insightful and reveals what Lennon’s priorities were.

  13. Avatar

    Ah yes, the lyrics…. But you’re missing the other 90% of the song – which has even more information – the music itself! Just a few examples: “All I’ve Got To Do”, “I Am The Walrus”, and “Because”. Look at the asymmetry, vague key centers, melodic arc, etc etc etc… These tell us MUCH more about the man.

  14. Avatar

    Not quite sure he was killed by someone under the influence. I believe he was killed by an off duty police officer, who was not speeding or under the influence. He quit being a cop because he couldn’t handle the guilt and became a mailman.

  15. Avatar
    Brian Conway

    Lennon has always been my one of my favorite musicians. Lyrics are one of several components in the measure of a singer/song writer. Certainly absolutes get sticky.

  16. Avatar

    Also , ask me why …I think his performance of this song was especially heart-warming …and there’s a certain raspiness in his voice when he says”my happiness still makes me cr-Ay” with a subtle screech that aches the heart

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