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AN EXCERPT FROM “WHEN THEY WERE BOYS”–THE MILKMAN

The  “Milkman” is an early chapter, with deep insight into the young life of John Lennon. Here is a section of that chapter. The following is part of an unedited author’s draft, before publication.

The milkman was a dreamer. Without his dreams, the band might have never been. The sun’s rays, on a lucky day, are making their way through the rooftops of Liverpool. The solitary figure moves quietly over the sidewalks, dropping off the fresh milk at his appointed rounds. He is hungry and, as always in the morning hours, filled with anxiety, a smidge of anger, and a touch of day- dreaming—the kind of fantastic dreams that fill us up with hope as teenagers. Chances are that he is thinking about music and creating a rea- sonable amount of mayhem during the day ahead. In young John Lennon’s mind, the milk delivery is a necessary means to an end, a few extra pounds, a purchase here or there of American records, a chance to chart his future, undaunted and barely affected by the doubts of the adults in his life. Above and beyond everything he was—friend, lover, son, nephew, brother, student, milkman—he was an incessant dreamer and devilish manipulator. His small, piercing eyes—whether as an infant in diapers, a late teen in a black leather jacket, a young star on tour from 1964 through 1966, or a worldwide icon—always told you the story. Even on the bandstands with his washboard and banjo friends—the Quarrymen—the eyeballs, and the muscles surrounding them, spoke volumes. When he giggled, which few witnessed, or when he was making a point with humor, he stared at you directly, his eyelids rarely blinking, and at times, not at all. During the moments when he was intense or quite serious, the eyes turned into a frightening stare. No wonder some of his teachers thought he was a menace. The eyes could look cold. As they say, “If looks could kill.”

During his shows, when he played to the crowd, his eyes stared straight out, as if he were rocking the joint for an audience of millions. One on one, in intimate moments of emotion and eloquent conversation, he would give a wistful look, as if to show sincerity. I was always stunned at his eye contact with the audiences. His flashes of humor, that ability to jump ahead of the thought, respond in a second or two to a statement or a question, were amaz- ing, if not superhuman. The boy, making his deliveries, and the man, later offering his words to the world, never stopped thinking his special thoughts, or about what he would say next. His personality and his imagination were something special, a package of excitement, sometimes so special and rudely honest that it became excess baggage on the travels of his life, but always, in the end of the remarks, refreshing the world with courage and conviction.

The milkman takes a deep drag on a cigarette as he circles back to the small home. As he comes through the door, the cigarette is gone. It wouldn’t be accepted in this house. He knows he has just a few minutes to gather up some tea, maybe toast with jam, a short conversation, if any at all, and it will be time to head off to school. It will be a long day, but music from the radio the night before is still filling his mind—Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, the Everly Brothers, good old Lonnie Donegan. Lately he has been obsessed with George Formby Jr., the man who grew up in Lancashire, the tart come- dian who also sang. The milkman has searched in great wonder for infor- mation on George, a banjo-ukulele man who eased out of Merseyside to reach the world of comedy and movies. After all, John thinks, how many infants could lose their sight and regain it after a violent sneeze? How many children at the age of seven could have a short career as a jockey? How could Formby, whose voice alone could make you laugh so hard, create separate stage and recording careers that brought so much joy to people during the Depression and war? And could John become, like Formby, a man who cre- ated comedy and song with rich double meanings, like Formby’s risqué tune “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock”?

 

It was not lost on John that “My Little Stick,” a trademark song for Formby, king of comedy from 1934 to 1945, was banned by the BBC. John would take it as a badge of honor that years later, his relatively harmless song “Imagine” was banned on hundreds of American radio stations because it simply stated that there could be a better world without wars and the divisions of religion. John was amazed by Formby. Along with Donegan, Vincent, and the Yanks (an expression he learned from his mother, referring to American musicians), there was enough inspiration to incite the most curious of teenagers. Sadly, by the time he was seventeen, the mother was gone, and now he relied on his music boys, quiet Uncle George, an unsung hero in his life, and his formidable aunt, Mimi, who raced to the hospital during the bombing blitz to see lit- tle newborn John Winston, “the one” she had been waiting for.

He was at times both angry and hopeful, and always resented the estab- lishment around him—the teachers, the pompous, and anybody with a hint of bullshit. In his world, there was no room for that. He was also glowing or prickly, and there was very little in between. This mood swing, nonchalant to sensitive, would continue for all of his life.

Most of all, the milkman was an incessant dreamer. Dreaming was his first real profession. He did it all the time. During an argument we had on the 1966 North American tour, we debated the Vietnam War. He told me, “I dream of rescuing Americans before they go off and get killed.” Then, realizing that I was going into military service that summer, he offered me a job in the Beatles organization. “You could become an expatriate,” he said. I replied, “You’ve got to be kidding.” He said, “Not at all.”

 


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