The relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney was a complex one. Throughout their careers as the songwriting duo behind many of The Beatles’ defining hits, they experienced moments of immense fondness and intense frustration in equal measure. They grew up together, became famous together, and as a result, their lives were always intertwined — inseparable in the minds of the public. So they would have known that, despite the friction between them, they could rely on one another, to tell the truth.
In a recent interview on The Penguin Books Podcast, Paul McCartney recalled the day he gave John Lennon some advice on the subject of death. In the interview, Paul seems to imply that it was a topic that preoccupied his bandmate for much of his life.
Although McCartney doesn’t say it himself, Lennon’s anxiety about his own death could well have been a reaction to the tragic death of his biological mother Julia in 1958. The car accident which killed her traumatised Lennon and led to him developing an early alcohol problem; one which occasionally sent him into a “blind rage”.
“John Lennon was not that secure,” McCartney recalled during the interview. “I remember John saying to me once, ‘What are people going to think of me when I’m dead? I wonder if they’ll like me.’”
To which McCartney replied: “Now just you stop, listen to me – people love you, and they are going to love you more’ – and obviously that’s turned out to be the case. I had to reassure him and say: `You’re great.’” Paul then added, “He needed reassurance. It can happen.”
McCartney went on to discuss the song he wrote in tribute to Lennon: “I do a song in my live show called ‘Here Today‘ which I wrote over after John died,” he says, referencing the fifth song from his 1982 solo album Tug of War. “So often you go, “I’m going to tell that person what you think of them’ and then you say, ‘Oh, I’ll tell them tomorrow.’ And you sometimes put it off.”
“[In my live show] I explain that when we first started off as a group we were four lads from Liverpool!” Paul continued, laughing. “I’m not going to tell anyone I love him! you’re kidding!’ We never did any of that so I needed to write this into the song after he died.”
But one wonders if the two friends would have benefitted from being more open with each other. Lennon certainly felt a lot of love for McCartney and, in an interview just before his death in 1980, said of him: “At the end of the day when it’s all said and done, I would do anything for him. I think he would do anything for me.”
Following Lennon’s death, McCartney must have looked back on the advice he gave to his bandmate and felt glad that he’d put his mind at rest. Not only that, but he must have understood how well he had predicted the world’s reaction to it.
Lennon wasn’t just remembered, he was deified. In death, he became emblematic of the 1960s cultural explosion and a symbol of creative freedom. But that hasn’t stopped the world from uncovering some of his less desirable aspects. In recent decades, Lennon has gone under something of a re-appraisal, with more people paying attention to his problematic relationship with women, for example. It all goes to show that, in the end, nobody has control over how they will be perceived after they’ve gone. We act and the world reacts — that is all.