John Lennon’s sister sets record straight about mum

  • John Lennon’s half sister, Julia Baird, narrates shows by the Mersey Beatles, who will play at the Flying Monkey on May 14. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 5/5/2016 8:47:07 AM

Julia Baird’s breezy sentences, sweetened by her English accent, came to a screeching halt    when I asked the question that had to be asked.

Where was she the day her half brother, John Lennon, was murdered 35 years ago? We all remember, at least those of us old enough.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” said Baird, 69, by phone, her voice barely a whisper. “No. Not at all.”

Everything else, though, was fair game during a half-hour conversation fueled by an upcoming appearance of a band called the Mersey Beatles. A cover band with all the hair and 1960s-era attire, they’ll play May 14 at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth. Baird is the nightly host on the 40-show American tour.

She’s the narrator (pronounced na-RAY-tor by Baird), presenting a documentary on the night’s act, then, after the show, signing copies of her book, Imagine This: Growing up with my brother John Lennon.

There, in those pages, is the truth that Baird wants known, setting the record straight on their mother, Julia Lennon, who, Baird says, was misrepresented by the news media after Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon to death in New York City on Dec. 8, 1980.

“Five years after John had died, they did a documentary in Britain, the BBC,” Baird told me, shortly before a show in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Everybody watched.”

Everybody saw Julia Lennon portrayed as a “Flibbertigibbet,” which, I learned from Baird, meant “Scatterbrain, someone who did not accept responsibility for any of her actions, swaying in the wind, this way, that way. Basically they said she accepted no responsibility for her children, and that Mimi came along and saved the day. So not true.”

The truth was that in 1940, Julia Lennon, who was struck and killed by a car in 1958, gave birth to John Lennon, whose father, a merchant seaman, spent long periods of time away from his wife and child.

Julia Lennon fell in love with another man, whom she could not marry because her husband remained alive, somewhere, out of sight. The old story, the one the BBC and other news media outlets reported after John’s death, said Julia Lennon gave John, then 5, to her sister, Mimi, essentially turning her back on her son.

The real story, the one accepted today since Baird concluded her research and wrote her book, is that Mimi fought for custody of John, her nephew, using social services as an ally to cast Julia in a shameful light, portraying her as an unfit mother because of her new relationship.

“He was taken from our mother, and notice the word ‘taken,’ ” Baird said. “Not given up. Torn away was more like it.”

The result was a rebellious future Beatle, something fans of the band always realized, that Lennon was the member with an edge, writer of music with a hard sound, the lyricist who wrote about revolution.

“He was naughty in school; he didn’t want to be there,” Baird said.

But Julia Lennon was there for her son, while Mimi thought a musical career was, to use a word fancied by Baird, rubbish.

It was Julia, not Mimi, who nurtured and cultivated and encouraged John to tap into his musical potential. And it was Julia who played the banjo and the piano and the accordion, learning to play each with lightning speed, like the time it took the Beatles to move from anonymity to the greatest rock band ever.

“She could pick up an instrument and within an hour she’d make it sing,” Baird said. “She just had this enormous talent, and John inherited whatever talent he had from her.”

Baird saw the birth of the Beatles, sitting in on practice sessions with Lennon and Paul McCartney at her house. She saw teens combining guitars with a tea chest, used as a makeshift bass, and a washboard, scraped with a thimble to create a rhythm section.

“This was the beginning of the Beatles,” Baird said, “and it was all going on at our house.”

She continued: “He was just a good older brother. He took us to the park and swimming and played cricket with us in the street and played in the garden and fed the fairies at the bottom of the garden with us.”

Fairies?

“Yes, fairies, the little creatures that lived in the garden. It was rubbish, but he went along with all of it. He read us stories and he danced around, threw us around, baby sat. Always in my life. Because I’m younger, my life had John in it from the word go,” she said.

Things changed, of course. Julia Lennon was killed by a car while walking near Mimi’s house in 1958, when Baird was 11, John 17.

Beatlemania surfaced five years later, and two years after that, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the United States went nuts.

John was bigger than life through the 1960s and beyond. A song he wrote and performed called “Julia,” a tribute to his and Baird’s mother, appeared on the iconic White Album.

You might hear it as part of the 20- to 25-song show on the May 14. The group is named after the River Mersey, which flows through Liverpool, the Beatles’ hometown. They’re a cover band with mop tops (wigs, actually), musical talent and a Liverpool upbringing.

For 10 years, they were the resident band at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, which is where the Beatles cut their own teeth 55 years ago. The Liverpool culture and club’s flavor have been absorbed by the impersonators, which comes out on stage in the form of chemistry and wit, Baird says.

After John’s death in 1980 at the age of 40, Baird said she could no longer listen to Beatles music. That’s changed with time, however, and now, eerily, she’s touring with four lads from Liverpool.

“I’ve been through all the gamut of not being able to hear (Beatles music),” Baird said. “And now I love it.”

I thanked her and tried once more to learn where she was on Dec. 8, 1980.

“I was a wreck of a human being,” Baird said.

She paused.

“Sorry, I just had to get in the van. I’m not rushing you, but they’re waiting for me. We’ve got to go.”

Baird was polite, and the background noise told me she was being truthful.

But her voice, softer than before while still elegant, told me it was time to hang up, right then and there.




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