It is ironic that without Paul McCartney’s gift for a music hall ditty, John Lennon’s posthumous attainment of 64 years if that idea is not a contradiction in itself would not have attracted the concern it has. McCartney’s gentle skit on old age that featured on Sgt. Pepper’s (and it is surely his, rather than a collaboration with his late colleague), has achieved a popular resonance that shares an echo with other significant dates and ages. There are a number of significant markers that pepper our lives; they may be different numerologies for different people. But I’m thinking of that curious, almost spine-tingling moment on New Year’s Eve, 1983, when the clock ticked past midnight and thus carried us, metaphorically, into Orwell’s literary nightmare. Or, say, when Prince’s “1999” actually became the ebullient soundtrack for the end of a Millennium.
But there are also particular birthdays we accumulate that mean something special, and I don’t just mean those decade-rounding landmarks when we hit 20 or 30 or 40 and expect things to change somehow. Nor do I mean when we clock up at 16 or 18 or 21, when the law literally permits us to alter our lifestyles, releasing certain statutory shackles, so we can have sex or see an adult movie, we can drive a car or visit a bar and so on and so forth.
I am also thinking about those stranger, more random conjunctions when we, say, pass the age of Christ, crucified at 33, or President Kennedy, gunned own at 46, or exceed the life-times of the so-called Mad Club; those high-living 27-year-old rock stars like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain who willed their effervescent but fleeting spans to an early conclusion.
For me, there was odder, more personal take on this subject, the first time, in fact, it ever really occurred that life was a flowing river that never returned to the same bend, a one way street with no U-turns. In English soccer we used to have a junior grade international side called the Under-23s, a spawning ground for younger players who would later grace the national stage. I’d always been a half-decent football player school and university teams and local clubs and, while never realistically aspiring to professional status, the day I turned 23 I had this chilly revelation that I would never again, could never again, be selected for the U-23 soccer side. It was an irrational, brief, yet genuine feeling of sadness I suffered at this realization
I had a similar experience when I eventually attained the age that Lennon had when he died. When he was fatally wounded at 40, I was only 24, and I took a predictable view, perhaps. John hadn’t had such a bad run; this was tragedy of the highest order but at least he’d totted up four decades of rich and rewarding life; he’d reached something close to middle age so perhaps it wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. During those dark days in the wake of Mark Chapman’s crime, I went to Liverpool with thousands of other mourners to say a mass farewell to one of the artistic giants of the century. I’d just embarked on a new and lasting relationship so Lennon’s current song, “Woman”, rang potently in my mind.
In the wintry shadow of St George’s Hall close to Lime Street railway station, I joined a tearful throng to pay my respects. Yet, deep down, I felt that Lennon had achieved so much and hadn’t been, after all, any longer a young man, so some of the grief could be held in check: there was some consolation in devastation. This was not callous pragmatism; it was the complacent naivety of youth. At that point, anyone over 30 appeared almost ancient to me, so Lennon, by that premise, had enjoyed a pretty fair run for his money. However, once I’d reached 40, my perspective, of course, shifted dramatically: I may have hit that chronological mark but I still felt like a late teenager, despite the physical evidence to the contrary.
On 9th October 2004, nearly a quarter of a century on from his New York City murder, Lennon, would have assumed the age of the central character in “When I’m 64”. Bearing in mind the acrimony in recent times between Paul and the surviving representatives of John’s camp over the way their composing credits are published should they remain Lennon & McCartney in all cases with alphabetical rules the guide, or should McCartney & Lennon preside in those cases where Paul was the primary writer? it is slightly surprising that Lennon’s hypothetical birthday should raise much interest at all.
But the Beatles, their lives and legacies, their history and mythology, remain an enduring source of attraction for columnists and headline writers, TV and radio commentators, feeding the hunger of both long-time and new-found fans of the group for new insights and fresh angles. In the UK, at least, the media latched on to this little twist, this small commemoration, with some relish. Yet it raised for me those old questions about the onset of age, the rising tide of maturity, and the way our interpretations shift as the years roll on. McCartney’s cameo of the working class man nearing retirement, grandchildren Vera, Chuck and Dave bouncing on an arthritic knee, is an image now locked in a monochrome past.
No doubt such stereotypes still exist in Manchester or Minneapolis, Melbourne or Marseille, but, in general, the old have been getting younger for some time, now. Sixty-four-year-olds aren’t what they used to be, and I very much doubt that Lennon would have been living the quaint parlour scene played out in McCartney’s ditty. If John now had grandchildren (I’m not sure whether Julian or Sean have produced heirs as yet) I’d hope, instead, he’d be playing out a rather different role: the sexagenarian with a ongoing taste for adolescent pleasure, joining the youngsters for an Ibizan sunset, a session of extreme sports, or a trip out to catch the Strokes on tour.