A Son and His Father

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(Pictured: Alf Lennon, down the pub with an unidentified woman, 1966.) 

Halfway-knowledgeable music fans know that John Lennon was raised mostly by his aunt Mimi, sister to his mother Julia. Julia was an enigmatic character who moved in and out of her son’s life until she was run over by a car in 1958, when John was 17. Julia’s legend endures largely because she inspired one of Lennon’s most beautiful songs, “Julia,” one of his bleakest, “Mother,” and one of his oddest, “My Mummy’s Dead.” On the other hand, you’re probably some kind of expert if you know anything about Lennon’s father.

Alfred Lennon, known to the family as Alf, had married Julia in 1938. He was a merchant seaman who spent all but three months of World War II away from his family. After the war, disapproving of the way young John was being raised by Julia, Alf secretly planned to emigrate to New Zealand with the boy. In the inter-familial row that followed discovery of his plan, five-year-old John was offered a choice between living with his father and living with his mother. He chose his father, only to change his mind immediately thereafter. He would not see Alf again for nearly 20 years.

At the height of Beatlemania in 1964, Alf turned up at Brian Epstein’s office in the company of a reporter. John saw him briefly, but then ordered him to leave. A year later, John and his wife Cynthia bought a house in Weybridge, near London. As it turned out, Alf was working as a dishwasher in a nearby hotel, and one afternoon, he knocked at the Lennons’ door. Cynthia invited him in, but he left before John returned home. Initially, John was not pleased by the visit, although he did make an effort to contact his father later in the year. The relationship quickly foundered when Alf attempted to capitalize on John’s fame by making a record himself. John’s embarrassment over the ensuing press coverage caused him to nickname his ne’er-do-well father “the ignoble Alf.”

In 1967, Lennon’s father appeared in John’s life again, this time with a new 18-year-old wife, Pauline. (At the time, Alf was 54.) John eventually gave Pauline a job as nanny to his son Julian, but that arrangement lasted only a few months. The birth of Alf and Pauline’s first child caused another rift between Alf and John. In 1976, Alf got cancer; shortly before his death, John spoke to him on the phone and the two men reconciled. Alf Lennon died in April 1976 at age 63. John offered to pay for the funeral, but Pauline refused.

About that record Alf made: “That’s My Life (My Love and My Home)” was recorded late in 1965 and released under the name Freddie Lennon. As a boy, Lennon’s father had briefly been a vaudevillian, he could impersonate Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong, and he played the banjo, so it’s likely that his co-writer credit with a showbiz agent named Tony Cartwright is legit. Because the only thing most people knew about Lennon’s father was that he had been a sailor, the choice of subject matter—the joys of a life at sea—was obvious. “That’s My Life” spent two weeks on the Radio London chart during the first two weeks of 1966, although the pirate station dropped it afterward, supposedly at John’s request.

The similarity in title to the recent Beatles song “In My Life” was widely noted at the time. Noted in later years is the similarity to “Imagine,” which was nearly six years in the future when “That’s My Life” was written. Nevertheless, without the family connection to John, it’s unlikely that “That’s My Life” would have made the radio in 1966, or that anybody would bother remembering it now.

(Rebooted from a post that originally appeared on June 18, 2010. Listening to “That’s My Life” again, it’s remarkable how much John sounded like his father despite not living with him while he was growing up.)

2 thoughts on “A Son and His Father

  1. It must have been supremely galling to John Lennon to be abandoned by his father and then have the guy show up again after he was famous. Lennon had plenty of flaws as a human being, but it is a point in his favor that he entertained Alf’s presence at all.

    FWIW, Mark Lewisohn downplays the story of young Lennon being forced to choose between his parents, saying the situation was much less dramatic than has been described.

  2. porky

    A little further digging reveals that this track was re-released in the UK in 2018 on the Right Recordings label, its only release Thanks to Record Store Day and its ilk such ephemera is being released at a shocking rate (on vinyl, of course!) for modern day hipsters.

    In what appears to be a press release from the label they state that this Lennon recording is “believed to be the first ever known recordings of musicians Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.” True? Possibly, but who knows. Lots of late 60’s and 70’s UK stars cut their teeth doing studio sessions, especially Led Zeppelin.

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