‘We were all waiting for him to come home’, reveals the Beatle’s sister Julia Baird
For Julia Baird, one of John Lennon’s younger sisters, hearing Yesterday or She Loves You on the radio in a faraway place has extra poignancy.
She was once in the Himalayas, having handed over her passport in return to access to the Dalai Lama’s library, and there was a monk wearing trainers and playing Yellow Submarine on an old cassette.
She was in a tiny French cafe with a basket of torn-up baguette on the table and All You Need is Love started up.
Julia said: “There is nothing private about John.
“There is no escape. It’s easier to be inside than to try to pretend it didn’t happen.”
This is why, when she learned that Cavern Club was looking for investors, she decided overnight to sign herself up.
She said: “I just said to Bill (Heckle – Cavern director) ‘I could do that’. He said, ‘Go and sleep on it’.
“We have the biggest fun. It’s a business, a serious business, but we laugh a lot. The fans are fantastic.”
Julia was too young to see the Beatles perform in the Cavern but she did get to their gigs at Liverpool’s Empire Theatre as well as a particularly memorable concert in London’s Finsbury Park Astoria.
She said: “The Rolling Stones were in the dressing room so we knew they were really famous.
“Everyone was drinking Coca Cola – so we thought. Theirs was laced, ours wasn’t.
“We went on the stage and I wanted to go down to the four rows at the front that were completely empty.”
But when she asked John, he at first said no before reluctantly agreeing.
“So Jackie, and I jumped off the side of the stage. The curtains closed. They were all behind getting ready.
“We’re sitting there and the curtain comes up and John’s doing his She Love’s You bit, bouncing up and down. And everyone from the back appeared at the front.”
Security arrived and John said “Get the girls”.
Julia adds: “We were hauled ignominiously back onto the stage and under the curtain, and John’s still singing. He said, ‘I told you so’.”
Many younger sisters look up to their big brothers, but Julia particularly looked forward to John’s visits to her family home because he lived elsewhere – with his Aunt Mimi in Mendips on Menlove Avenue.
Her earliest memories include “leaping about to Elvis” with John, their little sister Jackie, their cousin Stan – and of course their beloved mother Julia.
Julia said: “She was a dynamo. She was lively and active and musical.
“I’ve called her a woman out of time. I’ve also called John, a man out of his time. They were very, very alike in their talent.
“My father taught her to play the banjo. He came back from sea with a monkey and a banjo. I didn’t meet the monkey, I met the banjo. And he taught my mother to play by ear.
“I remember her leaning over John – he’d have his hands on the frets, and she’d be doing the strumming or the picking, and then they turn it around so that John would be doing the strumming.
“She also played the piano, the ukulele and the piano accordion, which was so big – it was one of the old fashioned ones.
“The great big thick straps crisscrossed and she used to sit down in an armchair and strap herself into it. Remember she was only small. And she put her arms on the arm of the chair and heave herself up to standing and sort of planted her feet.
“You could see it was heavy, but the music was heavenly.”
Life changed irrevocably when their mother was knocked down and killed by a car while crossing the road in 1958.
Julia says they all got on with coping with the shock and grief because they simply had no alternative.
She said: “You have to deal with it. You haven’t got a choice. Carry on, carry on. Either that or jump in the Mersey.
“He was 17. I was 11 and Jackie was eight – so there’s no doubt whatsoever that Jackie was the one that was hit worst.
“John was able to go out and about and express himself in other ways. Paul said in something he wrote that John was on a bus and would go backwards and forwards and not get off it. I suppose it was the only place he could be entirely by himself.”
Later, when The Beatles’ success had exploded and John had built a new life in America, Julia rarely heard from her brother – “We didn’t realise as a family that John was as spaced out as he was.”
But one day in 1974, she was living in Wirral, when her aunt phoned from Edinburgh.
“She said, ‘Julia, stay up till midnight’. I had two children and was tired. ‘John’s going to phone you.”
In the end, Julia was asked to phone her brother, but first she had to answer a list of questions proving her identity. Just as she was losing patience, the final one came – ‘What’s your father’s middle name?’.
“I said, ‘Albert, after Prince Albert’ and he came straight on the phone and said, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry’. And we talked for four hours about everything.
“We talked many, many times after that. We got letters when Sean was born. And the last time I spoke to him, actually, was on November 17, just before he died.”
John had talked of coming home to Merseyside – and was even planning a reunion in Rock Ferry at Ardmore, a large house that had been in the family for many years.
Julia said: “Obviously, we were all waiting for him to come home. And John said in November, ‘There are so many of you we will all have to get together at Ardmore. So we were going to meet in that house.”
Instead, one of the most shocking murders in musical history happened and John was shot dead outside the Dakota Building in New York on December 8, 1980.
His family reunion never took place but Julia’s memories, his inescapable musical legacy and her involvement with The Cavern has kept the siblings close.
During meetings in the organisation’s offices close to Mathew Street, she looks at one of Astrid Kirchherr’s photographs of her brother during The Beatles’ Hamburg days, which hangs on the wall of the boardroom.
Julia said: “That is so the John of my childhood that I feel as if John’s in the room with us.
“I don’t imagine him here. I just think, to me, John is an integral part of the Cavern.
“I don’t believe in ghosts or anything so for me he’s imbued in it, rather than walking around in it. And that’s the picture that reminds me this place is as much John’s as it is ours.”