Julia - Reviews

Reviewed by Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head:

The last of the sequence of folk-style finger-picking songs on The Beatles (see BLACKBIRD), and the last number to be recorded for the double-album as a whole, JULIA is psychologically one of Lennon's fulcrum pieces: a message to his dead mother telling her that, in 'ocean child' (the Japanese meaning of Yoko), he has finally found a love to replace her and that he can now relinquish his quasi-oedipal obsession (see YES IT IS).

Born in 1914, Julia Stanley married Freddy Lennon in 1938, giving birth to John in 1940. When their marriage broke up two years later, John was adopted by Julia's sister Mimi and her husband George Smith, and he went to live with them at Mendips, their house in Menlove Avenue. Meanwhile, Julia set up home with John Dykins, by whom she had two illegitimate children. When he was six, John became the subject of a fraught tug-of-love between his parents, at the height of which he ran after Julia in the street sobbing 'Mummy, don't leave me'. After this, while continuing to live with George and Mimi, he saw his mother more frequently. Following the second crisis in his life (Uncle George's death in 1955), John and his mother grew closer. A free spirit, she was a laughing lover of life who positively encouraged the rebel in him. Siding with him and his friends against censorious adults, she followed the progress of The Quarry Men with genuine interest, teaching them tunes on her banjo. To John, Julia was a semi-dreamfigure ('a young aunt or a big sister'): the only human being he had ever loved without reservation. Her death in a road accident outside Mendips on 15th July 1958 shattered him, and for the next two years he was consumed by 'a blind rage', drinking wildly and incessantly getting into fights. That his new friend Paul McCartney had also lost his mother in his teens brought them close despite their temperamental differences, while The Beatles gave Lennon a sanity-saving purpose. However, his relationships with women, who found themselves endlessly measured against the incomparable Julia, remained angry and often violent [1].

JULIA, with which Yoko Ono helped [2], expiates Lennon's tortured devotion to his mother. In the incantatory repeated notes of its intro, the song suggests an offering to an ancestral spirit: an attempt to break an obsession by commending the supplicant's new earthly love in the hope of a blessing. The heart of this ritual - the transfer of Lennon's love from Julia to Yoko - is its ten-bar middle where a quasi-oriental scale implies that the accompanying image ('Her hair of floating sky is shimmering') applies to both women: Julia in his boyhood memory, Yoko in his present and future thoughts. (Ono sent him many cryptic postcards while he was in India, one of which asserted that she was a cloud and that he should look for her in the sky [3].)

Lennon's most childlike and self-revealing song, JULIA is almost too personal for public consumption. Nor did it succeed in laying his mother-fixation, as the exorcisms of 'Mother' and 'My Mummy's Dead' on his first solo album prove. To a great extent, Julia Lennon was her son's muse. Once he had rid his soul of grief for her, his creativity forfeited its pressure and, during his more reconciled final decade, his output lost most of the edge and forcefulness it displayed at its fundamentally unhappy zenith in the mid-Sixties.

Notes:

  1. According to McCartney, Julia was 'a very beautiful woman, very good-looking, with long red hair ... John absolutely adored her, and not just because she was his mum'.
  2. Her influence is detectable in the song's haiku-like images. (She may have suggested 'seashell eyes', taken from the then-fashionable Lebanese mystical poet Kahlil Gibran.)
  3. The Oedipal aspect of Lennon's love for Julia was replicated in his marriage to Ono (whom he called 'Mother Superior'), she being frequently cast in a maternal role, an arrangement in which each colluded.

Posted: 18 nov 2014

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