John Lennon and Me by Hunter Davies
I have just received a copy from Paris, France, of the catalogue for their major John Lennon exhibition. It's opened at the Musée de la Musique to coincide with the anniversary of his death and will run till June next year. The catalogue is a whopper, 240 pages, with earnest essays entitled "John Lennon, Héritier des Fifties" (inheritor of the Fifties) and "L'Attitude Psychédélique de John Lennon".
I haven't seen the exhibition, but it sounds fab, or whatever the French is for fab. The same probably. They're just copycats. I was invited to the opening party and to a banquet to meet all the big fromages. This is because I have loaned them one of my Lennon manuscripts (the original of Help!) for their exhibition. Didn't go though. Well, it is the football season.
The catalogue makes me smile, seeing and feeling all the reverence oozing out of its pages, especially when I think back to the beginning of Beatlemania in 1963. The French were very slow to catch on, to show much interest in buying Beatles records, unlike the Americans and Scandinavians, preferring their own old-style French be-bop stars and soppy ballads.
It also made me think back to not long before John's death in 1980 - 25 years ago this week. I remember noticing how John's image had changed. The British public, if they thought much about him, seemed to regard him as a figure from the past who had gone off with that funny woman, hadn't produced anything for years, was now a bit potty, become a recluse, what a shame, I used to like him.
The moment he died, of course, it all changed. He became an immediate icon - and has stayed there ever since.
His iconic status has increased every year because an unexpected thing has happened. Unexpected, at least to me. The further we get from the Beatles, the bigger they become.
In musical influence, they head almost any poll that ever gets taken. As a subject for academic research, you can do a PhD in Beatles studies at almost any university anywhere. As a source of employment, there are Beatles shops and dealers in every country. A Beatles Fair is held every day somewhere round the world. Prices of Beatles memorabilia shoot up all the time.
Politically, there's a body of opinion which thinks that the Beatles, and John Lennon in particular with "Give Peace a Chance", helped to persuade America to get out of Vietnam - and also brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The latter sounds a bit far-fetched, but I was aware when I made a trip to Russia in 1987 how middle-class Russian teenagers had read my biography of the Beatles even though it was banned at the time - as were the Beatles. They grew up refusing to consider all Western culture as decadent, preferring Lennon to Lenin.
"It sounds ridiculous," so Milos Forman, the Czech-born film director, has been quoted as saying, "but I'm convinced the Beatles are partly responsible for the fall of Communism".
It is, of course, the music that matters and why John's death will always serve as a focus for our attention and, yes, devotion. They gave us 100 songs which will be sung as long as we are on the planet and have the breath to hum the tunes.
I didn't always think this. While working on their biography in 1966-68, I loved doing it so much that I didn't want it to stop, to research it for ever - to hang around in Abbey Road rather than sit down and write the book. But at the same time, I used to think that some other group would come along and replace them, who would be just as creative at composing and playing and recording, but who would do even better, sell more records, make more money. It seemed obvious. That's how humanity works. Everything gets replaced. But it never did.
Michael Jackson has perhaps sold more of certain records, but no one since the Beatles has come anywhere near their level of creative genius. The nearest, in my personal opinion, has been Bob Marley.
So, we are stuck with them, in a sense. And anniversaries of John's death, and other events in the Beatles chronology, will be celebrated for ever. TV will constantly be making Beatles programmes, trotting out the same archive material. The cover of the Radio Times every year at this time will always show John Lennon.
I'll listen and watch and read while scoffing because their music has not dimmed in my ears nor their memory gone from my mind.
The first memory that always comes back is swimming in John's pool at his house in Weybridge. I'd gone to spend the day with him, but when I arrived, it turned out he had decided it was a day for not talking. I walked round his garden with him, not talking. Cynthia made lunch and we ate it, not talking. I sat with John in his cramped little den, under a sticker saying "Safe as Milk" while he watched children's television, not talking.
Then we had a swim, round and round in his pool, not talking, but while we were swimming, we suddenly heard the noise of a police siren floating up the hill from Weybridge itself. It was giving that familiar two-note wail - Ah, ahh, ah ahh, ah, ahh. John started playing with the two notes - humming them, while not actually talking.
Then he went inside, went to his piano, till he had turned the two notes into a song, or at least half a song. John was very good at half songs, quickly growing bored, often needing Paul to coax the other half out of him. A lot of their joint working sessions were like competitions - to show the other what they could do, or make the other do better.
That particular tune didn't appear on any record till Let It Be, when I recognised it on "Across the Universe". I should imagine John had forgotten its origins by then.
On 25 August 1967, I travelled with the Beatles on a train from London to Bangor in North Wales to meet the Maharishi. Their road managers and wives got left behind at Euston in the crush, so I was in a first-class compartment with the four of them, plus Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, all in their flower-power clothes.
I watched carefully the atmosphere between John and Jagger. They seemed friendly enough, but a bit distant, guarded. That was the weekend Brian Epstein died - it wasn't suicide, although he did have suicidal tendencies.
Some weeks later I asked John about his relationship with Jagger. He said he'd always envied Mick - not his music, but the way from the beginning the Stones had dressed on stage, all scruffy and menacing, whereas Brian had put the Beatles in neat little matching suits and told them not to smoke on stage. John told me that he had hated all that. But of course he'd done it, been persuaded that it had to be done, to be accepted by audiences in 1961.
I argued that but for the Beatles, who of course had quickly changed their style with success, the Stones would never have got away with being so scruffy. So the Beatles made the Stones.
I also have an image of John at the party for family and friends which the Beatles gave for Magical Mystery Tour just before Christmas in 1967. Everyone had to come in fancy dress. Mine was pathetic - a Boy Scout's uniform, borrowed from a kid in our street, and my wife was dressed as a Girl Guide.
John turned up as a rocker, with greased back hair, drain pipes, brothel creepers, just as he used to look in the 1950s. Or how he liked to believe he looked. His hard-man image, as a tough Teddy boy, was mainly romance. He always ran a mile at the first sight of any physical trouble.
How tragic that on 8 December, when approached for his autograph outside the Dakota apartment in New York where he lived, that he hadn't sensed any danger...
Hunter Davies, author of the band's only authorised biography, 'The Beatles', available in an illustrated version from Cassells, £15, is working on his memoirs, 'The Beatles, Football and Me' to be published by Headline next autumn>
An interesting interview with Hunter Davies (with a few small Beatles and Brian pics) is at Retrosellers.com