The Ignoble Alf

Halfway-knowledgeable music fans know that John Lennon was raised mostly by his Aunt Mimi, sister to his mother Julia, 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. Since Father’s Day is Sunday, it’s an appropriate time to tell you about him.

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.

“That’s My Life (My Love and My Home)”/Freddie Lennon (buy it here)

3 responses

  1. As a fan who always considered himself a Beatles expert your last 3 paragraphs are mostly new knowledge to me. I never knew Freddy Lennon made a record. Thanks for the great post!!!!! Very informative (and I believe I mentioned this to you before) is the Larry Kane bio on John. Larry erases some of the enigma around Julia. He never actually states it in his book but he is the only biographer who even gives anyone a hint that the reason Julia could never care for John is that she was a professional lady of the evening. Either that, or I was too dumb to figure it out when I read previous biographies.

  2. “Alf was working as a dishwasher in a nearby hotel, and one afternoon, he knocked at the Lennons’ door.”

    I’m astounded that you could just walk up and knock on John Lennon’s door in 1965.
    I’m also astounded that Cynthia would let you in.
    (In her defense, Alf apparently bore a pretty good resemblance to John, and maybe he offered other familial details that proved he was who he claimed to be. Still, when I’m a rock star, my wife will be under orders not to admit any random old Alf Paprika who comes ringin’ the bell.)

  3. First time I’ve ever heard the actual single, and you’re right. The opening bars are strikingly similar to “Imagine”; I wonder if John kept a couple of singles around and listened to them occasionally, planting the seed for his song. Also, although Alf couldn’t carry a tune, he could definitely pass for John when he spoke.

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