Imagining with John Lennon's half-sister

Julia Baird makes a visit to TA to promote Liverpool and reminisce about growing up with an icon.

Julia baird 248 88 (photo credit: David Brinn)
Julia baird 248 88
(photo credit: David Brinn)
Like the rest of us, Julia Baird has been listening to The Beatles all her life. It's just that she got an early start in her Beatles appreciation course. Back in the late 1950s, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Baird's half-brother John Lennon - then known as The Quarrymen - use to rehearse daily in her family's kitchen. Together with her mother - also named Julia - and her younger sister Jacqui, the pre-teen Baird would sit for hours listening to the young musicians cut their teeth on their guitar chords and search for a magic blend with their vocal harmonies. "They ended up in my house because my mother allowed it," said the 62-year-old Baird last week sitting in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv. "She was a fun-loving free spirit - she definitely encouraged John, and really enjoyed it herself." Over 50 years later, Baird was still enjoying it - swaying and dancing in her place as local tribute band Magical Mystery Tour plowed through an energetic set spanning 1963's "Love Me Do" through Abbey Road's "The End." "Not bad, not bad at all. When people sing Beatles songs, it doesn't matter where they're from - it always sounds like they're American, doesn't it," she said, laughing. Baird and the Beatles clones converged on Dizengoff Center for the opening of Imagine Liverpool, a new photo exhibition featuring the two mythological symbols of Liverpool: the Beatles and the Liverpool Football Club, the flagship team of English football. "You see an awful lot of The Beatles in Liverpool," said Baird, who runs the Cavern Club Tours, the site of the Beatles' home base where they attracted a rabid following in the early 1960s prompting future manager Brian Epstein to attend an afternoon show. "There's two big Beatles elements in Liverpool - the Magical Mystery tour, which takes you around to Beatles locations throughout the city, and The Beatles Story - the huge permanent exhibition museum in a beautiful setting under the docks," said Baird. "If you're a Beatles fan at all, you have to come." Baird compared the present-day Liverpool - featuring attractions like eight museums, Europe's largest computerized dock, spectacular architecture and Anthony Gormley's acclaimed "Man in the Sea" permanent exhibition - to a Phoenix rising out of the ashes of World War II. "Liverpool was devastated. It had the shipyard, and the Germans wanted to get rid of it. So it was blitzed like London was, night after night," said Baird. "John was born in the middle of that. He was put under the bed straight away, as all the babies were, for their protection. This has got to affect someone," added Baird, who was born seven years after Lennon. Their mother had left the young Lennon with her sister Mimi after being abandoned by her husband. She later moved in close by with a boyfriend and gave birth to Julia and Jacqui, while remaining an integral part of Lennon's early life until her 1958 death in a road mishap. "She was a fun-loving free spirit - her death traumatized everybody, didn't it?" said Baird, with a Liverpudlian habit of adding a rhetorical question at the end of her statements. Lennon later wrote the wrenching ballad from The White Album, "Julia", for his mother. Following their mother's death, Baird and her sister were sent to live with another aunt around the corner from Lennon and Aunt Mimi, where they would continue to get together as a big extended family. "We would still see each other all the time. John always had that sharp wit - it's a Liverpool trait," she said. By then, Lennon was well on his way to his destined path. But while most histories of The Beatles point to music as the only avenue available in order to bust out of Liverpool, Baird insisted that none of the Beatles, especially Lennon, was enthusiastic about leaving their hometown. "The aim of joining a band and making music, as so many young British people did in the mid-50s, wasn't to get out of Liverpool. I suppose there was some of that desperation after the trauma of the war, wasn't it? "But as for getting out of, The Beatles didn't want to leave Liverpool. None of them wanted to leave. John actually didn't leave until November 1963, when he was 23," said Baird. "Brian Epstein had to persuade him, almost order him to leave. John was still going back on the train for six months after all the other Beatles had left for London." Once Lennon moved into his first London-area home with his wife Cynthia and their young son Julian, Baird recalled being invited to visit for the first time. "They had just moved in and there really wasn't furniture, and there was a big hole where their kitchen was going to be put in. They kept sending their housekeeper out to get food for us," said Baird, adding that she's still in touch with Cynthia, who lives in Spain. While contact with Lennon diminished over the years as Baird married and moved to Ireland to raise a family, and Lennon left Cynthia and eventually moved to New York with Yoko Ono, Baird still cherishes certain memories. "My fondest memory of Beatles music was the year I got married in Ireland in 1968. John had just sent me the demo LP for The White Album and we played it over and over again. It was a very happy time, and I still love that music," she said. Baird became a teacher and raised three children before getting divorced and returning to England. In 2004, she wrote Imagine This - Growing up With My Brother John Lennon. Baird spoke to Lennon for the last time in 1977, three years before he was murdered. "We lost touch for a long time. He and Yoko went across to America so quickly. And I was living in Ireland at the time, so we didn't have a lot of contact. You never think there's no tomorrow," she said echoing Lennon's song title "Tomorrow Never Knows." That uncertainty over what the future brings was instrumental in helping Baird to decide to focus her life on The Beatles and on the rich and diverse past and present that Liverpool offers. Aimed at encouraging tourism to Liverpool from Israel, the Imagine Liverpool exhibit brings together action shots of the Liverpool Football Club from their extensive archive, along with rare photographs of The Beatles' 1968 journey to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh. And while both exhibits are based in the past, according to Jerry Goldman - the director of The Beatles Story - events that occurred the day before the exhibit's opening demonstrated their relevancy in the world, and most specifically, in Israel. "Not many people are talking about The Beatles in India anymore. But last night Paul and Ringo [Starr] got together to sing - and what's it all about? The Beatles in India," he said at the exhibit's opening, referring to a benefit show in New York last weekend that McCartney and Starr performed at to promote the international meditation program of filmmaker David Lynch. "Then we needed a bit of 'imagination' for the football side. So last night, our friend Yossi Benayoun scored the winning goal for Liverpool and becomes a hero again," added Goldman, citing the Israeli player's heart-stopping goal last Saturday in the second minute of injury time to give Liverpool a 1-0 win at Fulham to claim top spot in the Premier League ahead of Manchester United. "So here we have plugs from Paul McCartney and Yossi Benayoun to make sure Imagine Liverpool is a great success," he said. According to Goldman, the idea to launch Imagine Liverpool in Tel Aviv, before moving on to other European cities, was hatched last year when McCartney performed here. "We initially compiled a whole list of cities - Dublin, Rome, Madrid - where we wanted to bring the exhibit. Then McCartney invited us to come to his concert last year as his personal guests. "We saw that if there was one city in the world with a great concentration of Beatles fans and Liverpool fans - and a place where people love to travel - it was Tel Aviv," said Goldman. "So, from not even appearing on our list of cities, Tel Aviv ended up being the first place we've come to with Imagine Liverpool." Baird, in her remarks to the 100 guests invited to the opening of the exhibit, which will be running until the end of the month, also referred to Lennon's longtime partner McCartney, as well as The Beatles' infamous 1966 Israel "ban." "The story goes that some politico or president was afraid The Beatles would have been a bad influence on Israeli youth. Well, they probably would have been a bad influence. But I'm glad that Paul was finally able to come last year to perform," she said. Earlier, sitting in the foyer of the exhibit, Baird lightheartedly recalled the influence her brother had on her life back when they were both young Liverpool scruffs, pre-Beatles hysteria. "Back then, if a girl had a brother, which they normally did because families were really big, it wouldn't be 'does he play an instrument? It would be 'what does he play?' It was kind of a status thing," she said. "So my brother played lead guitar and was the lead singer and wrote the songs as well - so I was quite set," she said with a laugh that could accurately be described as Lennonesque.