It’s a little game you play with yourself, now and then, even though you know you shouldn’t, because there are no good answers. What would he have been like, at 50, at 60… at 70? So many people believe they know, most of them journalists, and you try to avoid reading their confident predictions. They inevitably make you angry. Not least because as much as you scoff and and tell yourself he would, too, laugh about these people who claim to know all about him, there is that niggling question: how can you be sure they’re wrong? Some of them saw more of him than you did during the 70s.
Your own memories are somewhat treacherous and not always reliable. It’s a hour full of laughter when Klaus tries to get you, George and Ringo to describe meeting Elvis to him and ends up with three completely different stories. But afterwards, you wonder how much that would be true of any given event in your life, especially those involving John. It’s certainly true of your mother. And may even be true of Linda, who was longer with you than both of them, was with you most days during thirty years of her life, and you’re sure, so sure it was a happy one, but then you come across one of her old friends at a New York party, and he, feeling the liberty to speak now that you’ve been married and divorced again and they have no longer to treat you as a grieving widower, makes it clear in no uncertain terms he thinks Linda would have left you in the 80s if not for the children, and that you had been forcing a life on her which she had not wanted. He’s wrong, he must be wrong, he hardly talked to Linda more than once or twice a year, and yet, and yet, can you be sure? Really sure? Any more than you can be sure John and you were rebuilding your friendship as opposed to having the thinnest of truces? Can you be sure those who claim it never would have gotten better are wrong?
You can’t be sure. Some things you have to take on faith. And that’s one of many reasons why seeking out the others who, like you, confounded predictions and are still alive becomes increasingly important to you. Klaus in his earnest German way once says it’s because each of you carries a bit of the dead with you as well, different memories, and you see that in each other, and you don’t disagree, but to you it’s also about seeing possibilities of what might have been.
You and Marianne seem to run into each other mostly in Paris, because she lives in France these days, and sometimes, when you sit together in a bar chatting easily about this and that, nothing serious, you think: none of you got as close to death and destruction as she did. The wrinkles around her eyes come across as those of laughter, but her voice, a full octave lower than it used to be when you were young, carries the memories of a coma, life on the streets and everyone but strangers turning their back while she chose heroin over everything, including her child, with it. Yet Marianne survived, got a second career, and now she regularly earns better reviews than the lot of you. Her son has forgiven her, and she sees him regularly. And you think: if it was possible for her, it would have been for John. No matter what was true about those final years, if he was mostly happy, as Yoko swore he was, or a half lunatic hermit, as Julian with John’s own angry voice you can’t bear from him at once hissed, whether the John making a joke about becoming Mimi and bantering with you on the phone about cats or the John telling you to fuck off was the one dominant at the end: if Marianne could come back from the abyss, live into a happy, triumphant, forgiving old age, then John could have, too.
“I loved what you did with the Fireman,” she says, adds a few details about the songs, and though you try, you can’t hide how pleased you are to hear this. Because this isn’t one of your employees, your children, or a friendly journalist. It’s Marianne, who has no need to pay anyone compliments anymore and no compunction to call anyone on their bullshit.
You must have beamed, because she smiles in turn and says: “You’re still like a kid, you know.”
“Hey,” you say mock-indignant, “I’m older than you.” And you remember Marianne at 17, straight out of the convent, shy and eager for all life had to offer and so very, very impressed by you and Jane when her future husband introduces you.
“Yes,” she shoots back, “but I dye my hair better.” She winks. “More practice. I meant it, though. Sing the Changes is gorgeous. Made me wonder why we never fucked back in the day.”
She laughs and hits you on the head. “You’d better remember if we had. We would’ve if you’d written me something like that instead of Et Cetera.”
No disagreement on Et Cetera, which will never see the light of day, you think, and try to remember why you never had sex with Marianne, who was undoubtedly your type, a beautiful, full breasted blonde with music in her. Not because of Mick. Maybe because of John Dunbar, who was a real friend. Or maybe because Marianne herself was. A friend, that is. Back then ,you didn’t think of most of the women you went to bed with as friends.
Then you think of the last full breasted blonde woman you shared a bed with, who was most definitely not your friend, and your face falls before you can stop yourself. Marianne, mistaking the reason for your mood swing, sighs, touches your forehead with her fingertips and says: “Relax. I didn’t really want to. I liked the idea of you as my big brother too much. You know which of you I fancied like hell back then?”
You’re half expecting her to name George because you think they might have had a one night stand at some point – your girlfriend Maggie, who was Marianne’s babysitter, told you something like that one lazy afternoon at Marianne’s flat -, and half fearing she’d name John, but she says: “Brian.”
She is a nice girl, you hear Brian Epstein say in your memory, charmed by Marianne but utterly clueless about the fact she was flirting with him, such a nice girl.
“But Brian was…”
“Well, yes,” she says impatiently. “But you know, there isn’t really anything a man can do for you that a woman can’t with a dildo and some imagination. Of course, I didn’t know that then, or I’d have done more than batting my eyelashes at him.”
The image disturbs you more than it should. Possibly because you think that Marianne as a boy would have been Brian’s type, and possibly because it makes you wonder, for the thousandth time, about Barcelona and the question you never asked, even if everyone else does these days. You could change the subject with a jest, or a compliment of your own about her latest album, but the great thing about being with someone like Marianne is that you don’t have to make the effort if you don’t want to; you can just be honest about your reason.
“Call me a square if you like, but let’s not talk about Brian’s possible sex life,” you say.
She looks at you shrewdly. “Better not to imagine some possibilities, hm?”
But wasn’t that what you were doing with her? Imagining possibilities and might have beens?
“You know what the difference between us is?” she asks. “Other than all the lovely cash and the gorgeous songs and the fact your children never had anything to forgive, that is. You’re a working class lad from up north who never stopped believing in repression and the obligation to do better. I’m an aristocrat, darling, the world was always my goddamn oyster, and I only started to realize I had to get my act together when it was almost too late, but the one thing I was ever so good at was lack of denial. Though it’s easier if you don’t have to care what people think because there’s always someone else paying for your living, I’ve got to admit.”
“Or you could just call me a square,” you say, eyebrows raised, and you’ve made her laugh once more, voice as low and hoarse as a man’s now. Then she stands up, saunters to the band of the bar you’re sitting in, who were playing some jazz until now, and whispers something to them. A minute later she’s singing John’s Working Class Hero, and the mixture of amusement and irritation this evokes in you is so painfully familiar that it chokes you for a while until you can breathe again, and enjoy the rendition.
“Her version is better than yours,” you tell the ghost of John at twenty one, sitting with you in such a club here in Paris, mocking the French obsession with jazz and secretly impressed by the cool clothes everyone was wearing.
“You’re just jealous because she covers my songs now instead of yours,” John would have replied, though certainly not at twenty one, and for a moment, you can almost see him, John who never was, white hair, the knowledge of destruction and rebirth in his eyes, leaning back to enjoy the show.
You didn’t see that much of Keith in the old days. Of Mick, yes, mostly with Marianne, and a lot of Brian Jones, but not so much Keith, and yet you find yourself wandering to his house night after night in the month your second marriage falls apart for good, and he never asks why. Why you’ve taken it in your head to become beach buddies this late in life, whether there isn’t a better way to spend your holidays after your little daughter, the child of your old age, is put to sleep. He never tells you he has other things to do, either. Instead he asks you for your Roy Orbison parody because he remembers how funny that was, bitches about Mick and his ego one moment and recommends Patrick O’Brien’s novels to you the next.
“Didn’t know you were into costume drama,” you say, vaguely remembering this O’Brien fellow writes something set in the Regency era; Mary likes his novels, too.
“I’m not,” Keith replies, and proceeds to inform you it’s all about the great friendship between some people named Aubrey and Maturin, and how they remind him of Mick and himself. In the next hour, he’ll mention how unbearable Mick is again, and how they make sure their wardrobes are far way from each other these days and only talk if they have to.
“But you’re still touring,” you say, and Keith, far sadder than warranted, replies: “Yes, we are.”
They were always what might have been, the Stones in general and Keith and Mick in particular. The other group. The one who stayed together, at least the core three of them, with some other members coming and going in between. The songwriters who still manage shared effort now and then. The ones who aren’t divided into a dead saint and a living commercial hack but two impressive relics past their glory days, neither better than the other.
It’s impossible not to wonder. They must, too. Whether they would exchange it for what you have; whether you would exchange it for what they do. It could have gone their way, you think, feeling the sand beneath your bare feet as you trek to Keith’s house yet again. Maybe. If you hadn’t insisted that only the Beatles were the Beatles. If you had allowed other members in. If George had genuinenly left and returned, maybe, after finding out the solo life wasn’t what he’d thought it would be. If you’d managed better with Yoko. If John had felt he could live with you both, that he didn’t have to choose.
But. It would have made you one of several, for starters. A group that was on the top for a while, and then wasn’t anymore. And you and John, maybe you would have worked things out, and maybe you would be like Mick and Keith now, the state of being as it was between you in 1969 stretched into the eternity of decades, only with even the passion of anger gone, and only old habit and the awareness of something lost still binding you together.
One evening, Keith teases you about what he calls the Northern habit of holding guitars too high and too close, and somehow this ends up with you and him sitting opposite each other, playing in mirror fashion, left hand to right hand and back, watching each other’s fingers as you slip in and out of melodies and jam, competing and harmonizing at the same time, and you murmur:
“John and I used to do that together.”
“I remember,” Keith says even as his fingers continue, and so do yours.
“You can’t,” you say, very focused now. You haven’t felt this alive in a long time. “You weren’t there.”
In Liverpool, you mean, when John and you taught each other, or on tour in any of those hotel rooms, vans, air planes or trains. Not even in the studio. Mick and Brian Jones were there when you recorded Yellow Submarine, but not Keith.
“But I was,” Keith says. “When you two showed off for us. God, I’ll never forget that. Walking in there, oh, you want a song, lads, sure, Paul has a lick we could finish, and then you just did it. In front of us. We were so jealous we could have strangled you. In a very grateful way, of course. That’s what got us writing, I mean, if two blokes from the North could do that…”
He’s really into his riff now, I wanna be your man, that throwaway song for the Stones, and now you remember again. “Admit it,” Keith says. “You were so showing off. Cheeky buggers.”
“Of course we were,” you say, and then you let your guitar do the talking, because you’re not to be outdone, even by the world’s most famous living guitarist.
A very satisfying hour of jamming later, you’re sharing a Scotch and Coke for old times’ sake though he insists it was always a sissy drink Southerners wouldn’t go for, and you ask: “Ever wish we hadn’t?”
On the surface, it’s a silly question. If not for that day, something else would have driven Mick and Keith to start composing songs of their own. You know that. If you have the talent and are in a band, playing, it will happen, sooner or later. But what you’re really asking is something else, and Keith is a musician, too, so he deciphers your meaning beneath the sound of your words.
“It wouldn’t have been a life, man,” he says. “If we’d missed out on that. Wouldn’t have been a life.”
“Guess not,” you say, and suddenly you’re sure that you would make the exchange. Maybe not in terms of the group. But in terms of John dead, or John alive and estranged from you the way Mick and Keith are. The whole miserable emptiness of 1969 into eternity, even that. For John to be alive and sitting opposite of you right now, playing. You blink and are sure you’ll embarrass yourself soon, and so you say goodbye for now, claiming parental responsibility, though you’re sure Bea is sleeping safe and sound.
“You’ll come back tomorrow, won’t you?” Keith asks eagerly and for the first time. He never did in the previous nights. It occurs to you that he, too, is looking for might have beens when he’s with you, because there are ghosts of the living as well as the dead.
“Count on it,” you say, and mean it.
Sean tells you the story of how a New York cabbie asked him whether he was Paul McCartney’s daughter when Sean was 15, and you laugh, despite having heard it before. It’s a reassuring feeling that the young can be repetitive as well as the old. You’re attending one of Stella’s shows, and so is Yoko, with her son, who manages to look like both his parents and yet not. Odd how time flies; one moment, a child is a baby you’re not allowed to touch, and the next it wears a beard and argues with Howard Stern on the radio.
“And what did you say?” you ask obligingly, because you’re certain your children play along when you tell stories as well, indulging you in your need to get to the punchline.
But Sean surprises you, because he changes his answer.
“I said yes,” he replies. “No point in arguing, is there?” He hesitates, bites his lips and then says, in a voice completely unlike either John or Yoko and utterly his own: “Besides, I guess you’re a lot like him, you know. My dad. The closest thing to how he’d be if he’d lived.”
For a heartbeat, you’re taken aback. Most people insist on how different the two of you were, except for Linda, and she was the only one to say otherwise out loud. Yoko who is standing a bit away, chatting amiably with Stella, picks that moment to look at you. You’re reminded that you’ve known her now for longer than John has been allowed to live. Sometimes you wonder whether she, too, has days when she wakes up and can’t remember his face as living, moving, animated, as opposed to to the frozen image in thousands of photos, and other days when she wakes up and has forgotten, for a few precious minutes, he is dead.
“Our children are wiser than we are,” Yoko says with a complimentary nod to Stella, who later explains she convinced Yoko to participate in the Meat Free Monday campaign.
You look at Sean, and you don’t have to wonder what John would have said or felt.