Give this Lennon piece
one more chance (April 2, 2021)
It is well known that John Lennon had a lot of
trouble getting songs “right,” just the way he wanted them. “Strawberry
Fields Forever” is the most obvious case in point, as it wound up in
multiple early versions---with two different tempo/key takes famously edited
together at his suggestion (by engineer Geoff Emerick) for the finished
When you factor in
Lennon’s well-known post-Beatles comment to producer George Martin that he
would redo all his Beatles songs, especially “Strawberry Fields,” you
get an idea of how complex and quicksilver were his musical notions.
One can only wonder what he might think of the amazing and
somewhat tortured saga of one of his last songs, “Grow Old With Me,” which
he originally intended to be done with strings (and, presumably, his piano
accompaniment.) Consider: *Cassettes containing
various demo versions of the song were stolen from the Dakota after
*A tinny-sounding, lone
remaining piano demo, recorded in Lennon’s bedroom in November, 1980 with a
rhythm box accompaniment, was released on the posthumous “Milk and Honey”
album in 1983.
*The so-called Threetles
rejected the same 11/80 take as a reunion Beatles song in 1994-95,
reportedly because it was either too technically difficult to work with, or
that Harrison deemed it “too sad,” given the fact that Lennon was not around
to “grow old.” Or both.
*Ono, in a wonderful
gesture, asked Beatles producer George Martin in 1998 to write an orchestral
score for the 11/80 demo, and this version appeared on the John Lennon
Anthology and compilation album, Working Class Hero. *The various stolen
demo versions---some with piano and some with guitar backing (listen
https://youtu.be/Uvxl9CFNzE4) ---showed up on bootlegs, and on Youtube
in 2009, often in far superior sound quality to the officially released
*An altered version of
the Martin orchestral take was released this year---40 years after the
recording of the demo that forms the basis of the track---on John Lennon:Gimme Some Truth, the Ultimate Mixes, produced by
Simon Hilton, Paul Hicks, Sam Gannon, with Sean Ono
*Ringo Starr released a
version of the song, with Paul McCartney on bass and backing vocal, in 2019,
allegedly because Lennon had suggested it for him on tape. Jack Douglas,
who produced Lennon’s last sessions, did a string arrangement---as per
Lennon’s expressed wish---with Daniel Cole. *Two renditions
produced recently by anonymous fans for Youtube are, in this writer’s
opinion, better than all officially released Lennon versions. (More later.)
Obviously disappointed that the “Threetles”
had passed on the song, Ono enlisted Martin to give it the kind of
beautiful arrangement Lennon might have envisioned, to “give the
song a home,” as she told me.
The song, of course, began as Lennon’s answer to Ono’s “Let Me Count The
Ways,” inspired by the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet of the same name.
Ono phoned Lennon, who was on his legendary sailing holiday in Bermuda, to
sing it for him, then suggested that he “answer” her song, using a line from
poem by Browning’s poet husband, Robert.
“John called me
that afternoon,” Ono wrote in the liner notes for Milk and Honey,
where both songs appeared. “'Hey, you won't believe this!' He explained that
he was watching the TV, a '50s film of a baseball player. In the film, John
saw the girlfriend send a poem to her baseball player, a poem which was one
by Robert Browning called ‘Grow Old Beside Me.' . . .John proudly played his
song over the phone.” In fact,
the poem was Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” whose first lines
became the first lines of Lennon’s song: “Grow old along with me / The best
is yet to be. . .” The result was one of his gentlest anthems, in the
general vein of “Good Night,” “Because,” or “Beautiful Boy.” (The movie, by
the way, was recently established by Beatles author Kenneth Womack as having
been the 1978 made-for-TV movie, “A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig
Story” — about the New York Yankees legend who died at the age of 37 from
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.)
Ono confirmed to me in a 1998 interview that Lennon had intended the song to
be recorded with strings. Originally intended for Double Fantasy, a
formal studio recording of “Grow Old. . .” was postponed in order that the
comeback album be finished for Christmas. Thus the 11/80 Dakota bedroom demo
became the definitive version, released posthumously as the penultimate
track on Milk and Honey, which otherwise consisted of unfinished
studio takes of songs leftover from the Double Fantasy sessions. Obviously
disappointed that the “Threetles” had passed on the song, Ono enlisted
Martin to give it the kind of beautiful arrangement Lennon might have
envisioned, to “give the song a home,” as she put it. Martin scored an
elegant, tender accompaniment with strings, flute, and electric bass
(sounding very much like Paul McCartney, but reportedly played by Martin’s
son, Giles.) Sad to say, little could be done to enhance the sound quality
of the mono cassette demo, let alone to remove the obtrusive smack of
the rhythm box.
And so it
seemed the song was finally “finished,” or at least as finished as it could
be, with the Martin version. Then came those demos of better sound
quality---the cassettes taken from the Dakota many years earlier---surfacing
on Youtube in 2009. Lennon’s singing was much more prominent and clear than
on the 11/80 piano demo (and there was no rhythm box!), which begged the
question: why didn’t the Lennon Estate “fix” the existing “Grow Old With Me”
by substituting one of these superior demos (or combining the best of them),
integrating with Martin’s arrangement?
“The songs all began with an explanation, a
lot of it funny, and all of them ended with, ‘What a piece of crap.
I’m going to give it to Ringo for his solo album.’”
That question became all the more pertinent with the Oct. 9, 2020 release
of John Lennon: Gimme Some Truth, the Ultimate Mixes boxed set. “Grow
Old With Me” was among the remixes, in its third officially released
incarnation (fourth if you count Ringo’s.) It appears that the production
team of Ono Lennon and company opted to start the song with a different demo
of Lennon at piano, and then, at the 54-second mark, weave the Martin
arrangement into the proceedings---utilizing, again, the original 11/80
demo. Much effort was apparently expended to mute the rhythm box beat, but
it is still annoyingly apparent. So where
the Ultimate Mix version tried but failed to create a definitive
version, Ringo arguably accomplished exactly that, with Jack Douglas, a year
earlier. This remarkable recording brought the key down to Starr’s range,
and showcased the then-79-year-old drummer’s still strong singing voice, and
very touching, heartfelt interpretation. Add the fact that Paul is on the
track, and that the string part---reminiscent of Martin’s own arrangement
for the song---quotes a phrase from Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” and, in
a way, it becomes a Beatles song.
“I was really
emotional when Jack Douglas, the producer who produced John, mentioned it to
me,” Ringo told Rob LeDonne in a GQ Magazine interview. “At the beginning
of the demo, you can hear John say, ‘Oh, this would be good for Richard
Starkey… this would be great for you, Ring!’” It seems
unlikely that Lennon would have suggested “Grow Old With Me” for Starr,
as it was meant specifically to be an answer to Ono’s “Let Me Count the
Ways.” Yet in interviews with Douglas, it becomes clear that Lennon, who was
not confident in the quality of his work during the “house husband” period
in the Dakota (or arguably ever), used “Give it to Ringo” and variations of
that sentence as a catch-all dismissal. Douglas told Ben Yakas in a 2016
interview with Gothamist.com how Ono sent an envelope full of Lennon demos
(made on Lennon’s fabled sailing trip in Bermuda) to him, to see if Douglas
was interested in producing. Lennon phoned the next day to ask what he
“And my honest opinion was that they were very primitive, a whole
bunch of cassettes, there was narration in it, he talked me through it,”
said Douglas. “The songs all began with an explanation, a lot of it funny,
and all of them ended with, ‘What a piece of crap. I’m going to give it to
Ringo for his solo album.’”
(In a heartbreaking revelation, Douglas added that Lennon planned
to “do a Ringo album---Paul had already signed on. So it was going to be
Paul and John and we were trying to get George to back Ringo, which would
have been unbelievable.”)
First is a version that came and went quickly
from Youtube: a completely different demo, in far superior sound
quality, utilizing George Martin’s arrangement. A simple solution in
keeping with Yoko Ono’s vision, but with a much better performance
than the 11/80 demo. This really should have been done by the Lennon
Lennon is infamous for making blunt remarks that were not intended to
offend, and certainly the “piece of crap” comment was offhanded. (“I’m the
Greatest,” which he wrote for Starr, was first-tier Lennon.) But it does
seem to confirm that Lennon recommended “Grow Old With Me”---no “piece of
crap”---to Ringo on one of the demo tapes. (Of many songs done toward the
end of his life as cassette demos, Lennon had also earmarked a
country-western ditty called “Life Begins at 40” for Starr to record on what
became his Stop and Smell The Roses album. The drummer reportedly
rejected the idea after Lennon’s death, for obvious reasons.) Despite
Starr splendidly recording the song (and enlisting Paul to play on it),
and despite the attempt to improve it on Lennon: Gimme Some Truth,
and despite: George Martin’s fine arrangement, Douglas/Cole’s fine
arrangement, Joe Walsh’s gentle guitar solo on the Ringo version, and all
good intentions by all concerned, “Grow Old With Me” still feels like a song
in search of a finished production.
superior sound-quality demos that have surfaced in recent years, the
opportunity is there.
versions on Youtube come closest, in this writer’s opinion, to suggesting
what a definitive production could be, should Ono Lennon and his team wish
to, at some point, try again. First is a version that came and went quickly
from Youtube: a completely different demo, in far superior sound quality,
utilizing George Martin’s arrangement. No rhythm box, clear vocal, clear
piano. A simple solution in keeping with Yoko Ono’s vision, but with a much
better performance than the 11/80 demo. This really should have been done by
the Lennon Estate. Second is a very clever production, intelligently
assembled. This also uses a different Lennon demo with greater presence,
and---get this---combines Martin’s arrangement with the Douglas/Cole
back-up---plus Ringo’s drumming, Walsh’s guitar, McCartney’s bass. Fans
often take silly liberties with “homemade Beatles songs,” but in this case,
whoever made this version has tastefully added the “love love love” chorus
from The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” and the “tit tit tit” passage from
The Beatles’ “Girl.” Give a listen here:
If I were Ono
Lennon, I would use this version as a kind of guide, or at least for
inspiration, for a new production, perhaps as a “special edition” for a
future release. Perhaps he and his brother, Julian, could record back-up
vocals instead of using vocal parts from old Beatles songs. Perhaps even
convene Ringo and Paul. Why
suggest such a thing? Isn’t enough enough? Well, it turns out that “Grow
Old With Me,” a song that poor John never realized beyond demo form, has
become one of his most loved works. It has been covered by Patti Smith (in a
moving concert rendition here:
https://youtu.be/z-ZQwf00uHg ) Glen Campbell, Mary Chapin Carpenter,
classical guitarist Christopher Rude, and various others, and turns up at a
hell of a lot of weddings.
So why not
give our dear friend John one last shot at getting this one. . .right?
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