The Meaning Behind “Grow Old with Me” by John Lennon and the Songwriting Challenge that Helped to Create It

It’s hard to talk too much about John Lennon‘s “Grow Old with Me” without referencing the tragedy that rendered the song’s heartfelt wishes an impossibility for Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. Let’s instead celebrate it as a beautiful message of enduring affection that can be appreciated by lovers of all ages who want to stick with their significant others into the autumn and even winter years.

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What is “Grow Old with Me” about? How did a songwriting challenge between John and Yoko help to create it? And how did the song eventually undergo a few Beatles-adjacent releases? The story begins with the flurry of songwriting and recording activity that John Lennon perpetrated in the final year of his life.

Yoko Throws Down the Gauntlet

Yoko Ono indirectly started the process of “Grow Old with Me” coming into existence with a song of her own. Ono had used Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee (Sonnet 43)” as the basis for her song “Let Me Count the Ways,” and she challenged Lennon to write one of his own based on a Robert Browning poem. On holiday in Bermuda in the summer of 1980, he obliged, using the poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” as his jumping-off point, even borrowing the lines “Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be.”

Lennon made a demo recording of the song in the month before his death. It was a time when the couple was furiously recording material for both the comeback album Double Fantasy and the planned followup Milk and Honey. Ono explained why they held “Grow Old with Me” off the first album in the Milk and Honey liner notes:

“For John, ‘Grow Old with Me’ was one that would be a standard, the kind that they would play in church every time a couple gets married. It was horns and symphony time. But we were working against deadline for the Christmas release of the album, kept holding ‘Grow Old with Me’ to the end, and finally decided it was better to leave the song for Milk and Honey so we won’t do a rush job.”

Obviously, Lennon’s death meant that there would be no prettified version of the song. But she included it on Milk and Honey nonetheless. And she chose to release it as it was, just the simple demo with Lennon’s vocal and piano alongside a drum machine beat.

As for the Rest of The Beatles …

Although there are contradictory reports surrounding Ono’s handing over of Lennon demos to the remaining Beatles circa 1995, the consensus is that “Grow Old with Me” was one of the four songs included. (The other three, “Free as a Bird,” “Real Love,” and “Now and Then,” have all been released as official Beatles songs.) Whether the other three members of the group chose not to record the song because Lennon’s version was already out, or because they didn’t fancy it, is impossible to say. But it doesn’t appear they did any work on it (unlike with “Now and Then,” which they started in ’95 and abandoned, only to have Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr return to it in 2023.)

But there were some Fab Four connections to “Grow Old with Me” down the road. Producer George Martin added orchestration to the track for the John Lennon Anthology in 1998. And Starr recorded his own take on the song in 2019 with McCartney on bass.

What is the Meaning of “Grow Old with Me”?

Lennon used Browning’s opening lines to pave the way to a song about how aging and loving can be done in tandem. In perfect tandem, as a matter of fact, as Lennon sings: When our time has come / We will be as one.

Lennon also hints that a wonderful romance can withstand the rigors of time. Face the setting sun / When the day is done, he sings, suggesting that the end of the line is something that can be faced without fear when you have your partner by your side. He also implies that love can handle anything: Whatever fate decrees / We will see it through / For our love is true.

As mentioned, Lennon wasn’t granted the long life to see the truths he espoused in “Grow Old with Me” realized. But the song is also about the faith that love can transcend even death. World without end, he promises. The song might never have received the production bells and whistles Lennon intended, at least not initially. But even in its most minimal form, it touches the heart thanks to the undiluted power of its performer, who clearly believed every word.

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Photo by Brenda Chase/Online

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