Lennon wrote the song while holidaying in Bermuda in June and July 1980. His handwritten lyrics bore the annotation: “Fairylands July 5, 1980 Bermuda”. He had been challenged to write it by Yoko Ono, who had written ‘Let Me Count The Ways’ after the sonnet of the same name by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Lennon arranged for a collection of Robert Browning’s poems to be sent to Bermuda. The couple had the idea for them to dress as the two poets on the cover of Double Fantasy; apparently Lennon and Ono believed they may be the reincarnations of them.
Later that day Lennon called Ono to say he had been watching a 1950s film about a baseball player, in which the player’s girlfriend had sent him a poem by Robert Browning. It is likely to have been the 1978 made-for-TV movie A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story.
Lennon hurriedly wrote Grow Old With Me based on Browning’s poem ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’.
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’
Ono claimed that Lennon recorded numerous versions of the song, but only one has been officially released. It was recorded at the Dakota building in New York City in November 1980 and featured Lennon’s vocals and piano, and a drum machine backing. Another set of recordings, with Lennon on acoustic guitar and piano, came to light in 2009 and have been circulated among bootleg traders.
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…
‘Grow Old With Me’ was a song John made several cassettes of, as we discussed the arrangements for it. Everybody around us knew how important those cassettes were. They were in safekeeping, some in our bedroom, some in our cassette file, and some in a vault. All of them disappeared since then except the one on the record. It may be that it was meant to be this way, since the version that was left to us was John’s last recording. The one John and I recorded together in our bedroom with a piano and a rhythm box.
Milk And Honey
A single release of ‘Grow Old With Me’ was considered, and a video containing slow motion footage of Lennon and Ono was produced by Stanley Dorfman. However, the single was never issued.
During the sessions for ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ in 1994 and 1995 the three remaining Beatles considered overdubbing instruments and vocals onto Lennon’s recording, but, as Paul McCartney later explained, “John’s original demo required too much work”.
Instead, Ono commissioned George Martin to write an orchestral score, which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in early 1998. Martin’s son Giles played bass guitar on the recording, and was also assistant producer. The embellished version of ‘Grow Old With Me’ was released on the box set John Lennon Anthology in November 1998.