1. Spring 1956: John, 15, catches a radio broadcast of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." "When I heard it," he says later, "it was the end for me."
2. July 6, 1957: At a local church party, John leads his first band, the Quarry Men, through a ramshackle set. Afterward he meets 15 year-old Paul McCartney, who, primed for the occasion, whips out a guitar and tears through Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock." Impressed and threatened, Lennon asks a friend: "What do you think about him joining the band?"
3. July 15, 1958: John's mother, Julia, is struck and killed by a passing car. "That's really f---ed everything!" he will remember thinking. "I have no responsibility to anyone now."
4. Feb. 11, 1963: In 10 hours of sessions at Abbey Road, the Beatles nail down finished takes of nine songs--four with Lennon lead vocals. At 10 p.m., his throat torn to shreds, John swallows a couple of cough drops, gargles a mouthful of milk, strips to the waist and rips through "Twist and Shout" --completing, in one blistering take, the Beatles' debut LP.
5. July 1965: At a London soiree, Lennon sips coffee secretly spiked with LSD. "It was just terrifying," he later says, "but it was fantastic." By his own tally, he will trip "a thousand" times over the next few years.
6. July 29, 1966: In a magazine interview, Lennon says the Beatles are "more popular than Jesus now." Outraged, U.S. radio stations ban Beatles records; fans burn them. Death threats and firecracker outbursts plague the subsequent tour. "The music wasn't being heard," Lennon will say. "It was just a sort of freak show." One month later, the Fab Four will play their final concert.
7. Sept. 5, 1966: Lennon arrives in Germany to film "How I Won the War." Shorn of his moptop and sporting granny glasses, he spends the next six weeks writing "Strawberry Fields Forever"--and imagining life after the Beatles. "I was always waiting for a reason to get out," he will later say, "from the day I made [that film]."
8. May 1968: While wife Cynthia is away in Greece, John invites Japanese artist Yoko Ono to his suburban London estate. The couple spend the night assembling a sound collage in his studio. They finish at dawn--and have sex for the first time. "I had no doubt," Lennon will later say, "I'd met The One."
9. April 9, 1970: While undergoing primal-scream therapy in L.A., John fields a call from Paul--who says that he's quitting the Beatles. Over the next few days, Lennon writes "God." "The dream," he sings, "is over."
10. Oct. 9, 1975: Second son Sean is born--on John's 35th birthday. He spends the next five years as a "househusband"--and rarely touches a guitar.
11. June 12, 1980: Lennon arrives in Bermuda by sailboat and, inspired by his time at sea, begins to write again. By the 22nd, he has composed most of "Double Fantasy." He won't live to see Christmas.