John Lennon: The Life
2008, Ecco, ISBN 978-0-06-075401-3
With several very large biographies of John Lennon in existence (most notably Ray Coleman's Lennon  and Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon* ) and countless rehashings of the Beatles' collective career (perhaps the most informative being Barry Miles' Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now , written with full cooperation from its principal subject, and Jonathan Gould's beyond-excellent Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America), it's difficult to believe that any crucial biographical insights remain to be revealed about this mercurial and endlessly fascinating man.
Yet, having read all of the foregoing and a great deal of other Beatle literature besides (the depth of my abjection may be gleaned from the fact that I have worn out three -- yes, three -- copies of Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head), I found myself in amazement at some of the further historical detail that Norman has managed to uncover. It is, for example, astonishing to learn that Lennon's paternal grandfather, also named John Lennon, emigrated to America for a period in the 1880s, where he joined Andrew Robertson's Colored Operatic Kentucky Minstrels. He was, put simply, an Anglo-Irish blackface minstrel, singing American music to American audiences fully 80 years before his grandson (whom he never saw) did more or less the same thing, if in less racially objectionable fashion.
Other myths are exploded, or clarified. Lennon's father Alf, while not completely rehabilitated into a loving father -- he could never be so described -- comes off rather better than previous accounts have suggested. His absences away at sea, later viewed by John as abandonment, are somewhat mitigated when placed in the context of World War II; and Alf's behavior upon his return from a long voyage to find his wife Julia Lennon in dalliance with a Welsh soldier is unexpectedly chivalrous. Fresh detail is added to the chaotic period during which the young Lennon was bounced around among relatives, finally ending up a ward of his aunt Mimi Smith and her husband George; the terrible scene in which the five-year-old was forced to choose between his father and his mother is fleshed out and given mitigating information, and is no less heartbreaking for it.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the Beatles will already know the rough outlines of the story told herein: The apprentice years of the Quarrymen, the trial by fire in the Hamburg clubs, the rise of Beatlemania, the endless touring that became more frightening to the band as it went on, the decision to end the torture that resulted in the studio-only band that provided us with some of the most innovative music ever committed to tape, the long, slow, acrimonious dissolution that left all four Beatles musically exhausted and emotionally beaten, and at last, the gut-punch to the world delivered by Lennon's bewilderingly meaningless assassination. Having witnessed these events scroll out through my own childhood and early youth, and having become obsessed occasionally to the point of madness with imbuing this nearly mythic tale with meaning and universal significance, I can say that it is enormously enjoyable to have a new retelling that adds so much fresh detail to the picture. Someone seeking interpretation of these events in Norman's biography, however, is in for disappointment, and is advised to look elsewhere. (I'd recommend beginning with Elizabeth Thompson and David Gutman's The Lennon Companion, a thoughtfully assembled collection of writings by journalists and intellectuals during and just after the Beatles' career; if you want to read, for example, the entire profile by the London Evening Standard's Maureen Cleave in which Lennon made his infamous "bigger than Jesus" remark, here is the place to look.)
The wealth of previously unrevealed details in The Life are the result of unprecedented access enjoyed by Norman to many of the players who have been unforthcoming until now, notably Neil Aspinall, who has refused to speak to writers or journalists since the Beatles' breakup, and Yoko Ono, who gave Norman extraordinary access not only to herself but also many primary-source materials in her archives. Norman also gained access to the letters of Mimi Smith, and the cooperation of Paul McCartney, George Martin, former Quarrymen, and various figures from the Liverpool beat scene of the early Sixties.
It is somewhat puzzling that Ono now disparages the biography as "mean to John," as the figure that emerges from it is entirely familiar: the angry, vulnerable, injured, sometimes tortured musical and verbal genius with a chip on his shoulder that's bigger than his head. The terrible misogynist whose mother-issues were subsumed in his bewilderingly complex relationship with a mystifyingly unlikely life-partner. The drug-addled mystic who somehow managed to express with razor clarity the confusions and contradictions of the psychedelic experience. The fierce rock-and-roller whose best-remembered song, "Imagine," contains not a whiff of Little Richard or Chuck Berry. The Janus who could be relentlessly cruel to friends and strangers alike, but who was capable of expressions of tenderness and love for exactly the same people. These are all things we have always known (or at least suspected) about Lennon, and things that we have almost entirely forgiven. It is not "mean" to render Lennon as a deeply complicated and conflicted man; it is simply the truth.
Any work of this size will contain flaws, and The Life is no exception. Norman, evidently not himself a musician, flounders a bit when discussing the detailed aspects, both musical and technical, of the Beatles' and Lennon's solo work. (Much better discussions of this are proffered by the aforementioned Ian MacDonald and in Geoff Emerick's Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles. Perhaps forgivably, given the paucity of material on her, the figure of Julia Lennon, while more fully realized here than elsewhere, still remains a shrouded enigma. Later in life (it is revealed here), Lennon confessed to sexual feelings toward her; Norman, while struggling mightily with the information, cannot give us a clear picture of their relationship, or why Julia brought forth such a forbidden impulse in her son.
One niggling transatlantic point: Norman, an Englishman, misinterprets an American expression. Alan Klein, while courting the Beatles as clients during the slow and frustrating dissolution of their partnership, promises to improve their personal financial situations. In so doing, he assures them he will fill their pockets with what Norman renders as "fuck you, money." Most of us on this side of the pond will recognize this as "fuck-you money," a subtle but not insignificant distinction.
Perhaps because he is a rough contemporary of the Beatles, Norman is particularly good at evoking the grimy post-war atmosphere of Britain in which the Beatles formed and came to fame. The subtle social-class differences among the four are brought into sharp contrast -- Lennon was not, as he did not prevent people from thinking, from the working class, and Ringo's family were absolutely dirt-poor. Mimi Smith would be driven to distraction all through their fame by Lennon's occasionally boorish public behavior that she considered beneath the upbringing she had given him. Particularly good, too, is Norman's evocation of the stifling postwar British popular culture, which was as flummoxed by Elvis Presley's raucous sexuality as the young Lennon and his contemporaries were intoxicated. It is very difficult for us, today, dazed by a cultural landscape that has shattered into a million shards of competing ephemera, to understand the giant monolith of conformity against which Lennon chafed so desperately in his youth. Indeed, what Lennon and the Beatles and their contemporaries achieved was the completion of the destruction of that monolith -- for good or ill, we have yet to know.
It is capital fun watching it play out.
*In his Acknowledgments, Norman calls Goldman's work "malevolent, risibly ignorant," and I would tend to agree. The clear indicator for me that I was reading a hack-job was Goldman's disparagement of Lennon's guitar playing, claiming that the Beatles and George Martin conspired to place Lennon's rhythm guitar low in the mix to hide it. This assertion is precisely "malevolent" and "risibly ignorant." That triplet strumming in "All My Loving" wasn't played by some piker, buddy.