Saturday, January 10, 2009

No One I Think Is in My Tree

John Lennon: The Life
Philip Norman
2008, Ecco, ISBN 978-0-06-075401-3

With several very large biographies of John Lennon in existence (most notably Ray Coleman's Lennon [1984] and Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon* [1988]) and countless rehashings of the Beatles' collective career (perhaps the most informative being Barry Miles' Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now [1997], 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.


Kevin Wolf said...

I had to follow the Amazon link to confirm my faulty memory: that Norman had already written a (more general) Beatle book.

I wonder what you think is the value of Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation?

Neddie said...

Kevin: Shout! is a fine book that set the standard for following Beatles bios. (Hunter Davies' "authorized" bio, from 1968, was heavily vetted by both the Fabs and their families, and was thus pretty bowdlerized in the original edition. E.g., no mention is made of Brian Epstein's homosexuality -- a pretty big omission. Later editions corrected this.)

But being the first of its kind, the standard-bearer, Shout! was followed by biographers using it as a springboard to bigger and better things. The two I cite in my post are, IMHO, the best books if you want to get a good sense of the Beatles' story and their historical context. Also, don't miss Revolution in the Head. A treasure.

John B. said...

I never get tired of hearing about, or reading about or listening to John Lennon and his famous bandmates. Thanks for the recommendations.

randolphr said...

Just watched "The US versus John Lennon" ...... left me with a warm & closer view of our troubled world's lost companion .....

Your thoughts, Sir Ned ?

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Fantastic review Ned. I can’t wait to read the book.

You didn't mention the recent "The Beatles Biography" by Bob Spitz. Over the years I've read "Shout," "The Longest Cocktail Party," "The Love You Make," "A Twist of Lennon" (by Cynthia which was *surprisingly* good!) "The Longest Cocktail Party" and a book that was called "The Beatles Forever" though the one offered on Amazon today is not the same.

In spite of the early bad press that the Spitz book received due to some stupid mistakes that were quickly remedied I thought it was by far the best one of the lot, especially the detailed accounts of their respective childhood's and their early years as friends and bandmates.

As far as the Goldman book was concerned, you were far too kind. There was a DJ on WNEW FM named Dennis Elsas who was fortunate enough to be on the air one day in '74 when John stopped by the studio unannounced to promote "Walls and Bridges," spin records, read commercials etc. After the book came out Dennis read the account from Goldman's book and played clips from the show that directly contradicted what was written. This wasn’t getting "who played the guitar solo on 'Taxman' ” wrong - this was out and out fabrication. He was outraged and made the point that if he couldn’t get that bit right how could you trust anything the man wrote? The book was a piece of trash that was written to capitalize on the fact that once someone is dead you can say anything you want about them with impunity. John was no saint to be sure, but Goldman had him practically abusing Sean in his depiction of those last few years of John's life, and by every other account his relationship with his son was one the few things in his personal life that he got right.

That book is an abomination.