John Lennon: The Life, by Philip Norman

For all of the millions of words that have been written about the Beatles as a band or as singular musicians, it’s somewhat surprising that the man who formed the group and who was one of the two pillars that supported it has never been the subject of a serious biography. Until now.

There have been a couple of not-so-serious books written about Lennon. The most recent entry was Albert Goldman’s ridiculous and risible The Lives Of John Lennon, a book that was as mean-spirited in tone as it was unfair to subject and reader alike. The book grabbed a fair share of headlines back in the late 80s, and inspired U2 to write the song "God, Part II" (with the lyrics "I don’t believe in Goldman/His type like a curse/Instant Karma’s gonna get him/If I don’t get him first").

Now comes the first Lennon biography that is worthy of its subject, Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life. It is a massive book for a short life, but the life that was lived is endlessly fascinating. Of course, the lion’s share of the book is taken with the Beatle years, but a substantial amount is dedicated to the young Lennon, pre-Beatles and even pre-Quarrymen. Surprisingly, it is this account of the young man that is the most fascinating part of the book. The Beatle years have been written about endlessly. (Norman himself wrote one of the very first biographies of that band, the excellent Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation, way back in 1981 or so.) John Winston Lennon’s childhood and teenage years have only been glossed over.

The conventional narrative of John’s young life goes like this: Lennon was abandoned by his father, his mother was unable to care for him and gave John to her sister Mimi, Lennon managed to form a relationship with his mother shortly before she was killed by a drunk driver, Lennon channeled his anger and sadness into his new band.

The kernels of truth are all there, but the actual story is so much more complicated. Among other revelations, I had been unaware that John’s father had tried to take John away from his mother because his mother was not a particularly fit Mom, and that it was a very young John who made the choice to stay with his mother. His father abandoned John, but only after he was told that he wasn’t wanted (not an excuse, I know, but at least a wrinkle in the conventional narrative).

Julia Lennon was a very young woman who had almost no maternal instincts. She was at least as unwilling to care for John as she was unable. Again, it was news to me that John maintained a relationship with Julia the entire time he was living under the care of his Aunt Mimi. He would frequently stay at Julia’s home whenever he and Mimi had a row, and Julia went to see John play with the Quarrymen several times.

Far from the usual story (propagated by Lennon himself), John Lennon was not a poor kid from Liverpool. He was raised in what we would now call a middle class (or even upper middle class) home. Mimi adored him, despite their occasional fights. His mother also loved him, and so did the entire extended family. Far from being the alienated, disaffected youth he frequently portrayed himself as, John Lennon was a boy surrounded by love and concern. In retrospect, this is not surprising. Alienated, disaffected young men (think Kurt Cobain) do not write songs like "In My Life." John Lennon was no working class hero. He was a largely pampered, but deeply troubled, young boy.

There is also no question that a lot of Lennon’s angst was all too real. His young, attractive mother was more of a family friend than a mother, which led to some awfully conflicted feelings in John. Sigmund Freud may have been full of hot air about almost anything and everything, but John Lennon was a textbook case of the Oedipal Complex. He not only "loved" his mother, he lusted after her. As the boy started to become the teenager and started to become aware of his own sexuality, he found it directed towards his own mother…young, beautiful, free-spirited, independent Julia. Walking into her house one afternoon he found her with a lover in flagrante delicto, which further sent the signal to him that this woman was a highly sexual being. John would curl up behind his mother while she slept and wonder if he should touch her breasts. In John’s mind, Julia may have been willing. (The idea that she was willing is probably due to Julia’s cluelessness about her son’s feelings and her own lack of a maternal instinct…what mother lets her young teenage son cuddle with her on her bed?). It was a perfect storm of wrong signals that was set into concrete when Julia was killed. As you read Norman’s book, you can see John’s emotional and sexual needs coalescing around an ideal of the perfect woman: part nurturing Mother, part lover, free-spirited, independent, an outsider in her own society. Paging Yoko Ono, come in Yoko Ono.

John’s enrollment in art school, his friendship with Stuart Sutcliffe (also doomed to die at a crucial time in John’s life), the formation of the Quarrymen and the Beatles are also handled in depth. The Beatle years do take up the majority of the book, but a large amount of attention is paid to the early years of the band when they were a proto-punk band storming the stage in Hamburg, Germany, gorging themselves on amphetamines to help them stay awake and strippers to help them calm down. It is in Hamburg where they met Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr, two extremely influential figures in Beatle-lore. Klaus would later design the famous Revolver cover and become a bass player for Manfred Mann and, later, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Astrid was the girl who stole Stuart Sutcliffe away from the Beatles and who provided the only early photographic record of what would soon be the most photographed band on the planet. But Klaus and Astrid also introduced the Beatles to the Exies, German and French Existentialists (the heavy duty artists crowd). Being introduced to these alternative types of art, literature, and music would later manifest itself when the Beatles broke out of the three-minute love song.

The fame years of the Beatles are handled perfectly for a Lennon biography. Paul McCartney remains a strong supporting role, but George Harrison and Ringo Starr are bit players. The focus, even during these years, is solidly on John. This book will never be confused with a general Beatles biography. John reconnects with his father (even has his father come live with him), becomes distant from his first wife Cynthia, loses his friend and manager Brian Epstein (another authority figure who dies too soon), and meets Yoko Ono. In the meantime there is an incredible amount of pot, LSD, cocaine, and heroin consumed and the most timeless music of the rock era written and recorded.

The Beatles were, in many ways, the first instance of the rock and roll band as a group. They were essentially a gang, and the public perception of them (written in stone by the movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) was of four close friends who lived together, wrote together, sang together, vacationed together. They were inseparable. Of course the reality was far different, but the shattering of that illusion by the sudden appearance of a certain diminutive Japanese "artist" caused bad feelings all around. To the average fan that grew up with this perception of the Beatles, the gnashing of teeth and public bickering during their breakup must have been difficult. It was "a golden age for lawyers" as stated in The Rutles.

Lennon’s post-Beatle life is similarly well chronicled in The Life. John’s solo career has achieved more legendary status than it deserves in the wake of his death. He released one stunningly brilliant album (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band), one great album of pop classics (Imagine), one God-awful piece of unlistenable junk (Some Time In New York City), two mediocre albums of original songs (Mind Games, Walls And Bridges), and one mediocre collection of oldies (Rock ‘N’ Roll). He is nearly as well known for his year-long "Lost Weekend" of depraved debauchery as he is for most of his solo music. The Life recounts in great detail the Lost Weekend and also John’s descent into hard Left radical buffoonery and his subsequent "What, me a radical? I’m just a singer" fight against deportation.

The last stage of John’s life was his retirement and withdrawl into the Dakota. He stayed home and raised (with a lot of help) his new son Sean and made several half-hearted attempts to reconnect with his first son Julian. He learned to bake bread, and stayed away from music and musicians. Keith Moon tried to visit and Lennon refused to see him, even though Moon was more than happy to just sit and have a cup of tea. "I don’t want to have tea with Keith Moon," said John. "If I see him at all I want to get loaded and have a party." Even during his househusband years, there was a devil inside of John that he somehow kept on a short leash. More power to him.

Lennon famously emerged from isolation in late 1980 with the album Double Fantasy. One half of the album is a collection of pop gems, odes to hearth and home, beautifully written and sung by John. The other half isn’t. Within a few days of being told that Double Fantasy had gone gold, and that his record was a hit, Lennon was dead, murdered by a fan.

In the public eye, Lennon’s murder did three things:

  • John became a martyr, despite the fact that his murderer was not some right wing reactionary, but was one of the millions of people who followed and supported Lennon throughout his career.
  • Despite his vocal and financial support of various violent Leftist groups like the IRA or the Black Panthers, he became the "man of Peace" and not just a musician. His ineffectual, goofball attempts at "promoting peace" were now seen as being parallel to Gandhi, or even Jesus, and not as childish publicity stunts. The doggerel rhymes of "Give Peace A Chance" and the insufferable naiveté of "Imagine" came to symbolize the man and his beliefs to millions of people who didn’t listen closely to the "count me in" lyric of "Revolution" and who (wisely) skipped the entire Some Time In New York City album. This is the favored portrayal of Lennon from Yoko and her spokespeople, and even from McCartney and Ringo, who should know better. Let me just add that for all of its starry-eyed utopian blather and Communist Manifesto sympathies, "Imagine" remains an exquisitely beautiful piece of music.
  • Lennon’s reputation as a Beatle and solo artist was enhanced at Paul McCartney’s expense. Suddenly McCartney was the guy who wrote those slight, silly love songs with moon/June/croon/spoon lyrics. It’s a criticism that is deeply unfair to McCartney who, yes, did write those songs but who also was the truly avant-garde Beatle and the writer of at least as many classic songs as Lennon and possibly more.

The murder of John Lennon is handled quickly in the book. John is killed in the last couple of pages. The Life is over and so is The Life. The spectacle of thousands of weeping, shell-shocked fans (I was one of them) is thankfully skipped. It is the common error of so many looks at Lennon’s life to include the post-murder tributes that have made a deeply flawed man who happened to be one of the greatest songwriters of the last 100 years into Blessed John, Martyred Patron Saint of Peace.

Several years ago, Barry Miles wrote a biography of Paul McCartney called Many Years From Now. It is one of the best of all rock biographies. Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life can now take a place proudly next to it on the bookshelf.


One thought on “John Lennon: The Life, by Philip Norman

  1. Nice one. An excellent review to a book that I may indeed read before I turn 60. Until then I will content myself in the knowledge you have bestowed upon me with your writing.


    P.S. U2 are a horrible, rotten, stinky, snotty, pretentious bunch of potato-headed drunken morons. And that song of theirs that you quoted really sucks. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

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