John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman
From The Washington Post
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Glenn Frankel When in 1969 three eminent intellectuals were asked to name the "Man of the Decade," broadcaster Alistair Cooke chose John F. Kennedy and novelist Mary McCarthy chose Ho Chi Minh, but anthropologist Desmond Morris opted for John Lennon. It seemed an eccentric choice at the time, but Lennon's stature as a cultural icon has only soared, especially since his murder by a crazed fan in 1980. There are monuments dedicated to him all over the world, from an airport in his hometown of Liverpool to a "tower of light" in Iceland, a graffiti wall in Prague and a chunk of Central Park named Strawberry Fields. As a writer and sly humorist, he has been compared to Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, James Joyce and Mark Twain, and as an illustrator to James Thurber and Paul Klee. "If he were a painting, I'd hang him in the Metropolitan Museum," said Thomas Hoving, the museum's director. Any biographer who aspires to capture the Beatles' putative leader in all his brilliant and obscene glory has to wrestle with a few basic questions: How did a restless, angry and minimally educated young man from a terminally depressed British seaport rise to lead the foremost pop music group of the 20th century? Was John Lennon truly one of the post-war generation's most creative figures or just a fleeting curiosity? And how can one reconcile the drug-addled, abrasive and gleefully malicious egotist who produced such tripe as "Revolution Number Nine," "Two Virgins" and "The Fly" with the musical genius responsible for "A Day in the Life," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Strawberry Fields"? For all the hundreds of Beatle books, there have been few biographies of the band's most intriguing and troubled member. Ray Coleman's Lennon: The Definitive Biography is a conscientious but tame account by a British journalist who knew and admired him, while Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon is a vengeful, self-righteous hatchet job that makes no attempt to separate fact from fiction. Now comes Philip Norman. Twenty-eight years ago he produced Shout!, an exuberant and revelatory account of the Beatles' rise and fall. His new book, weighing in at 851 pages, should be his master work. But while it's often powerful and heartfelt, John Lennon: The Life falls short of resolving the deep questions about Lennon's life, loves and work and sheds little light on his proper place in the post-industrial pantheon. Norman recounts what is by now an achingly familiar story, beginning with Lennon's troubled childhood. He was raised by his starchy Aunt Mimi after his father went off to sea and his mother moved in with another man (she later died in a traffic accident). Then came his discovery of rock-and-roll; his tangled partnership with another motherless autodidact, Paul McCartney; the dizzying, stratospheric rise of the Beatles and the chaotic, heady years of Beatlemania -- the drugs, the extravagance and the ego-tripping of a man who decided during one LSD experience that he was Jesus; the group's slow implosion and the endless recriminations. Norman is particularly adept at fleshing out such overlooked side characters as Aunt Mimi and Lennon's wayward father, Freddie, pinpointing their roles in the shaping -- and misshaping -- of his character and creativity. Norman displays the same gift for brisk, what-happened-next narrative that made Shout! a page turner, but there are times when his prose falters: Aunt Mimi's "exterior brusqueness camouflaged a heart of purest gold." When the Beatles first arrived to conquer America in 1964, "fate once again seemed to be working as their press agent." Returning to the United States in 1971, "John unpacked his bags in a country where the generation gap had turned into a blazing abyss." Break out the fire extinguishers! Norman doesn't skimp on showing us the malicious side of "a fellow who seemed to have been born without brakes," as one of his art school teachers put it. Lennon whacked his first wife, Cynthia, across the face in a jealous rage, poured beer over manager Brian Epstein's head and pummeled Bob Wooler, a Liverpool deejay who championed the band, sending him to the hospital. Yet at times, Norman insists, Lennon could be sweet-natured and supportive. Norman's account is most revealing after the band collapses and Lennon tries to navigate life as an ex-Beatle. The author had the cooperation of Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, and lends a sympathetic ear to her side of the breakup story. As the book makes clear, Ono may have used Lennon to gain fame and fortune, but Lennon used her as a sledgehammer to break up the band he felt was suffocating him. Although her musical gifts were microscopic, he brought her to all of the group's recording sessions, whispered to her constantly in front of the others and insisted that they treat her as their professional peer. "She showed me what it was like to be Elvis Beatle and to be surrounded by sycophants and slaves who were only interested in keeping the situation as it was," Lennon told an interviewer. Still, even Ono suffered his wrath. She says he made her write out a list of everyone she'd ever slept with before they met and regarded every man as "an active and dangerous rival for her affections." Norman notes that "even when he went to the toilet, Yoko went too." And she recalls to Norman her humiliation when Lennon made love to a woman in the coatroom of a party Ono and he attended on the night of Richard Nixon's reelection victory in 1972. The most poignant intimacies come at the end of the book when Lennon's son Sean recalls his father, who was murdered when Sean was 5. "I remember the feel of the stubble on his chin . . . the scar I could see underneath it," he tells Norman. It's Sean, himself a musician, who understands his father's most enduring contribution to pop music: the sense of vulnerability and introspection that lies at the heart of such achingly sad songs as "Help!," "Norwegian Wood," "Girl" and "Julia." "For a man to feel insecure and question himself the way my dad did in songs is a post-modern phenomenon," says Sean. "He invented that."
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
For more than a quarter century, Philip Norman's internationally bestselling Shout! has been unchallenged as the definitive biography of the Beatles. Now, at last, Norman turns his formidable talent to the Beatle for whom belonging to the world's most beloved pop group was never enough. Drawing on previously untapped sources, and with unprecedented access to all the major characters, here is the comprehensive and most revealing portrait of John Lennon that is ever likely to be published.
This masterly biography takes a fresh and penetrating look at every aspect of Lennon's much-chronicled life, including the songs that have turned him, posthumously, into a near-secular saint. In three years of research, Norman has turned up an extraordinary amount of new information about even the best-known episodes of Lennon folklore—his upbringing by his strict Aunt Mimi; his allegedly wasted school and student days; the evolution of his peerless creative partnership with Paul McCartney; his Beatle-busting love affair with a Japanese performance artist; his forays into painting and literature; his experiments with Transcendental Meditation, primal scream therapy, and drugs. The book's numerous key informants and interviewees include Sir Paul McCartney, Sir George Martin, Sean Lennon—whose moving reminiscence reveals his father as never before—and Yoko Ono, who speaks with sometimes shocking candor about the inner workings of her marriage to John.
Honest and unflinching, as John himself would wish, Norman gives us the whole man in all his endless contradictions—tough and cynical, hilariously funny but also naive, vulnerable and insecure—and reveals how the mother who gave him away as a toddler haunted his mind and his music for the rest of his days.