- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

JOHN LENNON: THE LIFE
By Philip Norman
Ecco, $34.95, 864 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

At the conclusion of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album — the final recording session in which Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr worked as a warily intact unit — there appears a brief, sassy afterthought of a song called “Her Majesty.” At one point in this number, McCartney sings, “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she changes from day to day.” With a slight change to accommodate the opposite gender, Sir Paul’s lyric captures the mercurial essence of his longtime friend, songwriting partner, and sometime-nemesis, John Lennon (1940-1980).

For if there is one sense that pervades Philip Norman’s well-crafted and altogether magisterial biography of “the intellectual Beatle,” it is that of a moody, restless man of myriad contradictions: A deeply thoughtful individual who tended to act impulsively; a dyed-in-the-wool rock-and-roller who nevertheless approved of the lush string and choral productions with which producer Phil Spector embellished the songs on the Beatles’ “Let It Be” album. He was a sensitive soul who nevertheless viewed the physically and mentally imperfect as objects of open ridicule; a proponent of world peace who also had a vile temper and sometimes treated many of those closest to him with disdainful — and sometimes violent — cruelty. He could be a noble and good-hearted friend. And sometimes, frankly, he could be an insufferable jerk.

And yet, somehow this conflicted man rose from humble beginnings in Woolton, a nondescript suburb of rough-and-tumble Liverpool, England, to become one of the most accomplished, beloved and honored singer-songwriters of all time, sharing that honor with McCartney. Mr. Norman, author of several works on the Rolling Stones, Elton John and the Beatles, captures the story of Lennon’s life in appropriate detail, serving up a compelling biography, perhaps definitive, a work which earns its subtitle: “The Life.”

For those living today who never knew of the Beatles during their heyday, Lennon is remembered for perhaps the weakest of his creative works: The almost unlistenable annual chestnut “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” and the sanctimonious “Imagine,” which Mr. Norman describes as a song envisioning “a vista of purgatorial blandness … which would probably have sent John himself mad with boredom in five minutes.” What a joy it is, then, when listeners first experience John’s earlier work with the Fab Four, such as “I Should Have Known Better,” “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” “In My Life,” and “Ticket to Ride,” to name a few. (Each of the above is credited as a “Lennon and McCartney” composition, though they were primarily John’s inspiration).

Mr. Norman spends only a small amount of space critiquing the songs, instead describing the day-to-day events in his subject’s life, the circumstances of Lennon’s upbringing, and the many friends, lovers, teachers, bandmates, family members, influences and spear-carriers in his life. Mr. Norman traces the lives of Lennon’s grandparents, his parents and then the lad himself, the son of a happy-go-unlucky ship steward and ne’er-do-well, Alf Lennon, and his high-spirited, musically talented wife, Julia Stanley. The couple divorced when young John was quite young, and the boy was raised by Julia’s sister, the fabled Aunt Mimi. As described by Mr. Norman, she was a character straight out of a Dickens novel: A veddy proper English lady — who tried to keep high-spirited John on the straight and narrow all while carrying on a quiet affair with a college-age boarder in her house.

During his teens, John became interested in skiffle (something like American country-western music) and another American import, rock and roll. The Quarrymen, a skiffle group he formed and led during the mid-1950s, went through many personnel changes, took on new member named Paul McCartney, who brought along his young friend George Harrison, evolved into a rock group called the Silver Beetles, struggled mightily for gigs and recognition, performed nightly in a club in Hamburg’s red-light district and in time became the Beatles. By mid-1963, the group was on its way to the highest acclaim any group has seen before or since — “from the toppermost to the poppermost,” as they vowed — largely on the strength of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting collaboration.

The story of the Beatles’ success during the 1960s has been recounted many times, by many authors; and Mr. Norman tells their story better than most, describing the excitement, the good fortune (largely brought about by the labors of the group’s first manager, the admirable Brian Epstein), and the inevitable breakup of the group. This split, which first began to evidence itself during 1968 — the year after the group’s high-water mark, the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour” albums — was brought on by several factors. And no, it was not the fault of Yoko Ono. These factors included simple weariness at having been together so long and having gone through so much, the pull of domesticity brought on by John and Paul’s marriages, an enormous sense of mistrust and factionalism within the group caused by competing legal representatives with differing agendas, and deep resentment by John that the group he had led had become, over time, Paul’s group.

In the 10 remaining years of his life, Lennon went through a period of political activism, therapy, rage, chemical abuse, retreat from the public eye, and a coming to terms with his life. By 1980, at age 40, he seems to have moved well past the angry reactions against his Beatles past (“I don’t believe in Beatles; I just believe in me / Yoko and me; And that’s reality”) and resentment toward McCartney and realized that without his associations with his famous bandmates and the various friends and bitplayers who formed his early band and shaped his music, he might simply be known today as John Nobody from Woolton. After much searching he had reached a state of gratitude, a key mark of human maturity. How sad then, that having reached this point in life, Lennon was gunned down by a total cipher outside his apartment in New York on Dec. 8, 1980.

In writing this work, Mr. Norman’s challenge was to write something like the definitive biography while not clogging his text with clumsily handled research materials, thus letting his writing detract from the fascinating nature of his subject. Here, Mr. Norman succeeds brilliantly, describing Lennon’s life and career with a sure, confident hand. He provides a late-breaking clue (or possible clue) to the cause of death of the Beatles’ original bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, which is stunning in its import, and shines a surprising light on the nature of Lennon’s “affair” with May Pang during his self-styled 14-month “lost weekend.” As to Lennon’s marriages, Mr. Norman provides a warts-and-all portrait of Lennon’s treatment of his first wife, Cynthia, and their son, Julian, and a clear-headed depiction of his life with Yoko, who is herself an intriguing person.

But while the density of the biographer’s research is quite strong and his assembling of facts is unassailable, one might occasionally quibble with the conclusions Mr. Norman draws from these many facts. For example, he describes the cover of John and Yoko’s notorious “Two Virgins” albuma full-frontal nude portrait of the couple — as innocent and artful (“not smutty or suggestive, but strangely innocent and vulnerable”), though to many observers the cover provides one of the stronger arguments ever put forward for the reason God invented clothing.

For the record, Yoko has declined to endorse Mr. Norman’s book for several reasons, chief among them being that the author is “mean to John.” But “John Lennon: The Life” is not mean at all: It presents Lennon as a man in full, with immense talent but with flaws as well. As such, this biography is a welcome alternative to the many biographies of Lennon, long and short, that give the impression that John and Yoko’s every thought, word and gesture is above and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. It is in fact a rich, rewarding portrait of a brilliant man who once described himself aptly as “a frantic guy doing his best.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House) and has completed a novel. He is a longtime admirer of the Beatles’ music.

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