[The Montana Professor 20.1, Fall 2009 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

John Lennon: The Life

Philip Norman
London: HarperCollins, 2008
853 pp., 25 Euros hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

Without a doubt, the Beatles are the most documented band in the history of rock and roll, if not all of music history. Given this fact, anyone surveying this massive new biography of the man generally regarded as the Beatles' leader, John Lennon, must wonder why, exactly, another book on the group is needed, almost forty years after the Beatles ended their relatively brief career. And, truth be told, Norman's book, for all its exhaustiveness, does not break much new ground. With the notable exception of an interesting interview between the author and John and Yoko's now grown son, Sean, included at the very end of the biography, most of the book seems to have been mined from secondary sources. Nonetheless, John Lennon: The Life performs a worthy service in lucidly synthesizing all the voluminous amount of information on its subject between two covers. Also author of an earlier book often considered the best work on the band, Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation, as well as biographies of the Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, and Elton John, Norman has written an engaging book which, despite its length, is a fast read, and which tells a story so remarkable and important it never stales.

First, let me slake my readers' thirst for titillation. John Lennon: The Life does contain a couple of tabloid revelations that have inspired lurid press coverage. One is that, later in life, Lennon confessed to having had boyhood sexual feelings for his mother, Julia, a free-spirited young woman who died in 1958. John described a childhood experience, lying in bed with his mother and accidentally touching her breast, "and I was wondering if I should do anything else.... I always think I should have done it. Presumably she would have allowed it" (74).

The second bit of dirt, revealed by Yoko in an interview with Norman, is that John may also have harbored sexual feelings for Paul. Discussing the acrimony between the two after the Beatles' break-up, Norman writes, "Indeed, John's anger was more that of an ex-spouse than ex-colleague, reinforcing a suspicion already in Yoko's mind that his feelings for Paul had been far more intense than the world at large had ever guessed. From chance remarks he had made, she gathered there had even been a moment when—on the principle that bohemians should try everything—he had contemplated an affair with Paul, but had been deterred by Paul's immovable heterosexuality. Nor, apparently, was Yoko the only one to have picked up on this. Around Apple, in her hearing, Paul would sometimes be called John's Princess" (668-669).

Actually, taken out of context these revelations sound more shocking than they do when encountered in the course of Norman's long book. As Norman acknowledges, Lennon lived by the principle that "bohemians should try everything," and also say everything. Virtually no celebrity has been more self-revealing, regularly confessing misdeeds and shameful feelings. Moreover, a good Freudian would claim that, in admitting sexual feelings for his mother, Lennon was just acknowledging a normal (if less repressed than usual) Oedipal Complex. As for his attraction to McCartney, Lennon did exhibit some homosexual tendencies. Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager and a closet homosexual, was in love with John, and the two took a much-discussed vacation together in Spain. But when a Liverpool disc jockey joked with Lennon about his "honeymoon" with Epstein, John beat the man severely, a response so violent it suggests that when it came to homosexuality, Lennon, as Gertrude says of the Player Queen in Hamlet, "doth protest too much." Still, no one could consider the depth of John's feelings for Yoko (maintained despite the widespread derision the union inspired) and not conclude that Lennon's orientation was primarily heterosexual. In short, these two tawdry revelations are something of a tempest in a teapot.

Norman does more important work in his superb discussion of Lennon's childhood, in the course of which he explodes the myth (primarily propagated by Lennon himself) that John was a neglected child who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. First, Norman insists it is wrong to claim, as John often did as an adult, that he was abandoned by his father, Alf. Rather, Alf worked as a waiter aboard ships, and, shortly after his son was born, he had to leave Liverpool for an extended period at sea in order to continue his employment. When Alf returned, he tried to claim custody of the child, proposing to take John with him to relatives in New Zealand, but Julia refused to consent to the plan, whereupon the couple made the wretched decision to let young John decide which parent he wished to live with. While deeply enamored of his father, a tearful John could not imagine living without his mother, so Julia prevailed.

Later, when her older sister, Mimi, took custody of John, Norman presents the event as less a case of Julia deserting her child than of Mimi demanding the boy, since the highly respectable Mimi could not imagine John growing up under the care of the lackadaisical Julia. Mimi told an interviewer, "'I told [Julia], 'You're not fit to be a mother.' ...I just said I think I should have John.... In many ways our house was a lot quieter than the places he'd been living in and we could give him some stability.'" "In Mimi's version," Norman writes, "Julia was now ready to agree willingly, even thankfully. But John's cousin Liela, who was also in the room, saw a very different end to the long tug-of-love. 'I remember Mimi standing in front of John and telling Julia, 'You're not having him'" (30). In other words, the problem was never, as Lennon later claimed, that no one wanted him as a child; rather, the problem was that too many people did.

In his post-Beatles days, Lennon recorded a song called "Working Class Hero," and that was the image he presented to the world. But in truth Mimi and her husband, George, gave John a proper, comfortable, middle-class upbringing. In fact, when the media began portraying the Beatles as proletariat troubadours, Mimi strenuously objected. Moreover, despite his later disdain for the educational establishment, Lennon was treated well by his teachers. Even though he was a complete hellion in the public school he attended, the school's principal and instructors decided to overlook John's lack of discipline and poor test scores and recommend him for art school.

The group that became the Beatles was originally founded by Lennon and named, after the school he and his classmates in the band attended, "The Quarrymen." Eventually, in one of the most momentous events in music history, comparable to Gilbert meeting Sullivan or Rodgers meeting Hammerstein, Lennon was introduced to McCartney at a church fete, and the latter was invited to join the group.

If Lennon's upbringing was marked by propriety inculcated in him by his care-givers, all restraints were lifted when the fledgling Beatles, seeking to branch out beyond the confines of Liverpool, decided to try their luck in the seedy, raucous clubs of Hamburg, West Germany. There, fueled by alcohol and amphetamines, the Beatles played six to eight-hour sets to rowdy, drunken crowds, presenting a repertoire that included everything from foot-stomping R&B numbers to ballads from popular musicals to a few of their own songs, while living crammed in a tiny, fetid room behind a movie screen in the club. (Lennon was the craziest of all the Beatles in Hamburg, even once trying to mug a German sailor.) Norman sees their wild performances and leather-jacketed outfits as prefiguring punk rock. (Moreover, in Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell sees the training the Beatles received in Hamburg in performance and musicianship under such unforgiving conditions as instrumental in determining their mega-success just a short time later, since the Hamburg experience provided the Beatles with those ten-thousand hours of practice which Gladwell sees as essential in securing any kind of major success.)

After Hamburg, the Beatles returned to Liverpool and soon established themselves as the most popular band in a considerably talented city, playing regularly in a local club aptly named The Cavern. But Norman argues persuasively that the band would have remained a strictly local phenomenon had they not been taken on by their new manager, Brian Epstein. A child of relative privilege who worked as a supervisor at his father's record store, Epstein heard the Beatles play at the Cavern and immediately volunteered to manage them, even though up to then he had displayed no interest in rock music. With absolutely no business savvy of their own, the Beatles were instantly impressed by Epstein's apparent know-how and evident enthusiasm. Dressing them in identical suits rather than leather jackets and jeans, changing their hairstyles from greaser pompadours to less threatening bangs, training them to all bow in sync after each song performance, Epstein made the Beatles stupendously commercial. Despite his bohemian ways, Lennon had no compunction about "selling out." He later described to an interviewer his thinking at the time: "'Yeah, man, all right, I'll wear a suit—I'll wear a bloody balloon if someone's going to pay me'" (248).

Epstein also tirelessly promoted the Beatles' music to record producers. Even though, in one of the most bone-headed judgments in music history, one producer rejected the group on the grounds that "guitar bands are on the way out," the Beatles eventually attracted the attention of a producer named George Martin. As with Epstein, the confluence was serendipitous. Although he had previously produced mostly comedy albums, Martin was a classically trained musician with great studio skills and an openness to new music. Under Martin's tutelage, the Beatles recorded one Lennon-McCartney tune, "Love Me Do," which was a hit, and then topped the charts with another original, "Please, Please Me," which took England by storm.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Why, only six years later, did the best group in the history of rock and roll break up? Although Norman never makes the point himself, one might see the beginning of the end in the Beatles' decision to give up touring, even though the band's best music was still ahead of them. Granted, in retrospect the decision seems inevitable. As Lennon often complained, at concerts the fans were invariably cheering so maniacally it was impossible even to hear the Beatles' music. And when Lennon made his infamous remark to an interviewer that, "We're more popular than Jesus now," which inspired a tsunami of anti-Beatles attacks from Christians the world over (especially in America), the band began risking their lives every time they took the stage (446). Finally, the hectic nature of touring took a toll on the Beatles physically and emotionally. As Lennon explained, "'It just happens bit by bit, gradually, until this complete craziness is surrounding you'" (315). Still, touring unified the band. Without that cohesion, the Beatles inevitably drifted apart. By the time the group recorded The White Album, each band member was writing and recording songs more or less on his own, often without rounding up the rest of the Beatles to back up the numbers. On George's beautiful song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," for example, the guitar solo was played by Harrison's friend, Eric Clapton.

The actual decision to break up was made by Lennon. As John bluntly described it, "'I started the band. I disbanded it—it's as simple as that'" (615). Tensions between John and Paul had increased exponentially; the group's business affairs were in complete disarray, and Lennon was eager to pursue solo projects. Clearly, Lennon's decision to disband the Beatles was also influenced by his love affair with and eventual marriage to Yoko Ono. The couple met when John dropped in on Yoko's art exhibit in London. As John famously described it, one of Yoko's installations had viewers climb a ladder, atop which was a magnifying glass, which, when the viewer squinted through it, enlarged a tiny printing of the word, "Yes." Lennon was charmed by the life-affirming nature of this message.

However, Norman sharply departs from orthodox Beatles' lore in disputing the common view that Yoko broke up the Beatles. True, Yoko began attending all the recording sessions for Let it Be and Abbey Road, which infuriated the other members of the group, since in the masculine world of '60s rock and roll, it was axiomatic that performers recording music should leave their wives and girlfriends home. But Norman points out that the decision to have Yoko sit in on the recording sessions was made by John, not Yoko, since Lennon was so in love with her he could never bear to be apart. In fact, Lennon's love was so possessive, Norman reports, John even followed Yoko into the bathroom. As John would croon on a great song on his solo album, Imagine, he was "just a jealous guy." In short, John's love of Yoko may have contributed to the break-up of the Beatles, Norman concludes, but Yoko herself does not bear the blame.

Norman covers all this familiar territory—from the founding of the Beatles to their disbanding—with vigorous competence. But one weakness of his book is that by writing a biography exclusively of John Lennon, he must keep his focus narrowed to this one member of the Beatles, and thus slights the contributions of the other three members. For, unlike Elvis or Bob Dylan, the Beatles were nothing if not collaborative, as their often checkered careers as solo artists proves. In this respect, Shout!, which focuses on all four Beatles equally, is a better book (although that work is weakened by an almost obsessive concern with the Beatles' tangled finances). When Norman turns to Lennon's post-Beatles' life and career, the exclusive attention to Lennon makes more sense, and the book improves.

When Lennon was still with the Beatles, he scorned the activism of the '60s counterculture in the scathing song, "Revolution," which quipped, "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow," adding a chorus that insisted, "If you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out." But in his post-Beatles' incarnation, spurred on by Yoko's own radical politics, Lennon leapt into left-wing political activism with a vengeance. In retrospect, Lennon's politics appear sincere and well-intentioned but often almost comically naïve. Take the so-called "bed-ins for peace." Here, John and Yoko stayed in bed in their hotel rooms and invited in throngs of reporters, but rather than engaging in anything sexy (as they had, for example, when they appeared naked together on the cover of their Two Virgins album), they sat in their pajamas and issued solemn pronouncements on behalf of world peace. With the Vietnam War at its height, calls for peace were certainly needed, but surely there was a better way to convey this message than by staging these media circuses.

Moreover, John and Yoko's activism often connected them to dubious allies. For instance, they joined forces with a man known as "Michael X," a leader of the then nascent Black Power movement who had been born in Trinidad. In 1970, Michael X was charged in England with robbery and extortion and, rather than face trial, fled back to Trinidad. Only two years later, he was convicted of murder in his native country and sentenced to hang. Although the evidence against him was damning (as it had been in the robbery case), Lennon stuck by his friend, issuing ultimately fruitless appeals for clemency to the Trinidadian government.

By this point, John and Yoko had moved from Great Britain to New York City, where the couple wished to reside permanently. However, the FBI, under the draconian rule of J. Edgar Hoover, launched a massive campaign to deny Lennon his green card making him a resident of the United States. The stated reason for the denial was Lennon's conviction back in England for marijuana possession, but Norman persuasively argues that the real explanation was the concern of the FBI and the Nixon administration over Lennon's politics, the fear that the ex-Beatle was such a beloved figure in America he could sway the country in a liberal direction. To build their case, the FBI bugged Lennon's phone and assigned agents to tail John when he left his Manhattan apartment. Although the case seemed hopeless, Lennon and his lawyers doggedly fought the ruling, and finally in 1976, after countless appeals and with Nixon having imploded over Watergate, John was granted official American residency.

Even though Lennon's residency was now legally established, all was not well for John and Yoko, as serious marital difficulties arose. Eventually, Yoko ordered John to leave their apartment and sent him, like a misbehaving schoolboy, to California, even setting him up romantically with a kind of Yoko clone, their Japanese personal assistant, May Pang. What followed was a year-long debauchery in the La La Land of Beverly Hills, with John drinking and drugging excessively with rocker pals like Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon of The Who, which Lennon later referred to as his "lost weekend." Somehow, amidst the bacchanalia, he managed to produce a decent album filled with classic rock covers.

When Yoko finally invited John back home, Lennon was a chastened man. Cutting back on the drugs and booze, he spent the last period of his life as a house-husband, devoting himself primarily to the raising of their infant, Sean, and dropping out entirely from the frenzied pop music world, while Yoko ran the couple's burgeoning financial empire. As John explained it in a song from his final album, Double Fantasy, "I'm just watching the wheels go round and round." Other Lennon biographers (notably Albert Goldman in his notoriously scurrilous The Lives of John Lennon) have portrayed John during this time as a kind of Howard Hughes-like recluse, but Norman makes a convincing case that this was probably the happiest, most tranquil period in Lennon's life. John baked bread, read Sean bedtime stories, took his son sailing in Long Island Sound. When Lennon finally did return to the studio, he recorded Double Fantasy with Yoko—an album which, in its unapologetic celebration of domestic bliss, bordered on the sappy (a trait more normally ascribed to John's ex-partner, Paul McCartney).

Of course, the tragic irony is that it is precisely when Lennon seemed to have found a meaningful direction in his life (when he was "Starting Over," as the best song on Double Fantasy proclaimed) that he was cut down by an assassin, Mark David Chapman, who shot him with a handgun at the gate to his apartment building the night of December 8, 1980, as John was returning from the recording studio. Norman has little to say about Chapman, beyond noting that his apparent motive for the murder was his angry belief that Lennon had "sold out" his earlier countercultural principles by acquiring wealth and high-status possessions. (Chapman also insisted that all his actions had been motivated by his favorite novel, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, which he was found reading placidly when police rushed to the scene of the crime. Chapman believed that by killing Lennon he could "become" the book's emotionally disturbed but sympathetically portrayed protagonist, Holden Caulfield.) One can understand Norman's reluctance to pay excessive attention to a notorious killer, which risks glamorizing his offense. Still, Chapman is a fascinating case study in homicidal pathology, so it is unfortunate Norman did not allot him more space in the biography. On the other hand, Norman errs to the opposite extreme in excessively foreshadowing Lennon's death. For example, he finds it prophetic that Lennon supported the Democratic candidate, George McGovern of South Dakota, for president in 1972, since Dakota was also the name of the apartment building in front of which John was shot!

As noted earlier, John Lennon: The Life concludes with an intriguing interview with John and Yoko's now-grown son, Sean. Sean comes across as a mature, reflective young man, who has pursued a musical career of his own (while creating music very different from his father's), reveres his dad without being overwhelmed by Lennon's lengthy shadow, and has admirably eschewed the media spotlight he would no doubt enjoy had he expressed any desire to exploit his father's legacy. As Sean poignantly explains to Norman, "My mom doesn't really understand why I don't want to meet those who worship John Lennon, why I don't want to go to the John Lennon tribute concerts or visit the John Lennon Museum. It just hurts too much.... It's not that I don't want to honor him, because I feel like my whole life is a living tribute to him.... Those memories that I have of my childhood are so important to me. To see them co-opted to make a diorama in a museum or a Broadway show makes me feel like I'm being violated" (817).

While the interview with Sean is fascinating, however, it does not suffice as a conclusion to John Lennon: The Life, which is the role it is forced to play, since no other conclusion appears. Surely, after over 800 pages meticulously recording and analyzing his life and career, Norman could have ended with some summary judgments on the significance John Lennon holds for the contemporary world.

But this is something of a quibble. A more serious issue is raised by a point Norman notes in his "Acknowledgements," where he admits that Yoko, while being a key source for the book, has refused to endorse it: "Her reasons were various but the principle one was that I had been 'mean to John'" (820). Is John Lennon: The Life "mean to John"? I would say no. Without question, all Lennon's many flaws are on display. But what John's hero-worshippers need to understand is that throughout his life Lennon often behaved vilely. He was an absolute cad, for example, to his first wife, Cynthia. When the two married after Cynthia got pregnant, John stuck her in a tiny apartment in Liverpool where he not only ignored her completely, but even hid her existence from the press, reasoning that a married Beatle would be a liability to the band's image. When Lennon's first son, Julian, was born, John proved to be as much an absentee father as he had been an absentee husband. (In fact, Paul McCartney's song, "Hey Jude," was inspired by McCartney's wish to write a song for Julian consoling him for his father's abandonment.) Lennon was equally vicious to the love struck Brian Epstein. When, for instance, Brian expressed a desire to write an autobiography, Lennon cruelly quipped that it should be titled, Queer Jew. (This was before the days when "queer" was an honorific in the gay community.)

However, what must be stressed is that Lennon possessed the admirable ability to overcome his faults. He was a much better husband to Yoko than he was to Cynthia, and a much better father to Sean than he was to Julian. And, toward the end of his life, Lennon was even expressing support for the fledgling gay rights movement, at a time when such support was almost unheard of from heterosexual celebrities. Yoko's refusal to endorse the book seems a familiar case of the widow of a famous man wanting to exercise total control over her late husband's legacy. In John Lennon: The Life, Lennon's capacity for self-improvement is as fully considered as are his shortcomings, and what results is a fully rounded picture of a complex and fascinating man.

[The Montana Professor 20.1, Fall 2009 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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