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Book Review: John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (now in paperback)

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By Shelley Germeaux, Daytrippin’ West Coast Correspondent
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[Editor’s note: This review was originally published in January 2009 shortly after the hardcover edition was released. The paperback edition of John Lennon: The Life was released September 8, 2009]
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At 817 pages long, Philip Norman, author of the 1981 Beatles blockbuster, “Shout”, has created the new Lennon Bible in hardback. Incredibly well researched, Norman has encapsulated the details of John’s life, from his Irish ancestry to the moment of his death. However, Norman describes the events of John’s life as a detached observer, without commentary or opinion, leaving the reader to form their own conclusions throughout the book. The result is a fantastic, intimate account of John’s entire life, but without the warmth of a heartbeat. The book seems well balanced and objective until his solo years. The 150 pages devoted to John’s post Beatles life is relatively short, due no doubt, to the extensive reliance on Yoko’s memories, making this section about as myopic as John’s eyesight.
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The opening section on John’s ancestry and childhood was written beautifully. Norman gets an A+ for painting a whimsical picture of John’s namesake, his musical Irish grandfather. He uses the most up to date information from Julia Baird’s recent book, “Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon ” concerning Mimi’s strong-arming of John into her care, which debunks the familiar old myth that John’s mother Julia gave him up. He also weaves in the long covered-up story about John’s father Alf, from Alf’s autobiography, published by his wife Pauline in “Daddy Come Home.”  After my own exhaustive research on John’s early life, this is the first time all of this has been told correctly in one place, which gives John’s childhood a whole new perspective, making previous biographies obsolete.
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Sometimes Norman, in an effort to include as many events as possible, loses some clarity on the big picture. For example while he refers to the grammar school pranks at Quarry Bank, some very funny, you’d have to read Pete Shotton’s book “John Lennon: In My Life” or Len Garry’s book “John, Paul and Me, Before the Beatles” for the full perspective of how they came to do such things. So much is crammed in, there is no sense of John’s personality, just a listing of incidents that give you the feeling that you “had to be there” to understand.
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Those who remember Cynthia Lennon’s intimate memories of her relationship with John in “A Twist of Lennon” and “John” will be a bit stunned to read the shocking but sweet account of John’s other girlfriend at the time Cynthia became pregnant with Julian.
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One disturbing and recurring theme is John’s backward glance at the relationship with his mother Julia, after she was so tragically killed. Norman refers to the infamous “diary tapes” that John recorded himself in 1979 (John was planning on doing his own autobiography) in which he mentions a sexual thought he had towards his mum at the age of 14 while taking a nap next to her one day. Far from being a new revelation, these tapes have been around for years, however Norman feels he needs to exploit this incident again, referring to it several times throughout the book and quoting Yoko Ono about it.  I can think of more worthwhile subjects that the author could have covered in it’s place. This is supposedly one of the reasons that Yoko withdrew her support for the book before it was released, saying that she thought Norman was “being mean” to John. It is distracting at best in a book that is otherwise so well documented, and the sensationalism isn’t needed for this type of work.
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Norman handles the fast-paced, explosive nature of the rising fame of the Beatles well, but lacks the excitement I would have expected. If I didn’t know who the Beatles were, I would not pick up on the revolutionary impact the Beatles had on society and music, even though he describes the lines of fans waiting to get into the Cavern and the screaming girls, which he does quite matter-of-factly. He nicely navigates the confusing financial agreements, boiling down the tricky twists and turns of how percentages changed hands and money was made and lost.
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Stories about the songs John wrote are interspersed as one album after another was released, from 1964 till the group’s demise in 1970, with a nice comparison to what Paul was writing and how they differed. John’s technique for song writing is compared against Paul’s, showing the vast differences in their approach.
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Rather than just regurgitating everything everyone knows in one place, as some reviews have indicated, Norman weaves in enough new goodies in each section to make it impossible to skip through the chapters. There are many ah-ha moments that make a thorough reading of the book well worth the effort. Most fans are aware that John and Paul, while magical songwriting partners, could be acrimonious with each other at times. We even know that they quickly began writing songs independently of each other, while relying on the other’s creative spark for a catchy middle-8, or lyric that made the song great. But Norman makes it clear, almost in a passing comment, that Paul was not the Beatle that John ever “hung out with”, even in the early days. They were business partners, but never best of friends.
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The reader begins to see a different John than we might have known. I found it fascinating for example that John was extremely neat and tidy, always neatly stacking papers, hanging up towels properly, and lining shoes up straight. Mimi’s disciplined upbringing begins to show through John’s somewhat chaotic lifestyle. Heartwarming letters from Mimi to a devoted fan are included, which shed a humorous and interesting light on Mimi’s personality and her relationship with John during the Beatles years.
Another “ah-ha” moment was the account of the woman who inspired the song Norwegian Wood. Finally we can say without a doubt that it was not some mysterious journalist John was having an affair with, as previous rumors claimed, but the very married neighbor woman in London who claimed to have Norwegian roots and had wood paneling in her home downstairs; the wife of a Beatles photographer no less. Despite the clues that were right under her nose, it was lost on poor Cynthia.
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The question of whether John had any gay tendencies came up several times, and it was obvious that the author was trying to answer it once and for all. Each time, whether it be the trip to Spain with Brian Epstein, or his relationship with Stu Sutcliffe, or some other so called “faggy” incident, the conclusion each time is that John was as heterosexual as anyone can be. In fact, according to Norman, John may have “teased” Brian with fake sexual overtures in order to have the upper hand in Brian’s decisions. There are repeated assertions that John taunted Brian because he was Jewish, which, taken wrong, can lead the reader to mistakenly assume John was anti-Semitic, when in fact it was just John’s sarcastic and cruel humor.
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Just when you think the subject of non-homosexuality is finally settled, Norman drops an “H” bomb, indicating that John perhaps had a secret sexual fantasy about Paul. This is the other assertion in the book that has angered both Yoko and Paul, as they both claim this is nonsense. Again in such a well-documented book, it’s nothing more than an effort at salaciousness that detracts from the book’s credibility. Listening to Paul’s appearance on the Howard Stern show (January 2009), it was clear that Paul regarded this comment in the book, and all the “gay” assertions, as a joke. Upon Howard’s mention of it, Paul said (paraphrasing)  “In all those years of getting drunk and crazy, if he was, there would have been some hint of it. But never, ever was there a single hint.” Later, when Howard mentioned John’s so called attraction to Paul as claimed in this book, Paul joked, “right, that was because he was in love with me”, to studio laughter. The idea that Norman included this paragraph in the book is like a fly in the soup or a fart at a Royal luncheon.
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As the Beatles break up, and the story of John’s life takes odd twists and turns, however, there are moments where it feels that even Norman is getting bored with his subject and some sense of tedium sets in as event after event is described with too much dryness.  Maybe it’s the story itself; John’s departure from the Beatles world as he leaves his wife and child to fend for themselves, taking up with a strange avant-garde tiny Japanese artist with wild black hair, doing naked album covers, engaging in heroin use and staging bed-in’s for peace leaves you simply tired as you continue to read. Norman gives no analysis of the changes occurring within John. The only spark here was reading what John’s outspoken aunties in Scotland had to say about it all, and that is priceless.  They were the voice of reason that perhaps John could have benefited from had he listened.
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Marital problems began to plague John and Yoko in New York after McGovern lost the presidential election, and Nixon was re-elected by a landslide in 1972. John dealt with it by getting drunk and screwing a girl at a party with Yoko present. This was around the same time that John’s protest album, Sometime in New York City bombed the charts and he realized that all his efforts to invoke change and get the youth to vote, failed. The government made unprecedented moves to covertly get him deported out of the United States because of his anti-war stance.
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The tension between John and Yoko led Yoko to suggest that John take up with May Pang and leave the house for awhile to give them some space. John thus began his “lost weekend” with May Pang in August of 1973 and this is where the story veers off track into the land of myth and fairy tales. This is frustrating from the aspect that so much of the book is indeed so well researched and so up to date, that many readers will just assume that this part of the book is, too. It is not. Norman ignores the latest information from May Pang’s latest book called “Instamatic Karma” as well as her previous book, “Loving John”, and even  John’s own account in Larry Kane’s book, “Lennon Revealed” to document the time period from August of 1973 to January of 1975, when John was separated from Yoko. He relies exclusively on the accounts of Yoko Ono and her long time confidants Bob Gruen and Elliott Mintz, both of whom tend to comment at times on events that they were not witness to. For example, Bob Gruen was never in L.A. with John and May and yet portends to be an expert on John’s womanizing during that period, in order to discount May’s relationship with John. And Mintz seems to have blocked May out of his memory altogether when recalling various times with John. Somehow Norman neglects to question the accuracy of their accounts of that time period, while May Pang herself was not interviewed.  This would explain the lack of storied detail that shortens the solo years section of the book.
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Norman then makes it appear that John and Yoko reunited at the Elton John concert in Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving of 1974. He fails to note that John and May remained together for two more eventful months, hosting Julian over Christmas and taking him to Disneyworld, even considering the purchase of a home in Montauk while on an outing with Mick and Bianca Jagger. He gives just scant reference to Paul and Linda’s visits, even though May and John were planning on visiting them in New Orleans while Paul was recording Venus and Mars, which could have led to a songwriting reunion. Instead, from here on out, we are given a seamless transition from Elton John to resumed life at the Dakota apartments without mention of any of those events.
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The Dakota years, from 1975 – 1980 are sweet and paint John as a new daddy with a newfound resolution to be a good husband and just hang around the house. From Yoko’s vantage point, John’s life is nicely encapsulated here, and a lot of this has not been shared before.  The birth of Sean, John and Yoko’s house hunting in Long Island and Palm Beach for vacation homes, their trip to Japan to meet Yoko’s family, their purchase of farms and Holstein cows, Yoko’s penchant for psychics and tarot card readers, and Egyptian artifacts are happily discussed by Yoko.
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While these subjects have been described in prior books, (Fred Seaman in “The Last Days of John Lennon”, John Green’s “Dakota Days”) this is the first time Yoko has shared her version of events, which is interesting given her previous silence on the subjects.  Fred describes in his book John’s frustration with Yoko’s empty promises to show up at family holidays.  The confusion as to why this occurred is cleared up here in a stunning admission by Yoko, saying she had gone back on heroin and was trying to clean herself up while John was gone so he wouldn’t find out.
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John’s own state of mind is in fact all but ignored, along with other published accounts of his activities during this time, as the testimony of Yoko, Elliott and Gruen continue to paint the vague picture that John was healthy and happy, through snippets of memories, even though they were not around him as much as the book would lead you to think.
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This is a soft airbrushed view, though, when too many published accounts exist that describe John’s depressed state and weight loss that shocked so many people who knew him, as well as his continued relationship with May. Norman does a good job proving that John was “no Howard Hughes” but things weren’t exactly like a Norman Rockwell painting either. A good illustration of this is how Norman barely mentions John’s depression, quoting John as joking that one day he was so depressed he nearly “jumped out the window”, so he got hooked on an evangelical tv ministry in an effort to be saved by Jesus. As the reader is left a bit stunned by this revelation, Norman quickly moves on to a new topic as though he’d said John blew his nose. That such an alarming comment is dismissed so readily without further discussion is puzzling.
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The only other outside source quoted during this time period was the old sea dog, “Cap’n Hank” whom John sailed with on the ill-fated trip to Bermuda. The Captain was fully interviewed, making for a breathtaking account of John at the helm in stormy seas, on the brink of disaster, when everyone else was too sick or exhausted to help any more. The effect was to reinstate John’s manhood and his songwriting muse, which made for a wonderful vacation as he happily recorded demo after demo.
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John’s sudden inspiration to write songs in Bermuda, for what would become Double Fantasy, came after five years of not being able to write, Norman acknowledges; but he doesn’t connect the dots to the prior comment about John’s depression. So much has been written about this before that it’s odd that Norman gave it such short shrift.
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John Lennon: The Life” is aptly titled, as it literally ends at the moment of his death, without mention of the tributes, the sadness the world felt and his continued legacy, and the meaning his music and life gave to his fans. Factually it is quite accurate except for the failings in the solo era, probably due to the restrictions imposed for Yoko’s participation and approval, which she later withdrew anyway.
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Ray Coleman’s book, “Lennon: The Definitive Biography”, has always been the “gold standard” against which all future works would be compared. Norman’s book makes that work obsolete given the volume of information now available to him, but lacks a sense of empathy for Lennon. Only the length of it, and the title, reminds us of Albert Goldman’s sickening travesty, “The Lives of John Lennon.”
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I enjoyed the book a great deal, learning many little things about John that I had never heard before, sandwiched into every section. Norman obviously put a great deal of time and effort into meticulous research that is admirable. It is a great reference book in many respects, now that so much new information has been shared and discovered over the last few years, that is incorporated into the book. As nice as it is to have all this in one place, the lack of warmth or analysis of John’s personality and life events left me feeling flat throughout the book. The inordinate attention given to unfounded or unimportant sexual allegations, as well as the mythical approach given to John’s solo years, was disappointing and has the effect of somewhat reducing the book’s credibility.
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Shelley Germeaux is a John Lennon expert in her own right. She has done extensive research on Lennon including interviews with May Pang and Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird. Shelley is also an independent publishing consultant with Heritage Makers. Visit her website at www.shelleys-memory-books.com
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6 thoughts on “Book Review: John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (now in paperback)

  1. Also it’s totally false what Philip Norman said about Paul not being the Beatle he hung out with even in the early days and that they were business partners but never best friends.

    Yoko called Paul on the phone the day after John died and told him that John told her many times that he really loved Paul! Paul has said how close they were before the end of The Beatles ans how much they loved each other too and how close they once were.

    John told the interviewer I forget his name right now,who did the last radio interview with John (just hours before he was insanely killed by the crazy one time big Beatles fan,and John had been his faviorite,) in the car when he asked him about Paul,John said that they were like brothers and that he loved him like one and that he would do anything for him and that he thinks paul would do the same.

    George Martin says in Ray Coleman’s great book,Lennon that they did love each other and were really close during the years he knew and worked with them in the studio.He said the press tended to play up the differences between them,but he said they were actually a lot alike.Linda McCartney had said this too.

    John told Rolling Stone Magazine in June 1975 that Paul’s Band On The Run album is a great album,and that it’s Paul’s music and that it’s good stuff.

    Also Paul has said over the years that he and John always had a special empathetic bond not only musically but because when

    • My post got cut off by mistake. When Paul met John when he was only 15,he had lost his beloved nurse and midwife mother Mary when he was only 14 and his brother 12,a year before he met John,and John’s mother Julia was still living and Paul had met her.And then about a year later John’sa mother was killed when John was 17 by the off duty cop who was driving drunk.

      Here is a good interview with Paul from the April/May 1982 Music Express and he’s asked about his relationship with John and how close they once were,and how they were speaking on the phone in friendly terms not long before he died,and he’s asked the stupid self explanatory question about how he felt about John’s murder.

      http://www.beatlesinterviews.org/db1982.0400.beatles.html

  2. http://www.beatlesinterviews.org/db1982.0503.beatles.html

    Newsweek May 3 1982 Paul also talked about his relationship with John and how he cried all day after he found out that John was killed and how they were talking friendly again shortly before John died.

  3. Phillip Norman was always biased against Paul including in his first book,Shout too.

  4. I forgot to mention that Paul has said in other interviews that the line in his moving tribute to John Here Today,What about the night we cried because there wasn’t any any reason left to keep it all inside and Paul has said,that it was around 1964 and they were on a tour in their hotel room and had were drinking,and they both started to talk and cry about their mother’s deaths when they both were teenagers.

  5. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1335829/John-Lennon-NEW-eyewitness-account-30th-anniversary-Beatles-murder.html

    Dave Sholin of RKO was the interviewer and he says this is what John told him in the taxi( he stupidly didn’t ask John this during the three hour taped radio interview) when he asked him about his relationship with Paul McCartney and John said,”Well he’s like a brother I love him. Families-we certainly have our ups and downs and our quarrels.But at the end of the day,when it’s all said and done,I would do anything for him and I think he would do anything for me.”