John Lennon: The Life
by Frank Carrigan
IN COMPILING his study of John Lennon, Philip Norman was blessed with unrivalled access to the major and minor figures that helped shape the life of one of the great cultural figures of the 20th century. Norman's stature as the author of Shout!, the definitive biography of the Beatles, helped convince all those who crossed Lennon's path to commit their memories to the latest and most distinguished biographer of the Beatles' founder.
In return, Norman has upset at least two of his most prominent sources. Yoko Ono has criticised the book for presenting Lennon in a mean light and Paul McCartney has publicly refuted Norman's suggestion that Lennon wanted to establish a gay relationship with his songwriting partner. It would be tragic if the prurient features of this biography dwarfed Norman's great achievement in rekindling interest in the verifiable aspects of Lennon's life.
Nothing should detract from the fact that this is a work of substantial scholarship based on rigorous research that creates a portrait of a complex, highly gifted and turbulent spirit. In a study of 500,000 words, Norman excavates the life journey of Lennon. He traverses, in rich detail drawn from those close to Lennon at each stage of his life, the myriad forces that underpinned the creative force that was Lennon.
The most accomplished aspect of the work is Norman's evocation of the Liverpool of Lennon's youth. Anybody like this reviewer, who grew up in the England of the 1950s, can only admire how Norman recaptures the period and location that provided the crucible of Lennon's psychology and his fierce desire to make an artistic mark.
Starting with his early childhood, Norman has garnered evidence from classmates at the first school Lennon attended and the living members of his extended family to portray a precocious child with a flypaper mind. Who would have thought before reading this book that classic 1960s pop songs were born in the 1940s and early 1950s in the bedroom of his Aunt Mimi's house?
By seven or eight, Lennon was playing the mouth organ and was an omnivorous reader. Norman skilfully teases out how a combination of Lewis Carroll, weekly comics such as The Beano and The Dandy, radio and films provided material for young Lennon's natural musical ear. The Goon Show, with its gallery of madcap characters and musical interludes, was the highlight of his week during high school and its anarchic spirit fuelled his drawings and poems.
Years later, a line from Carroll about a walrus was still lodged in his mind and provided the catalyst for I Am The Walrus. Love Me Do was also inspired by fragments from his early reading of Carroll. Do You Want To Know A Secret? came from a line in a Disney film from his infant years. And one of the great breakthrough Beatles songs that launched them in the US, Please Please Me, came from a variation on a Bing Crosby song that he absorbed as a boy. The classic Strawberry Fields Forever was inspired by childhood walks with his guardians, Aunt Mimi and Uncle George. Strawberry Field was a Gothic mansion housing an orphan girls' home and the young Lennon would peer through its heavy iron gates, transfixed by the exotic building and the sad lives within.
But it was the streetscape of Liverpool and its vibrant culture that truly forged Lennon's creative talent. The conventional wisdom is that the England of the 1950s was a postwar wasteland. In this scenario Lennon and other rock pioneers buried the England of the 1950s and opened the way for the "Swinging '60s" to triumph. In fact, beneath the surface of ration cards and austerity, the England of postwar years was a dynamic society with a rich cultural and social fabric. The empire was fading but the search for new ways of seeing and being provided tremendous scope for all types of creative individuals.
Liverpool, with its multicultural population and its geographical location looking out towards the Atlantic, was ideally placed to be a hub of change. The city became the gateway for the American pop invasion spearheaded by Haley, Presley, Little Richard and Fats Domino. More importantly, in the mid-'50s it opened Lennon's ears to the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Norman makes it clear that Lennon stood on the artistic shoulders of Holly and the Everlys. Holly's lyrical ingenuity and exquisite sensibility provided a quantum leap for Lennon and McCartney, his new songwriting companion. Post-Holly there was scope to combine wistful and insightful love songs with the visceral hard-rock tunes that became the trademark of the Beatles.
Liverpool also had a thriving club culture where neophyte pop musicians could experiment and fail and come back tougher and more honed. Norman lists a farrago of highly talented young musicians who orbited Lennon and provided the competition and camaraderie to maximise his ability. Lennon's oscillation between art school and the burgeoning pop scene, as he worked at fulfilling his dream of becoming an artist, are as much a homage to postwar Liverpool and the opportunities it offered to young maverick spirits as it is to Lennon's gifts.
The dynamics of Liverpool's social relations also played a major part in forging Lennon's artistry. His parents' dysfunctional relationship is portrayed unsparingly by Norman. Every other biography of Lennon has portrayed his father as a feckless drifter who deserted his wife and young child. Lennon went to his grave unreconciled with his father, and the despairing lyrics of so many of his best songs are testimony to how painful childhood memories never healed. But Norman pinpoints that his mother was equally or more irresponsible. Her infidelities helped rupture the marriage and her incapacity to take decisive control of Lennon's upbringing left him wounded and alienated. Her tragic early death left an emotional inheritance that he was not wanted by his parents, which largely defined his personality.
With male friends, his first priority was to dominate and make sure they never threatened his leadership. His bluntness and withering wit were a defence mechanism and the more insightful of Norman's sources point out the wounded little boy that was a constant spectre in Lennon's inner life. He could be equally destructive with wives and lovers. One girlfriend from his pre-fame years speaks of how gentle he could be once removed from the need to be the kingpin. But even in those rare moments when the tough-guy mask would drop, the demons were not exorcised. The gentleness was expressed in insecure comments about his looks and personality and words of longing about how he still missed his mother and even his long-departed father.
When success came it palliated his sense of loss for a while but soon the songs began to reflect his vulnerability and tortured psychology. The early upbeat pop candy gave way to introspective musings, which highlighted that money can't buy love and contentment. After this came a pattern of boozing, drugs and a broken marriage, in which he left behind a child and a desolate wife. Even with Ono, the love of his life and his second wife, there was a period of separation and difficulties.
Yet at the end, when Chapman crouched down in a military posture and fired his bullets point-blank at Lennon, there was a sense of loss across the world. People responded not only to the loss of arguably half the greatest songwriting partnership in popular music; they also responded to a fallible man who in song and life was trying to understand the forces that shaped him and work his way to a better way to live.
If he had lived he would have been a wonderfully grumpy old man, but one who, we hope, would have railed against wars and other external follies while finding peace within. His period of political activism, when he opposed the Vietnam and Biafran wars, was a sign of his questing spirit. Outside that Dakota apartment in Manhattan, which Lennon shared with Ono and their beautiful boy in the house-husband role that he enthusiastically embraced, Chapman robbed us of a flawed but great and very human figure.
Thanks to the writing skill and craft of Norman, Lennon, in all his complexity and genius, is reborn in the pages of this stunning biography.
John Lennon: The Life
By Philip Norman
HarperCollins, 853 pp, $35
© 2008 Fairfax Digital
New book collects John Lennon's essential interviews
John Lennon: The Essential Interviews collects the pop music legend's most candid and inspirational interactions with the media. Available for advanced order and immediate delivery from Rock Reader Books, this exciting new book – which is also now available for download – will be formally released March 3, 2009 through traditional and online book retailers.
Beginning in the sensational heyday of the Beatles, The Essential Interviews traces Lennon's personal and creative evolution over the span of the next fifteen years up until his tragic murder in December 1980. Allowing the iconic musician to tell his own story, John Lennon: The Essential Interviews finds the genius behind most of the Beatles best songs, delivering the memorable, newsworthy sentiments that captivated the media and record buying public alike.
Compiled by pop music journalist John D. Luerssen specifically for Rock Reader Books, this project offers direct perspective from Lennon on how the following legendary sentiments took shape:
• "Part of me suspects that I'm a loser, and the other part of me thinks I'm God Almighty."
• "Music is everybody's possession. It's only publishers who think that people own it."
• "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination. If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there'd be peace."
© Rock Reader Books or contact them at rockreaderbooks