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"I wouldn't mind dying as the world's clown. I'm not looking for epitaphs" (John Lennon, 1969)
on 19 July 2009
There seems to be renewed interest in John Lennon at the moment. Two exhibitions have recently opened: one in New York organised by his widow Yoko Ono and one in Liverpool curated by his first wife Cynthia and son Julian; Cynthia also published a second memoir, John, in 2005; three not uncontroversial films have been made on his killing (Chapter 27, The Murder of John Lennon and The Killing of John Lennon) and a biopic of his early years is in the pipeline (directed by Sam Taylor-Wood). The relatively recent deaths of George Harrison (2001), long-term roadie Neil Aspinall (2008) and erstwhile Beatles lawyer Allen Klein (2009) have surely also brought Lennon back into the headlines. Reflecting this interest and also expressing it is Philip Norman's 800+-page biography John Lennon: The Life, which has arrived in good time for the 30th anniversary of Lennon's death next year.
So many books have been written on John Lennon (even rockstars have named children after him). Why should we keep on reading them? And the answer is, first and foremost, because he was a fascinating songwriter and singer. He also undoubtedly had a complex personality, seemingly ricocheting between headline-making arrogance and painful self-doubt, aggression and tenderness, tomfoolery and pleas for peace, neglect of his first son followed by becoming a doting househusband for the second, and seamlessly switching from marriage to a quintessentially conservative Liverpudlian wife in suburban England to a Japanese-American performance artist seven years his senior in downtown New York. In his 40 years of life, his relationship to politics likewise swung from candid disinterest ("It's selfish, but I don't care too much about humanity," he proclaimed in 1963) to peace activism and feminism as reflected in such tracks as 'Woman', 'Give Peace a Chance' and 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)'. Many of his songs - with and without Paul McCartney - irrevocably changed the cultural landscape and continue to enrich it.
On the positive side, Norman painstakingly evokes John's early years, his sense of identity torn between a playful, half-present mother, a father absent at sea, and the blunt, efficient protection provided by Aunt Mimi. We get a palpable sense of Lennon's vulnerability and anger as a terrible litany of unexpected tragedies is recounted: the sudden death of Uncle George from a liver haemorrhage in 1955, his mother being killed by a speeding off-duty policeman in 1958 when he was 17, the brain haemorrhage that killed his friend and bandmate Stuart Sutcliffe in 1962, and the drug overdose that deprived the world famous Beatles of their troubled manager, Brian Epstein, in 1967. Epstein's death unsettled and destabilised the Beatles juggernaut that had been running so successfully, efficiently and groundbreakingly up to that point. For Lennon, this - rather than the entrance of Yoko Ono in his life - marked the beginning of the demise of the supergroup.
To his credit, Norman doesn't shy away from illuminating Lennon's more unattractive traits and behaviour. Where Norman is weaker, though, is on the Dakota years. In contrast to the earlier attention to detail, the writing in these sections feels rushed and Norman seems to gloss over important changes that take place. How, for instance, can Lennon's sudden esotericism be understood (which is apparently so strong that he and Yoko let astrological readings determine the flight route they shall take from Japan back to New York)? How was Lennon able to care for his second-born (Sean) so lovingly whilst continuing to neglect his first-born (Julian)? What was it about Yoko Ono that so fascinated him and made him so open to her impact (on his music, his relationships, his politics and worldview) after a first marriage in which he seemed determined to ignore the wishes and needs of his wife? The developments in Lennon's character are passed over as if they were simply a matter of course, and this is a key flaw in Norman's book: he fails to provide a sustained analysis of the inner life of his subject. In the portrayal of his second marriage, he also - I feel - is too deferential to Yoko Ono's account of events (who initially had positive feelings about the book, thinking otherwise shortly before its publication). Also, his treatment of Julian Lennon is poor - for chapters he ignores mention of Lennon's neglect of him, only to compare Julian's music negatively to Sean's, stating that the former became a "Lennon clone" in the 1990s. The sense of foreboding that he presses upon the reader, where even the slightest reference to guns or death is apparently a dark foreshadowing of what is to come, can also be irritating and gives Lennon's assassination an unfortunate sense of inevitability which it shouldn't have.
In spite of the research and its length, this probably isn't the definitive biography on Lennon, and it certainly won't be the last word, but it has brought us much closer to an account of his life that in its sensitivity, sustained analysis and evenhandedness truly does it justice.