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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.
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Most beloved public figures have many facets -- some of them nasty, some of them pleasant and admirable. Most biographies either focus on the good, or the bad.

But fortunately, Philip Norman is making a valiant effort to show, if not all of John Lennon's facets, then as many of them as possible. Having explored the Beatles and their impact on a generation, Norman narrows his focus down to "John Lennon: The Life" -- and he does a superb job unearthing the many details, relationships and differing faces of this much-lamented rock star. We'll never get a John Lennon autobiography, but Norman does a pretty good job of getting inside his shaggy head.

John Lennon was born into an incredibly stormy marriage (which broke up soon after) and raised by his loving, strict Aunt Mimi, though he was something of a hellraising trickster as a child. The one blot: the tragic, shocking death of his mother Julia.

Of course, everyone knows what happened later -- after a brief stint at art school, Lennon became part of a band with an ever-shifting name, and started working on pop songs alongside Paul McCartney. Though briefly devastated by the death of a bandmate, Lennon quickly rose to fame and fortune when the renamed Beatles became not just a hit band, but a new way of life for the youth of Britain, and then the entire world. Hit album after hit album poured from the Beatles, along with the usual rock-star intake of drugs, sex and occasional PR disasters.

But Lennon's interests began to stray in more spiritual directions, and as his marriage to the sweet-natured Cynthia fell apart, he met and fell in love with eccentric Japanese artist Yoko Ono. Suddenly he was devoting himself not to pop hits, but to experimental numbers, "bed-ins" and sitting in bags, and using his world-wide celebrity for the furtherance of peace. While this lifestyle didn't quite tame Lennon's wild side, it led to new focuses in his life -- until it was tragically cut short.

You have to hand it to Philip Norman. While most biographers tend to portray Lennon as a hippie saint or a hopeless jerk, he tries very hard to find a happy medium that encompasses all of Lennon's personality: a flawed man who had a boatload of issues and could be both cruel and kind. While he gets a bit worshipy in the latter parts of Lennon's life, Norman does a pretty good portraying both the musician and those around him in a realistic, compelling light.

Additionally, Norman gives as much careful attention to Lennon's youth as he does to the Beatlemania and John/Yoko years -- in particular, his relationships to his mother, Aunt Mimi, Paul McCartney and the delicate artist Stu, as well as the months and years as a struggling young musician. There's lots of pop psychology, but it works.

In he meantime, Lennon's life is carefully framed in the political and social climes of the time -- the post-war fifties, colourful psychedelic chaos of the 1960s, and the later, grimmer times of the Vietnam War. Politicians, pop art, Liverpudlian slang and changing societies are all explored in detail, and Norman has the perspectives of a lot of people who actually lived in the time and knew Lennon -- his wives, his sons, his bandmates, and even his Aunt Mimi (and she gets a LOT of words in).

He also injects a wry sense of humour into the story (Lennon's aunts turning up at a Beatles performance) as well as a steady, sometimes evocative writing style ("The room reeked of stale beer and wine, and was lined in dusty velvet drapes..."). At the same time, there's some pretty shocking allegations here, such as the claim that Lennon may have been inadvertently involved in the death of his bandmate, but Norman avoids tabloid journalism by explaining why he doubts Lennon actually did any of that.

Lennon himself is a colourful mosaic of seemingly contradictory qualities -- he could be mean-spirited (mocking the disabled), wild, kindly, romantic, neglectful, vibrant, brilliantly unconventional and craving a spirituality that's hard to get when you're filthy rich. As seen by Norman, much of his personality seems to be based on the fear of loved ones dying and leaving him, but we get glimpses of dozens of different sides to his psyche.

"John Lennon: The Life" attempts to accurately portray one of the twentieth century's most unconventional and beloved pop stars, and for the most part, Philip Norman does a brilliant job.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 October 2008
I'm not working just now and like one of the other reviewers I read it in three days. I really enjoyed it. I was 12 when Love Me Do came out and my sister and I bought all their albums on the day of release for several years.

I was also around in London in the late sixties so enjoyed reading the detail about that period.

There are several things about this book which really impressed me however. One is the carefully built up and three dimensional portrait of Lennon's childhood, particularly the portraits of his parents and aunt Mimi. They really come alive for me. So does the picture of Lennon as a 'Just William' character. Clearly for almost his whole life he was a relentless rebel, a continual thorn in the flesh to anyone in authority. I found the stuff about his interest in art and writing really interesting too, going back to his art school days and earlier.

The stuff on Hamburg is great too - that was a hard school, and made them as a band. There is of course a lot of detail on all the Beatles and the changing personnel and friendships. Many readers may be more familiar with this than I as I had never read a book about the Beatles before, but it is really good to get the lowdown on Stu Sutcliffe for example.

The nature of the Lennon McCartney relationship, the friendship with Jagger all add to the mix.

I was less interested in the Yoko Ono years as her work doesn't interest me but the book does bring out how Lennon's personality found his life in New York a new vehicle to express himself in a more explicitly radical way.

The section on the breakup with the Beatles seems to have as much to do with Paul's relationship with Linda as with John's with Yoko but armed with this support they both adopted different financial gurus and that was what really did it.

The is a comprehensive and disciplined book. It doesn't answer every question but for me really brought those years back.
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on 8 March 2012
The best biographies - to paraphrased George Orwell - can only be trusted when they reveal something disgraceful. This book pretends to offer a corrective that Lennon's later years resembled a modern day Howard Hughes locked in a drug induced coma and that he was manipulated by a devious, black magician in the guise of yoko ono. .

Unfortunately, the book is a Yoko Ono approved, sanitised version of Lennon. This official biography is in essence propaganda. The book trawls over old ground re the history of the Beatles and Lennon's solo years with nothing new to add of value. There are a couple of sentences near the end of the book which are startling: Sean Lennon is partially deaf in one ear due to being screamed at by John. the only glimpse in the book that Lennon was a very disturbed and troubled soul - the product of an appalling early childhood and his prolonged drug abuse. And a curt remark denigrating Julian's musical ambitions. The only real sustained reference to john's first family. He who controls the past, controls the future seems an appropriate epigraph for this book. Lennon is delineated as a musical genius who was too good for the Beatles. A travesty of the truth taking into account that from 1966 onwards, it was McCartney who sustained and kept the band together. This book is prostitution journalism, particularly with its gushing testimony that lennon's life was fulfilled by the undying and supportive love of Yoko. The sad truth was that both yoko and Lennon were narcissistic, self obsessed personalities who cocooned themselves in a world of drugs, affairs and mental illness.

The book is useful, but fundamentally insipid. You can pick this book up in the bargain basement of most book stores - next to the equally vacuous book by Philip Norman on The Rolling Stones.
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on 4 January 2013
I got this book nearly two years ago,loved it straightaway.It's a LONG book to say the least.John Lennon is one of the greatest songwriters of our time but a very troubled and complex man.He lived on impulse and doing things by the moment which led to all sorts of problems in the long run.While this book has many pros it also has some cons as well.For instance all the bad things get kind of glossed over,his heroin addiction for instance lasts half a chapter then he just quits it, end of story.Many people have commented that the first half of the book is better than the second half and I couldn't agree more,the 70s period just kind of drags on and you get the feeling it withholds certain information and doesn't go into the details like his "Lost Weekend" for instance kind of comes and goes then he goes back to Yoko and he is fine again,another thing many have complained about is that it's "Yoko Approved",I believe this to be true to a certain extent but not entirely because she herself wasn't too pleased with how the book turned out which must mean something,the dakota period is given even less coverage which I find ridiculous,probably one of the most interesting periods in Lennon's life and it just describes it as John being content to be a "Househusband" which I do find to be true in a way but I just get the feeling it glosses over the darker side of his last years in Dakota,I mean he didn't end up like Howard Hughes who never went outside but I think his eccentricity went kind of overboard during this period like not gong to certain places unless the stars told him to and his sudden outbursts of anger which led to Sean being partially deaf in one ear after shouting at him and so on.Also although he was always thin after an article in 1965 called him the fat beatle his weight definitely plummeted during this period if you've seen the pictures from 1980 he looks way too thin but the book doesn't really cover his obsession with his weight to where he would to where he would measure his waist and if it was over a certain inch he would fast for a few days.I believe that John was a child in a man's body and while this was undoubtedly part of his genius I think on a personal level it caused him many problems in life,so to conclude my review,great book that could've been better if the 70s period was as good as the 60s one.
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on 17 October 2012
Before I started to read this book, I carefully read all the reviews here and noted what they said. Two comments seemed to stand out : firstly, that Philip Norman is biased against Paul McCartney, and secondly, that he (Norman) was in Yoko's pocket, so to speak. Having now read the book, with an open mind, I can say that I did not find any support for either of these assertions. Philip Norman writes fairly and without bias : if John says or does something good, he says so; if John says or does something bad, he says so - and I can't recall him saying anything bad about Paul. What I did not like was the Americanisms. I am an Englishman reading a book I purchased in England, written by an English author, and published by an English company. I do not expect to read 'sidewalk' and 'airplane' and I think there was a 'faucet' somewhere, too. This is, admittedly, a minor quibble and, after a while, either the Americanisms stopped or I stopped noticing them. The proofreading was not good, either : while I don't recall many actual 'typos,' there were plenty of places where a word had been missed out altogether. To return to the positive side, this is a very well-written book, easy to read, informative and interesting. It is a long book (around 800 pages) but none the worse for that. Philip Norman seems to have researched his subject most carefully, and he paints a very clear picture of John. I would recommend it to any Lennon fan and any Beatles fan.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 October 2015
A mighty tome weighing in at over 800 pages, this authorative look at the life of the enigma that was John Lennon has plenty of style and pace. Originally supported by Lennon's widow Yoko Ono, she later withdrew her support though it is hard to see just why. Overall it shows Lennon in a good light. But it doesn't dodge the issues of his complex personality and is written rather in the style of a journalist rather than a novelist.

Much of the details have already appeared in his history of the Beatles Shout, but there is enough new here to make it a worthwhile read. It is particularly clear on the business side of the Beatles and Lennon's years in New York as well as his early days as an unruly Liverpool teenager in a world very far away from today's high tech society.

It takes some doing to keep a reader's attention over such a vast number of pages and it took me over a month to read due to my busy lifestyle, but I persevered and enjoyed an intimate look written with passion but in a balanced and intuitive way.
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on 6 July 2015
I thought that "Shout" was the best story of The Beatles. Based on that, I bought this. I enjoyed it, especially the first half. Then, as John meets Yoko, the story seems to take on a different tone, it's as if Yoko is looking over Philip's shoulder as he writes, it's slightly off-putting, a bit too reverential and 'careful'. Another complaint is that the story suddenly ends without much explanation, as if the writer was in a hurry to close the book. Apart from those comments, it was still an interesting read, especially the first half. I would like to have read another book with the second half of the story written in the spirit of the first.
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on 1 October 2008
If you have even a cursory knowledge of the Beatles or Lennon then you will find no new information in this biography. The section on the Beatles is by far the largest part of the book and consists of old stories that will be familiar to anyone who has already read a Beatles book. Norman has clearly taken the bulk of his research from already published books.

Norman writes little about the music and has no insight into it's creation.

Perhaps the most disappointing part is the brief coverage of the years 1975-1980. Norman's sources for these years are Yoko, Yoko's PR man Elliot Mintz and Yoko's private photographer Bob Gruen. Needless to say the account comes across as a whitewash. There is no mention of Lennon's own disturbing audio diaries, songs like "You saved my soul" or Julian Lennons remarks on his father from this period that all paint a very different picture to the one Yoko is keen to present. The book ends with a pointless interview with Sean Lennon discussing his father - surely a 2 year old has little insight into his father.
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on 21 November 2013
This book is a good account. I was inspired to read after visiting the National Trust Beatles childhood homes in Liverpool. The book is very good on the early life and want happened in that house. The author understands British life, culture and institutions so it is much better than the Albert Goldman biography.
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