Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Philip Norman - 'John Lennon: The Life'

John Lennon was a dick.

That’s pretty much what I learned from Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life, so it’s not surprising that Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, didn’t endorse the book’s release, claiming that Norman was “mean to John” (p.820). While Ono, and many of Lennon’s comrades, claim that he was a humorous, loving, charming fellow, there’s also no denying that the man was a chauvinist, a sex fiend, a drug addict, a dubious friend, and an even worse father as far as son Julian and stepdaughter Kyoko are concerned (Fact: Lennon once almost killed them both in a car accident because he refused to do anything to fix his eyesight).

Further dampening the read is Norman’s style – lavishly, obnoxiously approving of the slightest details of Lennon’s life yet brief and even dismissive of certain artistic triumphs. “Imagine” gets blown off as “hackneyed and can hardly be called alluring,” with its lyrics labeled as “nowhere near the standard he reached in, say, ‘Norwegian Wood’” (p. 673). Meanwhile, like half of a chapter (“Shortsighted John Wimple Lennon”) gets dedicated to Lennon’s voracious childhood appetite for masturbation. In fact, Lennon and his best friend at the time, Pete Shotton, “wanked together as an act of… rebellion and defiance and mutual showing off” (p. 73). Norman’s admiration for Lennon’s sexual capacity is deeply weird.

Indeed, as an historical analyst, Norman often veers of course. He gets some obvious points right (Dude demoed “Norwegian Wood,” a song about his infidelities, for his first wife, Cynthia, which is fucked up), but his take on “Working Class Hero” comes off sounding like a freshmen English major’s earliest attempts at a college writing seminar. Sometimes, the book feels very much like it does not need to be 800+ pages.

But as an historian, Norman is awfully thorough. Yoko might hate the book for hurting John’s legacy, but she could never claim that The Life is libelous. This book is an exhaustive study of the ex-Beatle’s many faults and blessings. If readers can bypass the over-the-top prose and focus on the research, they will find a Lennon bio that cuts through Beatles mythology in search of truth. On that level, The Life is revelatory.

Given that he’s one of the most renowned and prolific songwriters of the 20th century, it’s funny how John barely figures into The Life’s first 50 pages or so. The book actually begins with the working class hero’s grandfather, also named John, an Irish musician who took part in the “first transatlantic popular music industry” (p. 4) during the late 1800s. Then the book moves to John’s parents, Alf Lennon and Julia Stanley. From there, Norman exhaustively covers John’s difficult childhood, The Quarrymen, the Hamburg years, conquering America, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Instant Karma,” heroin, Sean Lennon, the Black Panthers, marijuana, Rock and Roll, New York City, and John’s eventual assassin, Mark David Chapman.

Again, John Lennon – The Life is a difficult, uneven (and poorly copy edited) read. The musical criticism isn’t too abundant or informative, especially during the post-Beatles years. At the same time, though, it’s not like readers need Norman to validate the significance of “She Loves You.” The flavor’s not quite right, but the facts are indisputable. The Life is a staggering collection of anecdotes, interviews, and inferences, detailing John Lennon’s life as completely as any of us can post-1980.

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