Classic review: John Lennon
John Lennon’s life was as inspired and messy as were the 1960s.
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Nov. 7, 2008.] You see, part of me is a monk and part of me is a performing flea,” explains John in Philip Norman’s splendid biography John Lennon: The Life. But the duality doesn’t end with that of quiet intellect/rowdy rock’ n’ roller.Skip to next paragraph
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Norman shows John to be as maddeningly cruel as he was disarmingly gentle, as competitive as he was philanthropic, as materialistic as he was eager to find answers to life’s deeper questions.
In short, John Lennon’s life was as inspired and messy as was the 1960s, that transforming decade in which he reigned as rock star, fashion initiator, and anthemic voice of the counterculture.
Norman faces the challenge of Lennon’s incongruities by taking it slow, and long – at 851 pages this is no weekend romp of a book.
Yet, its ambitious range proves to be its strength, enveloping you in ways that a quicker read could not. Norman’s spry prose never wanders into dusty Beatle ephemera or the false thrills of a tell-all.
At once retrospective and immediate, the author pulls us through time with luminous detail, wisely resisting the temptation to psychoanalyze Lennon from afar.
The result is a wonderful unfolding of Lennon’s life with all its talent, tenderness and tragedy.
Much (or should I say MUCH) has been written about the Beatles, and although Norman brings new clarity to that most famous period of Lennon’s life, where this book really intrigues is in its three-dimensional portrait of the rocker’s youth, and in its patient piecing together of John’s years with Yoko Ono.
The story of the boy Lennon reveals our subject as the rebel you want to root for, the Liverpool lad who, for all his wit and brilliance, just can’t get with the curriculum. Unlike some Beatle bios that include the obligatory “Early Years” chapter, here John and Paul McCartney’s suburban Woolton springs to life.
Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields are given the backstory they deserve, and counting the references that make their way into later Lennon/McCartney songs is downright fun. Under these blue suburban skies where English propriety tussles with a seaport’s vices, young John doesn’t always meet with our approval, but he has our empathy from the start.
Norman provides a satisfying explanation as to why Lennon’s care was turned over to his Aunt Mimi. Tender and turbulent, it’s in this relationship with Mimi that we witness John’s affectionate side and hold out hope for the sexually active, cheeky teen with a penchant for shoplifting.
As the book shifts into the Beatle years the pace (and our pulse) quickens, and we’re entertained with all the thrills and spills of the Fab Four’s rise to acclaim: their fanatical following in Liverpool; their Hamburg exploits; their shock at the sudden death of bassist Stuart Sutcliff, John’s closest friend; their fortuitous teaming with producer George Martin; their love of Ringo and his inevitable addition to the band; their astonishing conquest of America.