Our bookstores are overwhelmed with books about john Lennon. We all know this. There are tons of them out there. Moreso than any other member of The Beatles, there are more books about John Lennon than any given person can deal with. I know, I own most of them. Most of these books are unremarkable. Most books are simple retellings of an familiar story. It is a rarity, at this point, to get any real insight into the figure of Lennon.
When I read the initial announcement about this new title, though, I got excited. This upcoming book about John Lennon looks to be different. This title, John Lennon: The Life, is penned by one the world’s foremost Beatle scholars, Philip Norman. If anyone is not familiar with his book, Shout!, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog. You should be headed to your library to check it out immediately. It is an indispensible title in anyone’s Beatles’ library.
This book, undoubtedly, will be no different. Look for our own review in the near future.
Here’s what we’ve read.
Phillip Norman wrote one of the first and still one of the best Beatles histories (“Shout!,” 1981), and though he claims to have corrected many “inaccuracies and misjudgments” from that earlier work, there just isn’t much new to say about the group’s historic, hysterical popularity or John Lennon’s role in it.
The author, who is also a veteran novelist (“Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” 1996, etc.), tries to compensate by giving an in-depth account of Lennon’s early years, stressing the lifelong rage and fear of abandonment instilled by familial instability. He was raised by his Aunt Mimi after his father left, while his mother Julia lived nearby with her lover. Lennon was traumatized by Julia’s death in 1958, when he was 17.
Norman takes a long time to get to the formation of the Beatles; the extraordinary songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney (who gets kinder assessment here than in “Shout!”); the group’s seasoning in the tawdry clubs of Hamburg; their first taste of the mania they inspired in female fans when they played Liverpool’s Cavern club in 1961; their breakthrough into national stardom thanks to manager Brian Epstein’s and record producer George Martin’s nurturing of their talent; the paradigm-shattering American tour of 1964; and the rest of the familiar tale, retold here with care but little passion.
The author is frank enough about Lennon’s insecurities and capacity for cruelty to have alienated his widow, Yoko Ono, who initially cooperated with Norman but withdrew her endorsement after reading the manuscript, concluding it was “mean to John.” It isn’t. Norman’s fully three-dimensional portrait has no evident axe to grind, but it’s also hard to tell why he bothered. He’s particularly perfunctory with the post-Beatle years, evincing respect but no real affinity for Lennon’s political radicalism and avant-garde adventures with Ono.