The life of John Lennon must be one of the most chronicled in the world with extensive film footage, radio recordings, written material and of course song lyrics to draw on. And as lives goes Lennon’s was an intensely varied and often controversial one crammed into a relatively short period of time.
Being a member of the most successful rock group ever was not enough for Lennon and he was constantly trying to reinvent himself. Looking at pictures of him pre-1965 with his cherubic face and mop-top haircut and comparing him to later versions when his hair was longer and he was wearing glasses is like looking at two different people and even after that his appearance seemed to dramatically change right up to the emaciated figure whose hooked nose is more pronounced than ever who was shot dead in New York nearly 30 years ago.
Given that so much is already known about Lennon a biographer faces a daunting task in coming to his subject and trying to find something original to say. Previous biographies by Ray Coleman and Albert Goldman came from the two extremes. Coleman’s was awestruck and prepared to forgive Lennon’s sins as the foibles of a genius while Goldman’s was savage and unforgiving, pouncing on every negative rumour that was ever aired and reporting it as truth.
Philip Norman’s takes a middle route, repeating many of the rumours – such as that Lennon violently attacked Stu Sutcliff in Hamburg and blamed himself for his friend’s early death and had a sexual liaison with Brian Esptein. He even airs a few new titillating stories (apparently given substance by Yoko Ono) that Lennon almost had a sexual relationship with his mother and regretted that he had not pursued it, that he had a sexual crush on Paul McCartney and that he had contemplated having affairs with other men.
Despite this Norman’s book is more forgiving that Goldman’s and he is generally in the camp that portrays Lennon as a tortured genius, plagued by insecurities and traumas from childhood. It is a large book, running to more than 800 pages that sometimes gets bogged down in detail – such as the social make-up of post-war Britain and the society that produced Lennon – and then skips over other periods. The mid-1960s chapters when that first big metamorphosis between fab-four John and psychedelic John took place, were I thought quite weak.
Norman does try to get under Lennon’s skin, carefully analysing lyrics to try to analyse what was going on in Lennon’s head and the portrait that emerges is much fuller than the ones painted by Coleman and Goldman. He is more than generous to Ono but although she gave him numerous interviews while he was researching his biography she refused to endorse it, saying it was “mean” to Lennon.
The problem for Ono was that Lennon was not a particularly nice person. He may have liked to portray himself as a man of peace but he was also nasty and vindictive, holding grudges against former allies and friends. That might have been because of his troubled childhood and insecurity but the accusation stands, particularly in relation to his first wife and their son.
Despite his flaws he is a fascinating person and even if he had never achieved success as a Beatle he would probably have found some creative outlet. Reading this biography I was constantly thinking how weird it must have been to be him – to have that level of adulation that he had with the Beatles and then hatred following his “Beatles are bigger than Jesus comments” and the public ridicule that he endured after taking up with Yoko and trying to reinvent himself as a peace activist and alternative artist. Then there was the campaign to deport him by the US government which went right up to Nixon and which saw him being kept under constant surveillance.
Norman seems to believe that Lennon did find some contentment during his years as a recluse in New York and was ready to emerge into the public eye, rejuvenated and filled with new creative energies when he was shot dead in December 1980. However, a subtext seems to suggest that despite the intimate film footage shot of them in the weeks before he died and a continued creative spark between them that he and Ono had drifted apart and were living almost separate lives.
It can only be speculated upon what would have happened if Lennon had lived and if the Beatles would have performed again and possibly even recorded new material. However, given the evidence of what Lennon was producing just before he died and what subsequently was produced by McCartney and Harrison it was probably a good thing that we were left with the existing cannon, although according to the Beatle’s producer George Martin, Lennon was unhappy with those recordings.
During their last meeting in 1979, Martin reports that Lennon said: ‘“You know, George, if I could, I would record everything the Beatles did all over again’. I blanched. ‘Blimey John, rather you than me. Everything?’ He said: ‘Everything’ I searched my mind for all the wonderful things that we had done and said: ‘What about Strawberry Fields?’ He looked at me over his specs and said: ‘Especially Strawberry Fields’.”