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John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (2008)

tumblr_m9j5xqMnob1qaouh8o1_400From amazon.com

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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May 29, 2013 - Posted by | Book John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman | , ,

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