|HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHERS|
the observer Sat 04 October 2008
It has been 20 years since the last major biography of John Lennon, Albert Goldman's extravagantly spiteful The Lives of John Lennon. Before that there was veteran music writer Ray Coleman's Lennon: The Definitive Biography, published in 1984, which was respectful, going-on adulatory. Blessedly, Philip Norman opts for a tone that sits between the two, though the so-called revelations contained in his account often tend towards the prurient.
Weighing in at around 500,000 words, John Lennon: The Life - note the definite article - tells a familiar tale in exhaustive but often illuminating detail. The book was written with the blessing of Yoko Ono and the tentative co-operation - by email - of Paul McCartney, though both are reported to be unhappy with the end result, which Ono claims is 'too mean' to Lennon's memory.
Other key sources include George Martin, the Beatles' producer; Arthur Janov, the primal therapist who treated Lennon for a time in the Seventies; and Jimmy Tarbuck, the Scouse comedian and erstwhile teddy boy who attended Dovedale Primary School with him. Norman has also tracked down several long-lost childhood friends and ex-girlfriends, all of who testify to the young Lennon's rebellious but essentially vulnerable temperament.
For me, the most fascinating section is the first third, which recounts Lennon's pre-stardom life in Liverpool and Hamburg. Norman is brilliant at evoking the postwar world from which the Beatles emerged and to which their unprecedented global success signalled the end. He vividly recreates Lennon's childhood in Liverpool, and his often tumultuous family environment, providing in the process what is the most rounded portrait to date of Lennon's wayward father, Alfred 'Freddie' Lennon. Freddie has long been caricatured as a feckless drifter but here emerges as a more complex man who deeply regretted abandoning his young son and who craved, but never received, John's forgiveness.
Norman is the first Lennon biographer to be granted access to the private papers of Lennon's celebrated Aunt Mimi, who took the troubled youngster in when his parents' ill-fated marriage finally imploded. He has also made good use of the notebooks the singer filled with his often scabrous musings and the cassettes on to which Lennon fitfully recorded his random thoughts, opinions and memories. The tabloids have already provided some invaluable pre-publicity for Norman's book by homing in on the 'revelation' that John may have harboured secret homosexual longings for Paul. Imagine! Macca, though, is having none of it. 'John never tried anything on,' he said recently. 'I slept with him a million times.' Lest there be any doubt about their laddishness, he added that had Lennon had 'a little gay tendency', he would 'have caught him out'.
There has been much conjecture about Lennon's sexuality in the past, most of it centred on his intense love-hate relationship with the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein. Norman refutes the oft-repeated rumour that the two slept together during a holiday in Spain in the summer of 1963. He concludes that Lennon's 'gay tendency' was aesthetic rather than carnal, and 'based on the principle that bohemians should try everything'.
The book's other big revelation, this time culled from a 1979 audio confession, is that, when he was a hormonally charged 14-year-old, Lennon harboured incestuous desires for his mother Julia. Her death in a car accident, when John was 17, was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Likewise, it would seem, the heightened moment in his adolescence when he lay down beside her and accidentally touched her breast. 'I was wondering if I should do anything else,' he mused later in a bout of post-therapy soul-baring. 'I always think I should have done it. Presumably she would have allowed it.'
Though Norman does not pick up on it, it's the word 'presumably' that intrigues here. Did Lennon assume his mother had no moral scruples and would have reciprocated his advances? Or that her love for him was as fearsomely all-consuming as his for her? Or was it the case that he had transformed this fleeting moment of intimacy between them into something more transgressive in the emotional upheaval that followed her sudden death? Either way, Julia is an abiding presence in this book, just as she was in her son's life, having, in his eyes, abandoned him when she gave him up to the care of her childless sister Mimi and then died on him while he was still trying to come to terms with that first perceived betrayal.
Though he always insisted that 'Help' was 'the only honest song I wrote', it is still deeply affecting to listen to the Freudian cri de coeur that is 'Mother' on his first solo album. It begins with the line: 'Mother, you had me, but I never had you' and is as naked an expression of hurt and longing as anything in popular music.
That John Lennon was an emotionally tortured individual, often consumed by rage, unprocessed grief and a lifelong fear of abandonment, should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid close attention to his often brutally honest and occasionally self-lacerating songs. What emerges most strongly, though, from this epic trawl through Lennon's life is just how emotionally tortured he was for most of it and how his own demise was foreshadowed by the deaths of those closest to him: Julia, Epstein and his teenage soulmate and fellow bohemian Stuart Sutcliffe, who died at 21 from a brain haemorrhage in Hamburg in 1962.
For a while, the music he made assuaged his demons, as did, fleetingly, his dalliances with LSD, heroin, alcohol, primal therapy and radical politics, all documented here in greater detail than before. Likewise, his complex and, for a while, all-consuming relationship with Yoko. The cruellest irony of Lennon's death at the hands of a devoted-to-the-point-of-unhinged fan is that it happened at a time when he seemed to have found a degree of contentment through the simple domestic pleasures of late fatherhood. How, one wonders, would he have fared with encroaching old age?
Fittingly, it is Sean Lennon's testimony that provides the affecting postscript to this biography, which ends too abruptly at the moment of his father's death. I was left longing, though, after such a long and detailed account of John Lennon's life, for some reflection on the deeper meaning of that life, some sense of how, nearly 30 years after his death, he shaped the world we now live in.
This is the best life of Lennon to date, however, if only for its brilliant evocation of his childhood in postwar England, that repressed and essentially Victorian society that shaped him and that he, more than any other British pop star, helped tear down.
John Lennon: In my life
Born 9 October 1940 in Liverpool.
1957 The Quarrymen, later the Beatles, formed.
1958 Julia Lennon killed in car crash.
1962 Married Cynthia Powell.
1963 Julian Lennon born.
1967 Brian Epstein dies.
1968 Divorced Cynthia.
1969 Married Yoko Ono; spent honeymoon in bed as peace protest.
1970 The Beatles split up.
1975 Sean Lennon born.
Died 8 December 1980 in New York, killed by Mark Chapman.
He said (in 1966): 'We're more popular than Jesus now.'
They said: 'The guitar's all very well, John, but you'll never make a living out of it' - Mimi Smith, Lennon's aunt.