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A Review of John Lennon: The Life

Whew! I finally finished this 850 page beast of a book. There is so much there, it’s so packed with information, that it’s hard to recall everything one would want to include in a review. Philip Norman did an outstanding job of going through documents, media, and interviewing everyone under the sun who knew John Lennon. I admire the job he did and it obviously took him years to do it. I almost feel guilty for paying just a couple of bucks for a used copy. Norman deserves a lot of money for his efforts.

I finished John Lennon: The Life on the heels of Paul McCartney: A Life and it is interesting to compare and contrast the two perspectives. Some of it is overlapping, of course, but there are some notable differences which I may touch on later in this review.

First, let me say that I never really knew until now just how big a PRICK John Lennon was!!! The McCartney book hinted at it sometimes, but Norman makes clear just how big a dick Lennon was to nearly everyone in his life, for virtually his entire life, until his son Sean was born a few years before Lennon’s assassination. Man, he was a jerk! The main reason seems to be abandonment issues, dating back to his childhood when his father, Freddie, a seaman, left the family to go overseas and didn’t really return. Meanwhile, his mother, Julia, who he had some sort of sick sexual fantasy about during his entire life, and who had Lennon while having an affair with another man, gave him up to be raised by his strict Aunt Mimi, because she was more stable. Julia was a loose cannon. Freddie eventually came home and John was forced to choose between them, choosing Julia before being shuffled off to Mimi. This trauma appears throughout the book, throughout his life.

John was also very insecure much of the time, it seems. He was also rebellious by nature, making it difficult for Mimi to raise him in the way she would have preferred. By the time he was in high school, he was wearing disreputable clothing and combing his hair improperly. It was the rebellious ’50s after all, with Elvis and everything, and John loved Elvis.

John learned to play the guitar, partly, and not well. The McCartney book makes clear that Paul taught John how to play properly, and this book alludes to that, but not in those exact words. John had a band called the Quarrymen he played with while in art college. This college was next to a high school that Paul and George Harrison attended and they eventually combined their musical interests to form a band of their own. Their bassist was Stu Sutcliffe, an excellent artist but terrible bass player. They didn’t have a drummer for awhile, until Pete Best joined them. In 1960, they were offered a gig to play in Hamburg, Germany, in the seediest section of town — even in a strip club. Apparently they took to it and really played hard edged music. The book describes John as being the original Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame, years before punk rock emerged. I’m not sure I buy that entirely, but they wore all black with black leather jackets, and they ended up playing Hamburg three times, for weeks at a time. Eventually back in Liverpool, Brian Epstein, a reputable (but closeted gay) upper class businessman, found them playing in a club and decided he wanted to become their manager, and so it happened. Shortly after, they got a recording track and “Love Me Do” came out and Beatlemania began. Everything went downhill for John from that point on. John got his girlfriend, Cynthia, pregnant and felt compelled to marry her. They had a son named Julian who Lennon basically ignored. Cynthia was a dutiful wife, because management didn’t want the fans to know any of the Beatles were taken, so she stayed in the background while the boys toured the world to all sorts of acclaim as hit after hit came out. Epstein made the boys (Ringo had replaced Best by now) wear matching suits and ditch their black attire and John resented this. John also grew to resent the fans, who made no effort to listen to the music at the concerts, instead overwhelming the venue with shrieks and loud sounds. The lyrics couldn’t even be heard, and this ticked John off.

John liked Ringo and always got along with him, but he seemed to not respect George, always viewing him as a younger brother of sorts, and credited himself with teaching George everything he knew, which was highly unlikely. He and Paul formed a great song writing team, perhaps the best ever, but he resented Paul’s attempts to manage the group during recording sessions and for marketing, and later for everything. He had a love/hate relationship with Paul. The McCartney book talked about Paul’s resentment of the songs being credited to another “Lennon McCartney” song, when he wrote the majority of the hits. The Lennon book seems to view more of the hits as coming from John. I guess that’s not too surprising.

Lennon had a mighty temper and it was often uncontrollable, especially when he was drinking — he was a terrible drunk. Norman nearly implies Lennon was responsible for Sutcliffe’s premature death by kicking him in the head repeatedly in a drunken brawl. Wow. As we all know, Lennon started doing drugs, lots of them, early on. Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to pot, which became a pretty common drug of use for all of them. Someone else later introduced John to LSD, which he possibly took hundreds of times. And apparently, Yoko introduced him to heroin later on. Pity. Tragedy, really.

The McCartney book seemed to imply to me that Yoko was indeed responsible for the breakup of the Beatles. At least, that’s how I read it. This book doesn’t seem to say that. Lennon had become dissatisfied with and resentful of the Beatles before the White Album even came out and it was everything he could do to keep up appearances. When Yoko appeared on the scene in a London art gallery, where she was displaying her work, visiting from NYC, he felt an instant connection, as did she. They didn’t immediately follow up on it, but when they finally did, it was instant and permanent. Cynthia came home from a vacation to find John and Yoko in robes one morning, sitting in John’s kitchen. Cynthia fled and divorce proceedings began. Meanwhile, Yoko, who had a daughter with her husband, divorced him so she and John could be together. The important thing in all of this was John was insecure and insanely jealous, so he demanded that Yoko be with him at all times, even taking her to the bathroom with him when he had to go! It was crazy. So naturally she ended up at recording sessions, and it was his insistence that she be given the opportunity to comment on the recordings, and since she was an outspoken artist, she did, ultimately to the resentment of the other Beatles. Everyone in the world hates Yoko, but Norman goes out of his way, I think, to portray her in a kind light and I learned a lot I didn’t know, about her sacrifices for their relationship, about the crap she had to put up with, about her artistry, about her business acumen, about her miscarriages before she became pregnant with Sean at age 42. I no longer hate Yoko. John broke up the Beatles, with Yoko’s help. It wasn’t Yoko. John was determined to do it himself. One of the first breaks he tried to make from the others was in obtaining new management. Epstein had died, the Beatles had mismanaged their fortune, so Paul hired his girlfriend Linda Eastman’s lawyer dad and brother to represent them, presumably with the okay of the others. Meanwhile, John and Yoko met with Allen Klein, manager of the Rolling Stones, and hired him to represent Lennon, and possibly the Beatles, leading to a bad scene. He said, “I don’t give a bugger what anyone else wants … I’m having Allen Klein for me.” (Years later, Lennon would admit Paul was right about Klein while Klein was suing him for millions.)

At times, John did recognize he had unresolved issues. At some point, he came across an American shrink named Janov who pioneered primal scream therapy and hired him to help Lennon out. Norman writes, “John’s psychological state came as a profound shock to Janov. ‘The level of his pain was enormous … as much as I’ve ever seen. He was almost completely nonfunctional … At the center of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid.’” Lennon felt like he had been abandoned by several people — his parents, his Uncle George, who died early, Stu Sutcliffe, and Brian Epstein. He took these deaths as personal desertions, which is kind of an unhealthy way of looking at it in my opinion.

In 1971, after the breakup of the Beatles, John gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine in which “he told what being one of the world’s four most adored and envied young men had really meant — the infantile mayhem that had progressively stifled their desire to do live concerts, the enforced kowtowing to insufferable dignitaries and officials, the ban on expressing a view on any grown-up topic whatever, the backstage sex orgies … belied by the front-of-stage squeaky-cleanliness, the sense of being trapped in ever-increasing, unstoppable madness.” He also discussed his trip to Spain with Epstein which people had talked about for years with rumors of a gay affair. Lennon said, “No, not an affair…. I watched Brian picking up the boys. I like playing a bit faggy, all that.” Huh. I didn’t have much pity for Lennon and his fame. McCartney handled it just fine. Why was Lennon so put off by everything that came with fame? Oh, speaking of playing “faggy,” at one point Yoko was quoted as wondering if “he had contemplated an affair with Paul, but had been deterred by Paul’s immovable heterosexuality.” “I knew there was something going on there … From his point of view, not from Paul’s. And he was so angry at Paul, I couldn’t help wondering what it was really about.”

I had thought John and Yoko had the perfect marriage, so I was somewhat surprised to learn that Lennon grew disenchanted with her sexually, especially since they really lit it up early on. “They agreed it would do their marriage no harm if John were to find other sexual partners.” Wow. Yoko offered up their Chinese assistant May Pang, who accompanied John on the “Lost Weekend” to L.A., which lasted something like a year and a half and during which time he was a drugged out drunk who missed Yoko. I had heard about May Pang, but had forgotten her. John didn’t even stay faithful to HER, hooking up with various women around L.A. Bad scene.

John and Yoko eventually reconciled and got back together. They had Sean and John all of a sudden grew up and matured. He became a househusband and father while Yoko took care of business. They wanted to match Paul’s solo monetary success, jealous of how he and Linda were doing. I like how much of the book is devoted to Lennon post-Beatles. It really gives you a window into he and Yoko and all they did. The thing I didn’t like about the book was the last few years of Lennon’s life, when he had settled down and became a good father — even to Julian too — take up just a few of the last pages of the book. It climaxes with Mark David Chapman’s assassination of him outside the Dakota apartment building in NYC, just after Double Fantasy had come out and John was in a good place in his life for the first time ever. A real tragedy. There’s a postscript called “Sean Remembers,” which is really sad to read, but it’s a good way to finish the book. The only other things I could have wished for was more on Yoko post-death, and the reactions of the other Beatles to the horrific event. Nothing is said, so we’re left wondering what went through the minds of everyone else. I think that’s a small weakness of an otherwise strong book. It’s a long read and John is knocked down a few pegs, in my estimation, but it’s interesting and worth the time investment. Recommended.