John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman

John Lennon
John Lennon by Philip Norman (HarperCollins)

An emotional rollercoaster ride
Recently my wife and I were in a shopping mall in Africa and went into a music store. Up on a massive flat screen TV was an advert for the recently issued remastered Beatles LP collection.

Then we went into a computer store only to be confronted by a Beatles drum kit, plastic Hofner Bass and, and a store assistant lost in concentration, in front of a large monitor, trying to play ‘Revolution’ on the Beatles Rock Band game.

Isn’t it strange that in Africa, nearly 50 years after their first hit, the Beatles have a strong place in peoples’ affections? No, it’s not just marketing and money making. There’s something about this incredible band that continues to appeal, decade after decade.

This new biography of John Lennon by Philip Norman is a very swift read. It may be 850 pages but you don’t notice that, as you are drawn into the life of one of the so called legends of modern music.

Troubled Childhood
Like many others Lennon had difficult family relationships. That’s no excuse for his appalling disloyalty to both his wives and his first son, but John Lennon did suffer as a child.

While still very young, his mother, Julia, had an affair in which she became pregnant, while Alf, John’s father, was absent at sea.  Alf was willing to continue living with Julia and raise the child Julia was carrying as though it was his own. But it was not to be.

One particularly moving moment is when his dad takes John on a holiday to Blackpool, with a view to possibly emigrating with him to New Zealand. Suddenly Julia appears (with her new man) bringing things to a terrible head.

Norman writes, ‘Alf then told John he must choose between going with Mummy or staying with Daddy. If you want to tear a small child in two, there is no better way. John went to Alf and took his hand; then, as Julia turned away again, he panicked and ran after her, shouting to her to wait and to his father to come, too. But, paralysed once more by fatalistic self-pity, Alf remained rooted in his chair. Julia and John left the house and disappeared into the holiday crowds.’ (Philip Norman, John Lennon – The Life, Harper Collins, p.21)

Alf disappeared once more, and John went to live with his mother’s sister, Aunt Mimi. But the tragedy wasn’t over. Julia was knocked down by a car and died when John was just 17.

The Beatles
Not doing brilliantly at school, John began learning the guitar, and formed a band called ‘The Quarrymen’. Soon Paul and George joined the band and they began playing small gigs in Liverpool, mainly covering popular rock songs.

The combination of John’s wild showmanship and Paul’s smoothness seems to have been a winner from the beginning but was harnessed wonderfully as they began to write songs together, on the principle that if they could still remember the melodies the next day then they were worth keeping.

As The Beatles took shape, finally becoming a foursome with drummer Ringo Starr, the Lennon-Macartney songwriting dynamic, the matching suits and the Goon Show humour of the ‘fab four’ became irresistible.

The Beatles became a phenomena, first in Britain (travelling the country in a cramped, freezing cold van) and then in America and around the world.

Family Life
What is perhaps disappointing is that John never seemed to lose that cruel edge which could be terribly hurtful to those he loved and depended on. Brian Epstein, their manager, suffered from it, Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles original bass player suffered from it, as did Cynthia, Lennon’s long suffering wife.

Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia was kept secret in the early years of Beatlemania. It is, frankly, painful to read of John’s lack of care for his own wife during their marriage and his ever growing stardom.

In the foreword to his mother’s book, Julian Lennon writes, ‘Dad was a great talent, a remarkable man who stood for peace and love in the world. But at the same time he found it very hard to show any peace and love to his first family – my mother and me.’ (John, Cynthia Lennon, Hodder, 2005, p.xi)

Indeed, he continues, ‘While Dad was fast becoming one of the wealthiest men in his field, Mum and I had very little and she was going out to work to support us.’ (xii)

Every father probably feels the pang of neglected responsibility during the journey of raising and loving our children. Perhaps Lennon’s story will cause us to increase our efforts to make the most of the brief years we have with our precious children.

John’s father, Alf, seeking reconciliation, was so frightened by John’s furious threat to have him killed that he actually made a statement to his lawyers in case John followed through.

Fame and Wealth – Emptiness
Fame and wealth neither softened nor satisfied John Lennon. He soon became resentful of the adoring audiences and the various duties of fame. Like his fellow Englishman Mick Jagger cried out, he could also ‘get no satisfaction’.

Normal writes, ‘For John, once he had all the recognition he could ever seek, all the sex he could ever desire, all the expensive food and drink he could ever consume, all the shiny new guitars he could ever play, and all the many-coloured, vari-collared shirts he could ever wear, the promised land was quicker than usual to reveal its drawbacks.’ (Norman, p.329)

More Popular than Jesus
But the Beatles had become fabulously famous. Their music was like a breath of fresh air on both sides of the Atlantic. The Lennon-Macartney magic was truly inspiring as gem after gem was written and flew up the charts.

And John was always ready to give interviews and speak unguardedly and at length. During one such interview for the Evening Standard (London) he made a remark about the phenomenal popularity of the Beatles in England – one which was to haunt him on their second trip to the USA:

‘Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right, and will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’ (ibid p.446)

John was visibly shaken by the hostility he encountered in the US in response to his comments. Shaken, then annoyed, resistant and finally hardened.  The Beatles flirtation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India represented their search for meaning outside of the apparent sterility of the Christianity they had seen in Liverpool and the LP burning hostility of the Christianity that frightened them in America.

Off to India – and back again!
Even so, their interest in the Maharishi, although massively publicised and remembered even now, was actually short lived and ineffective. Only George, a little later renewed his interest in Transcendental Meditation. All the others felt the trip had been a disappointment, even a mistake.

Norman writes, ‘Amazingly, it occurred to none of the international Beatle press corps to pursue the inside story of this speedy disillusionment…So great was the relief that the Beatles had come to their senses, no further questions need be asked.’ (p.538)

The break up of the Beatles, Yoko’s role in John’s thinking and the pull away from Paul, and then John’s partially successful solo career are all covered thoroughly by Norman.

John’s life long competitiveness with Paul (‘They always cover Paul’s songs – they never cover mine.’ p.782) is intriguing. Their reconciliation as friends in later years and the fact that they came tantalisingly close to making an unplanned appearance on a US talk show, all makes fascinating reading.

Imagine no Possessions
We are all inconsistent at times. We need grace. John needed grace but apparently never came to Christ for it. There’s no doubt that the icon of ‘War is over!’ struggled to be a man of peace.

Larry Norman once said, ‘The Beatles said ‘All you need is love’ and then they broke up!’

John lived in luxury, enjoying the best of the best. Someone jokingly pointed this out to him suggesting, after his own lyric, ‘imagine no possessions’, to which he replied, ‘It’s only a b***** song!’

Simon O’Hagan, writing in the Independent said, ‘In hindsight, Lennon was a preposterous character, sanctified by an extraordinary talent.’ (Independent, 3 Oct 2008)

Without Paul though, the brilliance was rare and the anger and pain and experimentation seemed to block the simple passion of one of our greatest songwriters. Occasionally the sun broke through the bewildering clouds.

‘I just believe in me!’
But perhaps the saddest note was struck on the tragic Plastic Ono Band album (1970), which is now very difficult to listen to, when, after listing a variety of things he doesn’t believe in (including I-ching, the Bible, Hitler, Jesus, Buddha, Yoga, and the Beatles), he sings
‘I just believe in me!’

And a little later adds, ‘Yoko and me.’

Even the upbeat, ‘Starting Over’, released on Double Fantasy (1980) doesn’t suppress the tragedy of a stunted talent. But perhaps he was finally re-emerging as a writer. We’ll never know, as, shockingly, he was gunned down by a fan outside his apartment in New York in December 1980. He was only 40.

Just 7 years of Recorded Genius
From their first LP in 1963 to ‘Let it Be’, released only 7 years later in 1970, the Beatles made a huge impact on both popular music and popular culture in the UK and the US.

6 years of creative genius which undoubtedly included the wonderful abilities of the other Beatles, but was primarily driven by Paul and John’s collaborative writing skills, has left a legacy of genuine enjoyment for generations to come.

You might enjoy other book reviews

John Humphyrs – Lost for Words
AN Wilson – Betjeman

CH Spurgeon – The Soul Winner
Jonathan Edwards on Revival

© 2009 Lex Loizides


7 thoughts on “John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman

  1. Bobby Sparks March 18, 2010 / 4:23 am

    As a Beatles fan I found this article fascinating.

  2. Neville Wellington October 22, 2010 / 8:54 pm

    That is a touching, quite tragic review! Thanks Lex!

  3. Johan Cavalli November 7, 2010 / 7:41 am

    Adding to what I last wrote:
    Since McCartney did “Love me do” it was “McCartney-Lennon”. But after that, Lennon composed Please please me, the A-bit in From Me to You, most of She loves you, the number one songs Do You Want to know a secret and Bad to me for Billy J. Kramer. But after recording She loves you Lennon thought it was time to change to “Lennon-McCartney”. McCartney´s explanation – after Lennon´s death – is ********. But McCartney is the establishments favourite, and they bought what he said, as usual.

    Not until 1990s did the public got information of who composed what in the Beatles, after the many new books about the music.

    Why doesn´t anybody write about the similarities in music between Lennon and Wagner? Why doesn´t anybody write about Lennon´s many musical innovations before Yesterday? It wasn´t Chuch Berry-like rock n´roll.

    Most people who write about the Beatles doesn´t read all the interviews about music or listen to all music-they read what others have written.
    In Normans book I cannot see anything about Lennon´s masterpiece Bad to me the number one hit in summer 1963. When people write about McCartney, they never miss pointing out his success.

    Johan Cavalli

  4. Johan Cavalli November 7, 2010 / 11:28 am

    What I wrote earlier was:

    It surprises me that nobody writes about what obvius is the cause to the Beatles split.
    The y o u t h discovered the Beatles, the n e w excitement in Lennon´s Please please me in Februari 1963. Lennon´s music was dominating in the singles, the albums and the films the years 1963-1965 or with other words, the time before Yesterday. But the public, or people outside the inner circle, didn´t know that Lennon was the composer.

    Everything changed with Yesterday in the Help-album from August 1965. Now at length the elder generation or the establishment, discovered the Beatles, no McCartney. The whole world was informed that McCartney composed Yesterday.The establishement could easier like conventional songs like like Yesterday with strings and AABA-structure as songs by Cole Porter and Irwing Berlin.George Martin therefor prefered McCartney´s songs. Martin started the rumor that McCartney was the composer in the Beatles. The establishment has the enterpretion prerogative. George Martin always talked about Lennon´s music with less regard. Martin damaged Lennon´s selfconfidense and contributed to the split.
    From the autumn of 1965 all media, reviewers and encyclopedia regarded McCartney as the composer in Beatles and Lennon the eventuel lricwriter, and the funny guy.When photographing the group McCartney started to place himself in front of the others to demontrate that he was the Beatles. Harrison said that “McCartney thought he was Beethoven” (Giles Smith in The Beatles, paperback writer, 2009)and Lennons said that “Yesterday got to his head” (Ray Coleman in Lennon, 1984 and 1995.(Read the long interview with Lennon in New York City on December 8th 1970).

    There are innumerable amount of encyclopedia where McCartney is regarded as the composer and Lennon perhapd the lyricwriter, especially the years 1966-1980. Some examples:
    New York Review of books, 1968,
    The Penguin Stereo Record Guide, first edition,
    Current Biography Yearbook 1966,
    Das Grosse Lexikon der Musik, 1978,
    The New Grove 1980 and so on and so on.

    When the album Revolver was reviewed in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet August 1966, it was written that McCartney not only had composed all music, he had even made all tha arrangements.

    As late as 1991 Peter Gammond paces a l l songs to McCartney in the Oxford Companion to popular music.

    Albert Goldman was the first who in his book about Lennon 1988 realised that mcCartney tries to give impression that he created more than he actually did.Goldman even was the first who took up Lennon´s frustration that “everybody thinks that Paul and George Martin did all tha music”.

    The way in which media with the help of George Martin, publishers and McCartney treated Lennon is one of the biggest scandals in Music History. It can be compared with the situation when Otto Hahn instead of Lise Meitner got the Nobel prize for the discovery of nuclear fission 1944.

    When finishing the film Let it be, McCartey ordered people to focus on himself insteda of Lennon, Lennon got enough and left the Beatles in September 1971. (see the interview 8th December 1970)

    1971 McCartney said:”Lennon-McCartney is a myth, it´s all mine” (Tom Hanley in Mojo winter 2000).

    After the books in 1990s people have realised the musical genius in Lennon. That has worried McCartney. He can do seemingly small statesment to better his reputation, without nobody able to controll him. Yoko ono doesn´t anything about music and Lennon and Harrison are ded.And now the new books have started to regard again McCartney as a kind of head person in the Beatles.

    There are tremendous many things I would like to say about Lennon´s music. Today I only will say: Yesterday can have to be inspired by Lennon´s Do You Want to know a secret? The same upclimbing melody…

    What I have said above will not be accepted. I know it´s true. Critic of McCartney, the establishment´s favourite, is never accepted. I have tried before.

    Johan Cavalli

  5. John Lennon November 28, 2013 / 7:19 pm

    Such imagery, coupled with the tragedy of his murder in 1980 has often led to Lennon being sentimentalized as a soothing royal prince of serenity staring off into the range at an Eden only he could see. Actually, he was a far more complicated and challenging individual, which, in aspect, records for the globe limitless interest with him. Nasty Ono Group (1970), the first single record he created after making the Beatles, alternates music that are so psychologically raw that to this day they are challenging to pay attention to with music of outstanding elegance and convenience. Held by his engagement in primal-scream treatment, which motivated its experts to re-experience their most powerful intuitive accidents, Lennon desired in such music as Mom and God to deal with and remove away the injury that had affected his lifestyle since child years.

  6. Trebor December 27, 2016 / 4:37 pm

    Mr.Cavalli who is thought to be a music historian is on a crusade to minimize Paul McCartney’s contribution to The Beatles because he refuses to believe that anyone else in The Beatles or the world has song writing talent that has measured up to or even surpassed his beloved John. Sorry Johan, Paul is as good as John and as much as you and Yoko try to re-write The Beatles’ legacy you can’t take away Paul’s contribution and accomplishments to this wonderful band.

  7. Zinderneufvelo October 23, 2018 / 4:43 pm

    Thank you for this :)
    Argh, childhood trauma bites again. The incident with his mum and dad – so sad.

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