For such a towering figure and whose influence ON popular music continues to reverberate almost 30 years after his death, there have been surprisingly few quality John Lennon biographies. Philip Norman’s exhaustive effort claims to be definitive largely due to the cooperation and input of several key players, namely McCartney and Ono, though Lennon’s widow has subsequently withdrawn her blessing and deeming Norman’s treatment ‘unfair’. Which it may or may not be and depending ON whether or not you thought Lennon was a total git.
In terms of events, ‘John Lennon: The Life’ contains every detail you could wish for and describing the minutiae of Lennon’s family situation and The Beatles’ Hamburg years in particularly vivid detail. Gossipmongers will delight in the cats that are finally let out of their respective bags, such as the owner of the pine-clad apartment immortalised in ‘Norwegian Wood’ and the truth behind the did-they-or-didn’t-they holiday Lennon spent with manager Brian Epstein. A remarkably frank contribution from Yoko Ono even manages to garner some sympathy over the witch hunt that engulfed her during The Beatles’ final days. The subject himself, in the main, comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant man, unable to recognise the magnitude of his greatest achievements or the essential contribution of others and notably producer George Martin.
Which is all very well. As a chronicle of Lennon’s life – what he actually did – Philip Norman’s book is near indispensable, though it ends abruptly and with no discussion of his subsequent elevation to sainthood. But if you want insight into the inspiration, the lightbulb-above-the-head moments and the true essence of genius that lifted John Lennon way above his peers and you’ll still need to turn to Ian MacDonald’s remarkable ‘Revolution In The Head’.
That said, ‘The Life’ is still a Herculean effort but ultimately it’s a book that, like much of Lennon’s solo output and you’ll admire rather than love.