At the end of John Lennon: The Life his simultaneously fascinating and troubling biography of the late Beatle, Philip Norman mentions that Yoko Ono, whose patronage opened unimagined doors for research, ultimately refused to endorse the book. It was, she said, “mean to John.” Perhaps that means it was actually fair.
The visionary Lennon, practically deified after his assassination on the streets of New York in 1980, proved himself over 40 years to be a brilliant songwriter and musician with a profound social conscience, a gentle and loving father, and a ferociously protective friend. And as Norman proves over and over again in this 864-page study, Lennon was crippled emotionally by a tragic childhood, often vicious to those who loved him most, and particularly cruel to his first wife; his first son; his fumbling, seaman father; and his closest friends.
There are, of course, the Big Revelations: John’s incestuous feelings at 14 toward his free-spirited mother, Julia; and his apparent sexual interest in Paul McCartney, which the author attributes to Lennon’s belief “that bohemians should try everything.” But McCartney’s “immovable heterosexuality” proved a formidable deterrent.
Norman, author of the well-regarded Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation, provides enormously detailed accounts of John’s childhood in middle-class Liverpool and his lifelong insecurities; the birth, rise and contentious death of the Beatles; and the Yoko years. He also explores the heartbreak John suffered after the deaths of the four people closest to him: his mother, his beloved Uncle George, his intimate friend and bandmate Stu Sutcliffe, and Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
Perhaps the most compelling relationship of all was that of Lennon and his father, Alfred “Freddie” Lennon, a man usually described as a ne’er-do-well who abandoned his family. But Norman provides a much different portrait. Though he made no shortage of mistakes, the elder Lennon is seen as a man who loved his son, whom he wanted to take to a new life in New Zealand.
While in hiding with John, Freddie was confronted by Julia and the man she was living with, and made the miscalculation that would haunt him: He demanded that John, then six, choose between Mommy and Daddy. John tearfully chose Julia, who soon turned him over to her sister, the emotionally cool Aunt Mimi, to raise him.
Much later in John’s life, Freddie reappears, hoping to patch things up. Though he was mostly broke, working kitchen jobs in English pubs, he sought little from his then very rich son except acceptance. The response ranged from cool civility to death threats.
Norman’s meticulous research includes Aunt Mimi’s papers and interviews with Ono, Beatles producer George Martin and McCartney. Each is positively represented, particularly Ono. Rather than an opportunist who managed to break up the Beatles as she took over John’s life—leaving him a housewife, in the description of George Harrison—Norman presents her as the unwilling object of John’s attentions who handed over the care of their son Sean only at her husband’s insistence.
But in the end, neither Ono nor McCartney seemed pleased with Norman’s book. The reader should have no such problems.