He Still Shines On

He Still Shines On
Reviewer: Drew A
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John Lennon:
The Life
864 pages
Reprint edition
September 08, 2009
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

A fresh and penetrating look at every aspect of Lennon's much-chronicled life, Norman gives us the whole man in all his endless contradictions — tough and cynical, hilariously funny but also naive, vulnerable and insecure.

For someone of his stature, it's fairly shocking that there is so much conflicting information and misinformation about John Lennon. Certainly, John Lennon: The Beatle has been written about, dissected, and analyzed endlessly over the past fifty-plus years. But in terms of an overall look at his life, there weren't any worthy biographies of him for a very long time. There have been several inferior books written, and then there are books like the controversial and almost farcically fictional dross that is Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon which appeared in 1988, or Ray Coleman's unsatisfying hero-worshipping book John Lennon: The Definitive Biography. It wasn't until Philip Norman's 2009 book John Lennon: The Life, that a definitive (though still not perfect) biography of this very complex and complicated man was finally published.

Philip Norman, who himself interviewed the Fab Four twice in the 1960s, is no stranger to Beatles and rock music fans. He's the author of the widely acclaimed (and, in my view overrated) Beatles biography, Shout!, as well as many rock and musician biographies. His Mick Jagger biography was reviewed here on this site a while ago, and I've been eagerly awaiting his upcoming Paul McCartney biography for several years since I first heard about it (it's due out in May 2016). However, his Lennon book may be his most important insofar as it aims to peel back the layers behind the private and public personas John developed over the years in order to examine who the real man truly was underneath it all. As he describes in the afterword, Norman initially approached Yoko Ono in 2003 with a mind to write an authorized biography (with the proviso from Yoko that it wouldn't actually be called authorized) about John and was given unprecedented access to Yoko and Sean Lennon, John's relatives in England, family archives, and his closest friends and associates, including Sir George Martin and Sir Paul McCartney. His goal was to write the most honest account of Lennon's life, although as he relates further on in the afterword, it was perhaps too honest an account as, when presented with the final manuscript, Yoko revoked her stamp of approval because she did not like the way she or her marriage to John were portrayed, calling it "too mean." As a lifelong Beatles and Lennon fan who nonetheless finds the whitewashing of his life (especially post-Beatles) and hagiography of the man maddening, I actually took this as a good sign and decided to give this book a fresh re-reading for the review you're now reading.

Philip Norman starts his biography of John Lennon at the very beginning, by which I don't mean John's birth in 1940 Liverpool, but rather his grandfather John "Jack" Lennon in 1800s Ireland. Tracing the ancestry on the Lennon side of the family in a way no one until Mark Lewisohn did in 2013, Norman shows how music and performing were in John's blood. Digging into the lives of John's parents, Alfred ("Alf" or "Freddie") and Julia, Norman really examines John's childhood in deep detail, using information from John's various aunts, uncles, cousins, and step-sisters to show that it was equally more loving and more traumatic than had been previously thought. The truth of how he had to choose between his mother and father on a fateful day in Blackpool in 1946, as well as his relationship with his Aunt Mimi (who raised him) and his strange, almost sibling-like relationship with his mother Julia is all examined. The Lennon side of John's family, which to this point had been all but ignored, is given equal weight and finally, the truth of Freddie Lennon's role in John's early childhood and his relationship with his famous son throughout the years is brought to light. More interestingly is the evidence Norman uncovered showing that there was a strange and taboo sexual tension between John and his mother that, along with her sudden and untimely death in 1958, haunted and inspired his life and music for the rest of his life. The bulk of the book is a parallel Beatles biography as it examines John's life in the most detail from the moment he meets Paul McCartney in 1957 through the Beatles break-up in 1970. While it mainly focuses on John during these years, there's also a healthy look at the other three Beatles, Brian Epstein, and George Martin. However, the author does a good job shedding more light on John's first marriage to Cynthia, his presence (or lack thereof) as father to his first son Julian, and how his attitudes toward stardom and life changed as the 1960s wore on. Perhaps the most interesting, but also most exasperating, segment of the book is the period from 1968 when he took up with Yoko Ono through to the end of his life in 1980. It's interesting because of the light it sheds on the inner workings of their relationship, both personally and professionally, and the candor with which Yoko discusses it; it's exasperating because even though John contradicted himself and changed his mind as often as he changed his socks in the 1960s, his causes and attitudes jumped all over the place during the 1970s. Also, I've never been able to reconcile his revolutionary attitudes during that decade with the privileged and sheltered millionaire lifestyle he led, and this book only throws those contradictions into even more stark relief.

While I think that this is the best Lennon biography available, there are a few things that keep it from being perfect. There are a lot of very minor (but still noticeable) typos, at least in the paperback edition I have, which shouldn't have gotten past a good editor. There are also a few minor factual errors scattered throughout, but nothing too glaring. Along these same lines, while the Beatles were obviously a huge part of John's life, I felt that the book spent too much time on them overall...the book is 800 or so pages long and it didn't get to the Beatles' split until around page 625. Seeing as the decade following the Beatles era was just as interesting and eventful for John, and certainly more controversial, the book suffered from the same thing that Norman's Jagger book did: the final years of both subjects' lives felt rushed and crammed into too few pages.  On the plus side, the rampant anti-McCartney bias from Norman's Shout! is mostly gone...apart from a few mentions of Paul's "big brown eyes" and some subtle swipes at his charisma and people-pleasing personality, Norman does indeed acknowledge Paul's titanic talent and his essential contributions to the Lennon/McCartney partnership. Likewise, George and Ringo are treated much more fairly than in Shout!, while John's Aunt Mimi is presented as a tough, unaffectionate, but loving guardian who was the closest family member to John throughout his life, and the one person whose acceptance mattered more to him than anyone else's to the end of his life. What's confusing to me is how Yoko can claim that she and John were "treated meanly," as described in Norman's afterword. Were they presented as perfect saints? Absolutely not. But neither were they demonized or portrayed in a negative light ala Goldman's putrid book. In my opinion, they and their marriage, activism, art, and rather odd lifestyle were presented factually and accurately, warts and all. If there was one slightly shocking thread running throughout the book, it was the repeated evidence that John, while not homosexual, certainly was curious about it, if not from a carnal point of view than at the very least as an intellectual curiosity.  Norman bases this on quotes not only from associates of John's throughout the years, but Yoko herself. Interesting, and something I wouldn't have even considered given his well-known insatiable sex drive and numerous female/groupie conquests over the course of the Beatles years.

The book ends with a chapter written based on an extensive interview the author had with John's younger son, called "Sean Remembers." It's quite touching as Sean not only discusses his limited memories of his father (who was murdered when Sean was only five years old), but how the legacy of his father has loomed in his life, both personally and professionally. It's a fine way to end the book and gives a nice sense of closure, especially as the final two paragraphs of the book which describe John's death give the main text an unsatisfying and abrupt ending. While John Lennon: The Life isn't perfect, it's a damn good book and the most enjoyable, interesting, and readable biography of John that I've read. Since it was originally the Yoko Ono-authorized book on Lennon before it wasn't, and taking into account all of the access Philip Norman was given to source material and people because of this official approval (before it was revoked), its already strong case as the definitive look at Lennon's life is only bolstered further. It's essential reading for any Beatles and Lennon fan, although if you're a member of the Cult of Lennon, it will definitely open your eyes as to all of the accompanying faults he had alongside his virtues. But if you're a true fan of the man, you'd know that he was all too aware that he was human like the rest of us and that he wouldn't want to be portrayed any other way than how he is in this book: real.

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