For a book that weighs in at around 500, 000 words, Norman has little new material to add to the already over-blown legend of John Lennon (or should that be the tragedy of John Lennon?).
The juiciest revelation is that of Lennon’s supposedly Oedipal fantasies. According to a tape recording made not long before his death, Lennon recalls his mother as being the object of his hormonally charged teenage frustration.
“He recalls,” writes Norman, “his 14-year-old self, lying beside Julia on her bed as she took a siesta.” When accidentally touching her breast, Lennon “wonders if he should have tried to go further and whether Julia would have allowed it.”
Rather than elucidating the life-long emotional torture of his subject, a man who suffered abandonment and domestic upheaval, Norman’s cod psychology only serves to entangle and compound the many tabloid myths surrounding one of the most overanalyzed figures of the last century.
Norman seems to forget that Lennon was nothing if not a joker and a self-consciously pretentious one at that. It is impossible to read Norman’s account of this walking Freudian nightmare without recalling the opening of Mother – “Mother / You had me / But I never had you”. Cynics will undoubtedly come to the conclusion that Lennon had delusions of artistic genius and the psychological hang-ups that come with it.
Yet Lennon was more than aware of the sensationalist possibilities of his own myth. Maybe he believed it. Or maybe he wanted to toy with his biographers, branding his band of followers as the idol worshippers they are. Twenty eight years after his death, Lennon is still having the last laugh.
Yoko Ono makes a token contribution to Lennon’s relentless mythmaking. Apparently her husband had a thing for Brian Epstein, Stuart Sutcliffe and Paul McCartney. The latter is based on a claim that the staff at Apple would sometimes refer to McCartney as “John’s Princess”. Lennon also got into a fight with a Cavern club DJ who made fun out of the mysterious Spanish holiday Lennon enjoyed with Beatle’s manager Brian Epstein. He even worshipped his college friend Sutcliffe with a quasi-sexual intensity.
Again, these ‘revelations’ are nothing new, even to casual Lennon fans. It is no secret that Lennon enjoyed “playing it a bit faggy”. Even Norman admits that Lennon’s “gay tendency” was purely aesthetic and based upon the hippy-drippy assumption “that bohemians should try everything”. Lennon applied this naïve doctrine to everything from music and drugs to trepanning and primal scream therapy. These biographical details are more illuminating than Norman’s tabloid conjecture surrounding something as irrelevant as his subject’s sexuality.
The first third of Norman’s book is the most exciting, the early period of Lennon’s life before he turned into a self-pitying bisexual bore. Lennon was a bit of a hot-head apparently. At an art college bop, he once punched a student who asked Cynthia to dance. On another occasion, when Cynthia paired up with Stuart Sutcliffe at a ball, Lennon “hit her across the face so hard that her head struck a heating pipe on the wall, then walked off without a word”.
Norman’s accusations continue. As a student, Lennon would not only steal art supplies from college but would pocket money which he collected for charity.
Norman’s greatest failing is his inability to explain the series of events which lead to Lennon’s decline: from an angry young hedonist who sang A Hard Day’s Night to the soft-headed artiste who preached the immortal words Happy Xmas (War is Over), the most miserable Christmas song ever.
Perhaps the book’s shortcoming has something to do with Norman’s reticence to recognize the importance of Paul McCartney in the most fruitful period of Lennon’s life. Any one with ears will tell you that it is no secret the Beatles never managed to recreate their success as solo artists. This is where such an ambitious biography falls flat on its face. The personal life of Lennon makes no sense without that of McCartney.
Instead, Norman has managed to more than fulfill his original objective, to write a biography not of “a pop person, but of a major, towering presence in his century”. In other words: to write the biography of the icon rather than the pop star. The tentative cooperation of McCartney and Ono (who deemed the book “too mean” to Lennon’s memory) has helped to cement the tragic legend of Lennon in the collective consciousness for a little while longer.
Norman set out to map the origins of a myth, not the man. He has triumphed resoundingly.