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Working Class Heel

Phillip Norman Charts John Lennon's Lifelong Path to Become a Human Being

Apple Corps Ltd.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 11/12/2008

John Lennon: The Life

By Phillip Norman

Hardcover, Ecco (Harper Collins)

There's no way to put this delicately: John Lennon was a jerk. His favorite pastimes were mocking the deaf, blind, and handicapped for laughs, urinating out a window on to a cluster of nuns, cheating mercilessly on his loyal wife, Cynthia (before, during, and after her pregnancy), and boasting about his conquests in barely coded songs like "Norwegian Wood," gobbling pills and acid tabs by the handful, alternately ignoring or bellowing at his young son Julian, blurting out that he was quitting the Beatles just as they were gathered around a boardroom to sign a lucrative, delicately negotiated contract, and even possibly delivering the blow to bandmate Stuart Sutcliffe's head that caused Sutcliffe's eventual death by cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 21 (a theory disputed by all except Sutcliffe's mother and sister). Lennon was prickly, mercurial, violent, selfish, sexist, moody, jealous, and vicious, and he had a peculiar knack for wounding people close to him with sharp-tongued vitriol and unpredictable wrath.

That's the experience of the person wading through the first 468 pages of Phillip Norman's doorstop-sized John Lennon: The Life (Ecco). Lennon was talented, both musically and verbally, and his songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney bore fruit of some of the finest pop compositions of the 20th century. But the avalanche of unlovable bad behavior Lennon wreaked in the first part of his life on stranger and friend alike is so relentless and abominable, it makes you wonder if his eventual murder in 1980 is an abject lesson in how "instant karma's going to get you."

So what happened? How did a man so wrapped up in himself that he entitled a short film of his tumescent and detumescent penis "Self Portrait" transform into a loving house-husband, devoted dad, and an artist at peace who wrote songs such as "(Just Like) Starting Over" and "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)"? That astounding metamorphosis is painstakingly documented by Norman in this exhaustive, gloves-off biography, starting with the inconvenience of Lennon's conception on a kitchen floor in Liverpool in 1940.

Lennon's early life was marked with abandonments, first by his father, an itinerant seaman, and then, most woundingly, by his mother, Julia, a vivacious, impulsive beauty who surrendered Lennon to her stern sister Mimi when the latter deemed Julia's promiscuous lifestyle unfit for rearing a child. Julia remained in her son's life, teaching him banjo chords and listening to records together, but John nonetheless constantly longed for the attention of this appealing older woman. One afternoon, while lying on the bed as they took a nap together, the then-preteen Lennon accidentally touched his mother's breast. "I was wondering if I should do anything else," he later remembered. "I always think I should have done it. Presumably she would have allowed it."

Julia died in a traffic accident when John was 18, cementing her place in his life as the unattainable female to which all the other women in his life failed to measure. He went to art school and formed bands, most significantly with his neighborhood chum McCartney, and earned his rock 'n' roll stripes playing backbreaking marathons of ear-splitting music to drunk and horny crowds in Germany's seedy Reeperbahn district. When the group now christened the Beatles returned to Liverpool, their pounding, coarsened sound set them apart from the tamer acts of the local scene, attracting a fan base that ballooned to international phenomenon.

But through it all Lennon wasn't happy, and the people closest to him regularly felt the brunt of his discontent. Money, women, and drugs couldn't staunch a deep vein of self-loathing and abandonment that only began to abate when he attended a gallery show in London in 1966, and the petite, dark-haired artist handed him a white card with an instruction printed on it: "Breathe."

Norman's endnotes mention that Yoko Ono distanced herself from this book in its last draft, dismayed at how he'd been "mean to John"--and that's a shame, because Norman, above few other sources about the Beatles, is exceedingly fair to Ono, highlighting how, rather than being a parasite on Lennon's fame, she gave up her own considerable reputation in the art world as a founding member of Fluxus to become what the media demonized as the screeching, wire-haired shadow over Lennon's shoulder. Ono didn't cure Lennon of his psychic ailments, but her artistic fearlessness and her no-bullshit, all-love presence in his life started the change, leading him to transcendental meditation, primal-scream therapy, political activism, and feminist awareness. Their son Sean's birth in 1975--on John's 35th birthday--was the final exam for a renewed Lennon, and by the time he was ready to return to the studio again in 1980 for Double Fantasy, the nurturing world he'd created for his child proved he'd passed the test of being human.

Norman's story of Lennon's journey is excellent and exhaustively researched, with scores of interviews and primary sources chiming in (especially touching is a bittersweet afterword by Sean Lennon, of the few hazy-yet-tender memories he has of his dad). Lennon's murder was undeniably tragic, leaving a void for what he could have still done as an artist and father, but Norman makes the case that his soul at least learned the lessons taught by this spin of the karmic wheel. We begin reading the book knowing Lennon the Beatle, discover Lennon the Asshole, and then finally through him--through his struggles and railing against his pain and demons and loss and eventual rebirth--we come to know Lennon the Human Being, traveling down the same path to self-awareness as all of us.

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