MUSIC OCTOBER 22, 2008
John Lennon: The Life
by Philip Norman (Ecco)
As he said about the Maker of All Things in the song he called "God," which was really about himself, John Lennon is a concept by which we measure our pain. Lennon made a great many things both miraculous and ungodly during his foreshortened and intensely public life, and much of what he did brought us grief, in the multiple meanings of the word, or granted us the effect of grief's denial: ecstasy. Lennon and the three mates for whom he served as semi- official leader came to America just in time to provide gleeful relief from our famous post-Kennedy malaise. He proceeded to outrage conservative Christians who were protective of the bigness of Jesus; he vexed aesthetic fundamentalists who were reluctant to accept rock and roll as art; he infuriated rock traditionalists who were even more reluctant to accept the conceptual avant- garde; he irritated Paul fans; he conferred upon us the irrepressibly unpleasant Yoko and released "Whatever Gets You Through the Night"; and then he abandoned us, withdrawing from public life for nearly five years. Finally, through his death at the hands of a crazed fan in 1980, he made us face the darkest potential of the mixed-up, out-of-control feelings of love and fury that he had stirred and refracted with a smirk.
His admirers and his detractors--there are no others in this case--have been talking and writing fervently about Lennon since the first days of Beatlemania, in Liverpool all those years ago. I do not know exactly how many books have been published about the Beatles, but I own fifty-eight, and I am not a collector by the standards of Beatle fandom. The number of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles about the group and its music is essentially unknowable; the major indexes cite tens of thousands, and those lists exclude fanzines, newsletters, teen mags, and the alternative press, in which much of the most obsessive and revealing documentation of Beatledom has taken place. (The current issue of Beatlefan, a magazine now in its thirtieth year of publication, has the first of a two-part interview with Ringo's former fiancee, Nancy Andrews, as well as an illustrated history of "Yellow Submarine" memorabilia.) In 1971, Dick Cavett had John and Yoko as guests on his late-night talk show; by way of unnecessary introduction, Cavett described the Beatles as "the most written-about, the most listened-to, and the most imitated" musicians of their time. And now we find published 822 additional pages bound in hard covers as John Lennon: The Life, by Philip Norman. To note that Lennon and the band he founded have enduring capacities to ignite the public imagination is to commit an obviousness that is aptly painful.
Norman, a British journalist and author of breezy novels and nonfiction books on pop-culture subjects, is best known for another book about the moptops, called Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation, which appeared in 1981. It was notable as a fairly serious, if flawed, attempt to humanize the Beatles and to factor the elements of timing and money into their legend. Shout! was good on the convoluted, ultimately catastrophic business end of the Beatles' life, which Norman had once covered as a reporter, and the book was thorough in its treatment of Brian Epstein, the group's deliciously eccentric business manager. (Among the anecdotes that Norman relayed was one about how Epstein, as a boy, would smash a toy rather than share it with other children.)
Shout! luxuriated in the supposition that Epstein had been not-so-secretly in love with Lennon, and it betrayed a parallel in the heart of its own author. (If, for a writer, respectful affection can open windows on a subject, infatuation leads inevitably to closing the shades and turning off the lights.) The first sentence of Shout! began: "John Lennon was born on October 9, 1940," and Norman went on to characterize Lennon as "eighty percent" of the Beatles. Throughout Shout!, Norman derided Paul McCartney as a cunning square, and he dismissed George Harrison and Ringo Starr as so-so musicians with luck at finding friends. Generous to marginal figures such as Lennon's first bandmates, the drummer Colin Hanton and the bassist Len Garry, who had given Norman interviews for the book (and for its follow-up, the new Lennon biography), Norman smashed the Beatles that he could not have all to himself.
After some forty years covering the Beatles beat, Norman appears to have little enthusiasm left for any of the four--and least of all for the subject of his new book, the former object of his ardor. Like a submissive lover who has been in an inequitable marriage for too long, Norman seems to have had enough of John Lennon. He conducted relatively few new interviews for an ostensibly major work on an important artist of the recent past; he has summoned little in the way of revealing insights into Lennon or his time; and his prose is repetitious and, for the most part, bloodless. Such tepidity is, in this case, not just misguided but also misleading, because John Lennon was many things, but none of them was dull.
Like Shout!, Norman's biography of Lennon is nicely detailed on the Beatles' brief apprenticeship in Liverpool and Hamburg, as well as on the much-told story of Beatlemania. Norman is skillful at deciphering the class dynamics among the Beatles--John, the self-proclaimed workingclass hero, was raised half a station above Paul, and George and Ringo were of lots considerably below the other two. ("He's a real wacker," Lennon's aunt Mimi said after meeting George, as Norman quotes her.) Norman properly casts the early success of the Beatles in England as not merely a triumph for the lower orders but also as part of a larger collapse of class structures throughout the United Kingdom in the postwar era. Yet like many British writers on the subject of the Beatles, he mistakenly transfers the function of class in the group's rise at home to their success in the United States.
For young Americans, who were scarcely oblivious to class but were attuned instead to a different system of social codes, the Beatles never "read" as lowly. Dressed in their matching Edwardian suits, dolled up with their foppish hair, and chirping in heavy accents of some kind--who in New Jersey knew from Scouse?--the Beatles came across mainly as something English, and that put them, in American minds, a rank above Americans. In our self-conception, all Americans, relative to the English, are real wackers. (This standpoint is of a piece with Americans' beloved, insidious anti-elitism, and with our defensive pride in both our realness and our wackerness.) At the peak of Beatlemania as a cultural craze and licensing bonanza for Brian Epstein, King Features produced a series of Saturday-morning Beatles cartoons, and the voice actor for John gave him a clipped upper-crust accent; I watched the cartoons every weekend in the 1960s, and I never noticed this until recently, when I played some of the cartoons on YouTube for my five-year-old son. When I was a kid, I conceived of the Beatles simply as English and, therefore, more sophisticated than American rock acts. As their work evolved and the Beatles took postwar pop into the realm of art music, I was just one in a country full of rock fans who mistook the Beatles, as Englishmen, for people endowed by birthright for the task.
When Elvis first saw the Beatles, he said they looked like "a bunch of faggots," and their mere Englishness was no doubt feminizing in the eyes of Americans less enlightened than the King of Rock and Roll. Norman shuffles awkwardly around the issue of sexual transgression in the Beatles' early appeal, but he falls considerably short of doing it justice. Beyond the bangs and the falsetto "woo"s and the odd suits, all of which were taken as fey in the early 1960s, the spirit of Eros was palpable in the sight of John and Paul standing face to face--a bit of stagecraft made possible by McCartney's left-handedness and Lennon's right-handedness--as they sang together into a shared microphone, their lips nearly touching. Among the specialties in the Beatles' youthful repertoire, moreover, were quite a few songs sung by or associated with women-- girl-group hits such as the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman," the Shirelles' "Boys," the Teddy Bears' "To Know Him Is to Love Him" (which John crooned, sometimes without changing the pronouns), and "Till There Was You," the gooey ballad from The Music Man, which Paul learned from a Peggy Lee record.
For adolescent boys, then, the Beatles were far more complexly stimulating than traditional male pop stars. And for the girls who dominated the band's hordes of hysterical fans, the Beatles were more than objects of erotic desire. In the meticulous perfection of their public selves, in their sheer prettiness (Ringo excepted, although he had a jolie laide quality under the right lighting), and in the magnitude of their popularity, the Beatles surely served many of their young female fans as a fantasy projection, a dream image of teenage girlhood--a group prototype for Hannah Montana, in drag. Beatlemania was, in this sense, an opulent expression of self-love, and that fact alone makes it the official start of the 1960s.
It is forty-five years now since the emergence of the Beatles in 1963--a very long time by the pop-culture clock. How long, exactly? If this were 1963 and I were writing about the singing sensation of forty-five years earlier, I would be talking about Al Jolson. Indeed, in some ways Beatlemania seems as remote as the mania over Jolson, and "Love Me Do" sounds as hokey today as "I'm Sitting on Top of the World."
There are four thousand holes in John Lennon: The Life, and the one in most dire need of fixing is the absence of illuminating discussion of the creative work that makes Lennon matter. Norman, who has done books on Buddy Holly and Elton John, in addition to his writing on the Beatles, is the rare biographer of musicians who has little evident interest in music itself. He concentrates on the events of his subjects' lives with an eye for personal details (John liked to conjure a romantic mood, lighting a candle by the bedside, before sex) but not much of an ear for the songs they devoted those lives to creating. When he does take up a specific work, Norman tends to characterize the song by the style or the quality of its lyrics. Thus he describes "If I Fell," the gorgeous Lennon ballad that the Beatles performed in their first film, A Hard Day's Night, tersely as "plaintive." Yes, the words are simple and direct; but the music is luxurious and complex, with harmony parts that purl around the melody. Song after song from record after record goes without much attention, as if John Lennon started a band called the Beatles just so he could imitate a paralyzed person on stage and kick a friend in the head after the show.
In much of what he does on the lyrics, Norman gives way to the same kind of myopia and inclination to inflation that mars a great deal of other writing on the Beatles. In a section on "In My Life," he writes that Lennon "sketched out a song that would use poetic observation in the style of Wordsworth or Tennyson, recalling the Liverpool he had known as a child and lamenting how, even over his short lifetime, that old, solid world of ships and docks had all but vanished." This, for a lovely, truly plaintive song made up of gauzy generalities about "people and things that went before." In a passage on "Norwegian Wood," much the same, Norman asserts that its lyrics "are among very few [song lyrics] that can also be read as poetry or even drama," dismissing in a huff the dozens of considerably poetic and dramatic lyrics of pre-rock songwriters such as Lorenz Hart and Yip Harburg, not to mention poetic rockers such as Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, and Bob Dylan.
Weighted heavily on the side of Lennon's life before and during his years with the Beatles, Norman's book glances over Lennon's experimental records with Yoko Ono and his post-Beatles rock albums, two of which--Plastic Ono Band, Lennon's bleak, unsparing first solo album, and Double Fantasy, John and Yoko's joint testament of contentment in what should have been Lennon's mid-life--had as much fine Lennon music as any Beatles albums. Yoko Ono, who submitted to interviews with Norman and encouraged his book when he first proposed it to her five years ago, since reading the manuscript has disavowed it on the grounds that it is "mean to John." I think she has a point. Indifference to the art is an act of profound hostility to the artist. In his deafness to the music that Lennon went to such pains to produce, Norman hurts Lennon's legacy more than Lennon, his art, his politics, or his wife ever hurt anyone.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.