Reading John Lennon’s biography

I’ve just finished the 800+-page biography of John Lennon by Philip Norman, which is almost required reading for someone my age (I never actually saw The Beatles, although I did manage to see the Animals, Stones, Kinks, Who, and, er, Tremeloes, when they were still more or less in their original form). Its service to Lennon is mainly in cancelling out the very hostile and sensationalist effort some years ago by Albert Goldman.

Norman is a good writer. His little reminders of what life was like in (say) 1966 go on a bit, but otherwise he does an excellent job of getting under the skin of his subject, and in particular in deconstructing the early years – after 200 pages, the group is still pre-Ringo, and in Hamburg, so you can see how it exercises itself over his youth.

One of the problems with the story is that, to be honest, much of it is disturbingly familiar. Billions of words have been expended on The Beatles (the best book is Ian McDonald’s ‘Revolution In The Head’, perhaps one of the ten best books I’ve read), and so many magazine articles have been pushed, one after another, into the thickets of my cerebral cortex, that I found myself skipping here and there. In a strange way, I could have done with even more of the the complete, absolute and utter trivia, and would have gone for the book even more if it had come with a forest of arcane footnotes. I enjoyed a couple of the dafter details I didn’t know, of which the best two are (a) that in one of the gardens where a teenage Lennon rehearsed, the next door neighbours threw ironic pennies over the fence. They were Paula Radcliffe’s paternal grandparents – and (b) amongst the many people singing in the background on ‘Give Peace A Chance’ is Petula Clark. This latter piece of complete insignificance is what my brain specialises in. It’s in there (and very close to) knowing that Paul McCartney is to be heard singing in the background on Donovan’s ‘Mellow Yellow’, and The Beach Boys’ ‘Vegetables’ (actually, he drinks a glass of water in the latter, and says ‘Yeah’, as he would do). And talking of background noises, is Norman really right when he says that, on the fade-out of ‘All You Need Is Love’, it’s John who drops in a chorus of ‘She Loves You’? I always thought that was Paul. Either Norman is wrong (probably not; he did also write the best book on The Beatles, ‘Shout’) or my trivia bank needs refreshing.

I am also wrong about the origin of the name The Beatles, about which I took the author of a study called ‘Beat Sounds, Beat Vision’ to task in a review last year, although the author of the book – who claimed it was to do with the Beat Generation – was still wrong himself. I assumed it was to do with beat as in ‘beat music’. But its first incarnation with an ‘a’ (after being Beetles, as in Crickets, as in Buddy Holly) was as ‘Beatals’, i.e. ‘beat all-comers’. Can you imagine how happily sad the in-tray of my brain is? There is so much junk in there, it’s no wonder I can’t do quadratic equations any more.

Perhaps the saddest moment in the whole book comes when Lennon meets, in New York, in the late 1970s, and for the last time, George Martin, and says he would re-do all the Beatles songs on which they’d collaborated. ‘What, even “Strawberry Fields Forever”?’ asks Martin. ‘Especially Strawberry Fields,’ responds Lennon.

Norman is also very good on the very complex legal farrago surrounding the attempts by the USA government to deport Lennon, which turn on a fine legal point about the difference between marijuana and hashish. But I can’t find any real fault with the biography. The bit-part players get plenty of the action, and that is very much how I like it. There is some stuff about psychics foretelling his shooting which is eminently cuttable. But otherwise I raced through it. Always a sad feeling: all that work, and the reader skates through it so quickly. Who would be a writer?

I know the answer to that question, anyway.

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