John Lennon: The Life a long and pleasant read

By Philip Norman. Doubleday Canada, 864 pp, $40, hardcover

In 1965, the London Evening Standard’s Maureen Cleave wrote a famously troublesome article in which John Lennon compared the Beatles to Jesus. Philip Norman’s new biography quotes Cleave’s description of Lennon: “Arrogant as an eagle”¦unpredictable, indolent, disorganized, childish, vague, charming, and quick-witted.” In 817 exhaustively researched and skillfully written pages, Norman gives us a Lennon who is not quite so simple.

Yoko Ono would not endorse his biography because, among other things, he is “mean to John”. Norman seems confident that few would agree with her.

Ono’s reservations might be grounded in Norman’s effort to be fair by avoiding saying anything really bad about anyone else, making the flaws of his proto-punk subject obtrusive by comparison. Lack of spleen, though, helps make a long book a pleasant read.

Examine an aside from Bob Spitz’s 2005 book The Beatles: A Biography, with its portrait of a man out of control: “Despite John’s concerns that the Beatles were going broke, he gave away Dor Inis, an island off County Mayo in Ireland that he bought as an investment in 1966, offering it free to a group of ”˜dropouts and nonconformists’ called the London Street Commune.”

Norman’s allusion has a gentler context: “The more obscure and hopeless the petition, the likelier was John’s heart to be stirred. A group of hippies needing a home were astonished to be given rent-free, indefinite use of Dorinish [sic], the rocky islet off Ireland’s west coast where he had once planned to build a tower and live as an artist-hermit.”

Norman’s focus is softer than those of previous accounts, but he cannot avoid sharpening it during accounts of Lennon’s self-centred and cruel behaviour toward lovers and friends, or occasional strangers who displeased him when he was drunk.

By about 700 pages into The Life a reader might wonder, as so many people did back in the early 1970s, “When is this whimsical, brilliant man-child going to grow up?” But then he did and, after about four years of maturity and stability that naturally comprise the least interesting part of the book, it ended.