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For part of my formative years, John Lennon was one of the four most famous people in the world. All that we have learnt about him in the thirty years or so since his death has kept his name firmly in the public eye, if not always for the best of reasons. At over 800 pages, this is one of the lengthiest biographies written about the extraordinary life and times of the former Beatle. It's also surely one of the most impartial.
To put the main facts of his life into perspective, he was born in 1940 in Liverpool, had a difficult childhood and was largely brought up by his aunt Mimi, a devoted but often stern lady who had been widowed and with no children of her own was happy to become his official guardian. From his teenage years he formed one skiffle-cum-rock'n'roll group after another, culminating in the Beatles and their extraordinary global domination in the 1960s. He left them in 1969, an event carefully hushed up for business reasons, to embark on a strange life of rather pretentious artistic involvement, political and peace activism, and sporadic new music, with his second wife Yoko Ono. Having settled in America and told a BBC radio interviewer how great it was to walk down the streets in New York without being bothered by anyone, a couple of days later Mark David Chapman accosted him outside his apartment, asked him for an autograph, and that same evening shot him dead.
Lennon clearly had a difficult childhood. His mother ran off with another man, was unable to look after him and handed him over to the care of her sister, yet he still remained devoted to her and was heartbroken at the age of 17 when she was killed by a speeding car. His relations with his father were cold, their dealings few and far between, and they seem to have solidified the character of someone who evidently had a rather cruel streak in him anyway. He treated his long-suffering first wife and their son less than well, and the various young women he had on the side at the same time seem to have had a rough time of it as well. Bob Wooler, a friend and DJ who taunted him at a birthday party with having had a gay affair with manager Brian Epstein, was beaten up so savagely by him that he (Wooler) was never quite the same again. And speculation, argued plausibly in these pages, still remains that the brain haemorrhage which led to the early death of original Beatles' bassist Stuart Sutcliffe might have been the result of an unprovoked assault by Lennon, who knocked him to the ground, punched him and kicked him in the head as he lay there, leaving a shocked Paul McCartney to pick their injured friend up and help him back to their quarters. 'Give peace a chance' came later - it's hardly a pretty story.
Rather chillingly, this sometimes violent man had the occasional premonition that he would come to a bad end. A German woman whom he befriended told him that her father, a staunch anti-Nazi, had been shot by one of Hitler's henchmen, and Lennon said he had a premonition that much the same might happen to him. When Yoko showed him a photo of her great-grandfather, he said that was him in a former life. 'Don't say that,' she told him. 'He was assassinated.' A little later - November 1980, to be exact - he was in his New York apartment giving an interview, when a loud scream was heard from the street below. 'Another murder,' he quipped. It was very prescient in the light of what happened a few days later.
Much of the book is taken up with the story of the Beatles, from their early days in Hamburg to the protracted break-up and the legal business which followed. As their producer George Martin said, Lennon and McCartney were a formidable team whose complementary skills balanced each other to perfection; 'John gave the combination its interest and sharpness. He was the lemon juice against the virgin olive oil.' Yet there is plenty about his family life, whether discussing his occasional contacts with father Freddie, who disappeared from and came back into his life at very irregular interviews, or aunt Mimi who once famously told him that the guitar was all very well as a hobby but he would never make a living out of it, and of course second wife Yoko Ono and their son Sean.
This book gives us pretty all we're ever likely to want to know about John Lennon. Among other things, we are told that his last-ever live performance in Britain was with the Plastic Ono Band in December 1969 at the London Lyceum. It also answers the question many, including me, have pondered - why the writer of 'Imagine' was so obsessed about finances and acquiring so much space in their New York apartments for his wife's clothes and shoes. During a conversation about money in his later years, his former roadie and old friend Neil Aspinall was once moved to chide him with a gentle 'Imagine no possessions, John.' 'It's only a bloody song,' he retorted. So now we know.
As befits the man who wrote one of the best biographies of the Beatles, Norman has done his research scrupulously. It's a hefty read, but a very engrossing one, and I think it's unlikely to be bettered. Most people are a combination of good and bad, and this book shows the best of him - his kindness to others on occasion, his wicked sense of humour - and at the same time his worst.
And I for one can't resist the picture in words summed up by the end of the penultimate chapter. For several days after he was shot, whenever the kitchen door opened, three cats came bounding forward to greet him. (This John also has three cats at present...I trust that's not a bad omen).
[Revised version of review I originally posted on other review sites]