Thursday, March 05, 2009

Review

John Lennon - The Life by Philip Norman


Woman, I know you understand
The little child inside the man...



The first paragraph of Philip Norman's fat new book John Lennon: The Life is so clever that it needs to be quoted in full:


"John Lennon was born with a gift for music and comedy that would carry him further from his roots than he ever dreamed possible. As a young man, he was lured away from the British Isles by the seemingly boundless glamour and opportunity to be found across the Atlantic. He achieved that rare feat for a British performer of taking American music to the Americans and playing it as convincingly as any home grown performer, or even more so. For several years, his group toured the country, delighting audiences in city after city with their garish suits, funny hair, and contagiously happy grins.

This, of course, was not Beatle John Lennon but his namesake paternal grandfather..."


We knew, I think, that Lennon's grandfather had been a musician. (Julian was the fourth consecutive generation of the Lennon family to cut a record, wasn't he?) But Norman is, I think, the first writer to make "John's grandpa was a singer" part of the grand narrative of John Lennon's life.


Norman is very fond of these story arcs. The four sections of his biography of the Beatles (unaccountably called Shout!) were entitled 'Wishing', 'Getting', 'Having' and 'Wasting' - such a perfect summary of the story that it risked making the rest of the book redundant.


Everyone knows that John Lennon loved The Goon Show. And he referenced Lewis Carrol in at least several of his songs. One of Norman's most telling images is of teddy-boy John slumped in his suburban bedroom endleslys re-reading the Alice books. But for the controlling narrative of this biography, Norman fixes on John's liking for the Just William series. It works, up to a point. Lennon had certainly been a cheeky schoolboy, permanently outside the headmaster's study. He'd been the leader of various mildly subversive schoolboy gangs; the Beatles were arguably an extension of the same kind of playground fraternity. It's telling to compare John's return home, tail between his legs, after the first disastrous trip to Hamburg, with William coming back from yet another misadventure. When posh Brian Epstein wandered into the Cavern, it was exactly like one of those vicars or mayors who end up inadvertently sponsoring one of William's schemes. And apparently Lennon associated journalist Maureen Cleave with Richmal Crompton, causing him to speak too freely to her about the relative sizes of Jesus and the Beatles. Obviously.


Everyone knows that Yoko Ono was so profligate with John's money that she bought a genuine Egyptian Sarcophagus complete with mummy. Norman points out that buying antiquities and then lending or donating them to museums was a rather shrewd and tax-efficient form of investment at that time but when the item arrived, it turned out that the mummy was that of a "princess who came out of the East to marry a man of great power." Mrs Lennon had unwittingly bought the corpse of herself in a previous incarnation. Obviously.


Then again, Yoko's grandfather was, get this, a famous artist and musician, and, get this, he regarded his wife as an equal partner. "One day in his garden he spared a few moments to talk to a young man who was collecting funds for a workers' hostel. When Zenjiro declined to make a contribution, the young man assassinated him." Spooky. Norman says that John had wondered out loud if he could be a reincarnation of Zenjiro. (I think everyone was probably a reincarnation of everyone else in the 60s.) Yoko replied: "Don't say that, he was assassinated." Maybe she really did say that: but maybe the story has improved with 40 years of hindsight.


Or again: when John was a small boy, his father (after giving him an idyllic and extravagant holiday in Blackpool) asked him whether he wanted to stay with Daddy or go home and live with Mummy. John initially choose Dad, but then changed his mind and ran after Mum, an event which may provide a narrative key to the rest of his life. When the Judge in a perfectly above-board custody hearing asked Yoko's daughter Kyoko whether she would rather live with her mother or her father, Norman hears a "chilling echo" of this primal scene. It's also "weird" that Mark Chapman's wife was Japanese and "eerie" that when moptop John first visited New York, he was photographed quite near the Dakota building.


Finding patterns of this kind is, I suppose quite harmless: one of the ways in which we make sense of our lives, or of other people's, is to turn them into stories. (It's less safe when the structural paradigm you choose for your life-story is, say, The Catcher in the Rye or the text of 'Helter Skelter'.) One of the things which psychoanalysis arguably does is encourage patients to tell comprehensible stories about their lives. Rather disappointingly, it turns out that the "screaming" part of The Primal Scream is only a metaphor: primal therapy is actually a process of very deep psychoanalysis in which the patient confronts memories of childhood pain. (John did the literal screaming on his first solo album, of course.) During his therapy John apparently admitted to Dr Janov that he had been sexually attracted to his own mother. He had a memory of brushing his hand across her breast, and was haunted by the possibility that it might have gone further. At about the same time, he was visited by his estranged father; and melodramatically threatened to kill him. Alf Lennon took this seriously enough to melodramatically place a sworn affidavit with his lawyers in case he were subsequently found dead. Freud, of course, thought that the myth of Oedipus was the narrative key to everyone's life: remembering that you wanted to touch Mummy's tits and threatening to kill Daddy as part of the same course of therapy does seem to be taking things a little far.


Norman's book is very aware that people have been telling stories about John Lennon for a very long time. He's good at dealing with contested events which he wryly describes as "hallowed legends". He thinks there may be something in the too-bad-to-be-true theory that the undiagnosed skull fracture which may have caused the death of Stuart Sutcliffe may have been the result of a blow delivered by Lennon himself - if only because it's hard to think of anyone else who might have punched Stuart. The narrative in which John Lennon got drunk and started fooling around with a ladies sanitary towel seems to be true; but regrettably, no-one heard him asking the waitress if she knew who he was, so she can't have replied "You're some asshole with a Kotex on his head." The very important pissing-on-nuns story is scaled back to "embarrassingly sprayed some people who were on their way to church." Norman doubts that the middle-period Lennon would have been paying sufficient attention to Julian's school work to use one of his infant scrawls as the title for a song – although it isn't obvious to me why the later Lennon, (who had admitted to heroin use and wife beating) would carry on denying one coy reference to LSD.


Norman is inclined to believe Yoko's account of history's most important hand-job. Lennon certainly did go on holiday with Brian Epstein; Brian was definitely gay; John was definitely cute, and Brian definitely preferred younger men. According to Yoko, John told his friend Pete Shotton that he and Brian had briefly had sexual contact during the holiday "so that everyone would believe his power over Brian was absolute". But we know - because Norman keeps mentioning it - that Just William used to engage in utterly heterosexual group masturbation with his school mates and, indeed, contributed an incredibly witty sketch to Oh Calcutta! on the theme. ("You know the idea, the four fellows wanking....they should even really wank, that would be great".) So might he not have had a brief encounter with a slightly older man in a spirit of "all boys together"?


A John Lennon who was attracted to men, however subliminally, would provide an excellent story arc: his homophobia would be that of a straight man with unacknowledged gay feelings; his bitterness towards Paul over what was really only a business quarrel would be the baggage from an unrequited crush – hence his resentment of Linda, his possessiveness towards Yoko, and his taunting of Paul's pretty face. The theory falls due to the lack of any actual evidence. (I've never been able to hear John singing "Baby you're a rich fag Jew" and The Hours and the Times may be the dullest film I've ever seen.)


Norman is also very good at presenting smaller incidents and anecdotes. The story that when John finally met Jerry Lee Lewis he prostrated himself and kissed his boot was new to me. I knew that the working class hero grew up in a quite posh part of Liverpool; I hadn't known that Aunty Mimi had paid for a made-to-measure school uniform, or that the previous owner of their house had installed a system of bells for calling servants. I knew about John's prejudice against disabled people, but I'd never spotted that straight after telling the Queen to rattle her jewellery he makes a face which suggests he's about to do a childish impersonation of a what were still called "spastics". (It's interesting to wonder how the story of the Beatles, and, indeed, the second half of the 20th century would have developed if he'd followed through on his original plan to tell the Sovereign, on live TV, to rattle her fucking jewellery.)


Norman says that he hopes that his book will improve on Ray Coleman's by bringing John alive on the page. I have to say that I didn't feel that. John comes through with a novelistic intensity in the early chapters – school, art college, and Hamburg; but seems almost to disappear during the Beatlemania period. By the time we get to the post-Beatles section, the book almost seems to have a blank space at the centre: we don't "see" the Tittenhurst mansion in the way we saw the teenage bedroom (even though, as a matter of fact, we've seen pictures of it.) I think this is why Norman latches onto the Just William template so strongly. We can imagine what it was like to be a 1950s schoolboy and even a savage young ted going wild in Hamburg; John's life from 1963 - 1973 is almost literally unimaginable. So it helps to keep falling back on that picture of the cheeky kid in the school cap as the "real" John Lennon; the person who the story is about.


There are hundreds of hours of extant footage of Lennon, and millions of words of contemporary writing by and about him. One could wish for one of those English-establishment biographies that Private Eye delights in lampooning: one that doesn't search for patterns or narrative keys but which chronicles Lennon's life on a day-to-day basis. "On Wednesday, he had tea with Yoko, who remembers that he said X; and then appeared on Y's chat-show during which he said Z." The footage of the Dick Cavett shows, say, or the moptop press conferences allow us some level of direct access to Mr. J. W Lennon, the charismatic, witty Englishman in New York, who, incidentally, wrote quite a number of rather good songs. Is there a future Lennon Anthology or Lost Lennon Tapes which will give us un-mediated access to this material? But in the meantime, Norman's book has "definitive" written all over it.

3 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

"[Lennon] seems almost to disappear during the Beatlemania period. By the time we get to the post-Beatles section, the book almost seems to have a blank space at the centre."

That makes sense to me. When I read Hunter Davies' book, the part that stayed with me -- and still haunts me, really -- is the crushing mediocrity and tedium of John's life during the most fantastically creative period of his songwriting. The image of him sitting in one small room of his mansion with the TV constantly on and never actually watched is pretty frightening. It leaves me wondering what he might have produced under other circumstances.

Site Owner said...

Not only is there no group masterbation in the Just William books even metaphorically, but Vicars do not (as far as I can recall) ever en up inadvertantly sponsoring William's schemes, and William wasn't per se a 1950s school boy as the books were written across and set him (always at 11 yrs of age) from the 1930s to the 1970s. Interestingly in William & The Pop Singers, he inspires a John Lennonalikes, John Lennonalike song. I'd have more confidence in this account of JL, if it were right about William Brown, whose life after all is by definition completely documented.

Simon Bucher-Jones

Andrew Rilstone said...

My bad.

By "just william" I did of course mean "john lennon during his 'just william' phase, i.e when he was a clever but naughty schoolboy." I didn't, of course, mean to imply that Richmal Crompton wrote about circle jerks; or that the fictitious William Brown contributed material to Kenneth Tynan's risque revue.

John Lennon was at school from around 1945 to around 1955. William Brown, like orphan Annie and the Fantastic Four lived in a continous present that was alway contemperaneous with the present day. His "eternal now" last from, I think, the 20s to the 60s. I have not read many of the stories, but I understood that there was a reasonably common trope of some dignified adult being drawn into one of William's schemes? I understood, at any rate, what Norman was getting at: the posh guy becoming responsible for a gang of ragamuffins he didn't quite understand.