Monday, December 8, 2008

Book Review: John Lennon By Philip Norman

For most of my life - at least the last 28 years of it - I've been fascinated by the life of John Lennon. His words, music, ups, downs, genius as well as destructive behavior make him one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.

Norman's book is fabulous, so I'll get that out quick and up front. Norman criticizes earlier Lennon biographer Ray Coleman for not bringing Lennon 'to life' in his early 1980s work, Lennon.

Well, Norman certainly does bring Lennon to life. Here we see all aspects - good and bad - of John Lennon, from small child to that warm December evening in 1980 when it all ended

Yoko Ono agreed to interviews over a three-year period. While she did not want this to be an official biography, she did want to see the finished manuscript before publication. Unfortunately, she was not pleased, telling Norman that he was "mean to John". I agree with Norman's response that he certainly didn't feel he'd been mean to John and join with his hope that Ono will eventually come to understand what Norman was trying to achieve.

Even more than Ono - and a fascinating interview with Sean Lennon that appears in the Afterward - are the dozens of interviews Norman did with the Lennon cousins, aunts, his step-mother Pauline and countless other 'little people' in Lennon's life that have never before been interviewed. Through one cousin, Norman was given access to all of John's Aunt Mimi's correspondence, which shed a fascinating light on the woman who played such a strong role in his life that right up until the end - the day he died - he religiously called her twice a week and wrote her countless letters about his life in America, even though he never did manage to get back to England to see her after his departure in 1971

There are countless examples in this book of funny stories that have never before been revealed about Lennon. For example, during a jaunt down Cold Spring Harbor in 1979, as his boat passed the home of Billy Joel, Lennon called out to him, "I've got all of your records!" [John loved "Just the Way You Are"]. In his conversations with Mimi, he'd always begin with, "It's 'Himself'," as a greeting. In the late '70s a promoter offered The Beatles $50 million to reunite for three concerts; while Lennon had been an obstacle to such a reunion in the past, when Neil Aspinall called John at the Dakota to tell him about the offer, he was shocked that John agreed, "Neil, I'd stand in the corner on my head for a year for $50 million!"

There is also a tinge of sadness throughout the book, as we all know how it's going to turn out. Despite that knowledge, however, I still found myself becoming incredibly sad as I read the final pages - hoping for what, I don't know. Hoping he wouldn't die? That's how vivid a portrait of Lennon Norman has drawn that you're actually rooting for him until the very end. The last months of his life were a whirlwind after nearly five years out of the spotlight. The circle of life is here as well: on the day he died, in preparation for a second photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, John had his hair shorn into a 'teddy-boy' 1950s style: at death, he looked not unlike the young tough Beatle from Hamburg.

Norman also asks Ono the question that has puzzled me all of these years: with all of their faith in numerology, astrology, tarot, etc, didn't Yoko receive some signs that John was in danger? For the first time, here, she reveals that - indeed - their on-staff astrologer [that's right, they had an astrologer on retainer, right along with their lawyer and their accountant] did tell Ono shortly before John's death that, "I see a woman with long black hair - she must be your sister. She is crying and she is holding a child. It must be your sister." Ono remembers telling the woman, "I have a sister - but she doesn't have a child." For some reason, Ono never once thought the vision might be her - even though as early as 1968 she had a premonition that if she stayed with Lennon she would be victim of some great tragedy

Finally, here Ono for the first time says that she and John actually had a run-in with Mark David Chapman on December 7th - the day before he murdered John. Chapman approached the two of them quite aggressively, and began taking photos of them. Angry, Lennon began to chase after Chapman to grab the camera. "Don't, John, leave it," Ono remembers saying. "If they get me," Lennon prophetically told her that day, "it'll be a fan."

The famous photo of Lennon signing an autograph for Chapman hours before the murder might have been quite a different photo: Chapman had intended on killing Lennon then and there. Unlike the day before, however, John was so nice to Chapman that the would-be killer lost his nerve and kept his gun inside his jacket. Ono has no recollection of that encounter on the 8th, nor does she have any reason to believe that Lennon knew that the man he was granting an autograph was the same man he'd chased the day before.

In conclusion - and I know this is a long review, but the book is 800+ pages! - this is a must-read, regardless of how much you think you know about John Lennon. It will make you miss him even more.

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