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Book Review: John Lennon – The Life by Philip Norman

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Not before or since has there ever been a musical group — rock and roll or otherwise — that the world's media has followed with the same determination that it once did with the Beatles. And while all of the fab four provided journalists, both legitimate and otherwise, with more than enough ammunition to feed their reporting, none of them gave them more salacious material than John Lennon.

Just this week, more than forty years after the fact, Lennon continued to make news as the Catholic Church apparently offered the former Beatle an absolution of sorts for the sin of publicly proclaiming, way back in 1966, that the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus Christ."

In an article for the official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published this week, the church has apparently forgiven Lennon, while praising the Beatles music on the 40th anniversary of the release of their White Album. The article called the offending remark the product of "showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success".

In his new 800-plus page biography, John Lennon: The Life, the author of what many call the definitive Beatles biography, Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation, retells the story of the "Jesus remark," along with many others. In the book, Lennon's life is retraced from his roots in a broken working class family in England, to his worldwide fame in the Beatles, to his eventual borderline sainthood status as a martyr and an icon of the peace movement.

Many of these stories have been told numerous times before of course, and there really aren't any new earth-shattering revelations. In addition to the firestorm that came in the wake of the Jesus incident — which was a key factor why the 1966 American tour which followed was the Beatles' last — Philip Norman recounts most of the well-tread chapters of Lennon's story.

Most of this stuff will be familiar to Beatles fans. There are the bed-in's and nude album covers with Yoko, the love/hate relationship with his fellow Beatles (especially Paul McCartney), and of course the rumors of sexual fantasies and dalliances with everyone from his mother Julia, to his manager Brian Epstein.

Norman treats all of these subjects with the objectivity of a seasoned journalist. Unlike so many others who have tried, Norman neither deifies or demonizes his famous subject, but rather tries to present a balanced picture showing all sides of the very complex personality of John Lennon.

What emerges is a dichotomy of the man himself. Norman pulls no punches when detailing Lennon's penchant at times for sarcasm, cruelty, and drunken, loutish behavior. At the same time, Lennon is also presented as a thoughtful man, who was equally capable of childlike innocence and wonder as he observed the dizzying events going on all around him.

To tell this story, Norman was also granted near unprecedented access to what is left of the Beatles original inner-circle. The author began this project with the blessing of Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono (who later withdrew it, claiming the author's narrative painted Lennon in a cruel light). In addition to Ono, Norman's research also includes extensive interviews with Paul McCartney, George Martin, and for the first time ever, Lennon's son Sean. The Sean Lennon interview makes for a particularly poignant chapter at the end of the book.

With John Lennon: The Life, Philip Norman has attempted to write nothing less than the final, definitive word on the life and times of one of the twentieth century's most iconic figures. As such, this book is an unqualified success in doing precisely that.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
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