Philip Norman is known to most Beatles fans as the author of “Shout!,” one of the best full-length Beatles biographies (my other favorite is the second revised edition of Hunter Davies’ “The Beatles”).
“I never thought I’d go back to the subject at all,” Norman told me in a recent interview. “I did update ‘Shout!,’ then I thought, ‘That’s it.’ But, of course, that’s never ‘it’ with the Beatles; once you’ve written about them, the story keeps on evolving and developing.”
Now he’s back with “John Lennon: The Life (Ecco),” a review of which ran in Goldmine Issue #738 and can be read online at www.goldminemag.com.
Norman first met The Beatles during their last tour of Britain in the fall of ’65, when he was a reporter for the Northern Echo. Later, he witnessed the chaos of Apple, recalling, “There was an awful feeling of panic and paranoia… It was like the French aristocracy just before the revolution. Everyone was eating and drinking as much as they could.” He’d met Yoko Ono at that time, and later conducted the first major interview with her after John’s death, in early 1981. Norman kept in touch with her over the years, and, in 2003, suggested it was time for an in-depth Lennon biography.
“I said, ‘John deserves a real book,’” Norman says. “A book that isn’t just for the pop audience, but for the world audience; someone who is just as legitimate a biographical subject as John Keats or Mahatma Ghandi, as well as being just a great musician.” Yoko agreed and gave Norman her full cooperation.
Given the number of books out there about The Beatles, and John, how was Norman’s book going to be different?
“You had to get John on the page,” he explains. “Representing John’s character was what mattered to me; in all its complexity, all its contradictions, someone who was tremendously funny and sharp, but also someone who was enormously vulnerable and insecure even with the talent that he had — he never quite believed in it. Someone who created a mythology about himself as being a dropout and a hopeless student at school, but who, in fact, was tremendously self-educated in literature, in reading, and in knowledge of the world. No one could’ve written the lyrics to ‘Norwegian Wood’ who didn’t have the self-discipline of someone like Samuel Beckett. That is a marvelous piece of writing; it’s like a little play.
“So I wanted to represent all these contradictions: the tremendous humor, tremendous belligerence, the feeling of aggrievance that he had about his childhood, and the very complicated feelings about his mother and his father. And just to get to the bottom of what really happened with his mother and father, which resulted in his feeling terribly, terribly wounded, even though many aspects of his childhood were very secure and very happy.”
Norman divided the story into “pre-Yoko” and “post-Yoko” periods.
“That is the great division in his life,” he says. “The main thing was to lay to rest the myth that he was very unproductive [after the Beatles] and that somehow it was all rather anti-climactic. I don’t think it was. I think all the solo albums he made have a huge amount to recommend them. I think Plastic Ono Band is fantastic. I think Some Time In New York City, which was called artistic suicide at the time, is really, really good, not least when he sings with Yoko; the way his voice merged with her voice. It was recognizably John, but it was a different John; it was very delicate and sensitive. I think the