John Lennon bio uncovers his seamy side
Most people like to remember John Lennon as the dippy Utopian of Imagine.
Less remembered is the Lennon of Run For Your Life: "Well I'd rather see you dead little girl/Than to be with another man."
In Philip Norman's merciless biography, Lennon No. 2 is on full display, and the picture isn't pretty.
Spiteful and selfish, miserly and misogynistic, Lennon abused his friends, cheated on his women and quarrelled with almost everyone he knew. His politics were phony and his public persona a pose, the working-class hero who never laboured a day in his life. (Personal motto: "Death before work.")
Even such details as his all-macrobiotic diet were hippie spinmastering. Norman recounts a horrified host discovering Lennon and Yoko Ono ransacking his refrigerator for bologna.
John Lennon: The Life started out as a semi-authorised biography, with Norman - the author ofShout! The Beatles in Their Generation, a well-regarded history of the group's complicated and ultimately disastrous business dealings - getting full access to Ono and her family for three years' worth of interviews.
But when Ono got a look at an early version of the manuscript, she told Norman he had been "mean to John" and cut him off. "I hope that in time she may revise this judgment for I do not think any other reader will share it," he writes.
Oh yes they will. Unlike Albert Goldman's viciousThe Lives of John Lennon, this book is no calculated character assassination. Norman admires Lennon's writing and musicianship and even appears to have some personal affection for Lennon. But he's undone by his reporting, which again and again butts up against the ruthlessness and self-indulgence with which Lennon conducted his life.
Manipulative from childhood, when he learned to play his troubled mother against the aunt who raised him, Lennon skated through art school on work done by his friends, then secured gigs for his band by installing the son of a club owner as the drummer. When the drummer, Pete Best, outlived his usefulness, and the band got a recording contract, Lennon sent the group's manager to fire him.
He loved to play the role of a thuggish Teddy Boy, the primitive British gangbangers of the day, but let his burlier friends finish the fights he started.
"He was playing the tough guy with nothing to back it up, which was a dangerous thing to do," recalls a bar bouncer who rescued Lennon from countless brawls when the Beatles were playing seedy bars in Germany.
No one was immune from his bullying. He smacked a girlfriend for talking to another man. He once mugged a drunken fan. And Norman even investigates - inconclusively - an accusation that the brain haemorrhage that killed original Beatles bass player Stuart Sutcliffe was caused by a beating administered by Lennon.
Perhaps no one suffered more at Lennon's hands than Cynthia Powell, his first wife. If their courtship was often ugly - when Cynthia suffered an appendicitis attack while on a date, Lennon simply put her on a train to her mother's house - their marriage was an utter travail.
Left alone to cope with her pregnancy (Lennon was on the road and under pressure from his manager to keep the marriage secret), she endured a threadbare existence while her husband splurged on clothes. A college friend who bumped into Cynthia was aghast to learn that she had only a one-pound note to her name "and she was terrified that John would find out about it and take it."
Lennon cheated on Cynthia with friends, fans, practically any female at hand. (The dreamy, sitar-driven record Norwegian Wood, widely assumed to be a drug anthem when it was released in 1965, actually chronicled an affair with a downstairs neighbour.) Yet when Lennon dumped her for the loony avant-garde artist Ono in 1968, the divorce suit accused Cynthia of adultery, even though Ono was pregnant with his child.
As the Beatles rose from a boozy bar band into the leading cultural export of Great Britain, Lennon maintained a carefully manicured image of puppy-dog rebellion, epitomised by his remark at a concert attended by various members of the royal family: "Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewellery."
With Ono, he restyled himself as king of the counterculture, with even less authenticity.
Certainly his callous blend of macho faithlessness and nearly deranged jealousy continued. Soon after taking up with Ono, he demanded that she write out a list of everyone she'd slept with - then flew into a rage when he saw it.
And at the same time he was proclaiming that the Beatles' company Apple Corps was practicing "Western communism," he was privately blistering its lawyers and managers for bleeding money. One such tirade, about how he was "sick of being (bleeped) around by men in suits, sitting around on their fat arses" upset a deal that would have allowed the Beatles to keep control of their song publishing.
Michael Jackson, who gets a nickel every time somebody plays Yesterday or I Want To Hold Your Hand, will no doubt be amused to read John Lennon: The Life. It's even possible that Lennon would, too; had he survived a deranged fan's bullet in 1980, he'd be 68 and perhaps past the age of artifice. Certainly, whether he liked it or not, he would recognise the portrait in these pages.
"These things are left out, about what bastards we were," he confessed in an unguarded post-Beatles moment.
"(Bleeping) big bastards, that's what the Beatles were. You have to be a bastard to make it, and that's a fact. And the Beatles were the biggest bastards on Earth."
Reading John Lennon: The Life, you won't doubt it.