I hate to say this, but this book was disappointing on a number of levels: it compared poorly with Keith Richards’ autobiography Life, which I read just previously, both in content and style; there were a number of mistakes in the text (on the copy-editing level); and it turns out that John was, simply put, kind of a jerk, especially when he was younger.
However, it was perhaps unfair of me to read it right after Life; if I could jump back in time two weeks, I’d read them in the opposite order. Keith’s book had the immediacy of a first-person narrative, whereas John’s was, necessarily, a biography. There were other factors going in as well: The Beatles’ image as a smiley boy band, in suits and ties (despite their later long hair and other late-’60s/early-’70s trappings) raises the bar of audience expectation of the individual Beatles, whereas the Stones’ bad-boy rock ‘n’ roll image lowers the bar. One expects all kinds of bad behavior from the Stones, but is more surprised to learn about the Beatles’ very early years playing (and misbehaving) in the red light district in Hamburg.
Preconceptions aside, the Beatles did start out more rock ‘n’ roll before Brian Epstein cleaned up their act, and one gets the sense that John may have been happier with a grittier image, like the Stones. One clear point of contrast between the two is that Keith’s love for music and for playing live shows shines through his whole book, but John came to hate playing to live audiences. No one was prepared for the unprecedented phenomenon of Beatlemania, and so “the boys” were not well guarded against it – not hidden behind a wall of security as they would be today. Additionally, it’s easy to see how fans claiming to love the music and then screaming so loudly during the concert that the music was rendered inaudible could be extraordinarily aggravating.
The wonderful thing about Keith’s book was his happiness, his enthusiasm about life and music and other people, and his sense of humor. If John had lived to write an autobiography, it might well have been a more enjoyable read than Philip Norman’s biography of him. John’s story as told by Norman is drier and more scholarly (Keith certainly couldn’t be accused of either). And Keith has the perspective and distance of several extra decades; the flaws that stood out in John’s youth and Beatles years were beginning to mellow before his premature death, but – if both accounts are to be taken at face value – John was far more insecure and had a much worse temper anyone who hears “I Want to Hold Your Hand” would suspect.
Not that I expect musicians (or writers or artists) to be paragons of virtue or shining examples of character, but it was a bit disillusioning reading about John in detail. I had a positive impression of his before I read the book, less so now. (Keith, on the other hand, was surprising in the opposite direction, as it were: despite all the drugs and trashed hotel rooms, he seems to have a relatively sunny outlook and peaceful personality. If I could hang out with one of these two, on the basis of these two books alone, I’d pick Keith, and not just because John’s dead.)
Another difference between John and Keith is that Keith is primarily a musician: he goes into great detail about various chords and open tuning and riffs. Though it goes without saying that John was a brilliant musician as well, it seems he was primarily a writer; he wrote and drew from a young age. This difference is reflected in their respective songwriting processes as well as in their music. (When Keith and Mick wrote together, Keith usually came up with with central riff and a few words, usually the chorus – “it goes like this” – and Mick would fill in the verses.) In John and Paul’s songs, there is often a strong story element; the lyrics are just as important as the music. In fact, the Beatles began printing the lyrics of their songs on their album covers, starting with Sgt. Pepper. Think of “A Day in the Life” – it tells a whole story in itself.
On a personal level, having been brought up to loathe Yoko Ono, there’s really no way to do that after reading Norman’s book, and that’s a bit of a letdown. One does certainly feel for Cynthia and, especially, Julian, when one considers the radically different treatment of the first wife and son compared to the second; but, at least as presented in this book, it seems as if John did much better as a husband and a father the second time around.
Overall, John simply wasn’t a person who could be constrained by one image or even one medium. He was undoubtedly creative and brilliant, but after nearly a decade, he didn’t love being a Beatle the way Keith loved being in the Stones (or the way Paul loved being a Beatle; maybe I’ll read a book of his next). Though the Beatles broke up fifteen years before I was born, I’ve always been sad about it (and also always blamed it on Yoko), but I don’t know if I am anymore.
A final note: there were numerous typos and other small errors that ought to have been corrected in the copy-editing process. True, 850 pages is quite a long book, and this was a first edition, so some errors may have been corrected in subsequent editions. However, it makes this thoroughly researched book seem sloppy.
And it was thoroughly researched, and the writing was competent, if not lyrical or inspiring. There were certainly good tidbits about the origins of many of the songs, about who wrote what and why. There is solid primary source material, letters to and from John, quotes from many who knew and worked with him. But John Lennon: The Life just doesn’t blaze off the page the way Keith Richards’ Life does.
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