HE COULD be sleeping like a log in somewhere like Lower Hutt. He would have turned 68 last month, eligible for the pension and the free bus pass, a thin-haired, short-sighted old duffer issuing flat New Zild vowels through his snoot, raising a nice hot cup of Choysa to his thin lips, dreaming in bright colours of the mother whom he last saw one disturbing afternoon when he was a child back in Liverpool - this could be the life of John Lennon, who so nearly came to New Zealand when he was six, but you would also have to imagine the unimaginable. You would have to imagine no Beatles.
Philip Norman's massive, creaking, determined new biography of Lennon adds fresh detail to all the old familiar Beatle narratives. His book calls in at the usual haunts. There are the Hamburg years, there is Shea Stadium, there goes Bob Dylan calling up the Beatles' hotel suite from a phone booth across the road and arriving at their door with a stash of dope. And there is the story, first told in Hunter Davies' 1968 biography of the Beatles, of Lennon almost choosing to settle in New Zealand.
Typically, Norman brings new information to hand. Lennon's parents were separated; his dad, Alf, kidnapped him, and took him to Blackpool, where friends - the Hall family - prepared to emigrate to New Zealand. The plan was that they would pose as John's grandparents, and sail with him under their care. Alf would come later, obtaining a free passage by signing on as a steward, and jumping ship once it reached Wellington.
His mother, Julia, picked up on Alf's trail, and arrived in Blackpool to rescue her son. Even then, though, the bright light and one horse of New Zealand beckoned. According to Norman, "When Alf outlined the New Zealand scheme, she agreed it could be the start of a wonderful new life for John and indicated her willingness to let him go, merely asking to see him for one last time." John came into the room. When Julia turned to leave, he buried his face in her skirt, and begged her to stay. Then and there, Lennon was faced with a horrible choice. He was told he had to pick between going with mum or with dad. Norman: "If you want to tear a small child in two, there is no better way."
He went with mum, and the rest is another 801 pages. Norman has been this way before, as the author of the Beatles biography Shout!, and it's easy to detect his resignation as he once again revisits the church fair where Lennon met Paul McCartney, the art gallery where Lennon met Yoko Ono, the Dakota doorway where Lennon met Mark Chapman. As well, he's forced to write a few boring paragraphs which place Beatlemania in a wider context the band's impact on culture and society, that sort of thing.
But the book succeeds as an intimate portrait. Norman makes sense of Lennon's life, gives it a continuity, from his childhood to his final days.
You could even describe the book as a love story. It's really the biography of two people. Lennon, and the love of his life, his most profound influence, his guiding star, his twin - not Elvis, not Paul, not Yoko, not even Julia, but his Aunt Mimi. Mimi raised him, Mimi gave him all the comforts of home, Mimi banished acts of affection. She was always there for him. She raced through Liverpool's bombed streets he was born during an especially ferocious Nazi air-raid to hold him, and declared her undying love there and then; they spoke a few hours before Lennon's appointment with Chapman.
Norman rejects the standard line that Mimi took John in as a kind of favour to the over-burdened Julia. In his version, she called in child welfare to remove John into her care, and told her sister: "You're not fit to be a mother!" Norman is clearly fascinated by this strange, tense woman. In fact, the book's most scandalous revelation concerns her, and not Lennon, when Norman rummages around the family laundry and finds out about her affair with a medical student. Mimi was 50; he was 24. Together, they planned to emigrate to New Zealand...
Julia's accidental death put a stop to that. Mimi stayed for John. "When I was a boy," he sang, "everything was right." She loved cats, he loved cats. He said grace before dinner, bathed every night in a claw-foot tub, was given a lump of barley sugar at bedtime. She filled the house with her collection of Royal Worcester and Coalport china; in his final years in New York, he had her parcel up the lot, and send them to the Dakota. Yoko tells Norman how content Lennon was to sit on the couch and stroke his cats. "He always looked," she says, "just like Mimi."
IN HIS acknowledgements, Norman makes passing comment of Albert Goldman's notorious biography, The Lives of John Lennon, as "malevolent" and "risibly ignorant". Yes, but it was such a great read. It was like a long, sustained comedy routine, outrageous and cruel and busting with laughter - the kind of book you suspect Lennon would have enjoyed. Norman's biography is almost completely humourless.
Goldman actually did have good things to say about Lennon; he makes a compelling argument that A Hard Day's Night was less a Beatles album than a blazing solo album by an incandescent Lennon, and writes with real energy and awe about Lennon's greatest gift - his voice. You can hear it in that book. You can't hear it in Norman's more respectful volume.
Instead, you get weird, mangled creative writing. "Please Please Me", to Norman's ears, sounds like "the mirthful exhilaration of orgasm in a cold wind". Then there's this description of Lennon singing "Twist and Shout" onstage in 1963: "His eyes take on a stony blankness, like some marble knight lying with folded hands for eternity in the hushed transept of a cathedral." What?
And it's a bit rich for Norman to "totally discount" Goldman's book, when he repeats sometimes - with considerable relish - a few of its more lurid speculations. He looks into the claims that Lennon's vicious and unprovoked assault on his best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe, caused or led to his death. He looks into the claims that Lennon had a brief affair with Beatles manager Brian Epstein when they holidayed together in Spain ("The ten-day trip has passed into legend.")
Most frequently, he looks into the claims - first aired in this book - that Lennon wanted to have sex with his mother. They lay on her bed one afternoon. She wore a black angora sweater, and a tight green skirt. He touched her breast... "I was wondering if I should do anything else. Presumably she would have allowed it."
The blitheness of Lennon's remark - taken from a memoir he put down on tape - serves as yet another moment in the book which makes you want to hate him. Norman concludes, "He was ultimately an adorable human being." This comes as a surprise. Despite the measured and affectionate treatment, it's quite possible to loathe the Lennon who appears in these pages. Variously fat and depressed, a colossal oaf, mean, bitter, cowardly, anxious, old before his time, his best side is only really revealed as a songwriter, and as a loving semi-son to Mimi, and a father to Sean.
Well, who could ask for anything more? Norman presents a recognisable human being who was, at heart, a homely soul. But Lennon was too damaged and damaging, too mad, and, after his first two solo albums, too useless as an artist to warrant a garlanded tribute. Even so, Norman finds merit in Some Time in New York City, a truly gruesome album from 1973: "Today, it's recognised to be much more than a soapbox rant." By who? He doesn't say.
Yoko, however, asked for more than Norman can give. She has refused to endorse his book, because she found it upsetting. But she will never find a more sympathetic biographer, especially about her own role in Lennon's life. Norman does away with another standard line when he declares he has no truck with the notion of Yoko as the scheming harridan who latched on to Lennon to further her career and reputation. "In fact," he writes, "no other pair of famous lovers in history can have come together in quite so roundabout a fashion." Is that a fact?
By all means ignore the sweeping statements. "Beatlemania signalled the end of mourning for JFK," Norman drones. Move past the cliched observations, like this one about a 1964 film clip of Lennon outside the Dakota: "Mugging dutifully for the cameras, John has no inkling of the place where he will one day live, and one day die." Didn't he? Fancy that.
What you want is gossip. What you want is Beatles trivia, and Norman is good for that, too. As a child, Lennon liked to wander around the local cemetery, and came across the tombstone of... Eleanor Rigby. Norman also uncovers the subject of another Beatles song when he reveals Lennon's affair with the model Sonny Freeman. "Sonny had been born in Berlin but preferred to say she was Norwegian. Her flat, so it happened, was mostly panelled in wood..."
But what you mostly end up wanting is the life of Aunt Mimi. Norman excels at that, subtly and cleverly super-imposing her character, and even her face, onto Lennon's. At last: a new fifth Beatle. She shaped a genius, and gives Norman's book its shape. The heroine of his tender love story refreshens the story about the act we've known for all these years, brings it back to earth, sets it among the Royal Worcester china in the glass cabinet.
Strange to think that both Mimi and Lennon might have settled in New Zealand. Mimi with her young lover, whispered about behind the lace curtains; Lennon with the Halls, and then his dad, disappearing into whatever Antipodean obscurity. Imagine no Beatles, no... everything.
* JOHN LENNON: THE LIFE By Philip Norman HarperCollins, $37
- Sunday Star Times
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