According to Philip Norman’s new biography, John Lennon: The Life, the teenage Lennon occasionally napped with his mother, Julia, and the accidental touch of her breast one time triggered longings in him to have sex with her – longings, Lennon believed, that Julia might have been willing to satisfy. The “truth” of the story may be more psychological than literal – who knows what Julia would have done? – but it deepens our understanding of a complex artist and man.
That’s true of The Life in general. Norman is the author of the 1981 Beatles biography Shout!, and knows their world well. So much has been written about the Beatles, however, that this book, at 851 pages, treads some well-worn paths. But if the book lacks blockbuster revelations, it sharpens what we know about Lennon at just about every turn.
Reporting is Norman’s strength, and Yoko Ono gave the author unprecedented access –;discussing, among other things, the ups and downs of their own sex life. His rendering of Lennon’s years in Liverpool is similarly nuanced. Extensive interviews with Lennon’s friends and relatives cause him to view Lennon’s father, typically seen as a ne’er-do-well who abandoned his son, in a softer light. He reveals Julia’s sister, Mimi, who raised John from boyhood, to have been a virgin throughout her marriage to John’s uncle – a suggestive idea, given her lifelong devotion to John.
Norman is no critic, so Lennon’s music isn’t discussed in great detail. The book is, after all, subtitled The Life, and Norman sticks to the task he set for himself. But he pushes beyond the clichés in exploring how the books and poems Lennon loved as a child re-emerged in both his songs and his prose. And he cracks the mystery of the affair Lennon admitted writing about in “Norwegian Wood”– turns out it was likely the wife of one of his friends. How important is all that? Devotees will relish the new information, while casual readers will find a familiar story told more truly than ever before.