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New Biography, Instant Karma For John Lennon

At first receptive, Yoko Ono ultimately refused to endorse Philip Norman's exhaustive and artfully sketched new biography, John Lennon: The Life. Norman, in her opinion, had been "mean to John." Well, then.

Had Norman been "mean to John" (and he's not), he'd certainly be no meaner than John himself was to almost everyone he knew, Ono included. Indeed, it would take but a brief glance at the definition of Antisocial Personality Disorder to make an armchair assessment of what ailed this impulsive and sometimes cruel artist.

Written "for a hypothetical reader who has never heard of [Lennon] or listened to a note of his music," the book neither denigrates nor extols the man. To Norman's credit, the reader comes away from the multifaceted John Lennon feeling like he almost knew him — and that he probably wouldn't have liked him if he did.

Tellingly, Norman writes, "John was always scrupulous about giving [apologies], however long after the event." Juvenile John and adult John alike made sense of disputes, jealousies and even plain confusion with fists, booze or both. And his treatment of Cynthia Powell, his first wife; Ono, his second; and Julian, his first son, is shoddy enough to embarrass even the worst failed father or philanderer.

So, for example, we're treated to Ono's recollection of a party at Jerry Rubin's New York apartment on the night of Richard Nixon's 1972 reelection:

Anyone who didn't see John's adulterous brazenness was subsequently treated to the sounds of it.

The music, though, is another story, and this is where Norman — author of the definitive 1981 Beatle biography Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation — shines. In extravagant sentences, Norman revels in the single dimension of his subject that he unequivocally loves and appreciates. Such enthusiasm could be grating, but Norman's is refreshing and heartening, offering reminders that divine music has unholy creators; that great is separated from good more often than not by accident (or by drugs); and that people will like what they're told to like, but only love what they embrace themselves.

Indeed, Norman's reconciliations of man and music comprise the most interesting passages. That blissful place to which Lennon aspires to transport listeners in "Imagine" is, in Norman's estimation, "a vista of purgatorial blandness ... which would probably have sent John himself mad with boredom in five minutes." Yet it's still, in Norman's analysis, a masterpiece, worthy of mention as a direct descendant of "We Shall Overcome."

Though John circa 1971, the boozing and brawling creator of "Imagine," is anything but inspirational, the song for Norman is a gift — an act of kindness to hundreds of millions. It's hard not to respect that kind of beneficence and open-mindedness — from both Lennon and Norman.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.