GIMME SOME TRUTH – PART 2
Spencer Leigh reads more books about the Beatles
Please Note – This feature has been added to the website on 11 November 2008. Any comments and opinions will be welcomed. Write to Spencer Leigh.
In 2005, I posted a feature about Beatle books on this website and it has led to a succession of emails. I’m glad that so many of you have found it useful, even if you didn’t always agree with what I wrote.
Since then there have been many more Beatle books including several memoirs, and last month (October 2008) saw the publication of the 800 page biography, John Lennon – The Life, by Philip Norman and published by HarperCollins. The book has had staggeringly good reviews including the Sunday Times, The Independent and the Daily Telegraph: Charles Dickens, it would seem, couldn’t have done it better. However, a couple of bad reviews – Billboard and the Sunday Telegraph – suggest that the book is not quite the Norman conquest we had anticipated. It is time then that we had a look at the Philip Norman book and, indeed, other Beatle books which have appeared since 2005.
Philip Norman’s book had been five years in preparation and was being promoted as the definitive biography. Oddly enough, there has not been much competition as there have only been two major contenders – Ray Coleman (1984) and Albert Goldman (1988). This book, of a comparable length, set its tone somewhere between the St Lennon approach of Coleman and the Devil incarnate of Goldman. Unlike some Beatle fans who rate books according to their stances, I don’t care what position is being taken so long as it is well argued and backed up with creditable sources.
At this very important hurdle, Philip Norman stumbles. Although there are acknowledgments, Norman gives no provenance for any of his sources, and this is surely the first Beatle book not to even mention Mark Lewisohn. If he wrote the book without reference to Lewisohn’s works, then it is a colossal, if foolhardy, achievement. Norman has dismissed Bob Spitz’s Beatles biography on radio, and yet he repeats wrong information from Spitz (for example, Humphrey Lyttelton told me that he was never assaulted by an irate jazz fan). There is no indication anywhere of the sources of any of Norman’s stories.
For example, we know from Julia Baird’s memoir, that her (and John’s) mother liked David Whitfield’s record, My Son John. Fair enough, but Philip Norman has Julia listening to My Son John on her own and, in the best Mills and Boon tradition, the tears are falling because she hears lyrics about John having a wife and family and thinks she will not live to see it. Norman has called this “permissible conjecture”, but it most certainly isn’t. It is incorrect fabrication: Julia had no reason to feel this way as she was healthy and lost her life in an accident in 1958.
When questioned about the lack of provenance, Philip Norman said that there was no space. Even if this were true, the sources could be given on the publisher’s website. Without it, I cannot see this book being used as an authoritative source, despite the author’s reputation.
The book has achieved notoriety because of John’s thoughts of committing incest with his mother, but where is the evidence? In 1979, John Lennon was planning an autobiography and he did commit some thoughts and anecdotes to tape. He speculated as to what might have happened when he was relaxing on a bed with his mother, but nothing happened and Julia would surely not have allowed it. If Philip Norman has only used this source, then he has misunderstood, perhaps deliberately, what Lennon was saying. If he has other evidence, then he should say what it is. Although Norman doesn’t say so, you could read John Lennon’s line, “Mother, you had me but I never had you” as a comment on incest, or rather the lack of it.
However, John’s so-called interest in incest is not a new revelation as it was included in Geoffrey Giuliano’s John Lennon In America; 1971-1981 (Cooper Square Press, 2001), but I have better things to do than read his scurrilous prose: just look at the readers’ reviews on Amazon and you’ll wonder how Giuliano can continue. I don’t regard him as a serious author and hence, ignore his work. What is telling though, is the role of the media: Giuliano’s claims got worldwide attention in 2001: here is Philip Norman saying the same things in 2008, and the media repeats them. Surely someone realised we had been here before.
Philip Norman’s sales have been helped by a damning attack from Julia Baird. It is always difficult for an aggrieved party to know whether to attack a publication directly as it may only fuel publicity. However, Julia felt she had to speak out as “John is no longer around to defend himself.” In another stroke of luck, Norman had assistance from Yoko Ono but she would only endorse the book publicly if she approved the final text. When she saw it, she withdrew her support. This has played perfectly into Norman’s hands: that is, I have had Yoko’s cooperation but I have maintained my integrity as she does not like the results. Precisely what Yoko objected to is unknown, but it must have been more than a few comments here and there.
Because Norman’s Beatles biography, Shout!, was so pro-Lennon, Paul McCartney privately referred to the book as Shite by Norma Philip. Nevertheless, Norman persuaded him that it was better to be in than out, and McCartney agreed to email correspondence for this book: an odd way of doing things and more time-consuming than an interview. Maybe it was because McCartney didn’t relish a face-to-face encounter. However, it hardly matters as McCartney doesn’t tell Norman anything which hasn’t appeared elsewhere.
Only one anecdote in Philip Norman’s biography took me completely by surprise. When the young John Lennon attended St Peter’s Church, Woolton, he was apparently intrigued by the gravestone for Eleanor Rigby and he asked Aunt Mimi to explain the inscription that she was asleep. In previous Beatle books, the authors comment on the gravestone and assume that the details were either lodged in Paul McCartney’s subconscious or a coincidence. In all their interviews, John and Paul acknowledged Eleanor Rigby as Paul’s song and John never claimed a part of it.
The provenance for this story therefore becomes highly relevant. When I asked Philip Norman on BBC Radio Merseyside, he said that it came from an unpublished interview with Aunt Mimi, but who did the interview and when, and why was it unpublished? Assuming that there is such an interview, could it not be an old lady being mistaken?
Despite its vast length, there is laziness in this biography. The oft-told accounts of how the Beatles got to Hamburg are confusing and call for a judgment on conflicting reports from the parties involved. I looked forward to an authoritative explanation, and what do I get: “Through a convoluted chapter of accidents that would need a chapter of its own to relate, the place from which…” We don’t get that chapter, and surely we should.