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Life of Lennon
By Paul Coslett
The author of a new John Lennon biography, Philip Norman, takes questions from BBC Radio Merseyside's Spencer Leigh.
John Lennon would have been 68 this year.
To mark what would have been John Lennon's 68th birthday author Philip Norman has published an 800 page biography of the former Beatles' life.
Norman, who wrote acclaimed Beatles biography Shout!, says he was aware that a book about such an iconic figure would be subject to great attention, "Millions of people feel a personal relationship with John," he told BBC Radio Merseyside's Spencer Leigh.
"I was really conscious that loads of people would be looking over my shoulder to see if I had done justice to this extraordinary, talented person.
"I took an enormous amount of trouble to fact-check this book."
Yoko Ono and John Lennon
The book looks in detail at Lennon's early years and Philip Norman believes that the trauma of those years played out throughout Lennon's life.
"John’s life was visited by sudden death very often, from an early age: his uncle George; his mother when he was in his teens, then Stuart Sutcliffe and Brian Epstein.
"There was this fear always with John of extinction. He even told someone as early as the early 1960s, that he thought he himself would die young and that he would be shot.
"He had some sort of premonition of that even when the Beatles were just getting famous.
"As a very young boy, his Aunt Mimi remembered him talking about this monument in St Peter’s church-yard, the grave of Eleanor Rigby."
"Toward the end of his life, John started recording an autobiography on tape.
"John felt he had memories to share about the music business.
"He sat down and started recording memories of his life but got bored with it after about ten minutes and stopped doing it."
The conflicts between the different parts of Lennon's character and the public perception of him is something that Norman says he's tried to tackle, "John is thought of as a very hard-boiled rocker, but he liked Bing Crosby, he would have heard Frankie Laine, Dickie Valentine, he liked them.
"This is the soft side of John that is actually rather surprising, there are other sides of John than the tough, cynical, abrasive character that people remember.
"I think most of us do have those conflicting areas."
Art college drop out
Similarly there are contradictions in the view of Lennon's educational career, "The mythology about John is that he was so bad at school," says Philip Norman.
"In fact, one of his teachers kept an English writing book that he did because the work in it was so brilliant, she kept it to show to other boys and show them the standard they should aim for.
Brian Epstein should have been honoured.
"He was supposed to be a drop-out from art college, but his professors thought he had real talent.
"He didn’t want to be thought of as serious, but of course no-one could have written a song like Norwegian Wood, which is like a play by Harold Pinter, without the mental self-discipline over language that he had."
According to Philip Norman The Beatles were groundbreaking in smashing the hold of London on the entertainment business, "For a long time, it was supposed to be a secret, where you were from," Norman told Spencer Leigh.
"It was thought that nobody outside of London could be good at anything at all, especially the entertainment business.
"All those British comedians, so many came from Liverpool.
"One of the reasons that Brian Epstein was turned down originally was because he was from Liverpool, they said 'We’ve got all we need down here in London.’"
Brian Epstein, The Beatles manager, was to be crucial to this change in opinion, "Brian made them wear the tailored suits," Norman argues.
"He was a very classy person with a great sense of style, he got them really nice suits made.
"John was supposed to hate the suits but Paul says he liked having a suit.
"Unfortunately Brian hasn’t received any sort of public honour, he should have done."
In the mid 1970's Lennon mainly withdrew from public life, only re-emerging with the release of Double Fantasy just before his death, again Norman argues that to this is often misread as him ceasing writing and recording, "Another misconception is that when John was at the Dakota building, that he stopped making music, he never stopped making music and putting things down on tape," he said.
"What he did do was to retire from the music business, there were all sorts of little tapes he made where he would do a cover version of a Sam Cooke song.
"I don’t think he waned and certainly didn’t wane on record when he came back just before his death."
"I don’t think the Beatles will ever fade"
On the subject of Lennon's assassination by Mark Chapman in 1980 Philip Norman believes that it was a crucial moment in modern history, "That moment, which we all remember, was like civilisation took a lurch backward.
"We were familiar with the concept of assassination, but for someone who was just a musician, who had given such happiness to millions of people, it was so horribly, stupidly, pointless.
"After that, it was the start of a dark age in human relations."
Twenty eight years on from his death the influence of John Lennon is still strong, "He’s everywhere," says Norman.
"There are memorials in Prague, in Iceland.
"His music is playing in lifts, in supermarkets, everywhere.
"He left an incredible legacy."
"I think A Day in the Life is his masterpiece, the language makes you realise life is worth living, you can hear in the Beatles’ harmony how close they were."
"I don’t think the Beatles will ever fade, if you play their music to a little kid, they love it.
"Pop music has never gotten better than that.
"Comparatively speaking, it was recorded on very primitive equipment and yet all the technology can’t surpass what they did. John and Paul were always looking over their shoulder.
"They were very insecure about their pole position.
"The thing is the writing.
"You had John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, all writing wonderful songs.
"They are really what will last."
Listen to the full programme of Spencer Leigh's interview with Philip Norman on BBC Radio Merseyside 95.8FM at 6.30pm, Saturday, 18 October, 2008.
last updated: 14/10/2008 at 10:07