John Lennon: The Life
by Philip Norman
(Ecco, $34.95)

John Lennon wasn’t one to whitewash his own history. Opening up to an interviewer several months after the 1969 breakup of the Beatles, Lennon tried to complicate the image of the band that had been created by a fawning press. “Things are left out, about what bastards we were,” he said. “You have to be a bastard to make it. That’s a fact. And the Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth.” Lennon cited the band’s disdainful early treatment of groupies and tour staff, but he harbored no illusion that such ugly impulses resided solely in his past. When a friend later chided him by quoting a utopian lyric from 1971’s “Imagine,” the pop star replied, “It’s only a bloody song.”

Philip Norman’s 851-page biography ought to have been the book to finally make sense of Lennon’s many contradictions, said Glenn Frankel in The Washington Post. Norman’s Shout! remains, even after 28 years, one of the most “exuberant and revelatory” Beatles books ever written. What’s more, Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, sat down with Norman for numerous fresh interviews—before deciding that his early drafts were “too mean to John.” But while Norman’s mammoth new effort “is often powerful” and never truly mean-spirited, it’s stronger on reported details than insights. It loses steam after a nuanced account of Lennon’s childhood and adolescence in postwar Liverpool, said Michel Faber in the London Guardian. As Lennon surrenders most of his last half-decade on earth to “drunken boorishness, narcissism, craven insecurity, and sloth,” the reader is left to decide whether those lost years were completely in character or an unfortunate detour.

Maybe Norman just can’t face the obvious, said Glenn Garvin in The Miami Herald. Though Lennon was arguably a musical genius, he was “manipulative from childhood.” For most of his four decades, he “abused his friends” and “cheated on his women.” No one near him “was immune from his bullying.” But anyone who’s listened closely to his more “self-lacerating songs” won’t be surprised to learn that John Lennon was “an emotionally tortured individual,” said Sean O’Hagan in the London Observer. That The Life shows us all the hurt he caused can be upsetting, but it’s also why Norman’s imperfect book now ranks as “the best life of Lennon to date.”