Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book review: The Making of John Lennon - The Untold Story of the Rise and Fall of the Beatles

I always enjoy reading Beatles books by Liverpool authors - particularly Spencer Leigh's. The character of of the city and its history is central to the Beatles' personalities and outlook and the way they faced the rest of the world. It takes a native, I think, to really explain this connection.

Francis Kenny, author of this new counter-biography of John Lennon, is a lifelong Liverpool resident and makes some great observations about where John fit in - socially, politically, economically - in Liverpool. And his answer is that John didn't really fit in at all. Of the Beatles, he was the least typically Liverpudlian of the group.

For starters, John grew up mostly in Woolton, a suburban village miles away physically, and worlds away psychologically, from Liverpool's docks and vibrant city center. But it wasn't so much distance that separated him from the rest of Liverpool life, Kenny argues, but Lennon's Aunt Mimi.

While most works about the Beatles portray Mimi, who raised John from age 5, as stern and disapproving of his interest in music, they do so with amusement. Yes, Mimi was stern, but also loving. But a few more recent books, Tim Riley's rambling biography of Lennon and those by John's half-sister, Julia Baird, dismiss the "loving" part. So does Kenny, who quotes Baird extensively in his narrative.

He portrays Mimi is conniving, cruel and psychologically abusive - laying the blame for all Lennon's neuroses and bad behavior at her feet. The "untold story" Kenny tells is one of Mimi essentially "stealing" John from his mother, shutting him up in her home (also "stolen") on Menlove Avenue and filling him up with her bile for the first 15 years of his life.

Mimi was a social climber who didn't allow John to slip into Liverpool's "scouse" accent and frowned on his friendships with working class boys Paul McCartney and George Harrison. All this isn't new. Yet, Kenny builds on it, suggesting that, being raised this way, John was shut away from Liverpool life and, when he finally escaped Mimi's home, didn't quite know how to act.

John's cruel humor, inappropriate remarks and violence, Kenny suggests, were part of a social awkwardness in his character due to living a sheltered life under Mimi's spell. John's behavior was him emulating how he thought a tough, working class Liverpudlian should act.

Some of what Kenny says is persuasive. He backs up some of his observations about Mimi with quotes from Cynthia Lennon's most-recent memoir, which describe Mimi's self-centeredness and cruel criticisms of John. Yet, there's no balance or objectivity to the portrait.

Kenny doesn't quote any of Paul McCartney's favorable observations about Mimi. Paul knew her, and observed her with John. After the release of the film "Nowhere Boy," which also portrayed a cold, cruel Aunt Mimi, Paul said: "Mimi was not cruel. She was mock strict. But she was a good heart who loved John madly."

Kenny, who writes very well, also goes too far out on a limb with speculation. He suggests that Mimi's husband, George, was gay, but doesn't have any sources to back it up, just collected observations. He also quotes extensively from books on psychology, abuse and depression, essentially diagnosing John's various problems second-hand.

The book certainly makes you think of Lennon in a different way - as a man who was tormented and didn't fit in through his entire life - but the portrait is highly speculative. If you think of John as a lifelong depressive, you can read quotes from him that seem to back this up. But what about the warm humor, the joy and triumph exhibited by Lennon in other interviews and on stage? What about the gentler, wiser John of later years, who confronted his youthful violence and misogyny and called it out as wrong?

Yes, Lennon was troubled, but he also showed the capacity to work through his problems. But that's not on display here.

Kenny's early chapters regarding Liverpool's class system and environment, on the other hand, have great value. I'd love to read more of his observations along these lines - how Liverpool made the Beatles what they are. But this book is too one-sided, too focused on the mission of telling us John Lennon was a psychological mess, to stand up as a full biography of the man.

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