The Beatles have been the subject of so many books that the memories of everyone who ever knew, loved, or sponged off of them have been overharvested to the point of extinction. So why bother inviting Philip Norman's new 851-page biography of John Lennon into your life? Even if the book is good, you'll just get swept up in how funny, brilliant, troubled, insecure, caustic, and loving Lennon was and then, just as you watch him turn 40 and find peace and rediscover his guitar, he'll get murdered after rushing home from the studio to tuck his boy into bed.
The bad news is that John Lennon: The Life is so rich and enveloping that it demands to be read. Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, gave Norman a series of frank interviews but later withdrew her support because she felt the book was ''mean to John.'' Which simply isn't true. John Lennon may not beatify the singer, but it's a clear-eyed and compassionate study of a man who was idealistic enough to write ''Imagine'' but cynical enough to grouse to a friend, ''It's only a bloody song.''
Norman no doubt embarked on his book to balance the hagiographies of Lennon, as well as to exorcise the ghost of the late toxic avenger Albert Goldman, who published his fat, hateful biography, The Lives of John Lennon, 20 years ago. (Goldman had already roasted Elvis Presley over a spit, and portrayed Lennon as a nasty, bisexual, agoraphobic, anorexic junkie.) Norman, author of the Beatles history Shout!, conjures the singer's childhood, early years as a Beatle, and marriages in almost novelistic detail. He gently corrects myths that even the singer believed that his parents never loved or wanted him, for instance without trivializing the pain Lennon felt, or the shock waves it sent through his life. Norman coaxes fresh insights out of both Ono and producer George Martin. And, thanks to a rare interview with Sean Ono Lennon, he turns the postscript into a touching sort of hymn to a lost dad offered up, with pain we can only guess at, by the little boy who never did get tucked in. A–