Issue: September 1, 2011
In this massive and insightful biography, music critic Riley bravely attempts to come to terms with the mass of contradictions that was John Lennon. Indeed, all of Lennon’s many faces are explored here in depth: Lennon the brilliant musician, Lennon the acerbic band mate, Lennon the druggie, Lennon the peacenik, Lennon the househusband. Riley divides the book into three large sections: “Pre-Beatles, 1940–1959;” “Beatlehood, 1960–1969;” and “Beyond Beatles, 1970–1980.” Throughout, he attempts to explode myths—for example, that Lennon was the working-class hero of legend; he was solidly middleclass—and to set the record straight on many aspects of Lennon’s personal and professional life. He also turns to mostly forgotten primary sources, including In My Life (1982), a memoir by Lennon’s childhood friend, Pete Shotton, and Daddy Come Home (1991), a memoir by Lennon’s absent father, Alfred Lennon, that reveal important incidents in Lennon’s upbringing. Riley approaches Lennon’s messy life from an intellectual perspective, so that the book is as concerned with Lennon’s music as with the conflicting personae he projected to the world. A must for Lennon and Beatles fans.
After hundreds of books on the former Beatle, is there anything left to say? Surprisingly, yes, and music journalist Riley (Fever: How Rock ’n’ Roll Transformed Gender in America, 2004, etc.) delivers intriguing news and commentary in this incisive biography.
The news comes mostly in the form of fresh insights, some closely argued, some merely observed in passing. On the latter score, the author briefly considers Lennon’s role in what might be thought of as a virtual British Empire. The Windsors may have lost the real one, but thanks to the Beatles and kindred acts, Britain “lay claim to a new cultural empire, with significance far beyond its borders.” Despite recent boneheaded claims that Lennon was a closet Reaganite, Riley shows that Lennon was no deliberate imperialist—Paul McCartney, maybe, who has had to live under the long heroic shadow cast on Lennon after his murder, and who now has to “endorse his sainthood, lest he be disrespectful of the dead.” The author finds true significance in the partnership of Lennon and McCartney, which, for all their protestations, was a true two-way street. Moreover, he is quick to observe the little accidents out of which history is made—for instance, the Mellotron keyboard, the toy-loving Lennon’s “latest gadget,” too big to fit inside his apartment, on which McCartney casually tinkled notes that would shape one of Lennon’s best-known songs, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Riley is much more respectful of Yoko Ono than have been many previous biographers, more forgiving of McCartney, more sympathetic even to Lennon, who can’t have been easy to live or work with. He is also attentive to others of great but sometimes unsung influence in Lennon’s life—not just Mimi and Julia, but also George Harrison, who helped shape the Beatles’ sound more profoundly than he’s often given credit for. Lennon had what Riley characterizes as “another kind of mind,” and his book is a careful exploration of the man’s musical genius, as well as his many shortcomings in the realm of personal relations.
Essential for Lennon fans, and one of the most thorough yet accessible rock biographies to appear in recent years.
Is there room for another big biography of John Lennon, just a few years from Philip Norman’s doorstopper, and four years from Bob Spitz’s epic history of the Beatles? Journalist and NPR media critic Tim Riley (the author of previous books on the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Madonna) proves there is with this insightful, page-turning examination of Lennon’s roots, his Beatle fame, his art, his manic personality and relationship with Yoko Ono, and the peace he finally seemed to find, only to have his life cut tragically short by a crazed gunman. By now, the broad strokes of Lennon’s life have been largely sketched, and Riley doesn’t veer far from that script–a volatile early childhood; the groundbreaking success of the Beatles; the crumbling of the group as personal ties frayed, business soured, and artistic paths diverged; and Lennon’s erratic, activist post-Beatle life with Yoko Ono in America before he settled down to be the father he never had to son Sean. Riley makes his mark in the details. With an impressive array of sources, he soberly explores Lennon’s many contradictions, ably separating myth from reality. The result is a book that at once enriches our appreciation of Lennon’s larger-than-life genius and his mortality.
A fascinating narrative of rock & roll’s most fascinating life. John Lennon’s story is full of pain, grief, conflict and rage, yet Tim Riley keeps his ear tuned to the intimate musical details and creative passions that make John Lennon’s life so resonant.
— Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone author of Love Is A Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song At A Time and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran
I’ve been looking forward to Tim Riley’s Lennon book ever since his brilliant book on Beatles songs. This book is truly memorable, unlike anything else written about Lennon, a must read not just for Beatles fans but for all lovers of great music and great writing.
— Ron Rosenbaum, Slate author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler
Tim Riley’s smart, thoughtful biography is exactly what John Lennon’s fans, friends and doubters have deserved for so long: A portrait of the artist that takes us beyond the bile and the propaganda. What emerges is a spellbinding narrative that, like Lennon, not only tells the truth but also makes it sing.
— Peter Carlin, author of Paul McCartney: A Life, and Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.
I just read this in the car. I think you missed it.
–Bradley Whitford, West Wing