[11 January 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music—The Definitive Life was published to coincide with what would have been John Lennon’s 71st birthday, in October 2011. Critic and rock music historian Tim Riley (Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary, Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary) goes over a lot of territory in this 700-plus page volume. There isn’t very much in the way of new information, but that’s to be expected with an icon like Lennon—there’s just nothing left to uncover about one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. So instead, Riley focuses on presenting a wealth of musical detail in a sometimes metaphorically messy (He refers to the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” as “a Rubik’s Cube of vocal harmonies”, for example), but always minutely detailed manner.
Once you get into Riley’s of discussion of specific albums certain songs, you may find yourself either impressed with his devotion to the workaday details (the meticulous, if often repetitious, descriptions of recording schedules and sessions), or incensed with his opinions and statements (“If only McCartney had let Lennon take a run at the lead vocal of ‘Oh! Darling.’” No. Really. He says that.).
Riley also engages in a fair amount of what might be considered highly speculative commentary outside of his critiques of Lennon’s music, especially for a book that is purported to be a biography. This wouldn’t be half so troublesome were it not for the fact that passages meant to be read as the author’s insertions of imaginary internal dialogue are in quotation marks so that they can appear to be things that Lennon actually said.
Also a bit confusing (or annoying) is that, even though The Man, the Myth, the Music is divided into three parts according to the time periods “Pre-Beatles, 1940-1959”, “Beatlehood, 1960-1969”, and “Beyond Beatles, 1970-1980”, and most of the hallmarks of a life’s story are there—family background, formative years, career, personal life, cultural impact, etc.—Riley jumps around quite freely in Lennon’s chronology, making unexpected associations and taking theoretical leaps in what often comes across as an attempt to assert some seemingly controversial personal point. As far as I can tell, that point is that John Lennon was not the Beatle-in-the-bag-at-the-bed-in or the “Working Class Hero” we all think we know and love. Except, of course, that’s not really a controversial point at all.
All Lennon and Beatles biographies touch on the fact that John Lennon was middle class, that his dockside tough act was just that, an act. If you’ve ever read anything else about John Lennon, you also know that he was sometimes violent and misogynistic, but Riley tends to treat this information with a tone of someone who is dispelling the myth for the first time, and he’s just a little gleeful about it. As if John Lennon couldn’t be both an angry, violent man and a person who campaigned for peace and preached love. He was human, after all, as Riley also tells us throughout the book.
However, the contradictory human nature of the man as a subject doesn’t excuse all of the contradictory statements in the text. Those, along with the book’s slightly jumbled, non-linear format, make this a much less enjoyable read than it might otherwise have been, even when Riley gets things right (his characterizations of George Harrison and Ringo Starr, for instance, work well).
Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music—The Definitive Life contains an exhausting amount of information and critical opinion, but it is definitely not a definitive work on John Lennon.