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John Lennon: A Life of Contradictions


When I was a child, my uncle Jack, who was my guardian at the time, would tell my brother and me, “do as I say, not as I do,” as if that were a way to excuse his own excesses and remain an authority figure.

That’s kind of how I feel about John Lennon after reading Tim Riley’s Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – The Definitive Life (Hyperion 2011). After 661 pages and almost 100 pages of footnotes, Lennon comes off like Uncle Jack, insecure, deeply flawed and seemingly incapable of controlling his worst instincts. Except that Lennon created music that has become part of my own soundtrack.

Lennon and the other Beatles were heroes of my youth whose music, style and attitude helped shape my own thinking and life. His murder devastated me, enough that it took years to be able to listen or appreciate his music again. Trying to separate the myths from the reality of Lennon’s complicated life is a formidable task, and Riley has given considerable time and energy to the project. Just using “The Definitive Life” in the title sounds, well, definitive.

Most biographies spend little time on childhood, but Lennon’s is worth looking into, and Riley does a great job of tracing his early life in Liverpool: his incredibly dysfunctional family, his fortuitous early hookup with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the formation of the band, the three trips to Hamburg and their residency at the Cavern Club.

This is easily the best historical narrative of the Beatles’ rise, success and dissolution that I’ve read (and I’m looking over at about three dozen Beatles books on my shelf here in my office). Listening to the recordings that survive of their last Hamburg trip (packaged now as Live From the Star Club), it’s easy to understand Riley’s persuasive case that the Beatles created themselves on those scuzzy stages, both the music they engineered out of the riffs, rhythms and harmonies of American proto-rock/soul and the smiling, smirking, smart-alecky attitude that made me to want to adopt a new lifestyle paradigm at age 15.

Riley is at his best when he’s writing about the music itself. Author of Tell Me Why: The Beatles Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After, he spends a breathtaking chapter weaving the Beatles and George Martin’s production skills into the rich patchwork of innovation that characterized 1960s rock. His interpretations of Lennon’s songs, though subjective, are always provocative. Though he obviously believes that Lennon was the more serious creative force in the partnership, he is generous in recognizing the special relationship between Lennon and Paul McCartney, McCartney’s many contributions to Lennon’s material, and vice versa, and how even during the band’s dissolution, Lennon and McCartney remained committed to each other’s music.

But back to Uncle Jack and Lennon. “Do as I say, not as I do” pretty much sums up Lennon’s life. Blame it on his childhood or his insecurities (both of which Riley makes a case for), but too often Lennon just doesn’t come off as a very nice guy. Riley doesn’t try to cover over the warts, showing us time and again that what Lennon said and what he did were in complete contradiction, whether it was preaching peace and love but treating even his friends and associates with callousness, or preaching family and fidelity while cheating on the “love of his life.” Riley makes a somewhat persuasive case that Lennon was growing up in his last five years, but not enough to make you believe he really was, as he put it, starting over. And I found myself scratching my head in a few places where he interprets, sometimes without attribution, Lennon’s thought process, and I kept thinking that the word “perhaps” could have been used a bit more often when ascribing motivation.

That’s a minor quibble. Making John Lennon human didn’t change my view of his musical contributions or impact on my own life. If you’re a Beatles/Lennon fan, you really have to read this one and judge for yourself.

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