An intriguing proposition, advanced as Riley expounds on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” but also too clever by half (naked — in full dress!) and swiftly abandoned. For the author’s next sentence digresses, likening the vocal on “A Day in the Life,” the epic finale of “Pepper,” to that on “Cold Turkey,” a single released 29 months after “Pepper” and not addressed by Riley for another 107 pages. And that naked pose with Yoko, on the cover of “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins”? That comes 18 months, and 65 pages, later.
This eschewal of narrative for argumentation is unpardonable in a book billed as biography, the genre that promises a life story, but it’s not surprising, given Riley’s pedigree. A quarter-century ago, this talented and ambitious music critic was one of the midwives at the birth of Serious Beatles Studies with his “Tell Me Why,”the first rigorous song-by-song analysis of the Fab canon. Like “Lennon,” that earlier work brims with literary sophistication, analytical daring and unabashed, obsessive love for the Beatles and Lennon songbooks. And in both books, every sentence makes you think — deeply and profitably — about the act you’ve known for all these years. But no reader can mistake either for a story well told. The (gimme some) truth is that “Lennon,” at 661 pages of text, presents not a definitive biography but a parade of polemics, by turns persuasive and dubious — and, as a reading experience, a tough slog.
Riley telegraphs his despair at the challenge of retelling Lennon’s well-trod life story early in Part Three, which covers Lennon’s solo years. Nine pages in, nearly 200 pages before the book’s end, Riley diagrams the seven personas Lennon test-drove between 1970 and 1980: “towering pop romantic (‘Instant Karma’), moon-howling ex-lover as wounded narcissist (‘Plastic Ono Band’), New Age sage (‘Imagine’), protest-song pamphleteer (‘Some Time in New York City’), middle-aged cage rattler and nostalgist (‘Mind Games,’ ‘Walls and Bridges’), hopeless and defiant romantic (‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Rock ’n’ Roll’), and finally, aging hippie house-husband on extended leave and father-redeemed-by-son in ‘Double Fantasy.’ ”
In a definitive biography, these metamorphoses and notable works would appear not in a laundry list — he “laid it down for all to see” — but as part of an unfolding narrative, which the author would use his storytelling gifts, the familiarity of the tale notwithstanding, to infuse with suspense. No amount of dazzling riffing on the larger meaning of “Twist and Shout” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” can substitute for that.
Nor can all of Riley’s polemical creations peaceably coexist. Of the Beatles’ later years, 1968-70, he writes: “The received line on this period is how everything worked to pull Lennon and [Paul] McCartney — and the Beatles — apart. But the music conveys a different story: despite their differing personalities and writing sensibilities, the band became their rallying point, and every ensemble impulse held them together even as they composed from separate orbits.” Eighty pages later: “The ensemble peaks of ‘The White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’ happened in spite of their faltering friendships, not because of them.” As with much of Riley’s commentary, the precise meaning of these passages is not instantly accessible — but my gut tells me they are contradictory.
Surprisingly for a writer of Riley’s skills and depth, he displays a tin ear. After reporting the death of Lennon’s best friend, Stu Sutcliffe, from a brain hemorrhage, the author muses that “it was as if premature death grafted itself as a bar code onto [Lennon’s] life story.” The Beach Boys’ 1965 hit “Help Me, Rhonda” is hailed as “a Rubik’s Cube of vocal harmonies.” All Beatle dynamics and petty squabbles are ascribed, annoyingly, to “the group’s politics.” The “Rubber Soul”-era songs receiving fullest exposition are McCartney’s (“You Won’t See Me,” “That Means a Lot”); and seven pages on the significance of mid-’60s garage rock — really?
“Lennon” contains some minor factual errors. Cynthia Lennon’s home town is misidentified, for example, as is the Beatles concert that Tom Wolfe recounted in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” But more problematic is Riley’s placement of quotation marks around slices of internal monologue he imagines Lennon and others to have thought. The literature of the Beatles is already thoroughly muddled by the misrepresentations and outright fabrications of authors less scrupulous than Riley; for that reason, he would have been well advised to use italics, or some other acceptable device, for surmising, however aptly, what Lennon and others thought to themselves.
Worst of all is Riley’s laziness with footnotes. The author deserves credit for conducting new interviews with obscure, knowledgeable figures and for expertly mining some two dozen relevant memoirs from the past two decades. But what excuse can there be for citing tertiary sources for Lennon quotes when the original sources are in hand? This bad habit reaches its nadir when Riley tells us, in his main text, that it was in Playboy’s February 1965 issue that Lennon described the Beatles as “more agnostic than atheistic” yet cites in his footnotes a book published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2007.
Ain’t that a shame. Riley’s insight into the Beatles is unsurpassed, and he misses none of Lennon’s inventiveness, wit, tenderness and cruelty; ditto for the defining personality traits of major figures such as George and Ringo, Cynthia Lennon and Yoko Ono. There are indeed many dazzling moments in “Lennon.” Among the most beguiling comes when Riley, surveying the unique and uniquely enriching and debilitating alchemy of the Fab Four, inverts the most famous question about them — why did they break up? — by asking: “How had the Beatles possibly stayed together for so long?”
The Man, the Myth, the Music — The Definitive Life
By Tim Riley
Hyperion. 765 pp. $35