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Lennon’s talents, contradictions and self-inventions

Michael Lindgren is a writer and bookseller in Jersey City, N.J.

Why another biography of John Lennon? Surely, almost 40 years after his death, there can be nothing left to say about this endlessly famous man? Veteran British music journalist Ray Connolly thinks there is, and so it is that “Being John Lennon: A Restless Life” takes its place on an already very crowded shelf. After reading this likable and workmanlike but hardly revelatory book, whether he is right remains an open question.

The bare bones of Lennon’s story are certainly well known: the Liverpool boyhood, absent a father; the accidental friendship with Paul McCartney; the formation of the Beatles and the sudden efflorescence of an entirely new kind of pop music; the conquest of America and the ascent into a new dimension of superstardom. The breakup of the band in 1970 and its long aftermath are hardly less well-documented. So what does Connolly have to add?

Connolly is able occasionally to relay personal conversations that prove legitimately new and interesting and that elevate “Being John Lennon” into something more than a glorified clip job. He recalls, for example, Lennon saying that his youthful ambition was “to write ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and be Elvis Presley” — as succinct and prophetic a description of the Beatles’ career as one could imagine.

Aside from the primary material, Connolly’s strengths as a biographer are numerous. He writes crisply and well, albeit very much in the British vernacular, and he traverses the contours of his subject’s short but momentous life with authority. The chapters are short, the pacing is quick, and the author is able to mold Lennon’s often diffuse interests and experiences into a satisfying narrative — not always such an easy task for a biographer.

Like Lennon, the Beatles were shapeshifters of astonishing velocity, and everyone has their own favorite version of the band. Connolly, as it happens, gives a lively account of my favorite period: the pre-fame Beatles of the Hamburg days, four skinny English kids in black leather and boots, hopped up on amphetamines, playing speedy, bone-hard versions of American rockabilly songs for a tough waterfront audience of homesick GIs. Connolly describes their punishing performance schedule as “rock and roll on an industrial timetable” and provides vivid descriptions of the “drunks, sailors, prostitutes and gangsters who came to hear the Beatles play.”

Aside from the occasional gaffe, such as crediting lugubrious rockers Procol Harum with “reigniting interest in Bach” (!), he is mostly a canny guide to the music. He is correct, I think, both in identifying “Rubber Soul,” from 1965, as the band’s creative zenith and in stating that whether the ballyhooed “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” truly “deserves the praise it has harvested is debatable,” noting that “other Beatles albums had a better collection of songs.”

Connolly brings gravitas and nuance to his analysis of Lennon’s relationship with the much-reviled Yoko Ono, still a polarizing figure at the age of 85. Connolly’s judicious reading of Ono’s career stands as a welcome corrective to the often sexist and racist obloquy she received for years as the woman who putatively “broke up the Beatles.” (There is a small but erudite coterie of artists and critics, meanwhile, who feel that Ono’s genius was destroyed by her association with Lennon, not the other way around.) Although Connolly lacks a degree of critical perspective — one gets the feeling that he secretly thinks Ono’s conceptual art is some kind of grand put-on — his effort to be scrupulously fair results in an absorbing portrayal.

Despite the book’s many fine qualities, however, there remains a nagging sense that “Being John Lennon,” at bottom, does not really enhance our understanding of its subject in any profound way. Connolly’s account of Lennon, whom he calls “a labyrinth of contradictions,” emphasizes his sardonic, rebellious, self-inventing qualities, but these traits were self-evident and perfectly on display in virtually everything the man ever sang, said or did.

“A biography is considered complete,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, “if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as a thousand.” Connolly’s conception of Lennon as a multivalent personality — “the truculent, rock-mad art student, who would become the clowning, most sharp-witted Beatle, was unrecognizable when he metamorphosed into the late Sixties psychedelic guru” — strikes the reader as both accurate and somehow inadequate.

The miracle of talent is fundamentally unknowable. How a provincial young English kid growing up in the immiserating gray of a decaying port city, in love with music from a country he had never seen, could summon such brio and inventiveness, such a bonanza of baroque melodies and instantly memorable phrases, is a forever mystery. What was the source of so crystalline and joyous a sound? Whence comes “She Loves You” or “Help” or “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”? The alchemy of great music is particularly resistant to analysis. In the end, Connolly, like the rest of us, can only stand back and marvel.

By Ray Connolly

Pegasus. 448 pp. $29.95