on 20 December 2011
I know it might sound a ridiculous thing to say when judging books about a man most famous for being one half of the world's greatest songwriting partnership but what marks this book apart from other Lennon biographies is the fact that it devotes time to discuss the music. Most other Lennon biographies concentrate on the myth, legend, scandal, philosophies, psychology, relationships and hysteria surrounding the man but pretty much fail to mention Lennon would just be another art-school drop-out without the tunes.
While this book offers nothing new for Beatles obsessives, the author must have the single largest collection of obscure and out of print Beatles books on the planet. As such, you get a lot of interesting quotes which although not new you may well have never seen before.
The Beatle years also read as a very good biography of the band as opposed to Philip Norman's Beatles book which is appallingly tainted by the authors distaste of Paul McCartney. This book very much highlights Lennon/McCartney as a partnership rather than putting John on a pedestal.
As an American book there is a couple of things that might grate with UK readers ('Britain' won the world cup in 1966, George Martin was 'working class', an irrelevant quarter chapter devoted to 'garage rock')but the author has a great feel and understanding of 50's/60's Britain.
The book is also served well by some excellent photographs that you won't have seen before plus unlike Norman's biography has not been written with involvement from Yoko Ono so the NYC years aren't sugar coated.
All in all, as a man that's pretty much read ever book on the Fab Four going I can highly recommend this for a first stop for those wanting to know more about John Lennon as well as the more serious Beatle fanatic. A really readable, enjoyable book.
on 12 January 2012
Unlike some of the others above this is the first biography I've read of any of the Beatles. Wilst it is informative, albeit obviously drawn from other studies, there are a number of things that disappoint me.
Firstly, the author's objectivity - or lack of. In some chapters Lennon is almost a saint, in others he might be satan himself, the author seems to want to impose his opinion of Lennon on us. This is a shame because a) a good biographpy should be objective and b) this particular author seems schizophrenic when it comes to expressing his opinion.
Secondly, there are inaccuracies that albeit minor leave the rigour of research open to queston. The above mentioned "Great Britain won the world cup in 1966" is one example. Another is the floating of Northern Songs on the stock market when shares were priced at 9p, fell to 6p and closed at 14p despite the fact that this was long before decimalisation.
Thirdly - and this is a complaint against the publisher rather than the author, if I am paying good money for a book I expect it to have been properly proof read and checked. This has obviously been run through a computerised spellchecker and not proof read. How many times is London's Roundhouse referred to as the "Roundabout", did Marshall McLuhan really write a book called "The Medium is the massage"? (And there's alot more.)
An entertaining read perhaps but keep your wits about you.
on 13 February 2012
This is a weighty tome that makes a grand claim. And those fascinated by the music of The Beatles and John Lennon, and the 60s in general may find it fascinating to read Tim Riley's views - he does after all have a long career as a media and music critic. But this in itself doesn't make it a great biography. And the even the music criticism is done in prose so purple it dazzles. An example: "That enticing silencejust before the title phrase hinted at untold thrills to come, a lover's pause before a blissful first kiss." And he's only talking about Love Me Do, The Beatles' modest debut that stalled, understandably, at Number 17! Imagine how he goes to town on Sgt. Pepper!
The most surprising thing about this book is how little John Lennon's voice is heard. Tim Riley describes him as a marathan talker, and there must be hundreds of interviews, hundreds of hours of film to draw on. Yet rarely do we hear Lennon's voice. When we do get a quote it cuts through Tim Riley's rather ponderous woffle with great precision.
Major incidents like the Phillipines fiasco are glossed over in a few passages, while Riley pontificates on Lennon's music, The Beatles' music, the 60s, the 70s, and so on. It's as though he wanted to write a social commentary but hitched it to Lennon's name instead. I found a lot of his pontification very irritating, especially in the middle 'Beatles' section, where Lennon's story seems to get swallowed up in the phenomenon of Beatlemania.
It's a long book, and there are interesting passages, especially in the first part, which deals with Lennon's childhood. But way too much music criticism - and hard to beat Ian Macdonald for that - to get this more than three stars.
on 26 November 2011
When I opened this book,it was with some trepidation,because the author is American,but no,it wasn't 'Americanized' at all,he had the feel of sixties Britain especially Liverpool just right.Historical facts were correctly reported.I know the Beatles and Lennon stories are well worn and familiar,but each new one that appears is like,to someone of a certain age,comforting,like being read a favourite nursery rhyme when a child.I thought I had seen every photograph of the 'Fab Four' ever printed,but this book has some that I have never seen before.
The book was well researched and an excellent read,a lengthy tome agreed,but the pages turned really quickly.I was engrossed from the start,especially after reading so many that have gone before which were complete rubbish.
on 3 October 2011
By their photos ye shall know them. Just as Bob Spitz's Beatles biography featured photo captions riddled with the kind of howlers all too evident elsewhere in that book, so the pictures in Lennon: The Man... reflect the content elsewhere here - in a word: dull.
What exactly is the point of this book? Again, just as the photos have all been seen a million times before (inexcusable given the vast quantity of illuminating and relatively obscure imagery available in the archives of the big photo agencies), all the text reveals is a re-hash of every other book you've ever read about Lennon, which are all taken at face value by the author. At least Spitz's book, for all its flaws, had a huge stock of original research to draw upon (namely the many interviews conducted on behalf of, but not used by, Albert Goldman). Original research here is almost non-existant, and major events, such as the Bed-Ins, are treated in such a cursory fashion as to make the book's title ridiculous: it is definitive only in that this is a textbook example of how not to do it. Save your money for the forthcoming Lewisohn volumes.
on 3 October 2011
John Lennon has always been one of my favorite musicians. I've been listening to his songs ever since I remember myself listening to music and I've always thought him to be a man who during his life, apart from his art, did nothing more than keep searching to find a destination, where he really wanted to be. Whether what he really wanted to do was change the world through his music, become the main spokesperson for the peace movement or just a stay at home dad, I could not really say; not until now.
This new biography by Tim Riley that comes out next Tuesday, the 20th of September, in the U.S. offers many answers to his life's big riddles and much more than that. According to the author Lennon wanted all the above and much more than that. However, he was not just a man who wanted something, but also someone who lacked a lot, a tortured soul, who's never managed to get over the traumas of his childhood: his mother abandoning him, the long absences of his sailor father, the oppression suffered in the hands of his aunt Mimi who raised him. If music had not arrived to save him from his own self he was bound to end up in jail or maybe even six feet under very early in his life since, as people say, at that stage he was nothing more than an accident waiting to happen.
The author pays too much attention to the young Lennon, the one before the creation of the Beatles; the time when he used to wander from one place to the next, when there was absolutely no stability in his life, when the music and the arts were his whole world. He "spent his life searching for father figures and mourning his mother," we read somewhere. And that's exactly what he did. Lennon seemed to be desperately searching for something or somebody to hold on to, since: "The worst pain is that of not being wanted." His mother Judy was a shadowy figure, someone who seemed to follow the wind, with a less than settled life, but she did leave him a legacy and that was her love for music. His father Alf was in his own special way a kind of a dreamer, someone who always had big dreams that were never bound to succeed and who used to make big promises that he was unable to keep. And then there was aunt Mimi, the woman who adopted him because she thought his mother unfit, who provided him with a safe home, but at the same time did everything she possibly could to cut his dreams short, to keep him from spreading his wings and flying high and away into the big and wide world.
We meet an adolescent John who's full of rage but quite funny, pretty smart but restless. He listens to music and draws sketches; he writes lyrics and goes to school if for nothing else to have fun at the expense of the teachers. Some of his practical jokes are really hilarious, but whatever he does he's always sad, he feels that something is missing. When he starts playing and writing music that gap is somehow filled, but not completely - never completely. In the end it's his friendships that save him from chaos; firstly and mostly with Stuart Sutcliffe and then with McCartney, while in the face of the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, he seemed to have met a kind of a father figure; someone he'd nevertheless not hesitate to verbally abuse in the future.
And then came the big breakthrough; the first record, the first decent shows -away from Hamburg's red light district that is- the success, the fame; and then came the Beatles, the group that was destined to change the face of rock music. Despite everything though, John never felt really happy, never happy at heart. The money, the fame, the drugs and the women, not even the birth of his first son Julian, did not prove enough to appease the restless soul of that arrogant and in many ways humble young man. (As we read he always thought and said that all the other musicians were better than him, even when he was older, and his big influence in the world of music was more than obvious to all who had the eyes to see and ears to listen, which apparently he didn't.)
As the author implies while Paul was like a spirit of calm and serenity in the group (the favorite of the mothers and the grannies, as he puts it), John seemed to be like a raging stream coming rushing down after a storm of his own creation, thus sooner or later the two of them were bound to clash. The results of that clash are now well known. As it seems John, during the last of his Beatles years, was yet again yearning to find his real self, the rocker, so it doesn't come as a surprise when we learn that when he saw for the first time the Stones play he said: "I'm in the wrong group!" Instead of finding his real self though he found Yoko, and with her by his side he discovered or rather invented a new, more creative and useful, self. So he started filming experimental movies, creating happenings, clashing with and verbally abusing authority figures and writing some of the songs that would become instant classics and continue to be popular for decades to come. And he did all that before reaching yet again a psychological dead end; before Yoko kicked him out of the house and sent him away to live what became to be known as his lost weekend; before coming back and having Sean with her, the boy that would change his life; and before hearing one more time the call of the muse.
This book is so masterfully written that can be almost read as a novel. The author manages to revive in a wonderful way a whole era, while the way he describes the songs at times sounds almost poetic. Riley seems to muster his subject very well, but that doesn't mean that he's handling it gently, as he gives the reader a panoramic image of the man - of John the rebel, of John the humorist, the child and the father, the musician and the actor, of John the lover and the scumbag.
Is this the best Lennon biography? It most probably is. Or at least it is way better than the other three I've read so far; and thus it is highly recommended to one and all that ever loved the man and his music, but to every single fan of rock music as well, because despite its title this book talks about so much more than Lennon.