John Lennon has always been one of my favorite musicians. I’ve been listening to his songs 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.