After hundreds of books on the former Beatle, is there anything left to say? Surprisingly, yes, and music journalist Riley (Fever: How Rock ’n’ Roll Transformed Gender in America, 2004, etc.) delivers intriguing news and commentary in this incisive biography.
The news comes mostly in the form of fresh insights, some closely argued, some merely observed in passing. On the latter score, the author briefly considers Lennon’s role in what might be thought of as a virtual British Empire. The Windsors may have lost the real one, but thanks to the Beatles and kindred acts, Britain “lay claim to a new cultural empire, with significance far beyond its borders.” Despite recent boneheaded claims that Lennon was a closet Reaganite, Riley shows that Lennon was no deliberate imperialist—Paul McCartney, maybe, who has had to live under the long heroic shadow cast on Lennon after his murder, and who now has to “endorse his sainthood, lest he be disrespectful of the dead.” The author finds true significance in the partnership of Lennon and McCartney, which, for all their protestations, was a true two-way street. Moreover, he is quick to observe the little accidents out of which history is made—for instance, the Mellotron keyboard, the toy-loving Lennon’s “latest gadget,” too big to fit inside his apartment, on which McCartney casually tinkled notes that would shape one of Lennon’s best-known songs, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Riley is much more respectful of Yoko Ono than have been many previous biographers, more forgiving of McCartney, more sympathetic even to Lennon, who can’t have been easy to live or work with. He is also attentive to others of great but sometimes unsung influence in Lennon’s life—not just Mimi and Julia, but also George Harrison, who helped shape the Beatles’ sound more profoundly than he’s often given credit for. Lennon had what Riley characterizes as “another kind of mind,” and his book is a careful exploration of the man’s musical genius, as well as his many shortcomings in the realm of personal relations.
Essential for Lennon fans, and one of the most thorough yet accessible rock biographies to appear in recent years.