John Lennon was enigmatic, charismatic, romantic, neurotic, frantic, pedantic and altogether fantastic. He was also a rock fan’s dream and a biographer’s nightmare, for he kept himself close to the music and, like his cohort and crony Bob Dylan, never seemed to mind the legends that grew up around him.

So it is that we have dozens of full-length biographies of Lennon and his bandmates in the Beatles. Joining them—and surpassing most of them in every imaginable way—is Tim Riley’s Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music—The Definitive Life. We caught up with Riley at home in Massachusetts, where he teaches journalism at Emerson College, to talk about his book.

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Given the library of books devoted to Lennon and the Beatles, what inspired you to add to it?

First, I see this as an epic story, with lots of angles, big enough for many, many books. Second, the Beatle shelf gets dominated by memoirs of principals and wanna-be principals. Some even have two: Cynthia, Lennon’s first wife, his younger half-sister Julia Baird Dykins, Stu Sutcliffe’s sister Pauline.

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Other long-form narratives inexplicably ignore key primary sources, such as Alfred Lennon’s memoir Daddy Come Home and Pete Shotton’s In My Life. Too many stray threads crowd this subject and not enough grand tapestries. My approach updates scholarship in a single volume that weaves all these scattered stories together.

Finally, until now, Albert Goldman’s [The Lives of John Lennon] has been the only major American narrative of Lennon’s story. Bob Spitz’s group biography [The Beatles] ends in 1970. The British tend to see Lennon as “theirs,” and approach him as a favorite son. They think of an American writer tackling Lennon much the same way we might see a British critic covering Elvis—out of their cultural depth.

But Americans carry many different associations and memories of Lennon’s last nine years spent over here, and see him as the quintessential celebrity émigré who fought Nixon’s goons for the right to adopt New York City as his home. This tension between his British and American personas fascinates me. It led to some intriguing questions, such as this: Given Lennon’s status as a towering rock original, what does he bring to this distinctly American style that Britons embrace as their own?

If there were a single episode in your book that distills Lennon’s character, for good or bad, what would it be? 

I love the Anthology story of an early meeting with the Maharishi, when John circles around a hushed group and pats the man on the head, saying, “There’s a good little guru...” That gets at his insouciance, his contempt for piety, and his delight in puncturing pretense.

Thirty years on, are we remembering Lennon correctly? That is, what do we forget about him, gloss over, that we should remember?

History perceives Lennon quite differently than his contemporaries did and enshrines him in ways he would have hated. A lot of this stems from the manner of his death.

My book opens with John and Yoko’s nude Two Virgins portrait, which now seems rather sweet. But in late 1968, that image had an incendiary charge—it shocked and offended not just the Establishment but many Beatle fans. The Beatles created a new rock celebrity that has become so mainstream we take it for granted. In Lennon’s mind, rock’s impulse to shock joined a modern art tradition, and the context allowed for greater impact. Largely because of the Beatles’ own success, those frames have relaxed, and rock’s frisson has dissipated. The larger irony of that Two Virgins image is how much we have come to think of Lennon as somewhat saintly. In his own time, his presence guaranteed controversy. 

Your book is generally sympathetic to Lennon while retaining some critical distance—it doesn’t fawn, in other words, nor does it have the built-in malice of, say, Goldman’s so-called biography. That said, did your opinion of Lennon change for better or worse as you were writing?

I knew he had abused drugs, but I had no idea the extent to which his addiction amplified his dark side. I might have guessed. More than one confidant told me in hushed tones how lucky Lennon was to have survived the whole chemical circus. 

The way he treated Cynthia seems especially hurtful, given that by the spring of 1968, she seemed to be accepting that the marriage was over and goes so far as to suggest he’s better suited to Yoko. And his treatment of Julian is hard to justify—to be his first son and watch him pamper his second son must have been awful.

But I wound up impressed overall with his work ethic and how he met his challenges. So he really became a case of his muse redeeming a lot of his flaws.

Did you turn up any surprises in the course of researching your book?

I had a jaw-dropping interview with Barry Miles, a key Apple insider, when I asked him about John and Yoko’s low affect during the Let It Be movie. I suggested that perhaps they were grieving the loss of their first child—and anesthetizing their pain with heroin. He waved me off, saying, “Oh, no, we knew he was on heroin all through 1968. We were happy: it got him off acid.” That tells you how permissive drug culture was in the era before Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison dropped dead. It also confirms that Yoko’s miscarriage in November 1968 had less to do with stress than with chemistry.

What are you at work on now?

I’m in that heavenly in-between phase of finishing and starting up, like the mole emerging from his hole and seeing the daylight. It’s a delightful stage.

hard day's night Riley’s 10 Favorite Lennon Tracks

“Ten is way too hard, but it’s a very illuminating exercise,” Riley said when asked to list his favorites. “Once you do it, you realize Lennon remains among a handful of songwriters from whose catalog you can create several such lists and still feel like you’re shorting much of his best work.”

That said, here’s his list, in chronological order: 

“If I Fell”

“She Loves You”

sgt pepper“And Your Bird Can Sing”

“Strawberry Fields Forever”

“A Day in the Life”

“Dear Prudence”

“Happiness is a Warm Gun”

 

let it be “Don’t Let Me Down”

“Cold Turkey”

“Beautiful Boy”