Who was John Lennon? Interview with biographer Tim Riley
Lennon biographer Tim Riley talks about John, his relationships with Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney, and the mystique that surrounds them all.
Tim Riley has been a music critic for nearly three decades now. His first book, "Tell Me Why" examines the music of the Beatles, song by song. This month his latest book, Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – the Definitive Life, a 700-plus page biography of John Lennon, is being released. I recently had a chance to talk to Riley about his book and his lifelong fascination with the Beatles. Here are excerpts of our conversation:Skip to next paragraph
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You’ve been reading and writing about the Beatles for much of your adult life. Was there really anything new for you to learn as you researched this book?
I learned so many different things. I can’t tell you. I just learned basically how little I know.
Beatles scholars tend to be the only people who know that Alfred Lennon, Lennon’s father, left behind a memoir called “Daddy Come Home.” Alf’s story is fascinating because he came from the Blue Coat Orphanage, he was a song-and-dance guy on the boat in the merchant marines. He was an emcee on these ships and he was a song-and-dance man. He ran away from an orphanage to join a band. So there’s a lot of fascinating stuff there. Even people who have written about Alf seem not to know.
[I also had a] key moment interviewing a key subject, [Beatles friend and associate] Barry Miles, I was trying to come up with the reason that Lennon was so quiet and passive in the “Let It Be” movie [made in 1969]. So as I’m doing my research I’m realizing that [he and Yoko Ono] had just had a miscarriage at that time. So I said to Barry Miles, “Is that the reason that he’s so passive?” And Barry Miles just waved me off. He said “Oh no no. We knew they were on heroin all through 1968. And we were glad. Because it got him off acid.” That was really like WOW! They were really dealing with a major drug problem. And we sort of know that. In mythic terms we know that he was a major drug user.
But that just put it in an entirely new light for me. And it also put that miscarriage in a totally new light. [John and Yoko] always tried to pass that miscarriage off as a product of the press hounding him and his being arrested. But the reason she had a miscarriage is that they were abusing drugs. All the way through to the end they were very purposefully giving these interviews about what a great marriage they had and it’s very interesting and there’s a lot that you can’t verify. But it was not a bowl of cherries. But it was very important to them that that be their story.
What Beatles book remains to be written?
I think the great unwritten Beatles book is the biography of [Beatles producer] George Martin. He had a really fascinating life and I hint at some of it in the book but a lot of the work that he did at EMI in the 50s before he even met the Beatles was revolutionary. I’ve seen some very good scholarship that indicates that his story, his professional story, is really, really profound for everything that comes after for rock and roll.
Will Paul McCartney ever tell his story? Do you think he will write a memoir?
I think he’s going to take it all with him. [Paul] is a giant puzzle because he really doesn’t care too much about scholarship and history. It doesn’t matter to him the way that it matters to a critic. Because he keeps telling stories that people have demonstrated to him repeatedly are not true. But they’re such great stories that you can tell that he kind of believes they are true. For him it is a kind of form of vivid truth. So he just doesn’t really have a critical vantage on his own life the way we very much wish he did.