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.

"I think that, as reflected through his writing, [John Lennon] is really deeply fascinating and quite unknowable," says biographer Tim Riley.

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:

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.

Like what?
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.

Will we ever really know John Lennon? Or is he always going to be an enigma to us?
Oh, I think that’s kind of like the core attraction here. He is, in a lot of ways, kind of like Elvis Presley. I think he was an enigma to himself. He was very mercurical, felt differently on different days, wrote differently on different days. His body of songs comprises really upbeat, earnest, simple things like “All You Need is Love” and deep dark painful jagged weird obsessive unknowable songs like “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” The range of that sensibility is really quite extraordinary. And I think that, as reflected through his writing, he is really deeply fascinating and quite unknowable. I mean, “Strawberry Fields” is a giant riddle of a song. And I do my best to do an interpretation of it but it is fascinating and deeply intimate and deeply remote at the same time. And all the more compelling for being that way.

Sometimes in your book John comes across as surprisingly naïve. Was he?
He lived in an odd bubble for much of his life but I think that it’s also true that in many ways he was quite parochial and quite naïve. We Americans tend to revere the British and think of them as having this long history and they’ve come up with all this culture and they’re somehow better than us.

Is that part of the Lennon mystique?
It’s a big part of the Lennon mystique. He plays it every which way. But it’s also true that Liverpool is a very parochial town. One of the British critics that I engaged with pointed out how important this was when he meets Yoko Ono. [John] meets Yoko Ono at this art show and he thinks that she is just the grooviest, funniest, spaciest thing he’s ever met. He can’t imagine anyone more spaced out than Yoko Ono. And then he falls for her. Well, that just shows his parochialism. He hadn’t been around the block. He hasn’t hung out in New York. He hasn’t interacted with other modern, wacky artists. To him it’s just this great new world that she opens up to him.

He’s really kind of like an American stuck in a British body. He was the most American member of the band.

Will Yoko Ono ever change her image or is she fated to go down in history as the woman who broke up the Beatles?
Yes, I think that is kind of a nasty ball and chain that’s going to stick with her. [But] I’m sure they loved each other. I’m convinced that those two were totally hellbent and passionate about their relationship to each other, even when it was troublesome.

Despite everything that went down between them in the later years do you think that he loved Paul McCartney as well?
Oh, absolutely. I think there are great symbolic farewells to each other in their music. I think “Don’t Let Me Down” is a great symbolic farewell to one another.

The same with “Two of Us.” I think of those as twilight duets and they’re extraordinary. And there is this very palpable sense of “We’re coming to the end. We’re not really writing together so much anymore but we’re going to do a few final duets and we’re going to hold all this great affection that we have for one another in this song." I think they’re very moving on that level.

Will we ever see the like of the Beatles again? Or are they a phenomenon that can never be repeated?
I think that the urge to look for the new Beatles is kind of a mistaken urge. There is a degree of originality and chemistry there that by its nature is unrepeatable. But it’s kind of like falling in love. You may say, “I’ll never fall in love again.” But you always have the capacity – you just don’t know it.

If you could have known John personally do you think you would have liked him?
You know I have this great fantasy of him. I have this great fantasy that he would have been incredibly funny and incredibly engaged intellectually and on current events and just a hoot to hang out with. Yeah, I have that fantasy. I think every Beatles fan does.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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