Lately I have been immersed in the Beatles, especially John Lennon. I just finished reading a 661-page biography titled Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – The Definitive Life by Tim Riley. Wow. What a long time ago it all was. The surviving Beatles are in their 70s, and I’m almost 64, the age Paul McCartney wrote about in his song, “When I’m 64.” I had no clue about so many things in the Beatlemania days. I was in junior high when the Beatles first came to America in 1964 and in my early years of college when they broke up. Plus I was in love with Paul. John, kind of rough and sarcastic, didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t pay much attention to what he did post-Beatles. By the time Lennon was shot to death outside his New York apartment, I was in the process of divorcing my first husband and working as a reporter for the Pacifica Tribune. I had bigger things to think about than whose records were at the top of the charts.
I was so young and stupid in those days when I was begging my mother for the latest Beatles album, sold at $1.99 for mono and $2.99 for stereo. Oh please, I just have to have it. Once purchased, the album revolved on the stereo in the living room—the only one we had—while I sat with my head against the speaker, singing along. When not attached to the speaker, I was listening to my palm-sized transistor radio. I knew every word and every note of every song. I still do.
I still have my Beatles records, and a few CDs that came out later. The recordings were treasures to be acquired a little at a time. But now in this crazy Internet world, I have discovered that I can find almost everything the Beatles ever recorded online at YouTube, Amazon Prime or iTunes. I can read about a song in the book, go online and listen to it immediately. I can read about a TV interview from the ‘70s, and there it is on YouTube. I have downloaded a ton of Beatles music on my tablet for free and can listen to it anytime I want. It blows my mind.
I have read McCartney bios, but this is my first Lennon book. In recent years as an adult, I have come to admire Lennon’s talents as singer, songwriter and creative person. While I was living my life and obsessing over Paul, I missed so much. Where was I when John was making multiple comebacks and appearing all over American TV? What was I doing the day he was killed? Why wasn’t I paying attention?
Riley’s book is loaded with information, not just about Lennon and the other Beatles but about the times they lived in and the places where they lived. He gives a whole history of rock ‘n roll, linking Lennon’s work back to the musicians who inspired it and ahead to the ones who followed. He offers details behind every song and every album, how it was written, how it was arranged and recorded, who wrote which passages and what they were really about. He shares the times Lennon was drunk or stoned, the times he acted out, and the twisted childhood that tormented him all his life. I don’t know if I would have wanted to know all that when I was a teenage fan experiencing my first burst of vicarious lust years before I would interact with men in real life, but it’s fascinating now.
The research job here is incredible. Riley must have read everything ever written about Lennon, interviewed everyone who ever knew him, and taken in every bit of film, video, vinyl and digital media. Somehow he managed to pull it all together into a very readable book that I had to put down occasionally due to its massive size but didn’t want to stop until I knew the whole story. Now I’m playing Lennon music on my record player and my Kindle Fire, thinking wow, how did I miss all this?
There are many other books about John Lennon. It seems everyone who was a Beatle or knew a Beatle has written a book. I’ll never read them all, but I can’t imagine any of them could be as complete as this one. Bravo, Tim Riley.