Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stealing Voices & Naming Names: Tim Riley's Biography of John Lennon

Just about the only scene I enjoyed in Walter Hill's action comedy 48 Hrs (1982) was when Nick Nolte's bleery-eyed cracker cop reluctantly visits prison to spring the slick hustler Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) to help him capture Hammond's former partners in crime. As Nolte approaches the cell, Murphy is listening to his Walkman, oblivious to Nolte hell, oblivious to the world while lost in the falsetto notes of Sting's affected soul strutting in The Police's hit song "Roxanne." Murphy is singing along, note for note, not only matching Sting, but surpassing him. What comes across initially as parody quickly takes hold as the only true version of the song. The notes Murphy hits are exactly the same as Sting's, but you actually believe Murphy's tale of a streetwalker. He may be thinking of someone he loves, or perhaps, a broken girl that he left on the outside before he started doing time. (Sting never convinces you that he even knows a streetwalker. He merely convinces you that he walks on the street.)

While it's hardly an example of divine retribution, of stealing back what Pat Boone once stole from Little Richard, but whenever I now hear The Police singing "Roxanne," I crack up. I can't hear Sting anymore. It's Eddie Murphy's voice that replaces him in my mind. No need to Bring Me the Head of Gordon Sumner, as Howard Hampton put it once in one of his delightfully cranky essays, Sting's no longer worthy of being a trophy. In 48 Hrs, a film that shrewdly exploited racial tensions for cheap laughs, and provided what critic Pauline Kael rightly called "an eighties minstrel show," Eddie Murphy came to own "Roxanne," turning it from a minstrel number into a real soul song. (Nick Nolte, who could care less, rips the headphones from Murphy's head before he can even finish the song.) Yet that's the sheer beauty of getting to test the worth of an artist's voice, to see if you can steal what they've claimed as their own. It's partly what drives cover bands, too, who try to both emulate their idols and potentially steal the thunder of the idols they adore. But you can't steal someone's thunder if it's not put there to steal.

Author Tim Riley

Which brings me to Tim Riley's new biography of John Lennon. First of all, the title isn't promising (Lennon: The Man, The Myth, The Music The Definitive Life). It announces the artist as if he's part of an ad for a new improved washer and dryer. But Riley is a critic rather than a chronicler like Philip Norman (who did the last Lennon biography in 2008, a book that was dull and innocuous). He also wrote one of the better books on The Beatles' music, Tell Me Why, back in 1988. Lennon surpasses the hyperbole of its title and turns out to be not only a perceptive look into the paradoxical genius of the artist, but Riley illuminates the work of those who influenced him. His writing on Buddy Holly, for instance, not only clearly explains why he was an essential part of John Lennon's musical makeup, but he elevates and eloquently clarifies Holly's important role in the history of rock. "Holly's genius sidestepped Presley's sexual confidence," Riley writes. "Male fans like Lennon thrilled to Presley's rebellious flight but found his sexual bravado, his self-confidence with women, out of reach. Where Presley was at ease singing to and about women, Holly romanced with a stuttering resolve that spoke more to male vulnerability and insecurity..." Besides showing us how Holly's work, in "That'll Be the Day" and "Words of Love," would provide the sexual allure to draw Lennon, Riley explains how the core of sensitivity in Holly's work would be a building block for The Beatles' best work from their shouters to their loving ballads. Riley's brief examination of Buddy Holly made me hope the Texan pioneer might be his next subject for a book.

Buddy Holly

Besides revealing the manner in which artists can rightfully appropriate the voices of their progenitors in order to find their own voice, Riley also examines how Lennon sometimes improved on them. For instance, in The Isley Brothers' 1962 R&B hit "Twist and Shout," Riley correctly describes it as "a standard-issue rave-up to work the crowd." When The Beatles recorded the song, however, it became this titanic show-stopper, the song they chose to conclude their debut LP Please Please Me that same year. Riley claims, by comparison, that The Beatles made the Isley Brothers' version sound "both quaint and pregnant." As Riley points out, you barely hear any trace of the Isleys in their "Twist and Shout." In The Beatles' hands it becomes one of the rare examples of a white band providing more power and soul to an R&B track first created by a black group. And they did it, like Elvis, without "patronizing their models."

The Isley Brothers

Even if Riley's Lennon covers what by now has become pretty familiar ground, he brings the same acute perspective he illustrated in Tell Me Why, assuring its rightful place in Beatles scholarship. But if he's perceptively open-handed towards the music and the culture, I wish he was equally candid towards other facts in the history of John Lennon. Surely most of us who loved Lennon and his music, who were truly devastated when he was brutally murdered on this day 31 years ago, would love to erase that fact from history. But the sad truth is that John Lennon was shot to death on December 8, 1980 by a deranged fan named Mark David Chapman. Riley however decides that he's doing us all some justice by not mentioning his name in the book. (He's first referred to vaguely as a "person holding [Double Fantasy with] unkempt hair and wire-rimmed glasses." When he shoots Lennon, Chapman becomes simply "a young autograph hound.") As a gesture towards remembering the victim rather than the victimizer, it reeks of a particular liberal piousness, but one with a Stalinist tendency to conveniently airbrush out of history people he doesn't want remembered for the cruel part they would play in it.

Does this mean if Tim Riley wrote a book on JFK's assassination, there would be no need to mention Lee Harvey Oswald? Perhaps James Earl Ray was never born and it was an anonymous bullet that ended the life of Martin Luther King. How about Manson? Shall we just say that Sharon Tate was butchered by a deranged hippie? But there were plenty of deranged hippies who didn't commit the horrible acts that Manson did. There are also plenty of 'autograph hounds' who might feel rightly insulted that they are lumped in with Chapman and his barbaric act by Riley. If John Hinckley Jr.didn't shoot Reagan than maybe Jodie Foster doesn't exist either since, in Hinckley's twisted logic, he was doing it for her. The existence of Mark David Chapman is essential to the story of John Lennon because Chapman is the shadow side of what many once perceived as the benign hysteria of Beatlemania. The more hideous irony, though, is that Chapman, a born-again Christian, became more disillusioned with Lennon in his increasingly psychotic state beginning with Lennon's 1966 comment that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In a sense, you could say that Mark Chapman was the dark avenger for Christ who ultimately cashed the cheque that Lennon wrote in 1966. Removing him by name reduces the weight of this tragedy to an "autograph hound" with a gun merely ending a life.

Whether we like it or not, these killers are part of history and they have names. And their defined acts are part of what makes that history true and also horrible. I mean, how can you properly discuss Chapman and not give him a name?! How does that change anything about what he did? How does that right the wrong, or even remove him from our memory. What about those who in the future will study the history of this period? Are we to select for them who they should remember? If we leave out names, are we not further continuing the dehumanizing manner in which the assassin dehumanizes his victims by seeing them as faceless? Names give identities to people. By giving permission to name some names and eliminate others provides a double-standard by which to interpret history.

By omission, Riley also eliminates from history the most controversial work written about John Lennon which was pop critic Albert Goldman's 1988 The Lives of John Lennon. A large part of that controversy was that Goldman portrayed Lennon not according to the mythical status he'd achieved through his life, and especially in death, but as someone fundamentally schizophrenic and deeply flawed. The book might have been a peculiar mixture of tabloid speculation and critical insight, but there is no way Tim Riley could have arrived at his nuanced view of John Lennon without Goldman's work.

In Lennon, Riley makes assertions, as well as disputes findings, that were originally part of Goldman's research, even answering Goldman's claims without referring to him. Consider for example, Goldman disputing the common perception of Paul McCartney's taking charge of The Beatles during the time of Sgt. Pepper as part of a power grab. "Paul never made the slightest effort to get rid of Lennon," Goldman writes. "In fact, he kept pursuing John until the last year of John's life, hoping to revive their old partnership." Goldman then goes on to examine Lennon's means of protesting McCartney's ascension. "Instead of having it out with Paul, as old partners should do, John sulked and played possum. Lennon wouldn't lead, but neither would he follow; hence, he had no choice but to tune out." Here's Riley on the same issue: "[A]lthough Lennon won the Lennon-McCartney argument on Sgt. Pepper's sequence...the balance of power within the band had already shifted. Lennon dropped his Beatle reins without a fight. In the ongoing war over the band's identity, Lennon folded his material into McCartney's concept with ease..." In many areas of his book, Riley makes thoughtful observations that were only possible because Goldman had already pulled down the curtain on the Lennon mythology.

Because The Lives of John Lennon was marred by a hipster's mean-spirited and slanderous tone, Goldman's best instincts as a critic were overlooked. (U2's Bono would even write his own form of character assassination in the group's song "God, Part II": "Don't believe in Goldman/His type is like a curse/Instant karma's going to get him/If I don't get him first." Didn't Bono see the irony in being a pop star issuing a death threat to a critic who wrote about an assassinated pop star?) But Goldman's observations on The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show features the kind of critical elegance that made better scholarship on the group possible. "Accoutered in dark, tubular Edwardian suits that exaggerated the stiff, buttoned-up carriage of these young Englishmen, The Beatles resembled four long-haired classical musicians, like the Pro Musica Antiqua, playing electric lutes and rebecs and taking deep formal bows after each rendition," Goldman observes. "John Lennon, unsmiling and stiffbacked, looked positively dignified, his aquiline nose and full face giving him the appearance of a Renaissance nobleman."

Albert Goldman

For most of his career, Albert Goldman (especially in his sparkling collection of essays, Freakshow: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture 1959-1971) could seize an artist's worth in a quick phrase, or a pithy sentence. On Tiny Tim: "Tiny Tim is a lost lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec." On comic Rodney Dangerfield: "[T]he zooming camera sets you face to face with his moist, protuberant, bloodshot eyes, his impatiently pursed, irritably drawn mouth, his lugubriously heavy, self-pitying voice and suddenly you're staring deep into the soul of the Silent Majority." On Aretha Franklin's cover of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction": "It took Aretha Franklin to make the song a jubilee: a finger-popping, hip-swinging Mardi Gras strut that is the greatest proclamation of sexual fulfillment since Molly Bloom's soliloquy." These great lines have some of that pulsing American jazz swing that takes the starch out of the stiff academic theoretical criticism that squeezes the emotional life out of a work.

It's unfortunate though that Albert Goldman turned to writing biographies. His Lenny Bruce bio (Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!!) was a great antidote to the saintly portrait presented in Bob Fosse's Lenny by illustrating how Bruce brought the backstage sleaze of the stand-up comedy world into his satirical material, but his Elvis Presley bio (Elvis in 1981) was a spiritually ugly piece of work that (among other things) attempted to deny Elvis his rightful place in American popular culture. Perhaps it was the vicious hatred for his subject in Elvis that had people laying in wait to ambush him on The Lives of John Lennon (which contained further elements of poisonous condescension but more critical appraisal). Yet without Goldman's seriously flawed, but observant work, we'd be getting more hagiographic accounts of John Lennon instead of perceptively critical ones.  

When Eddie Murphy stole "Roxanne" from Sting at least Sting was still part of the equation. In Tim Riley's very fine account of John Lennon's life and work, Goldman and his book suddenly doesn't exist, and in name, neither does Lennon's assassin. Not only do these selective omissions deny us the full dramatic continuity of history, the way troubled elements set actions in motion that irrevocably change the way we live and the way we perceive reality, it also plays dirty pool with the continued moral quandary of stealing voices and naming names.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier will be doing a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule in December. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.


  1. "Does this mean if Tim Riley wrote a book on JFK's assassination, there would be no need to mention Lee Harvey Oswald?" Poorly stated. This isn't a book on Lennon's assassination, it's a Lennon bio.

    Your otherwise interesting review does itself no favors by ignoring the long term 'tradition' of not naming John Lennon's assassin in discussions of his life. If you're going to criticize Riley for this, you need to recognize that he's going with that, not just making it up (not recognizing that makes it seem as if you don't know about it, which makes you look uninformed as well). His goal (and the tradition's goal) is to avoid having Lennon's life sucked into that guy's life, on the theory that an assassination is not 'the shadow side', just a collision with arbitrary, disturbed, dingbat. Why should we be required to go down that rathole? Somebody can write a book on the assassination, heck, somebody can write a bio of that guy. Why does this book need to be about that? Lennon's life ended when it did, he didn't know the guy or even of his existence.

  2. Sad that Lennon died in such a way, as sadly, too many anonymous people do in NY and elsewhere, but come on The Daily Mirror, "A Hero"?! Are you frickin' kidding me? What heroic deeds or action did Mr. Lennon do?