Ed Ward (captward) Tue 14 Feb 12 05:40
Inkwell welcomes Tim Riley, author of a mammoth and comprehensive new biography of John Lennon. Interviewing him will be the Well's own Phil Catalfo. NPR critic, Emerson College professor and author Tim Riley reviews pop and classical music for NPR's Here And Now, and has written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, Slate.com and Salon.com. He was trained as a classical pianist at Oberlin and Eastman. Since 2009, he has taught digital journalism at Emerson College in Boston. Brown University sponsored Riley as Critic-In Residence in 2008, and his first book, Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary (Knopf/Vintage 1988), was hailed by the New York Times as bringing "new insight to the act we've known for all these years..." His television appearances include the PBS Newshour, CBS Morning and Evening News, MTV, and the History Channel. Riley gave a keynote address at BEATLES 2000, the first international academic conference in Jyvaskyla, Finland. Since then, he's given hundreds of lively multi-media lectures on "Censorship in the Arts," and "Rock History." His current projects include the music metaportal, the RILEY ROCK INDEX.com, and a major new biography of John Ono Lennon (Hyperion, 2011). For a schedule of current appearances see <http://timrileyauthor.com> * * * For more than 20 years, writer-editor Phil Catalfo has covered a wide range of topics, including parenting, health, ecology, spirituality, popular culture, and more, for a host of national magazines, including Parenting, Sesame Street Parents, New Age Journal, Body+Soul, Whole Earth Review, Tricycle, Wondertime, Natural Health, and others. From 1998 to 2005, he was a Senior Editor at Yoga Journal; from January 2006 through June 2007, he was the Editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine. He is the author of one book ("Raising Spiritual Children in a Material World," 1997) and coauthor of another ("The Whole Parenting Guide," 1999). Phil has been an active member of The WELL since 1986 and has previously been both an interviewer and an interviewee in Inkwell. An avid singer and guitarist (and member of two bands--one acoustic, the other electric) and lifelong Beatlemaniac, Phil is still unpacking the treasures found in the Beatles canon and believes that "Rubber Soul" is The Best Frickin' Album of All Time (although he described it in slightly different language in the WELL's Beatles conference).
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Wed 15 Feb 12 11:23
Hi Tim! Delighted to have the opportunity to interview you here. The first question that came up for me was: "Why this book, and why now?" I don't mean that to be off-putting; I'm curious about the process that led you, as the author of a very well known and highly regarded book about the Beatles' ouevre, to dive into an exhaustive biography of John Lennon all these years later. (Corollary question: Are you thinking of doing any other Beatles biographies, Right behind it, though, came another question, stemming from my reflections about my own lifelong relationship with the Beatles' music and my understanding of who they were and are--individually, collectively, and culturally/politically. Back in the Sixties, when I became besotted with their music, I was influenced to the point of taking up the guitar (at age 15, in 1966), and literally learned my first chords and songs from a Beatles songbook. For years I saw them as demigods, and Lennon in particular was, to me, at a level even higher than the others: brilliant, fearless, a cultural groundbreaker (not just in his music), etc. It would be many years before I began to see him as a human being--after reading lengthy interviews with him, articles and books about him and the other Beatles (and their relationships), seeing films and videos, etc. In my view of him, he went from being an icon, a kind of avatar, to being a complicated, biting, wounded (not to say tortured), and, yes, brilliant person (who still had a profound influence on me). And I began to appreciate the other Beatles more than I had before, in terms of their musicianship, their personalities, and every bit as innovative as Lennon. So my question (sorry for the long buildup) is: How did your view of John Lennon--as a musician and songwriter, as a cultural figure, and as a person--change in the course of writing this book?
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Wed 15 Feb 12 11:25
["...every bit as innovative..." should read, of course, "...their being every bit as innovative..."]
Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Wed 15 Feb 12 14:40
Thanks Phil, I identify with a lot of what you say. My first strong hunch that we needed a new, more expansive treatment of Lennon came while reading Peter Guralnick's Presley volumes. I found myself so enthralled with PG's detail, and his knowledge of Presley sessions, the quotes from all the musicians and producers who worked with him. And every Beatle book I kept reading always left me feeling hungry for more detail, more nuance, more thoughtful ideas about the music, and a larger narrative about how the British experience of the man seemed so different from our American sense of him. I contracted for the project back in 2003, and promptly got buried in research and the outsized scope of it all. I still can't believe he lived a mere forty years, he packed in many lifetimes of creativity and ideas; it feels surreal to outlive Lennon, that's my strongest feeling after finishing. Then we had the Bob Spitz Beatles bio, and Philip Norman's Lennon biography, so I had the spooky thrill of reading books on my topic as I was busy finishing and making key decisions about emphasis. I tried to work alongside these projects, so that if you only read a single book, mine works well for that, but if you read all three of these, you won't find as much overlap. I took stuff out of my narratrive once Spitz and Norman covered certain things, and tried to make sure I had new spins on familiar things. The impressive thing about the Beatles story, and Lennon's in particular, is how well it lends itself to many differing points of view. The Beatles taught me so much about music history, I wanted to try to get inside Lennon's head and approximate what it might have sounded like to absorb rock history as he did, present American readers with that angle. I don't have any plans for further Beatle books.
Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Wed 15 Feb 12 17:29
And do I feel differently about Lennon after writing his life? Very much, but not in ways I had expected. He had been a childhood hero of mine, and the process of learning his drug habit, the way he treated Cynthia and Julian, and many other things, took him off that pedestal. In other ways, however, I remain astounded at the traumas he lived through, the loss he carried with him, and the sheer amount of work he turned in both in terms of material and studio time at the height of his fame. My overall impression turned out to be of a man who invented this huge public persona and yet in private remained as insecure and timid as could be about intimate conflicts. Yes, complete celebrity cliche, and yet carried to extremes I never anticipated even for Lennon. The other thing that struck me was about what a difficult partner he must have been to work with so much of the time, and how much sensitivity and understanding McCartney brought to the situation. I think it was crucial that he met John before his mother Julia died, and that that particular loss of the mother was an early bonding point for both of them, they would have almost had to have such a unique connection to survive and thrive as they did in the midst of what they went through.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Wed 15 Feb 12 17:42
Thanks for that illuminating answer. My own view of Lennon has evolved in much the same way--and continued to evolve that way due to what I read in your book--but you put it very well. And although I knew broadly of some of the traumas he experienced (mainly his experience of having been abandoned by both his parents), you presented much more detail and much more compelling material than I'd encountered before. I also appreciated your observation, in the book, along the lines of what you wrote above, about McCartney's "sensitivity and understanding" in dealing with Lennon. I don't think he gets enough credit for that. He has had to live in the shadow of the reverence with which John has been regarded for more than 30 years now, and yet almost no one on the planet who cherishes John's memory knew him as well as Paul did. (Of course, Paul's doing just fine; still.) Re the other Beatle books, such as Bob Spitz's book: I don't know how you navigated your way around all the other material out there; there's so much of it I'd think it'd be like trying to avoid rush-hour traffic in midtown Manhattan. My hat is off to you.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Wed 15 Feb 12 17:43
By the way, it seems like we should provide the full title of your book. It's LENNON: The Man, the Myth, the Music--The Definitive Life, and it's published by Hyperion. Tim, I want to ask you about some of the contradictions inherent in John Lennon's personality and life story. The one I keep returning to is the duality that consisted of his tendency to be acerbic, even cruel, on the one hand, and optimistic, even idealistic (at one point he's quoted as describing himself as cynical but not a cynic), promoting of peace and discouraging of violence, on the other hand. I found two passages that seemed to speak to that paradox in his makeup: 1) on page 35, in reporting on his boyhood, you write: "Former schoolmates remember him as a troublemaker, the ringleader in planning pranks, with a cruel streak. His caricatures were particularly abusive to cripples and the mentally retarded; he had a troubling impulse to strike out at people weaker than him." Now, this passage refers to his pre-teen years, but it's in keeping with glimpses of his personality that we can see in footage from various eras of his career: early clips of him mugging for the camera as if he were a "spastic"; studio footage from the recording sessions for one of his early solo albums (I think it was "Imagine"), in which he rips into the engineer with acutely vulgar language; and I'm sure there are other examples one could cite. 2) on page 468, you quote from Lennon's December 1969 interview with zoologist Desmond Morris (best known for his book "The Naked Ape"), for a TV series Morris was doing for the BBC. In your narrative, Morris has just described Lennon's radical sensibility to his audience as "more than a mere anti-establishment device," saying that "it also represents a plea for fantasy--if you like--in an unromantic age, a plea for the unofficial and the inconsequential in an age of officialment over organisation, a plea for unsophisticated fun in an age of sophisticated weapons. Above all--it's a plea for optimism." To which Lennon's adds: "This is only the beginning--this sixties bit was just a sniff, the sixties were just waking up in the morning and we haven't even got to dinner time yet and I can't wait, I just can't wait I'm so glad to be around and it's just going to be great and there's going to be more and more of us, and whatever you're thinking there Mrs. Grundy of South Birmingham on toast, you don't stand a chance. (A) You're not going to be there when we're running it and (B) you're gonna like it when you get less frightened of it." Leaving aside the question of whether the Sixties were "just a sniff,...just waking up in the morning," and whether or not the subsequent decades fulfilled the dreams and possibilities that many of us imagined would ensue from that decade of social foment and creative flowering, I'm struck by the irony of someone who could lash out at others so easily and hurtfully also having the perspective to envision, and promote, the kind of grand-scale social progress that, well, a song like "Imagine" clearly conveys. Lennon himself often talked about how each of us contains contradictory facets, that we're all capable of both good and bad; but this seems particularly pointed. And it speaks to me, as an unreconstructed Child of the Sixties! So anyway, what do you make of that paradox in Lennon's makeup? Was that one of the enigmas you sought to unravel in researching and writing this book? And if so, how do you regard it now, at the end of your long journey with this project?
Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Thu 16 Feb 12 11:33
Well you've hit upon one of the key topics of the book, about how Lennon embodies these contradictory elements. This makes him a fascinating character, obviously: mercurial, unpredictable, capable of great generosity and acid mean-spiritedness, benevolence and selfishness. As repugnant as some of his behavior can be, and as harsh some of his putdowns were (I think he "secretly" identified with his lames and cripples, ie, they enacted his emotional disabilities, and enjoyed ribbing Epstein as "Queer Jew"), he remains irresistible for the power of his songs and the transcendent focus of his singing voice. Anybody who wants to paint him as primarily one or the other misses this key aspect of who he is. This would be my main comment on Goldman: his loathes his own subject so much it eats his narrative.Lennon is rock's macho shithead with a heart of gold, the loner in his own idealized band. He seems ultimately unknowable, I think, slippery even to himself. Although I do draw him as ultimately sympathetic in his final years. My favorite irony of "Imagine," perhaps his defining song, remains that on the flip side of that album lies "How Do You Sleep," the vicious attack on McCartney. On the title track he's the ultimate hippy, in the same song set he burns with revenge. And he seems blithely unaware of the inherent contradiction in important ways. This paradox is the mystery of the man, it keeps us continuously fascinated. My immersion in this material only made my appreciation of this conundrum greater, as its extremes seeped out from every source.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Thu 16 Feb 12 12:08
Very insightful, Tim, thanks for that. I'm especially struck by your observation that Lennon may have secretly identified with those he lampooned, ribbed, or otherwise was unduly harsh to. And I think you're right that in his later years, when he realized a degree and kind of personal happiness he'd never had before, he became more centered, more at peace with himself, and more empathetic.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Thu 16 Feb 12 12:57
I'd like to talk about the music for a bit. I have another one of my long-in-developing questions that I'm cooking over a slow fire, but before I ask that one I have another one I'd like to toss out. I was just looking over my lovingly dog-eared copy of TELL ME WHY, and noticed that, in the Selected Bibliography, you commented about Milt Okun's two-volume songbook THE COMPLEAT BEATLES that "Okun's piano-minded approach cheats guitarists of the goods," adding the lament/question, "Anyone else out there for full-score transcriptions?" So, all these years later, we do have just such a wonder: THE BEATLES COMPLETE SCORES (Hal Leonard, 1993; originally published in Japan in 1993). It's a pretty amazing piece of work, transcribing every part and even providing guitar tablature for those who don't read standard notation. I have both the two-volume Okun set and the Complete Scores; I used to consider Okun's the best reference available (long ago), but now the latter is my Beatles bible. I assume you've seen it? What do you think of it?
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Thu 16 Feb 12 15:09
Here's my other question about music; it concerns the middle period of the Beatles' recording career, and what I see as its pivot point. In TELL ME WHY (on page 137 of the paperback edition), you say that their album Help! "points more forward than backward--Rubber Soul couldn't exist without it." Fair enough; I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think you're right. What I *have* long thought was that Rubber Soul served the same function, only writ large. People tend to think of Revolver and, especially, Sgt. Pepper as the Beatles' landmark albums, the ones that shattered all preconceptions about rock/pop music, the ones that made everything that followed possible. And I can't argue with those notions. But I do think that neither album would have been possible without Rubber Soul. In LENNON, you write about Rubber Soul: "Having conquered the rock 'n' roll ideal, [the Beatles] leaned back into the beat and delivered an adult record--dance was secondary on this album in a way it had never been before. This was not music you made sense of by making out or moving along with it; it was all shadows and subtext, an experiment in suggestion and elliptical gestures that was at once nervy and guarded, extroverted yet discreet." True that. I also think that, purely as music, it was a much more mature, expansive, protean work: the compositions, the arrangements, the instrumentation, the vocal parts--they were all entering a new territory compared to what they'd done before (although we can see glimpses of it in the recordings done a few months earlier, which appear on Help!). Of course, the Beatles were a few years older at that point than they'd been when they began their recording career; they were now in or entering their mid-20s. They also had been around the world a couple of times and were no longer striving for success; they were the #1 act in the world. They also had taken a breather and had begun to own the recording process as never before. (Just before the passage I quoted above, you quote Lennon as saying, of Rubber Soul: "Finally we took over the studio.") But beyond circumstance, looking at the Beatles' psychological termperaments, what else can we attribute the creative flowering of this seminal work to? It wasn't just the drugs they were now taking, and it wasn't things like George's interest in Indian music, either (as revolutionary as his use of sitar on "Norwegian Wood" was). In terms of John and his songwriting, what allowed (or *compelled*) him to graduate from straightforward, poppy love songs, move through early confessionals like "Help!", and come up with songs like "Nowhere Man," "The Word," and "Girl"?
David Gans (tnf) Thu 16 Feb 12 16:17
> I'm especially struck by your observation that Lennon may have secretly > identified with those he lampooned, ribbed, or otherwise was unduly harsh > to. I think that is fairly common among abusers: a bit of "there but for for- tune."
those Andropovian bongs (rik) Thu 16 Feb 12 17:56
Makes complete sense to me. Of course, now I have two damned books to buy. Tim's, and "The Complete Scores". Carry on, gentlemen. I'm enjoying this.
David Gans (tnf) Thu 16 Feb 12 18:33
I have "The Complete Scores," and it is a tremendously useful document. Despite the fact that it has a WRONG CHORD in "You're Gonna Lose That Girl."
Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Thu 16 Feb 12 19:23
Well of course I love hanging out with those COMPLETE BEATLE SCORES almost as much for the subtleties as the mistakes. The project was like an answered prayer, and my impression is that those four Japanese dudes divvied up the duties between a guiartist, bassist, keyboardist and drummer. And for the amount of details it packs it's a wonder to behold. But I've also taken it into theory classes and played the recordings as we watch the notation go by and caught mistakes, and that's a completely new kind of fun since it forces you to listen harder and EXPAND your understanding of how detail-conscious the Beatles were. I remember one passage where the band went into a repeat and McCartney varied his bass line and the scores just indicated a literal repeat and it was BOOM -- he never stops. And varying repeats is lesson one in how to keep the ears tickled. I want to spend some more time on RUBBER SOUL, but let me start by saying I think of that middle period flourish as a long stretch, three distinct entries in a larger mosaic. As you can tell from the new book, I've completely rethought PEPPER, and upped it several notches in my pantheon, but I want to be very clear: not at the expense of the other two. I maintain a deep sentimental attachment to every moment on RUBBERT SOUL, and REVOLVER was an early mind bomb in my ten-year-old head. It sounds to me like the palette just gets bigger and bigger throughout those three records. Promise to write more soon...
David Gans (tnf) Thu 16 Feb 12 20:28
I haven't gotten to the Pepper part yet. Can't wait! One of the things about the beatles that impresses me the most is that I was blown away by their music when I was a kid, and as I grew up and became a working musician and occasional record producer - and acquired a deep understanding of how those records were made - I am still blown away.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Fri 17 Feb 12 01:30
I look forward to reading more from you about Rubber Soul, Tim. The thing about that album that gets me--well, one of the things that gets me, but perhaps this sums up all the things that get me about it--is that, 46 years later, I'm still unpacking it. And that's without any tricks or experiments like running the tape backwards (a la "Rain" or "I'm Only Sleeping") or cutting up the tape and splicing it back together in random order (a la "Tomorrow Never Knows")! Well, ok, there is one trick: George Martin's piano solo on "In My Life," which was recorded at half speed and played back at normal speed. But other than that it's just great songs, great arrangements, great performances, and it never wears out. Even "Run For Your Life," which has a lyric that could be considered execrable (and John, for one, always hated), is a wonderfully listenable track. My friends here on the WELL know this because I've said it about 10,000 times over the years, but if I had to get rid of all the several thousand CDs and LPs in my collection but one, Rubber Soul would be the one I'd keep. Here's another thing about Rubber Soul, that I didn't even realize until the Anthology series came out. It has to do with "I'm Looking Through You." The Anthology set included an early version of that song that was completely, but utterly, different from the one that was released on Rubber Soul: same lyrics (but no "middle eight" at all; and it may not have had all its eventual verses, I don't recall exactly now) but different tempo, different setting/instrumentation (the lead instrument was a nylon-string acoustic guitar), different feel altogether. It was labeled "Master" (or something) and was considered finished. But they came back to it some time later and realized it wasn't yet what it could become, what it was *wanted* to become. Anyone else in the music business would have given their left nut to say they had created that track, but these guys weren't satisfied. And so they re-arranged it, double-tracked the vocal, added the middle eight, punched it up with those little Hammond organ stings stapled to brief, frenetic electric guitar licks, and created the little masterpiece we came to know as that track. How the hell did they know it could evolve that much from where it had already gotten to? Fookin' geniuses, I tell ya. David, you'll be pleased to know that I have surrendered on the matter of the second chord in the verse of "You're Going to Lose That Girl." We're now playing it in the acoustic band I'm in, and we play G# major (or G#7), not G#m. I apologize for not having notified you formally. To whom should I make reparations?
David Gans (tnf) Fri 17 Feb 12 06:39
All is forgiven, Phil.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Fri 17 Feb 12 09:41
<sigh of relief>
Ed Ward (captward) Fri 17 Feb 12 11:03
While we wait for the hordes to show up from the Well's own <beatles.> conference, I should note that anyone not on the Well who's out there reading this can send us an e-mail at inkwell[at]well.com and we'll post it.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 17 Feb 12 17:42
Hi Tim An artist like John Lennon caused seismic shifts not only in the music but also in the popular culture through his creative output and personal charisma. You write about him and the others here talk about him with a great deal of enthusiasm, all deserved. Then there's the fact that he died so young and tragically. Given all that, how did you approach writing his biography without turning it into hagiography?
Evelyn Pine (evy) Fri 17 Feb 12 21:13
Hi, Tim, Phil, g beatniks, welltrons, and all Beatlemaniacs far and near. Just so you can be clear I'm not opinionated about this, the luckiest thing that ever happened to Paul McCartney was that he met John Lennon -- otherwise it would have been news in Welsh -- for live. And I do think your book is wonderful for demonstrating what a hideously difficult and -- well -- just plain mean person Lennon was, put our Paulie is also an ass-licking, people pleasing manipulator -- so what can you do. I'm a great admirer of your book _Tell Me Why_, Tim. I'm curious about how you as an artist and critic could analyze this music so deeply twice, what your process was in writing the book -- how when in what contexts you listened to the music and what moments in Beatles and John's music suddenly seemed brand new to you -- if any. I'm also curious if you think how this mother as sister dynamic plays out in John and other musicians -- isn't Eric Clapton's story somewhat similar? And how does that relate to John's desire for -- and then disappointment in business managers as father figures? Thanks for coming on the WELL. I for one grovel at your feet.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Fri 17 Feb 12 22:09
Great questions, David and Evy!
Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Sat 18 Feb 12 05:57
I'm off for the wkd but will stew on these questions and make a big post early next week... really lively, interesting things to consider here... thanks for all the feedback, peeps. TR
Dave Waite (dwaite) Sun 19 Feb 12 18:38
Please remember upon your return to talk/write more about Rubber Soul. I consider myself fortunate to have been a 5 year old when it was released, grew up on this amazing album whose stylings are still contemporary and remain remarkable even today. It is my island record (if I could only bring one).
Dan Flanery (sunspot) Mon 20 Feb 12 23:18
I was an infant when The Beatles split up, and Lennon was a recluse when I started buying records. I became a huge fan after - and likely in no small part because of - his death, but a lot of what I know about his formative years (and of what went on behind the scenes in The Beatles) came from Pete Shotton's book, The Beatles, Lennon & Me, which I picked up at a grocery store when I was a college freshman. Have you read it, and how accurate was it? I recall being absolutely fascinated by some of the scenes it painted (like Brian Epstein's death).
Members: Enter the conference to participate