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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.

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

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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.

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