Friday, January 08, 2010

Book Review: The Spiritual Biography of John Lennon

I’ve read the story of The Beatles many, many times from many, many angles. I once liked Paul. Then I became annoyed by his smugness on TV of late. Long before all that, I liked John. I even wore his style of sunglasses in high school. But I also became annoyed by his political smugness (and I agreed with it and was still annoyed!). Then I liked George—he was the cute one after all who was into Eastern philosophy in a more permanent seeming way than the others. But then I recently read “Wonderful Tonight” by his ex-wife Pattie Boyd (the book is mostly an address book of the people she's hung out with alongside tormented descriptions of herself as a doormat-wife with a dearth of any real dish about Paul, Ringo and John, but entirely too much about George and Eric Clapton). So now I’m stuck with Ringo. I’ve already seen two Ringo All-Star Ringo shows and I don't know how much more of that I can take.

On the other hand, now that I know that Ringo contributed one of my favorite Beatle lines, “...writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear...” to the song "Eleanor Rigby," I’m favoring to the idea of Ringo solidarity.

Well…maybe one is not meant to choose.

"The Cynical Idealist: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon" was written by author, sculptor and teacher Gary Tillery in response to his shock that his students considered John Lennon just the garden variety of celebrity and not the more elevated type of activist/philosopher celebrity that older fans of Lennon consider him to be. Tillery's book aims to draw out Lennon’s thoughts on God and social responsibility in order to show how unique Lennon was among the vapid celebrities of today.

This, I believe, is a false premise due to the fact that we have PLENTY of activist celebrities, Bono of the rock band U2 being the most obvious example of celebrity activism on the Lennon scale. To a degree Bono is so serious he has almost risked becoming a joke unto himself and somewhat impossible to follow.
John Lennon himself is quite a bit short of a real philosopher. I’ve known plenty of wannabie philosophers...called poets – and songwriters are no better at it. Which is not to say Lennon didn’t philosophize a lot. He just did not do the years of legwork required of a real academic (in or outside of the ivory tower).

That said, I did like this book and I appreciated how it fleshed out Lennon’s social and religious choices more singularly than other biographies have done, including his early and underlying roots of cynicism and anarchism, his dabbling with meditation and the Maharishi, what that whole primal scream therapy thing was all about, and a good timeline of his peace and feminist activities and art projects with Yoko Ono.

The Beatles in general and John Lennon on his own are always interesting for study from different perspectives, especially with respect to notes on the origins of their songs. I liked how this book included songs for suggested listening to go along with the text.
Newbie Beatlefiles probably don’t have the full Lennon CD catalogue yet. And the old-schoolers who do have all the songs may find this book to be a retread. All the stories have been told many times in many other books. Here, they are just consolidated and contemplated on.

Comparing Lennon to Gandhi and Martin Luther King is a bit much. They made extreme sacrifices and Lennon was no politician. But he did have good ideas for peace and was a motivated activist. If you're into biographies of spiritually-minded celebrities (as I am) then this will fit nicely on your book shelf between last year's lite fare by Amy Grant and the biography of Alan Watts.

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