Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tone Deaf Musical Discussion

In The New Republic Dave Hadju reviews the new Lennon biography, and in the process, takes on that strange creature that sometimes rears its head: The artist biography that is completely uninterested in the art.

There are four thousand holes in John Lennon: The Life, and the one in most dire need of fixing is the absence of illuminating discussion of the creative work that makes Lennon matter. Norman, who has done books on Buddy Holly and Elton John, in addition to his writing on the Beatles, is the rare biographer of musicians who has little evident interest in music itself. He concentrates on the events of his subjects' lives with an eye for personal details (John liked to conjure a romantic mood, lighting a candle by the bedside, before sex) but not much of an ear for the songs they devoted those lives to creating. When he does take up a specific work, Norman tends to characterize the song by the style or the quality of its lyrics. Thus he describes "If I Fell," the gorgeous Lennon ballad that the Beatles performed in their first film, A Hard Day's Night, tersely as "plaintive." Yes, the words are simple and direct; but the music is luxurious and complex, with harmony parts that purl around the melody. Song after song from record after record goes without much attention, as if John Lennon started a band called the Beatles just so he could imitate a paralyzed person on stage and kick a friend in the head after the show.


Robert Bonotto said...

There was a biography a few years ago of the composer Amy Cheney Beach, a Boston marvel who wrote some of the most melodious songs ever written in this country. Despite a certain amount of evidence to the contrary, the book -- sadly, the only book so I know on the composer -- insisted that the extent of her writing tailed off due to her husband. There wasn't a similar amount of attention paid to her music, which is what was really needed.

I just read the second of two Alec Guinness biographies that go on and on about his interest in bisexuality, which was apparently unconsummated ... and far less on how this often-unassuming actor managed to make such an imprint on the English stage. We're still waiting for a biography on him that really addresses this.

Art said...

Thanks for commenting Robert.

Actor biographies do fall prey to this very often.