Books In REVIEW • PAUL McCARTNEY - The Life. By Philip Norman

Illustrated. 853 pgs. Little, Brown & Company. $32.

    icon Feb 18, 2021
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In author Philip Norman’s exhaustive biography about one of popular music’s most prolific artists readers are treated to a massively detailed and well-researched look into not only one of our culture’s most beloved creative figures, but more importantly into the process and climate that fed and gave birth to that wealth of creativity.

Serving as a companion piece to an equally exhaustive biography he wrote about John Lennon, within this massive and authorized examination of McCartney’s life we are presented to a different image than that presented by the established mythology that invariably portrays Paul as the ‘safe’, doe-eyed, ‘cute’, Beatle with the soft-centered soul lacking the fire and edginess, as opposed to John’s acerbic raw-edged and experimental musical posture, branded through the confrontational prism of his political  acumen.

Indeed, this view was vigorously promoted by Lennon himself in the wake of the group’s bust-up (and later upheld by Yoko Ono), brandishing Tomorrow Never Knows and A Day in the Life against “granny music” like When I’m Sixty-Four and Your Mother Should Know.

In the judgment of producer George Martin, 'John was lemon to Paul’s olive oil.' The Beatles’ magic required them both; and while that is a fair assessment, the nuggets and jewels to be found within Norman’s exhaustive examination of McCartney are well worth the read simply because of the different picture and portrait that he captures.

By interviewing friends, acquaintances, colleagues, surviving family members, and confidants, Norman weaves together a chronological tapestry that works more like a hologram to deliver a multi-dimensional portrait of McCartney that often runs deeper and divergent to the common narrative and surface perceptions that have been cultivated over time about him.

For instance, during his early formative years we learn that young Paul enjoyed condensed milk and every kind of meat except tongue. Early letters and school assignments are reprinted and mined for future irony. Cats are named. Because his mother (Mother Mary, as referenced in ‘Let It Be’) was a nurse, while he came from humble middle-class origins, Paul was lucky enough to have an actual telephone in the house free from a party line, so the hospitals could contact her directly. We also learn that similar to Lennon’s tragic childhood, Paul lost his Mother to cancer at a very early age, which underlined his importance and need for nurturing deep family ties.

Later, in the squalid Hamburg residencies of the Beatles’ early career, fueled on booze and uppers, McCartney was an eager participant in the orgiastic craziness. Similarly, while Lennon often gets credit for his revolutionary and counter-culture proclivities, we learn how later during the Fabs’ mid-1960s peak, it was McCartney who immersed himself in the burgeoning London “underground” scene - championing underground artists like John Dunbar and financing the Indica bookshop & Gallery (where John first met Yoko Ono) - while also holding counsel with philosopher and anti-war activist Bertrand Russell, and exploring avant-garde composers like Stockhausen while John Lennon, as Paul puts it, “was living on a golf course estate in bloody Weybridge”, far removed from the cutting edge culture of central London and the West End.

We also learn about how important Paul’s relationship in the mid-sixties was to actress Jane Asher, where McCartney lived in a separate bedroom housed in the Asher’s 5-story London townhouse (seeing as McCartney & Asher were not married) while the other Beatles were settling in country estates and mansions.  We learn how Asher’s mother was a classically trained cellist with the London Symphony who taught Beatles producer George Martin how to play cello; and how her father was a famous doctor who discovered Munchausen Syndrome.

We also learn how the myth of The Beatles innocence was propagated by the collusion of the press and how at the London premier of A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles Manager Brian Epstein was literally paying off women claiming Paul had fathered their children. Notes one journalist: “Everybody knew The Beatles were having sex constantly, as girls would fly in and out of their hotel bedrooms; but nobody from the press talked about it because they wanted to preserve and protect the ‘image’ - the same way the press would protect the image of John Kennedy back in the 1960s to keep that dream of the Great Society unstained.”

Later, there are lengthy sections about McCartney’s sex life and drug preferences — but then, there are lengthy sections about everything. Real estate transactions, management squabbles, vegetarianism and seemingly every Wings rehearsal.

McCartney had himself to blame for perceptions of his role, always playing Mr. Nice Guy, developing an affable but vacuous interview technique that Norman aptly terms “soufflé-speak”. Steeped in antique pop by his beloved father, an amateur musician, McCartney was often led astray by sentimentalism during the solo career.

Known for his generosity and despite his reputation as the ‘Rockefeller of Rock’, the chapters about his years developing Wings during the post-Beatles years are also fascinating, as are events leading up to The Beatles break-up, with Paul demanding hours and hours of detailed clean-up work from the band on his own songs and material; while whenever a ground-breaking Lennon song would appear an atmosphere of looseness and experimentation would crop-up, leading Lennon to believe many of his best songs were never recorded properly.

We also learn about Paul’s proclivity to abruptly dismiss loyal employees and how tight-fisted he was with his touring band, Wings, paying members a modest £70 a week, which resulted in many of these members handing in their walking papers.

Commercially, McCartney has rarely faltered down the years; even 1984’s epically unfocused movie Give My Regards to Broad Street, in which “a succession of distinguished actors struggled to provide plausibility”, provided a No 1 album. His work rate has been relentless, the flow of albums, tours and collaborations never stalling. The 1990s brought his rediscovery by the Britpop generation alongside the Beatles Anthology for which he was the driving force. Even the death of Linda, the undoubted love of his life, seemed only to spur his productivity and a shift into classical pieces like Standing Stone.

At times the long and winding road carries on too far. The unhappy marriage to Heather Mills, spanning 80 pages and a blow-by-blow account of 2008’s fractious divorce proceedings (“legal Armageddon”, remarked one lawyer), intrudes into a portrait of a gifted artist – the most successful songwriter of modern times – and a complex, contradictory personality.

While Norman’s comprehensiveness can get boring, he is a good interviewer, and the book is charming when he lets his Liverpool sources speak about the days before the Beatles were inevitable. Colin Hanton was the drummer for the Quarrymen, Lennon’s first band, when McCartney arrived in July 1957 to audition: “He gave a great performance — showing off, really, but not in a bigheaded way. . . . You could see John thinking, ‘Yes, you’ll do.’ ” Iris Caldwell tells Norman that long before Paul discovered pot, he would wind down from local gigs with a special ritual: “Paul used to like my mum to comb his legs. He’s quite hairy, and having his legs combed seemed to relax him. He’d say, ‘Oo, Vi, give me legs a comb.’ ”

Collectively, these acquaintances recall Paul as a sweet and focused adolescent, much more determined than his band mates. Whenever immaturity threatened the Beatles’ future, it was usually McCartney who sacrificed his comfort and ego. “There was a pecking order,” says Joe Flannery, who let the boys crash at his apartment. “John always had the couch while Paul made do with two armchairs pushed together.”

Some of my favorite passages, however, center around the dynamic of songwriting shared between McCartney and Lennon - from the early days when they are I Want to Hold Your Hand, “eyeball to eyeball’ as Lennon describes it while holed-up in Jane Asher’s parents’ music room; to the later years during the end, when one learns that The Ballad of John & Yoko was basically recorded with only John & Paul playing the instruments (Paul handing bass & drums) with John on guitar

While Norman’s biography is authorized by McCartney, the fact it contains no interviews with McCartney himself is problematic.  Because this work is a treasure trove of facts and information about all the things that happened to Paul McCartney, through absurd fame and subsequent tragedies, one can tell he is an uncommonly decent man with few regrets; however, for the wealth of all these facts, sadly facts do not provide insight.

Consequently, what is missing from this work is any sense of what it was like to have lived one of the modern age’s most amazing lives; so in that sense, as a subject McCartney remains elusive.

And ultimately, it will take McCartney himself to address that tale by himself and with his own words.



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