Paul McCartney biography blows up Beatles lore

Book Review: Paul McCartney: The Life by Philip Norman

When Philip Norman first wrote about The Beatles in his 1981 book Shout, he earned Paul’s wrath by claiming John Lennon was “three-quarters” of the band, but 25 years later he sets the creative record straight by hailing Paul as the boundary-breaking Beatle

Paul McCartney: The Life by Philip Norman

Little, Brown

$38.50, pp.853

Paul McCartney Book

Paul McCartney: The Life by Philip Norman

By Bruce Ward

When the Beatles first played Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district in late 1960, Paul McCartney — ever the dutiful son — wrote letters to his father and brother Mike back in Liverpool. Paul told them all about cheap milk, the availability of corn flakes and bargain prices at open-air markets.

He left out the hookers, transvestite bars, interracial sex shows, the female mud-wrestling events, the strippers who shed everything and the grottiness of the band’s accommodations.

Considerate and eager to please, he didn’t want to worry his dad. That’s one of the key insights in Paul McCartney: The Life, a hefty new biography by Philip Norman. The book shows that, surprisingly, there is still lots to say about Ol’ Doe Eyes.

The chubby schoolboy who won a prize for his essay on the 1953 Coronation has always wanted to make people happy and be acknowledged for his cleverness. “All my life,” he reflected in 2015, “I’ve been trying to win a school prize or trying to do OK in an exam or trying to get a good job, something where people go, ‘You’re good.’ ”

All my life… I’ve been trying to win a school prize or trying to do OK in an exam or trying to get a good job, something where people go, ‘You’re good.’

Norman writes that McCartney is now resigned to, if not at peace with, always being number two in his song-writing partnership with John Lennon. At times, usually after several glasses of wine, Macca likes to say that Lennon’s death was a final act of one-upmanship. “He dies a legend and I’m going to die an old man. Typical John!”

John’s death cemented the public perception of Lennon and McCartney. John was the rebel, the risk-taker who immersed himself in experimental music and avant-garde art while Paul was “the tuneful, the sentimental, the safe,” Norman writes. But that’s backwards, he argues.

While Lennon was moping on a suburban estate near a golf course, McCartney was soaking up culture in Swinging London. It was McCartney who first played around with tape loops and sonic effects, McCartney who read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and took LSD first. McCartney was even the first Beatle to grow a moustache. He was friends with the gallery owner who gave Yoko Ono her first show in London. It was thanks to McCartney that Lennon met Yoko. Lennon had the hip cachet, but it was McCartney who pushed the boundaries of pop.

Norman has written a canny, colourful, hugely readable book that underlines the importance of McCartney across 50 years of pop culture. His style is assured, relaxed, and he’s a whiz at telling stories. His account of Macca’s disastrous marriage to Heather Mills shows how he fell under her spell — it was the older man, younger woman syndrome, largely. Court documents from their divorce show Mills to be a stupendous liar — Donald Trump could take her seminar.

The book was written with McCartney’s “tacit approval,” meaning that he wouldn’t interfere if any of his inner circle chose to speak to Norman. This was a happy surprise for Norman, who had enraged McCartney by claiming in Shout, his 1981 book, that Lennon was “three-quarters of the Beatles.” John Eastman, Linda McCartney’s  older brother, granted Norman an interview — the first time he has spoken publicly about the dissolution of Apple Corps, and McCartney’s painful decision to sue the other Beatles. Eastman, still McCartney’s lawyer, reveals how a lawsuit was the only way to untangle the Beatles’ complicated financial dealings and prevent the band from sinking into bankruptcy. Time has vindicated McCartney in other ways as well. Lennon denounced McCartney for refusing to hire Allen Klein as the Beatles’ manager after Brian Epstein’s death, a move the other three pushed for. Klein — as McCartney argued at the time — turned out to be a crook.

Much of the fizz in the second half of the book comes from Norman’s account of Linda Eastman McCartney. “Her quiet, oblique charm failed to work outside a radius of about three feet,” he writes, but just as Yoko was the right wife for Lennon, she was the right wife for McCartney. When they met, Linda was “…a free spirit” and single mom in New York who, through savvy and hard work, became a top celebrity photographer and had brief affairs with Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison and Warren Beatty.

With the Beatles on the scrap heap, she found herself with two young children living on a remote Scottish farm with a husband who got drunk most days. The change in Paul was “scary beyond belief” but she provided the anchor —the home, family and love that eased Paul out of his funk.

Linda was not descended from George Eastman, inventor of the Eastman-Kodak photographic process, Norman observes, but she did little to dispel the myth. To McCartney’s delight, her best-selling cookbook and range of frozen veggie dinners made her wealthy.

Linda eventually became a decent rock musician, Norman writes, but she never forgot the ridicule she faced after joining Wings. In a song for what she knew would be a posthumous album, she took aim at her detractors: “You say I’m lazy, you say I’m a hick/ You’re fucking no one you stupid dick.” OK, so it’s not Eleanor Rigby, but the message is loud and clear.

When not on the road with Wings, their home life was all family dinners and fun outings. Linda, an accomplished rider, made sure their four kids grew up on horseback. They were a happy family, in short. At 54, she was diagnosed with breast cancer — the same illness that killed McCartney’s mother when he was 14. Linda, an animal rights advocate, was distressed that some drugs she took to fight cancer had been developed through animal testing. She died at 56, after nearly 30 years of marriage.

McCartney needed professional counselling to adjust to her passing. He berated himself for his shortcomings as a husband. “Whenever someone you care about dies, you wish you’d been perfect all the time,” he reflected. “I wasn’t.”

Whenever someone you care about dies, you wish you’d been perfect all the time… I wasn’t.

The Beatles proved that rock music could be a medium for meaningful artistic expression capable of shaping wider culture. In the book, McCartney raises one scary notion about the band: what if they hadn’t sung about peace and love?

“Have you ever thought what power the Beatles could have had if we’d been evil … if we’d gone over to the dark side?”

Boomer rock heroes are steadily dying off but McCartney keeps skating along. Pure McCartney, just out, is a 67-song collection of his solo/Wings work over nearly 40 years. And Sir Paul, who turned 74 on June 16, is on tour again, still performing three-hour shows without pausing for even a sip of water.

He’s still trying to please, that is.


THE EX-PRESS, June 20, 2016


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