Paul McCartney: The Life

  • By Philip Norman
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 853 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jon Sallet
  • May 18, 2016

This exploration of the famed musician offers ample chronology but little in the way of critique

Paul McCartney: The Life

It's not that hard to play unobtrusive, if uninspired, bass guitar. Strike the root note of each major chord (e.g., G, C, D in the key of G) and closely track the rhythm of the drummer. Playing well is hard; listen to Paul McCartney’s vivid counter-melody in songs like the Beatles’ “Rain.”

Philip Norman’s Paul McCartney: The Life, although the work of a veteran Beatle-ologist who has, among many books, chronicled the band’s career and the life of John Lennon, is like a simple bassline — steady without striking the wrong notes; straight ahead, not surprising.

If you're looking for the facts of a celebrated life, Norman presents them clearly and cogently. If you're looking for appreciation of McCartney’s music, an analysis of what makes him tick, or an evaluation of his public persona, you’ll need to do some work of your own.

The outlines of McCartney’s life are by now familiar. Liverpool, the Beatles, Wings, Linda’s untimely death, a long solo career, a close family, a bad second marriage, and, by Norman’s account, a good third one. Continuing to record and tour and collaborate (in 2014, he won the Grammy for best rock song with the surviving members of Nirvana).

To this, Norman adds detail and context. It’s endearing to learn that McCartney, upon meeting a classical musician for the first time, asked him to name his favorite Beatles’ song. More importantly, he shines light on McCartney’s evolution as a family man; his struggle to maintain the Beatles after they stopped touring and after Brian Epstein’s death; and his involvement with social issues, both alongside Linda and after her passing.

And Norman provides deeper discussion of challenges McCartney faced — like the days he spent jailed in Japan after being arrested for landing in Tokyo with a bag of marijuana. That episode you may have heard about in the tabloids, but consider the poignancy of Norman’s depicture of McCartney, alone in a cell at night, singing “Yesterday” in response to a shouted request from a neighboring inmate. (A cappella; the authorities refused his request for a guitar.)

But Norman doesn’t much synthesize the facts he carefully propounds. To wit: The volume is curiously lacking in more-than-passing analysis of McCartney’s music. The secret of the Beatles’ success was, after all, neither their haircuts nor their musicianship; it was that they were very, very gifted songwriters.

One such example was a Lennon favorite, the McCartney song “Here, There, and Everywhere.” In it, McCartney shifts between major and minor keys to create instability that serves to accentuate the strength of his use of the root note in the tonic (the melody note “G” over a G chord) when he lands on the geography of “here,” “there,” and, in the song’s last measure, “where.” This is both craft and talent. Norman’s critique is simply to describe it as “perhaps the most charming of all Beatles ballads.”

In fact, there is much in Norman’s description that suggests we should look past McCartney’s celebrity and skill as a performer in order to see him first and foremost as a songwriter. The author tells us that, during the first years of the Beatles’ global success, McCartney (conscious of the short shelf-life of pop groups) saw his future in writing songs for other artists; “Eleanor Rigby” was the result of his desire to be prepared for such a career.

So it makes sense that Norman quotes McCartney as describing the moment when it’s “just me at the piano or with a guitar and then, if you’re lucky, this amazing feeling of ‘Hey, I’ve written a song!’” And, if you were a songwriter, then perhaps it would be no surprise that you would regard songs as valuable property.

In this light, consider McCartney’s continuing interest in music publishing — the intellectual property of a songwriter. At one point, he purchases the rights to the musical “Grease,” but felt betrayed when Michael Jackson bought the Lennon-McCartney catalogue. And he frets over the continued attribution of his songs, like “Yesterday,” to “Lennon-McCartney.”

Norman also describes McCartney as a perfectionist, but it is important to understand that the context of his quest for perfection is likely a composer’s desire to hear out loud what he has heard in his head. Twice we are recounted the almost identical description of the tension that exists when McCartney instructs the lead guitarist exactly how to play a solo (with both the Beatles and Wings).

Indeed, one could view McCartney’s career as personifying the continuing struggle between the importance of musical collaboration and musical individuality. Play in any band, and you’ll soon see (and hear) the tension. Musicians inevitably want to add their own “voices” to the proceedings, and that collaboration can improve both the composition and the performance.

But just as often, watch the songwriter strive to train the band to play the song exactly as written. Is there really a control freak here? And when McCartney is described as anxious when he asked a friend to evaluate the album “Revolver,” doesn't that sound like a pretty human feeling from an artist creating music for popular consumption?

Finally, there's much that could be explored in McCartney’s public image. Norman offers glimpses of McCartney’s recognition of how he is viewed — softer, more pop, safer than Lennon — and provides reasons to believe that these stereotypes are untrue (McCartney’s keen interest in avant-garde music in the ‘60s, for instance).

Norman overuses the term “soufflé-speak” to characterize McCartney’s smooth public utterances, in contrast to Lennon’s apparent anguish and biting wit. But, in reality, how much did McCartney intentionally shape this public persona? Was he playing it safe? Creating a strategy for commercial success? Simply providing a public manifestation of his own private personality?

It may be that McCartney does not want us to know him through the conventional lens of biography. In his latest album of original compositions, he reflects in the song “Early Days” on his early songwriting with Lennon and warns us, in a voice that seems entirely authentic:

Now everybody seems to have their own opinion
Who did this and who did that
But as for me I don't see how they can remember
When they weren't where it was at

Although McCartney gave “tacit approval” to Norman’s efforts, these lyrics may be his own verdict on the attempts of others to chronicle his career. Perhaps, ultimately, he thinks that to hear him is to know him.

Jon Sallet is an amateur songwriter who attempts to play the bass guitar unobtrusively.

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