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'Paul McCartney': Philip Norman takes a closer look at 'the cute one'

Philip Norman's big new life of Sir Paul makes the case for a rebellious spirit masked by a showman's charm.

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    Paul McCartney: the Life
    By Philip Norman
    Little, Brown and Company
    864 pp.
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When “Who’s your favorite Beatle?” was a playground quiz in 1964, the cute one always won. Even though the quartet’s achievement was collective and their solo careers proved it, countless grown-up fans, critics, musicologists, talking eggheads, and even politicians have weighed in on the same question since. By and large, the recount has stayed almost as lopsided, but to the now 74-year-old cute one’s detriment.

His annoyance, too. “It has always irked Paul that posterity regards him as the tuneful, cozy, safe side of the McCartney-Lennon partnership and John as the rebel, experimenter and iconoclast,” explains veteran Beatles biographer Philip Norman in the new Paul McCartney: The Life. Yet even Norman did two books all about John before getting to Macca, and that was after his first Beatles tome – 1981’s "Shout!," which McCartney renamed "Shite" – cast Paul as the manipulative nasty to John’s newly martyrdom-certified genius.

Norman has obviously revised his ’80s opinion considerably. Also, one presumes, sincerely – that is, not just to appease the McCartneyites who are his likeliest readers. But he’s still enough of a ’60s product to take it for granted that rebellion, experimentation, and iconoclasm are innately superior to tunefulness, coziness, and safety in a pop star. That’s why some of the most provocative pages of "Paul McCartney: The Life" make a case for Paul as the band’s true avant-gardist, at least until Yoko’s arrival turned John into the expert literally overnight.

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It’s not just that "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band," the album that vaulted the Beatles from popular recognition as the best rock band ever to bedazzled intellectuals’ acclaim as creators of Great Modern Art, is basically McCartney’s baby, “A Day in the Life” or no “A Day in the Life.” Even that Lennon masterpiece wouldn’t be one minus the inspired mundanity of Paulie’s “Woke up, got out of bed/ Dragged a comb across my head” interpolation. The most ambitious departure from conventional pop-song formats the Beatles ever put on a record – the 16-minute collage of fragmentary tunes on Side 2 of "Abbey Road," which tops Lennon’s slovenly “Revolution 9” as experiments go, not only because it’s cleverer but because it’s one whale of a lot more hummable – is, once again, all Paul.

In the mid-’60s, when the world was the Beatles’ oyster, he was hipping himself to John Cage, Sun Ra, and Stockhausen while an increasingly morose Lennon – “basically a lazy bastard,” one Beatles factotum reports – sat things out in the suburbs. McCartney was also frequenting London’s chic Indica art gallery and helping to bankroll Britain’s first real alternative newspaper, all busily enough to make people decide that the cute one was also the artsy one. In fact, when Yoko got to London in 1966, Paul – not John – was the one whose good will she was hoping to cultivate.

It doesn’t matter, though. History will always see Paul as bourgeois and John as bohemian and radical, something explained rather than undercut by the fact that Paul grew up poorer than John did, making him forever “aspirational” in ways his partner had no use for. With the big exception of bagging teacher training school to try his luck as a rock musician instead, rebellion was a luxury McCartney couldn’t afford; Lennon saw it as his birthright. And let us now note that I’ve gotten a third of the way through this review without managing to discuss Paul other than by contrasting him with John, even though I’m trying to turn the comparison to the cute one’s advantage for a change.

That makes a remark by Tony Sheridan – the only performer ever to use the then-unknown Beatles as his backing band – unusually telling: “Watching them, I used to think that Paul could probably make it without John, but John was never going to make it without Paul.” Sheridan knew them during the fabled apprenticeship on Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn that transformed the future Fab Four from innocent wannabes to toughened pros in one of Europe’s coarser sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll purlieus. Norman does a first-rate job of reconstructing that environment: rotten living conditions, rats everywhere, the constant shagging, and amphetamine-fueled nightly sets.

He’s even better on Liverpool, steering us around that proletarian city’s school system, post-WW2 privations, minute but paralyzing class distinctions, and future Beatles landmarks – including, of course, the real Penny Lane, the setting for one of McCartney’s greatest songs – as confidently as the native son he isn’t. It’s always good to be reminded that the Beatles were provincials, as remote from London’s cosmopolitan swank as a set of mop-topped, ambitious Balzac heroes. That was only slightly less true of Brian Epstein, the inexperienced impresario who nonetheless figured out how to turn them into, well, the Beatles. An ultimately poignant figure – unhappily aware his lads no longer needed him, he died of an apparently accidental overdose of barbiturates in 1967 – Epstein gets his full due here.

Norman’s account of Beatlemania’s outbreak in both the UK and the US is surprisingly sketchy, no doubt because it’s not only an oft-told tale but one he’s told several times himself in his earlier books. Where his depth of knowledge comes in handy is in his descriptions of the Beatles, and McCartney in particular, at work. That means, above all, the Beatles – and McCartney in particular – in the studio, from the evolving collaboration with producer George Martin as their music’s complexity grew by leaps and bounds to the increasing frictions as Paul’s taste for pop virtuosity clashed with Lennon’s ongoing psychodrama, George Harrison’s also-ran petulance, and good old Ringo’s boredom with everybody else’s ego trips. Equally valuable is Norman’s appreciation of the key role played by the cultured family of McCartney’s ’60s girlfriend, Jane Asher – under whose roof he lived for years – in shaping his idea of sophistication, including wanting to be innovative and genteel simultaneously.

Then the boys acrimoniously call it a day, foundering in a welter of management disputes and financial hemorrhages, and we’re into the solo years – which have, in McCartney’s case, stretched to four and a half solo decades. Since Jane Asher was history by then, he spent most of them married to Linda Eastman, every bit as much his one-and-only as Yoko was John’s. Try as he might, Norman can’t quite get a bead on Eastman; depending on who’s testifying, she was either kindness incarnate or a real piece of work. What’s painfully clear is that her death of cancer in 1998 was the major tragedy of McCartney’s mostly sunny life, and my heart genuinely went out to him.

Otherwise, once the excitement of his self-reinvention leading the band he named Wings is over and done with – "Band on the Run" was the breakthrough, “Live and Let Die” the peak of pure fun, and “Silly Love Songs” the manifesto that Lennonists will hoot at forever –" Paul McCartney: The Life"becomes a bit of a slog, though that’s not Norman’s fault. He’s just got to march his readers through a whole bunch of frequently winsome but mostly inconsequential albums, along with pages of stuff about Linda the animal rights activist and vegetarian entrepreneur and the couple’s many houses – not to mention the music publishing acquisitions that turned McCartney into one of the wealthiest pop stars in history as he accumulated honors (including his 1997 knighthood) by the cartload.

Regrettably, beyond some standard-issue truisms about the cute one’s melodic facility and penchant for whimsy, Norman doesn’t have the chops for a serious evaluation of McCartney’s music or his place in pop history – though he’s right to zero in on bits like the exquisite choice of names for the grandchildren in “When I’m Sixty-Four” (“Vera, Chuck, and Dave,” in case you’ve forgotten) to remind us of how deft and well honed Paul’s lyrics could be at their best. All the same, his book does convey a strong enough sense of McCartney’s temperament and life priorities to give readers a new understanding of how utterly they’re reflected in his art.

At once remarkable and screamingly obvious, the most salient takeaway is simply that he’s a man without anger – not any he’s willing to cop to, anyhow. That doesn’t just put him at odds with Lennon; it makes him an anomaly among all of rock’s ’60s godheads, from Dylan to Mick Jagger to an idiot like Jim Morrison. Even that introvert Brian Wilson arguably transmuted a rage he didn’t think he had any right to express into a melancholy he was all too at home with.

Even at its jolliest, ’60s rock ‘n’ roll was implicitly adversarial, generationally if not politically – but not Paul’s rock ‘n’ roll. He was virtually alone in seeing his own generation’s music as just another innovative episode in pop music history, not a seismic break with everything that had gone before it.

Any reconsideration of the cute one ought to start there, because being the totemic geniuses of an innovative episode in pop music history is what will keep the Beatles immortal. Although it’s still stirring if you’re in the right mood, Lennon’s radical project did fail, after all. What’s proven most durable about the Beatles’ achievement is their melodic virtuosity, puckish showmanship, fusion of blues-based American rock ‘n’ roll with Tin Pan Alley and Brit music hall, and almost unparalleled ability to generate pure happiness – in other words, the virtues we identify most with Paul, who’s done his best to go on exemplifying them throughout his solo career. I can’t be the only boomer who never expected to ask this, but: Good God, what if Paul McCartney was right all along?

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