The Barnes & Noble Review
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-septuagenarian 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 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.
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 sixteen-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 U.K. and the U.S. 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 halls, 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?
A two-time National Magazine Award winner during his stint as Esquire's "Screen" columnist, Tom Carson is currently a columnist at GQ. He is the author of Gilligan's Wake (2003), a novel.
Reviewer: Tom Carson
Norman, following up on his bestselling biography of John Lennon (John Lennon: A Life), interviews hundreds of Paul McCartney’s family, friends, and associates to draw the most complete picture of the former Beatle; however, the book’s thoroughness renders it a tiresome march through scores of facts and familiar details that will appeal primarily to ardent McCartney fans. Proceeding in a year-by-year fashion, Norman ranges over McCartney’s childhood; the death of his mother, which he later used as the basis of “Let It Be”; his early days with his mates—John and George—as the Quarrymen; and the Beatles’ squalid living conditions in Hamburg. No stone is left unturned as Norman proceeds to the infamous last days of the Beatles, the early days of Wings, McCartney’s marriage to musician and photographer Linda Eastman and the effect her death had on him, his short-lived and controversial marriage to model Heather Mills, and his relationship with his father. As Norman happily points out, while many stories of musical superstars end tragically, McCartney has enjoyed a prolonged era of happiness, especially since his 2011 marriage to trucking executive Nancy Shevell. Norman succeeds in drawing a familiar picture of a restless musician who’s always seeking to make himself over again, and who still gets a thrill when he hears someone whistling one of his songs. Thanks to Norman’s access to McCartney and his associates, this will become the musician’s definitive and authoritative biography. (May)
Seven years after his comprehensive John Lennon biography, veteran music journalist Norman offers a similarly well-balanced and richly detailed portrait of Lennon's songwriting partner and pop culture icon Paul McCartney (b. 1942). While this title is not technically an authorized biography, Norman was given access to a variety of McCartney's friends, musical partners, and family members, resulting in new insight into topics ranging from the musician's marriages and many other romantic relationships to the financial and emotional fallout from the Beatles' split to the sometimes startling contrast between McCartney's sunny public persona and personal strife. The volume's first half follows his life up to the Beatles' 1970 breakup, mostly rehashing ground covered equally well in other works. Yet the second, more interesting section features an abundance of new and little-known content focusing on McCartney's post-Beatles music career and family life up through his 2011 third wedding and recent founding of a Liverpool music school. There is much to savor in this well-written, wide-ranging chronicle; unfortunately, the author skims over McCartney's post-Beatles relationships with Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr and devotes far too many pages to the Heather Mills divorce scandal. VERDICT Casual readers may find this too long and detailed, but serious fans interested in a fresh retelling of the story of the "cute Beatle" will appreciate Norman's thorough approach.—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
A biography of the multitalented musician, written with his "tacit approval." Unless you know nothing about Paul McCartney or think the Beatles were merely his first backup band before Wings, not much in this account from Norman (Mick Jagger, 2012, etc.)—who has authored biographies of John Lennon, Buddy Holly, and Elton John, among others—will come as news. However, though late to the party, Norman has a couple of things going for him. One is the subject's tacit approval, useful considering that McCartney has "constructed ramparts of privacy rivaled only by Bob Dylan." Another is the author's comprehensive grasp of the existing literature and his sense of what makes a good story. This book is full of good stories, few reflecting poorly on McCartney though sometimes calling his impulses into question, notably with respect to his latter-day marriage to Heather Mills and the mayhem it caused. Mills emerges as the villain of that particular piece, but not without careful evidence and dissection. Elsewhere, Norman repeats well-worn yarns, though sometimes in curious ways. His account of how an apparently throwaway line became the centerpiece of McCartney's song "Hey Jude" is flat, and his retelling of his subject's helpful hints on the financial benefits of music publishing lacks the sense of tragic inevitability that we all know lurks nearby. However, Norman has considerable strengths. He understands how complicated the business dealings underlying the Beatles' Apple Corps were and just how right McCartney was to sue to dissolve that partnership. He also reveals a few little-known facets of Sir Paul's daily life and interests, including archival talents that would rival any librarian's, as when Norman takes us to the scene of a "secret underfloor compartment" containing the Hofner bass Paul played at the Beatles' last performance. There's plenty on McCartney's post-Beatles career, of course, but the foursome remains the heart of interest, especially the long rivalry with Lennon. A worthy biography that doesn't approach the greatness of its subject.
From the Publisher
One of Amazon's Best Books of the Month"
An enormous and sympathetic book.... It's rich with detail about Mr. McCartney's philanthropy, his knighthood, his taste in country homes, his dabbling as a painter, a poet and a composer of classical music.... The story of its subject's life from his childhood in Liverpool through the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 has lost none of its ability to charm ... One of the best stories the past century has to tell."Dwight Garner, New York Times"
Norman offers a fully-fleshed out biography . . . What Norman gets so very right are the feelings: the intense relationship between John and Paul with its curves and angles; the normality being a husband and father brought him; the improbability of being one of the most famous men in the world. The shelves are full of books about the Beatles, but fans will want to make room for this one."Ilene Cooper, Booklist (starred)"
The most thorough and insightful biography of Paul McCartney to date.... Paul McCartney: The Life is loaded with wonderful passages, fascinating stories and cracking humor... A masterful account, the kind of biography fitting McCartney's continued prowess and genius. Or, as McCartney said at the end of one Beatles take, 'Keep that one. Mark it 'FAB.''"Jeremy Mikula, Chicago Tribune"
Norman's portrait of McCartney is fascinating and exhaustive.... Norman lifts the curtain to show us the real guy."William McKeen, Boston Globe"
A thorough, objective telling of McCartney's storyin and out of the most famous band ever. But it's also a breezy read, considering the tremendous ground it covers."Jeff Slate, Esquire"
Norman is an enviably skilled pen-portraitist, with a consummate ability to conjure the presence of [McCartney].... A powerful sense of McCartney the man comes across in this book's evocative high points.... A capably executed biography, brimming with detail."John Harris, The Guardian"
A compelling narrative about a working-class Liverpudlian whose extraordinary musical gifts made him the most successful songwriter in history... McCartney emerges from [the book] as a textured but decent man."Graham Boynton, Newsweek"
Norman is thorough... and his book gives us a fuller McCartney than you'll find anywhere else."Colin Fleming, Washington Post"
Norman shows McCartney in all his colors: artist, songwriter, genius, family man, and businessman... Even those of us with bookshelves full of Beatles books and libraries of bootleg recordings will be surprised by what they read in The Life."Laurie Ulster, bio."
The once-for-all-time record of the lad from Liverpool whose song lyrics and boyish good looks broke hearts and whose career after the Beatles was almost as successful as his time with them."Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage"
Norman's 2008 book John Lennon: The Life became the best single-volume work on its subject. Now, with this book, Norman has done the same for McCartney..."Bob Ruggiero, Houston Press"
Where [the] book succeeds the most is bringing the reader into Mr. McCartney's private life... The most up-to-date account of Paul's life to yet appear."The Economist"
Philip Norman's considered biography portrays the 'cute' Beatle in all his creative complexity and breadth."Neil Spencer, The Guardian"
Norman sheds new light on well-known Beatles stories and then goes further, forging a thoroughly absorbing account of McCartney's life after the group's breakup.... The result is a tantalizing trip down the legend's own long and winding road."Oprah Magazine"
Where Norman's depth of knowledge comes in handy is in his descriptions of the Beatles, and McCartney in particular, at work... His book conveys 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."Tom Carson, The Barnes & Noble Review"
Norman offers a surprising portrayal of a driven and even haunted artisthis biography reminds us why, more than 50 years after he achieved fame, the world is still singing along with McCartney's story."Clarke Crutchfield, Richmond Times-Dispatch"
The musician's definitive and authoritative biography."Publishers Weekly"
Vivid storytelling....In his seventies, Sir Paul is still outpacing those trying to tell his story. Nevertheless, Norman gets as close as anyone has."Will Hermes, Rolling Stone"
The biography is full of interesting bits of information.... Mr. Norman reminds us that we should be truly grateful that the Magical Mystery Tour guided by Paul McCartney remains a gift that keeps on giving."Glenn C. Altschuler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette"
Norman is a good interviewer, and the book is charming when he lets his Liverpool sources speak about the days before The Beatles were inevitable."Josh Tyrangiel, New York Times Book Review"
The agenda of Paul McCartney: The Life is clear: to give the enduringly popular, almost inconceivably successful former Beatle his due...[and] the book succeeds at that."David Hajdu, The Nation"
Norman sheds new light on well-known Beatles stories and then goes further, forging a thoroughly absorbing account of McCartney's life after the group's breakup...The result is a tantalizing trip down the legend's own long and winding road."The Huffington Post"
Mr. Norman has done his research... he has uncovered yet more material, and tells his story with flair."Christopher Walsh, The East Hampton Star