Paul McCartney: The Life
By Philip Norman
Little, Brown, 864 pp., $32
In 1981, British newspaperman and music journo Philip Norman published the Beatles book Shout! It was one of the first serious biographies of a rock band, required reading for any fan, and also told a truer (and then-shocking) version of the group’s history than The Beatles, the 1968 authorized work by Hunter Davies.
However, Norman – by his own admission years later – had fallen under the post-assassination hero worship of Lennon. He posited that the group’s greatest achievements were Lennon's doing and that he was the real talent. That Lennon was the adventurous, cutting-edge, deep intellectual who could write “Revolution” and “In My Life,” while Paul was the safe, cloying, eager-to-please author of throwback pap like “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Yesterday.”
The latter song — the most covered in the history of music – came to the then 22-year-old in a dream, and had an original working title of “Scrambled Eggs.” Placeholder lyrics to the familiar melody included “Scrambled eggs/ Oh my baby how I love your legs.”
In 2016, history (and time) has been much kinder to McCartney’s contributions. It was, in fact, the Swinging London-residing McCartney who first explored avant-garde art, music, literature and film, and kept the Beatles active and going while Lennon sank into drugs, marital chaos and laziness out in the suburbs.
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, and with a much more balanced and fair summation.
Interestingly, it was written without McCartney’s direct participation, but with his “tacit approval,” meaning that Norman had access to people and records he would not have had otherwise. And unlike 1997’s Many Years From Now, by Barry Miles, which McCartney did participate in but that ended its story shortly after the Beatles' breakup, this book comes right up to present times. And the result is phenomenal.
There is not a lot newly uncovered here, although with more than 125 different titles on my “Beatles bookshelf,” perhaps that’s not a fair assessment.
Still, some interesting tidbits emerge: how a young Paul and his brother would swig straight orange juice concentrate from the rationed post-WWII containers; how the breakup of the Beatles led him to a spiral of drugs, booze and nearly a complete nervous breakdown; and how he once flew a pizza from a favorite New York restaurant over to him in England on the freakin’ Concorde.
Also, chapters on his easily avoidable, stupid 1980 Japanese arrest for marijuana possession and his second, chaotic, tabloid-headline screaming marriage to model/activist Heather Mills are fleshed out more than in previous books.
When a large Japanese fellow prisoner — a member of the feared Yakuza gang — asked the incarcerated McCartney to sing “Yesterday, please," you can bet that Macca granted the request – along with a cappella versions of other songs.
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The book does have a weakness in that Norman sometimes overcompensates as if trying to, well, make up for any previous McCartney slights. Some of the language is a bit kiss-ass, especially in his writing about Linda McCartney or Paul's generosity at times (while Paul's ruthlessness in business and personnel sometimes gets a pass). And his machine-gun writing style of fact-after-fact-after-fact sometimes feels like a word assault. Fewer minor facts and more rumination and exploration would have served the reader better.
Norman himself has met Paul McCartney face to face only twice: a brief encounter at a 1965 theater gig in his capacity as a newspaperman, and 50 years later during a few minutes backstage after a massive modern-day stadium show. For the latter encounter, coming two and a half years into the work on this biography, he writes how shocking it was to see Paul in the flesh — a virtual storybook character come to life in front of him.
The past decade or so has seen a number of other Paul-centric bios: Howard Sounes's Fab: The Intimate Life of Paul McCartney, Tom Boyles’s Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, and Peter Ames Carlin’s Paul McCartney: A Life. But with this tome, Norman has delivered what will likely be seen as the best single-volume work on James Paul McCartney. Wonder if he’s getting to work on George and Ringo next…