PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

'Paul McCartney: The Life' Doesn't Whitewash or Sensationalize

Jeremy Mikula
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Philip Norman's latest biography is loaded with wonderful passages, fascinating stories and cracking humor.


Paul McCartney: The Life

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Author: Philip Norman
Publication date: 2016-05
Amazon

Behind the double thumbs-up, impish smile and round, half-moon eyes lies a Paul McCartney more complex than public perception lends itself to.

As biographer Philip Norman writes in Paul McCartney: The Life McCartney is more than just the “cute Beatle” thumping away on a left-handed violin-shaped bass, or the elder statesman of rock who continues to sell out stadium concerts lasting more than three hours. McCartney is, in fact, a “workaholic and perfectionist who, despite his vast fame, has been underestimated by history and who, despite his undoubted genius, is in his own way as insecure and vulnerable as was his seeming total opposite, John Lennon.”

That’s quite a turnaround from Norman, the author of several music biographies including the excellent John Lennon: The Life. Norman’s seminal 1981 biography of the Fab Four, Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation, was on the receiving end of criticism for its “over-glorification of Lennon and bias against McCartney”, notwithstanding his pronouncement that Lennon was “three-quarters of the Beatles”.

If apology can take the form of biography, Paul McCartney: The Life is it and, thanks to “tacit approval” from McCartney to interview relatives and close friends, Norman delivers the most thorough and insightful biography of McCartney to date.

Ruminations on The Beatles already fill the pages of countless books and websites, which is one reason why the success of Norman’s book lies not in its retelling of stories about performing Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” or grueling, Preludin-fueled nights on Hamburg’s Grosse Freiheit and Reeperbahn streets, but in its depiction of McCartney as a son, friend, lover, avant garde enthusiast, divorce plaintiff, vegetarian activist, DIY farmer and marijuana aficionado.

Some of the book’s best moments depict McCartney’s relationship with his father, Jim (the man who told his son it should be “She loves you, yes! yes! yes!”), and the lifelong influence his father had on him: “(W)ith Wings, his drive to reinvent himself … often gave way to a rather touching desire to please his father” by including songs that reflected his father’s taste in music.

On the Beatles’ breakup, Norman details the consequences of Allen Klein’s disastrous management and how McCartney was often on the losing end of 3-vs.-1 arguments over finances, album releases and his doubts about Klein: “(E)ven the best-informed commentators knew nothing about the ostracism, marginalisation, back-stabbing and humiliation within the band that he’d endured over the past months, yet still gone on trying to hold it together.”

Yet, McCartney too at times could be callous, bossy and demanding, and not just his in-studio domineering over George Harrison and Ringo Starr, each of whom briefly quit the band as a result. Apple Corps execs grew accustomed to “the bollockings he could deliver … and his way of emphasizing points with … pokes of a forefinger.” When first wife Linda began interviewing for a ghost-written autobiography, McCartney’s hostility to a project that might shed light on their blissful marriage resulted in a shout of, “There’s only one effing star in this family!” Even into his 70s, McCartney is “still galled”, Norman writes, to see the order “Lennon-McCartney” on compositions which Lennon had little or nothing to do with.

Norman’s excellent insight into McCartney’s interest in the avant garde -- which the author convincingly argues was far greater and pre-dated Lennon’s -- is surpassed by his account of McCartney’s nine-day jail sentence for carrying marijuana into Japan in 1980. Held at Kosuge Prison, prisoner No. 22 was awoken at 6AM each morning for roll call, rolled up his thin sleeping mat, tasked with cleaning his 10-by-14-foot cell with a miniature dustpan, and was “terrified of being raped”. Two things helped McCartney survive the ordeal: entertaining his fellow inmates with a cappella versions of “Yesterday” and old standards beloved by his father, and the fierce “competitiveness that the other ex-Beatles knew so well.”

Such stories add up to make Paul McCartney: The Life an honest account of one of the most influential people of the 20th century -- all without whitewashing or sensationalizing.

For everything the book excels at, however, there are some mistakes and odd phrases. McCartney’s expansive musicianship is deserving of its own book, and, typo or not, misidentifying the iconic Hofner 500/1 bass as “550/1” is a cardinal sin in the land of Beatles gear.

Norman’s occasional use of throwaway lines can frustrate as well. Writing that Wings was McCartney’s “creation of a band as big as (The Beatles had) ever been” is a bizarre claim -- if not a laughable one -- by any measure. Further, declaring that the “others really were just ‘sidemen for Paul’ as he pronounced their collective epitaph” on Abbey Road track “The End” is an odd way of describing a song that features Ringo’s one and only Beatles drum solo and Paul, George and John trading fuzz-drenched guitar licks.

But for each annoyance, Paul McCartney: The Life is loaded with wonderful passages, fascinating stories and cracking humor. In all, Paul McCartney: The Life is a largely 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.’”

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.