All the yesterdays

All the yesterdays

All the yesterdays

Paul McCartney: The Life
Philip Norman
Little Brown
2016, pp 864
Rs. 2,172

Philip Norman’s Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation (1981), his important early biography of the band, was embraced by John Lennon’s fans but less so by Paul McCartney’s. Norman took the side of the rebellious Beatle, not the tuneful and adorable one. McCartney was said to loathe the book, and to enjoy mispronouncing its title as a barnyard epithet.

Thirty-five years later, as if to make amends, here is Norman with Paul McCartney: The Life. It’s an enormous and sympathetic book, written with McCartney’s tacit approval. A companion of sorts to Norman’s John Lennon: The Life (2008), it lays out McCartney’s more than 70 years in granular fashion while advancing a series of arguments as if they were chess pieces — notably that McCartney, as a Beatle, was as intellectual and avant-garde as he was extroverted and sweet-sounding.

Is this book necessary? There are many biographies of McCartney, from Barry Miles’s authorised Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (1997) to more recent ones by Peter A Carlin and Howard Sounes.

Norman notes that Miles’s book basically ends when the Beatles break up. He promises to give us the fullest account to date of McCartney’s post-Beatles years. This is an interesting idea in theory. Paul McCartney: A Life is the book to read if you want to learn a great deal about the lineup changes in Wings, McCartney’s post-Beatles band. It’s rich with detail about McCartney’s philanthropy, his knighthood, his taste in country homes, his dabbling as a painter, a poet and a composer of classical music.

It relates his adventures in moviemaking (the unwatchable Give My Regards to Broad Street), his collaborations with Michael Jackson (“Say Say Say”) and the success of the Cirque du Soleil show based on Beatles music. The author pays close attention to McCartney as an agile businessman. He bought lucrative music-publishing companies even as, to his dismay, he lost control of the Beatles publishing to Jackson. It was his idea to name the Beatles’s record company Apple, from a green apple in a favourite Magritte painting. When Apple computers came along, it would pay the Beatles a kingly sum for usage rights. The Beatles loved to sue one another, and Norman untangles the interlocking litigation.

Most of the warmth in this book’s second half comes from the portrait of McCartney’s nearly 30-year marriage to Linda Eastman. Their largely rural life was filled with a great deal of what seems like genuine and dog-hair-covered happiness.

Norman is alert to Linda’s weaknesses as a musician and a public figure. But, he says, “She was acknowledged to have been the right one for him, just as Yoko had been for John. Linda died of breast cancer in 1998. The disaster of Paul’s 6-year marriage to Heather Mills, who seemed unworthy of him in every regard, is covered in detail here, as is his marriage to Nancy Shevell in 2011.

Norman has a knack for turning up unusual details. One of McCartney’s early girlfriends says, in a quotation that made delighted headlines in Britain: “After the Beatles had been out on a gig, Paul used to like my mum to comb his legs. He’s quite hairy, and having his legs combed seemed to relax him. He’d say, ‘Oo, Vi, give me legs a comb’ and roll up his trouser-leg, and Mum would get a comb and do it.”

Norman is a prolific biographer. He’s also written lives of Buddy Holly, Elton John and Mick Jagger, among others. He’s a meat-and-potatoes guy, as a stylist. Sometimes those meat and potatoes seem to fixate uneasily on the stomach. Fans with a new Beatles album, he writes, would dash “home to audio equipment like the diarrhoea-smitten to toilets.” Of McCartney: “Adulation seems to go through him like Chinese food.” There are more lines like these.

At another point, Norman describes raindrops “the size of wet crowbars,” which is a better description of how that image lands. If there aren’t many grace notes in his prose, neither is there much perceptive musical criticism. When Prince Charles presents McCartney with an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Music, for example, Norman writes, “Never again would the classical music world be able to condescend to him.” Does Norman understand how condescension works?

I don’t wish to be too hard on the book. 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. The first 400 pages relate, once more, one of the best stories the past century has to tell.

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