Tuesday, May 3, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Paul McCartney: The Life


Well, here's a book I never thought I'd ever see in my lifetime...a biography of Paul McCartney by author Philip Norman, and with Paul's tacit approval, no less! Let me explain briefly. Norman's Beatles biography, Shout! (which I will be reviewing in the future) came out in the early 1980s and while it was well researched and well written, basically put forth the notion that John Lennon was, in Norman's own words, "75% of the Beatles." He was also very nasty toward Paul in the book, so much so that Paul spent years calling the book Shite! However, in 2003 Norman was asked by Yoko Ono to write an authorized biography of John...while he completed the book with unprecedented access to John and Yoko's archives, family, and friends, she revoked her authorization at the final manuscript stage. The book was still published and is, in my opinion, the definitive book on Lennon's life. One of the people who contributed to the book was none other than Paul McCartney. Eventually, as Norman describes in his foreword (more on this in a bit), he and Paul buried the hatchet and, when asked by the author if he had any objections to his writing a biography on him, Paul gave "tacit approval." What this meant is that Paul would allow anyone from his life to speak with Philip Norman if they wanted to. The resulting book, released on this very day of May 3rd, 2016, is the subject of this review.  

***special thanks to Liz at Little, Brown, and Co for sending me a copy of the book to review!***



When I heard a couple of years ago that this book was in the pipeline, I was at first surprised for the reasons mentioned above, and then quite interested. In addition to Shout! and his Lennon book, I've read (and enjoyed) Norman's Mick Jagger biography and so knew what type of biography he was capable of writing. My surprise was due to the thawing in relations between Paul and his would-be biographer. In his foreword, Norman explains the origins of his animus toward Paul and how they eventually came to a detente. He first interviewed the Beatles backstage on their final UK tour in late 1965 and mentioned how the Beatle he most wanted to trade places with and live the life of was Paul, for his looks, talent, wealth, and girlfriend (the actress Jane Asher). He also spent time covering their Apple Corps. company during the late 1960s as the band was falling apart. However, he describes feeling almost betrayed by Paul in the wake of the band's 1970 split due to the (incorrect, as it turned out) public perception that Paul was solely responsible for breaking up the band and for suing his former bandmates. Additionally, he disliked Paul's music with Wings in the 1970s, thinking it lightweight and believing that he was squandering his musical talents by making music that fell far short in comparison to his Beatles work. There was then the upset over Shout! and numerous other things Norman wrote about Paul in the press over the decades (including a rather crude "obituary" poem that the author admits he now regrets). Eventually, Paul contacted him in order to see, in Norman's words, "what this person who hates me is really like." They had a pleasant conversation and Norman began to realize that maybe he'd been wrong about Paul. When later asking for permission to research a biography of him by contacting friends and family, Paul gave his blessing and the result is this book.



Norman starts off the journey of Paul's life with, of course, his birth and childhood during WWII Liverpool, tracing Jim and Mary McCartney back a few generations in Ireland before the families eventually settled in England. The story of Paul's childhood and the formation of the Beatles has been told so often, in other books as well as by me on this site when writing about the various Beatles books I've reviewed, that it's not worth getting into again. I will say that, in his typical style, Norman gets through the Beatles years briskly yet thoroughly, covering all of the bases and hitting the high points without getting bogged down in too much of the minutiae since this isn't a Beatles biography. Honestly, I was glad to finally get to the Beatles break-up as I've read about them so many times before. He does have some interesting insight on Paul's five year relationship with Jane Asher, as well as the various semi-regular girlfriends he had on the side during that time. One of the central themes of the entire book seems to be Paul and Linda's nearly thirty-year marriage, which Norman goes to great length in highlighting throughout, starting with their initial meeting in the spring of 1967 and through their courtship, marriage, and eventually her tragic death from cancer in 1998. Over the course of the entire book, he consistently portrays her as a kind, loving, free-spirited, and strong woman who really was Paul's perfect match as they raised their four children together and shared the stage and studio during his solo career.



One of my complaints about the Lennon bio was that only the last ~125 pages or so, out of over 600, was devoted to John's post-Beatles life. Granted, he only lived ten years after the band split, but it still felt like too much was crammed into too few pages. No such problem exists with this McCartney book, as half of its nearly 900 pages are dedicated to his life after Beatles. The section on the break-up, Paul's lawsuit against the other three to dissolve their partnership, and its effect on his mental and physical health was excellent. While the nuts and bolts of the split's machinations have been described in exquisite detail elsewhere, such as in Peter Doggett's excellent You Never Give Me Your Money (a book I will be re-reading and reviewing here soon), Norman focuses instead on how it affected Paul personally. Likewise the travails and successes of his 1970s career fronting Wings and the various comings and goings of the constantly shifting band lineups (save for him, Linda, and Denny Laine). Paul's infamous 1980 drug bust in Japan in described in more detail than I've read anywhere else and goes into some detail on his life in the Japanese prisons for that week and the various legal and political machinations that were necessary to extricate him. Paul's solo career to the present is covered in better detail than I've seen elsewhere and while there weren't any particularly jarring revelations, it was nice to see his down period in the 1980s covered in detail, as well as his involvement in the Beatles Anthology in the early 1990s and his subsequent late-career revival. Most touching was the discussion of his long and happy marriage to Linda and the emotions around her illness and death in 1998. It was hard to not get a little misty-eyed when reading about Paul's absolute heartbreak in the wake of her passing. His ill-advised rebound marriage to Heather Mills, as well as his subsequent, very-public divorce is discussed in fine detail, just letting the facts speak for themselves . Even so, Paul manages to come off looking much better than Heather, just as it happened in the court of public opinion. His more happy 2011 marriage to Nancy Shevell and his tours and new albums since bring the story up to date, and Norman bookends the story with an epilogue that again brings him personally into Paul's orbit. In late 2015 backstage before Paul's concert in Liverpool, he was part of a meet-and-greet with Paul. His reason for attending, besides having a new found respect and appreciation for the man, was to give Paul some brand new information in helping to recover Paul's original Hofner violin bass guitar, which was stolen from in 1969. Over the course of this final section, he admits that his earlier animosity was incorrect and misplaced and fully offers his appreciation and admiration, not only for Paul's career and place in music history, but for the overwhelmingly good person and loving family man he is. Quite a change from the attitude described in the foreword, let alone in the earlier Shout!



As with all of Philip Norman's books that I've read, the prose and style is very easy and enjoyable to read, flowing nicely and making the book not feel like a chore at all despite its high page count. There were a few errors, such as calling the aborted Threetles song "Here and There" (it's actually called "Now and Then") and Linda's posthumous albums Wild Prairie (it's Wide Prairie) but overall the book got the important facts correct (at least that I saw). The level of research is impressive and overall, the book captures the essence of Paul McCartney, not only the supremely talented musician and performer, but the family man and private, guarded personality who nonetheless has done right by just about everyone he's interacted with over the course of his life. Norman managed, with Paul's tacit approval, to interview an impressive collection of people, most notable his brother-in-law and lawyer John Eastman who gave an impressive behind-the-scenes look at the chaos of the Beatles' Apple Corps and the breakup of the band precipitated by Allen Klein. Paul's pre-fame ex-girlfriends Dot Rohne and Iris Caldwell (sister of Rory Storm) also provided some interesting insight into his younger years when the Beatles were but one of many struggling Liverpool bands trying to make it. Likewise the information provided by Maggie McGivern, Paul's longtime "side" girlfriend during his years with Jane Asher, shed light onto his previously stated misgivings about the relationship and engagement with Jane before he met Linda.



As for my final judgments on this book, I think it's an excellent comprehensive biography of Paul's entire life. It's certainly better than the Sounes and Carlin books, and never seems like it tries to get salacious or suggestive of anything untoward...rather, Norman lays out the facts in context and lets the reader take them at face value. I will say that it would certainly help to have read his Lennon bio as many things alluded to are done so with Norman assuming readers have read the companion Lennon book, as he calls it. While this book is, in my opinion, worthy of being the definitive biography of Paul, on the whole it was a bit less satisfying the Lennon book. Part of this might just be the fact that Paul had a relatively normal upbringing (the death of his mother aside) and grew into a normal adult, husband, and father, whereas John's life was anything but conventional and so his story would be a bit different. I also see this as being due to the new information Norman has uncovered, which is more filling-in-the-gaps than any great revelations, which is perfectly fine. If you want to get the most in depth account of Paul's life during the Beatle years of the 1960s, Norman's book gives a nice overview but more detail would be found in Lewisohn's book or Paul's own quasi-autobiography. Similarly for the Wings years, where Tom Doyle's book has more of the fine details. However, for a well-written, well-researched, and comprehensive look at his entire life, with Paul McCartney: The Life Philip Norman now has a pair of books, dedicated to the greatest songwriting partnership of the twentieth century, to his credit that can be considered definitive biographies on their subjects. 

MY RATING: 8/10


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