The Gospel according to Paul

His authorized biography makes a convincing case that Paul McCartney, derided as a pretty-boy lightweight, stood equal with John Lennon in creating some of the most important and beloved music of the 20th century.

By Mark Hertsgaard
Published November 13, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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I'm just like everybody else, John Lennon once confessed. I fell for Paul because of his looks, then George came along and knew how to play lead guitar, and Ringo was Ringo, so we all ended up together.

Of course, there was a bit more to the founding of the Beatles than that, especially as regards Paul McCartney. From the afternoon in June 1957 when Lennon and McCartney first met as Liverpool teenagers, Paul -- who could actually tune a guitar and remember all the words of songs -- was always John's musical equal and then some. As the years went by, their friendship deepened and their songwriting partnership blossomed to produce some of the most important and beloved music of the 20th century. They loved and fought with each other like brothers, but remained soul mates to the very end, as even Yoko Ono, Paul's replacement at the center of John's world, recognized. In the nightmarish hours immediately after Lennon's murder in 1980, Ono made but two phone calls: one to John's Aunt Mimi, the woman who had raised him, and one to Paul, the partner who, despite their many public and private spats, was still closer to John than blood.

Their music, after all, had changed the world. Both Lennon and McCartney took pride in that accomplishment, and each knew he could not have done it without the other. Their collaboration was like a love affair, Lennon once said, but the affair always had an edge to it. "It wasn't resentment, but it was competitive," Lennon recalled. Their affectionate rivalry not only drove Lennon and McCartney to write better and better songs over time, it propelled their astonishing musical evolution -- taking them from the mop-top innocence of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" through the marijuana-scented folk-rock of "Rubber Soul" to the electronic trailblazing of "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and finally to the towering majesty of "Abbey Road."

As much as fans and critics liked to speculate over who was the greater genius, it was the Lennon-McCartney partnership that was the real point. "It's like asking what's the most important constituent in a sauce vinaigrette, the oil or the vinegar," Beatles producer George Martin once said. "Both [John and Paul] were fundamentally important: One without the other would have been unthinkable in terms of the Beatles' success."

Which brings us to the enduring mystery at the heart of McCartney's career, and of his new, authorized biography, "Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now." For McCartney-bashers who dismiss him as little more than the pretty face John fell for all those years ago, the question to answer is, how could a supposed lightweight have stood up to the acerbic, bullying Lennon for so long, and indeed pushed Lennon to do the best work of his career? McCartney admirers, on the other hand, must somehow explain how a man who finished recording "Sgt. Pepper" at age 24 -- 24! -- and who authored such pop classics as "Eleanor Rigby" and "Penny Lane" could release piffle like "Your Mother Should Know," "Martha, My Dear" and "Honey Pie."

"Many Years From Now" doesn't solve the riddle, but it does shed light, though sometimes inadvertently, on both sides of the question. The majority of evidence accumulates on the McCartney-as-serious-artist side of the ledger, which is hardly surprising in a book that is an autobiography in everything but name. Much of "Many Years From Now" consists of blocks of verbatim quotes from McCartney, and the rest of the text was written by Barry Miles, Paul's personal and professional friend since the mid-1960s, when he and Paul co-founded the International Times, billed as Europe's first underground newspaper, and the Indica Bookshop and Gallery, where John and Yoko met in 1966. Not once, however, is "Many Years From Now" referred to as an authorized biography, much less as a book over whose contents McCartney must have had veto power.

That said, "Many Years From Now" has to be considered one of the essential books on the Beatles. Cleverly titled, handsomely packaged, it is by no means the whole truth and nothing but the truth -- "We don't have to be too faithful," McCartney says in the opening pages -- but it is invaluable as an insider's account of life at the eye of the hurricane that was the Beatles. This is how Paul McCartney remembers the events and personalities that revolutionized music and popular culture in the 1960s -- or is it more how he wants the world to remember them? Acknowledging his reputation as "a PR man," McCartney says, "Anything you promote, there's a game that you either play or you don't play. I decided very early on that I was very ambitious and I wanted to play."

So call this book the Good News According to Paul. His main point, argued repeatedly and persuasively, is that he and John were creative equals who thrived on their differences, and that a less balanced relationship could not have survived the immense pressures exerted by the world and their own personalities:

"People always assume that John was the hard-edged one and I was the soft-edged one ... but we wouldn't have put up with each other had we each only had that surface. I often used to boss him around, and he must have appreciated the hard side in me or it wouldn't have worked; conversely, I very much appreciated the soft side in him. It was a four-cornered thing rather than two-cornered."

That went for the songwriting as well as the friendship. After recalling how John answered his lyric "It's getting better all the time" with the line "It can't get no worse," Paul says, "The ricochet is a great thing ... John was very special. And I think for him, I must have been special, because he'd have got rid of me. That's the point about John. He didn't suffer fools gladly."

Another contention of McCartney's that flies in the face of his cute image is that he was at least as avant-garde as Lennon, and sooner too. From 1965 to 1967, while John, George and Ringo were married and living in London's stockbroker suburbs, Paul was a bachelor downtown, inhaling to the fullest the Swinging London scene of after-hours clubs, gallery openings and political and artistic fermentation. John was beside himself with jealousy, Paul claims, but -- again the four-cornered thing -- John welcomed Paul's experimental ideas into the studio, notably during the recording of one of John's masterpieces, "Tomorrow Never Knows." Though commonly attributed to Lennon, the sound of manic seagulls that gives that song its biting, otherworldly texture actually came from tape loops supplied by McCartney, who had been using them at home to make what he called "little symphonies."

All this is well known to close students of the Beatles, as are McCartney's recollections of who wrote which parts of which songs. (Miles writes that John and Paul's claims of authorship differ on only "Eleanor Rigby" and "In My Life," but in fact Paul also asserts a larger role than previously known in the writing of "Norwegian Wood" and "I Saw Her Standing There," among others.)

"Many Years From Now" does offer snatches of new information, including amusing, sobering, revealing stories about the Beatles' fame, their wealth and their excursions into -- what else? -- sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. On the artistic front, Paul says Bach was one of the Beatles' favorite composers, because "we felt we had a lot in common with him." He recalls that when composing new material he and John would force themselves to write "a song a day, whatever happened," working in three-hour stints. Because neither of them knew musical notation, their rule in the early days (before small home tape recorders) was, "If we couldn't remember the song the next day, then it was no good."

Girls, on the other hand, were not remembered the next day, no matter what; there were simply too many of them. McCartney describes the four Beatles "trawling for sex" during their first trip to the United States, in 1964: "When the pill started to happen, then all hell broke loose! Or all heaven broke loose, in our case ... We were so pleased that we could finally get girls because in our teenage years it had been very difficult, and now they were throwing themselves at you and this was just very pleasing ... It was always a one-night stand with whoever was around and wanted to party."

And drugs? "You have to talk about drugs" when discussing the Beatles' music, says McCartney. "If you don't, you're being wildly dishonest." Pot was their ally of choice, a source of both giggles and creative stimulation, even when they were in the studio. The results speak for themselves, but apparently George Martin was astonished to learn, years after the fact, that the Beatles were high on marijuana not just occasionally but the entire time they were making "Sgt. Pepper."

Of course, LSD also colored the lads' perceptions in that period. Here, McCartney tells of the night he and John tripped together for the first time and he had visions of Lennon as "the absolute Emperor of Eternity." Paul soon abandoned acid. But John carried on and, after hooking up with Yoko in 1968, slipped into a heroin addiction (hence his absence from many "White Album" sessions) that scared the other Beatles. "We all thought we were far-out boys but we kind of understood that we'd never get quite that far out," says Paul, who suggests that John's heroin use encouraged the emotional distancing and despair that later caused John to leave the band and break up the Beatles.

McCartney offers very forgiving accounts of his own sins: his bossiness, his unilateral announcement that the Beatles had broken up, his infamous lawsuit against the other three. Again, one-sidedness is to be expected in an autobiography, but it's too bad Miles didn't press him harder on these and other points. The Beatles' "Anthology" film had the same problem -- no one kept the stars honest.

Come to think of it, this may answer the McCartney riddle: In this book, as in his music, McCartney needs an editor -- someone who can separate the brilliant from the banal, someone who, above all, can tell him no and make it stick. Paul had that kind of relationship with the other Beatles, especially with John, but since then he's been his own boss, with decidedly uneven results. Late in the book, McCartney maintains he didn't care about "being the leader" of the Beatles because he "always quite enjoyed being second." That would come as news to anyone who worked closely with him. Most evidence suggests that the one person Paul McCartney could ever be second to was John Lennon, and the central contention of this book is that they were in fact equals.

But let it be; this is McCartney's version of history, not the
definitive biography of the man, and despite its faults it's a fun, occasionally illuminating read. Paul tells Miles at one point that he and John had to be two of the luckiest people in this century to have met each other. But try to imagine a world where songs like "Yesterday," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Fool on the Hill" and "A Day in the Life" had never been written, and it's pretty clear it's we who are the lucky ones.

Mark Hertsgaard

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