A death in the family: Linda McCartney, 1941-1998

By Joyce Millman
Published April 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Did you hate her too, when she married Paul?

When you're 12 and you have a crush on the cutest Beatle and he goes and weds a pale divorced photographer with a kid -- well, these things are hard to fathom if you haven't been in love, real love, yourself yet. And so, Linda Eastman McCartney became one of the two most misunderstood women of her time. In those tearful days when the Beatles were breaking up, we searched for a place to lay blame and we saw John pulling away from Paul and choosing up with Yoko, and we saw Paul pulling away from John and siding with Linda, and we found our scapegoats. And Linda, propped up as a full-fledged member of her husband's post-Beatles bands, despite her thin voice and unsteady keyboard tinklings, proved to be an easier target than Yoko over the years. The very idea that Paul could replace John with his wife!

In those days, when rock was still largely dominated and shaped by male sensibilities, a wife was an almost worthless thing to be -- below groupies in the pecking order. Although Linda was as much an artist as Yoko, she had none of Yoko's formidable mystique. With her blissful hippie farm-mom demeanor and her veggie cookbooks, Linda was more, well, domesticated. And, make no mistake, in domesticity, Linda chose the hard road. She was regarded as an appendage to a more famous man; her photography and her other interests were judged harshly because they were perceived, unjustly, as a "hobby." We were unkind to her, so unkind, and so unsisterly.

But then we got married ourselves and had kids and grew up and turned 40 (and 50) and discovered that silly love songs are the hardest songs of all to write. And now, Linda McCartney isn't so difficult to understand. She and Paul were serious about being a family. They were the most married couple in rock 'n' roll. And the saddest line in McCartney spokesman Geoff Baker's revelation Sunday of Linda's death from breast cancer that spread to her liver (she actually died on Friday) was the one that pleaded for the press and fans to give Paul his space -- except for the 10 days that Paul spent in a Tokyo jail for marijuana possession, Baker reminded us, he and Linda hadn't spent a night apart "in the 30 years that they have loved one another."

In the enormity of Paul's loss, Linda's contribution becomes clear. What Paul (and John) tried to do after the Beatles was to take rock 'n' roll beyond the boys-on-a-tear image and make it a family affair. Linda's presence at Paul's side was not intended to make a musical statement -- it was all about shared lives. And, slowly, Linda McCartney earned the respect of those of us trying to strike a similar balance. The McCartneys mixed careers and togetherness and environmental activism and kids, but, by their own admission, the kids always came first. In a 19-year-old NBC interview, replayed on MSNBC Sunday, Paul said that he and Linda never took a vacation without their children because "they're not a headache to us." They ended up with three kids who, by all accounts, actually enjoyed being in the same room as their parents. The McCartneys were an inspiration (forgive me if this sounds corny) to us old rockers trying to create our own family harmony.

As for Linda and Yoko breaking up the Beatles, well, we know better now. The Beatles broke up because Paul and John -- the guys who wrote and sang almost exclusively about love, love, love -- wanted the kind of love they couldn't get from each other, or from being the Beatles. Linda helped Paul turn an abstract into a reality, a wish into a home.

I hope she can forgive us.

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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