The Cute One: Paul McCartney
By SUZANNE VEGA
Published: December 16, 2009
I was one of those little girls who loved the Beatles in the 1960s.
Yes, Paul was my favorite Beatle back then, with Ringo in close
second place. As I got older I appreciated John's wit and George's
spirituality, but it all started with Paul and his dark beautiful eyes.
The book I relied on then was "The Beatles," by Hunter Davies. I
could open it to any page, read the first line and know what the rest
of the page was about. This book was the authority on all things
Beatle. From it we learned that their cool collarless suits came
from Astrid Kirchherr, the German girlfriend of their original
bassist, Stu Sutcliffe. She wore her blond hair in a short gamine
style and lived in a room that had one wall covered by a black cloth,
with a mirror behind it. I wanted to be her when I grew up.
I wanted to be like the Beatles too, and write songs and play the
guitar in dark German clubs, eating ham sarnies, a goal that I
eventually achieved, on a much smaller scale. Coincidentally, my
first summer romance was with a young man from Liverpool, who,
strangely enough, had thrown ham sandwiches at Paul McCartney in a
Dadaist demonstration during the first punk wave of the '70s.
Well, girls (and guys), now we have "Paul McCartney: A Life," by
Peter Ames Carlin, a former writer for People magazine and currently
a culture reporter for The Oregonian. This is a lovingly researched,
unauthorized biography, which follows McCartney from prebirth family
history through the arc of his life and career, right up until his
recent tumultuous marriage to and divorce from Heather Mills.
Carlin, the author of "Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of
the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson," attempts to present McCartney as more
artistically and intellectually complex and more ambitious than
the sweet and bubbly caricature we have known.
Unfortunately, this book is wildly uneven in both its tone and the
quality of its writing. The first chapter includes a fanciful account
of an actual recent McCartney concert, in Liverpool. The whole
experience is described as one huge flashback for both Paul and the audience:
"So dry your eyes and blow your nose, because now we're going back to
the basements of our youth. Coming full circle to those sweaty young
boys, so full of life and joy and not even suspecting where all of
this is about to take them."
Yes, let's do that. Our eyes dry in a hurry as we careen from
breathless fan-boy writing to dusty travelogue descriptions of
Liverpool at the turn of the 20th century, while Carlin describes
some immigrants flooding in and others flooding out, "departing for
the untrammeled shores of the New World."
Yawn. Why are shores always untrammeled? No one ever seems to write
about how trammeled most shores actually are these days.
What's missing here is the voice of Paul himself. Being unauthorized,
the book suffers from an overabundance of secondhand sources (and the
competing flavors of each), and is studded with speculation about
what Paul might have said or thought or felt.
In this first chapter alone, which is just 14 pages, Carlin has taken
from the following sources: "The Beatles," by Hunter Davies; "The
Beatles," by Bob Spitz; "Liverpool: Wondrous Place," by Paul Du
Noyer; "Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now," by Barry Miles.
There is only one original interview in the chapter, with Paul's
boyhood acquaintance Tony Bramwell, who, as a constant presence in
McCartney's life, resurfaces at other points in the book. These
one-on-one interviews with peripheral characters are actually the
strength of this biography, since they shed glimmers of new light on
For example, later in the book, Bramwell talks about the EMI record
company's response to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," now
widely considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time.
McCartney dreamed of turning it into a movie, but according to Bramwell:
"The stingy people at EMI, bless them, the people in charge of the
company at the time, actually didn't think 'SP' was a very good
album, as such. It had already cost them so much money in the studio,
they weren't sure it was going to recoup anything, so they wouldn't
come up with the budget for the film."
This is good stuff! Carlin deserves praise for uncovering it, and
there are many similar anecdotes in the book.
But much of the writing is jarring, and important things go
unexplained. Carlin has tracked down Astrid Kirchherr, the blond
existentialist with the black cloth curtain. Nice to think of her
again! She tells us that the Beatles were powerful and good-looking,
but we knew that already. Then Carlin continues:
"By now the Beatles had traded their ridiculous lilac jackets for
black leather suits, which they wore with black T-shirts. But Astrid
saw through the biker gear, and the whiff of violence that permeated
the smoky air every night at the Kaiserkeller, and recognized the
sweetness and intelligence glimmering just beneath the leather."
So she sees through the leather outfits, but was she responsible for
their cool collarless suits or not? He doesn't say. This is not an
irrelevant detail. She is also described as an "inspiring
photographer" when the context would seem to imply "aspiring photographer."
Later, Carlin discusses the influence of Brian Epstein, the Beatles'
manager: "No more showing up to play in unwashed leather suits and
wrinkled black T-shirts." Unwashed? How would you wash a leather
suit? With a sponge?
The narrative is derailed at times by bizarre random anecdotes. For
example, when Paul is courting the actress Jane Asher, whom he dated
for years, her father is described as a doctor with a "notorious"
sense of humor who "liked to give himself injections at the dinner
table, in the back of the neck, when company was at the table." Huh?
Of what? Heroin? Vitamin B-12? Is there even a vein back there? How
did he do this himself with no assistance?
Thankfully, Carlin's tone changes from rapturous and adulatory at the
start to cooler and more evenhanded when he's discussing McCartney's
post-Beatles work with Wings (we learn that Paul was, apparently
inadvertently, stingy with raises and royalty payments).
But by the end of the book, Carlin has become judgmental and
disapproving. He says McCartney "seems to be enacting a modern
version of the legend of Narcissus, too in love with his own youthful
reflection to recognize how unappealing his mature face has become."
One line about McCartney, which reads like a comment from a rejected
suitor, reveals the possible source of this disappointment: "He
grants interviews to bloggers and alternative weeklies, even as he
turns away some major magazines (and biographers)." Perhaps the
author made a bid for his subject's cooperation but was turned down.
Has Carlin deepened our understanding of McCartney's character in
this book? Or has he only darkened it? He could have written an
analysis of that character from an unbiased position, which is what I
think he was aiming for. But his attempts to entertain get in the way
of the story. And this is an entertaining book, although flawed,
filled with complaints and throbbing purple prose. Completists who
have a need for every detail on the Beatles will want a copy. It
would undoubtedly have been a better book with cooperation from Paul
McCartney himself. But maybe not as juicy.
Suzanne Vega's "Love Songs," the first of four CDs in a series called
"Suzanne Vega Close-Up," will be released in February.
McCartney as more than second fiddle
By Carlo Wolff
February 4, 2010
The story is familiar: As arguably the greatest rock 'n' roll band,
the Beatles ruled '60s culture. John Lennon was the smart one and the
leader; Paul McCartney, the cute No. 2; George Harrison, the restless
genius-in-waiting; and Ringo Starr, the funny reality check.
In "Paul McCartney: A Life,'' Peter A. Carlin offers a
reconsideration of the dynamics of the band and McCartney's role in
it, arguing that Paul was as much a leader as John. But he also
offers a complex portrait of an artist whose insecurities were fanned
when he was in the presence of talented musicians with strong
artistic visions, but who did his best work when around them.
As primary evidence, Carlin presents an appropriately unflattering
analysis of McCartney's work after the Beatles broke up in 1970.
Despite occasionally great post-Beatles music like the singles "Maybe
I'm Amazed,'' "Live and Let Die,'' and the albums "Band on the Run''
and the fabulously retro "Run Devil Run,'' he observes that McCartney
failed to grow beyond the work he did with Lennon.
For this warm, fair book, Carlin interviewed childhood friends,
former business associates, and members of various McCartney bands,
particularly Wings - but was not, unfortunately, granted interviews
with McCartney or Starr. Carlin's description of the process involved
in McCartney's creation of "Yesterday'' and of the influence
McCartney's effortless musicality had on the group underscore how
much influence he had on the direction of the iconic band.
Personally, McCartney comes across as a bit of an odd-man out, a
controlling cheapskate, and a comparatively straight guy, though he
sure does love his pot. While the others leapt into experimentation
with LSD, McCartney dabbled in it. While the other three were sick of
touring even before "Rubber Soul,'' McCartney never lost his appetite
for the stage, a yen that prompted the McCartney-driven movie
debacles of "Magical Mystery Tour'' and "Give My Regards to Broad
Street,'' Carlin suggests.
Nat Weiss, a New York attorney and a friend of Beatles manager Brian
Epstein, helped the Beatles promote their company, Apple, in the late
'60s. His take is astute:
" 'Neil Aspinall [original Beatles road manager and ultimate Apple
manager] used to explain that it was John's band,' says Nat Weiss.
'And at that point (in the mid-'60s) Paul was very conscious of
wanting the approbation of John, in anything he did. I think Paul
felt John was the cool one, the avant-garde one, the true artist.
Paul is basically a very bourgeois, middle-class person. Extremely
talented, for sure. But the rebel was John.' ''
When Lennon was murdered in 1980, McCartney felt as adrift as he did
at the dawn of the '70s when, Carlin suggests, Yoko Ono spearheaded
the move to disband the group. The Beatles didn't really come
together again until 1994, when the survivors finished Lennon's "Free
as a Bird.''
Carlin also writes about McCartney's personally tortured but largely
successful collaboration with Elvis Costello. Cut from similarly
acute cloth, Costello was as threatening to McCartney as Lennon.
These examples bolster the argument that McCartney tended to do his
best work while in challenging company.
Regarding McCartney's wives, Carlin doesn't gloss over Linda
Eastman's faults as a performer, but also celebrates what she meant
to McCartney as his partner of more than 30 years. He juxtaposes that
with details of McCartney's second marriage to, and nasty divorce
from, Heather Mills, rounding out a portrait of a musical genius full
of himself, an aesthetic adventurer who needs to run the ship, an
insecure schemer who also is a bit of a bore.
Carlo Wolff, author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories,'' is a
freelance writer in Cleveland.