Paul McCartney: The Life, by Philip Norman
By and large (and this book is large, at more than 800 pages), this is an enjoyable book to read if you are fond of the Beatles and especially Paul McCartney. This book would be more modestly and accurately titled as “a life” instead of “the life,” since the author did not wait until McCartney was no longer alive and no longer making notable and worthwhile music before writing and publishing the book, and since the author’s account is obviously not the definitive one, even if it is certainly an interesting and often insightful one. One of the more interesting aspects of this book is the history that the author had with his subject. Norman is notable in general for writing rock & roll biographies, in which he wrote a biography of John Lennon that was widely taken as being hostile and biased against McCartney. Later on, when he desired to write about McCartney, he had to deal with the negative repercussions of his previous writing and sought (and obtained) tacit permission to write about McCartney, which is an act of graciousness on the part of Macca that was repaid by the author in a generally favorable account. Whether or not it is a good thing that one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the backstory of the author’s writing, the author makes much of it.
This book is a massive one, and its scope is similarly massive, and it is no surprise that this book took a couple of years to write given the sources that were interviewed. As might be expected, much of this book focuses on the subject’s musical career, but there is a lot of discussion of personal matters. It is organized conventionally and chronologically, all of which is to be expected. The end result is easy enough to recognize and appreciate. McCartney’s childhood is explored, his friendships and his education and his musical family and ambitions. After that comes a look at his life in the Beatles and his own personal drama, then the Beatles breakup and his solo career and the start of a new band whose personnel just never seemed to gel, and then his solo career after the breakup of Wings in light of his imprisonment in Japan. The author explores the mix of popular appeal and critical stumbles with a sympathetic but generally honest approach. This approach is especially welcome when the author discusses McCartney’s late-career renaissance and his disastrous marriage with Heather Mills as well as the adulthood of his children with Linda and his relationship with them as they sought to make their own way.
There are some consistent themes that work their way through this particular life that allow one to tie together a lot of McCartney’s life and behavior together. One of them is the hardworking attitude that resulted from a high degree of insecurity that McCartney had about being respected. This insecurity led McCartney to feel that he would need to support himself after the Beatles with songwriting, thinking that his popularity would be short, led him to struggle with the personnel issues of Wings, and also likely influenced his use of pot as a way of calming down his continual ambient anxiety, all of which had serious consequences. Still, McCartney’s career is notable and successful far beyond the hopes and expectations of anyone. It is also interesting to note McCartney’s desire to be taken seriously as an artist, given his melodic gifts which long led him to be pigeonholed as a popster who wrote “silly love songs,” rather than someone who had deep and serious artistic ambitions. To the author’s credit, he not only praises the melodic gifts of McCartney but also his ambition. This is an author smart enough to write in such a way that he provides a lot of information and insight without alienating his bread and butter of musicians, and that is worthy of respect.