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Review: Paul McCartney: A Life, by Peter Ames Carlin

Sir Paul McCartney


Paul McCartney's long time reputation as the Cute One, a sobriquet earned while a seminal member of The Beatles, has tended to undermine how deep, versatile and avant-garde he really is.

Or such is the impression left by Peter Ames Carlin's new unauthorized biography on the former Fab, a briskly paced but detailed book that rescues McCartney from the growing misconception that in The Beatles he was merely a pretty footnote to the main story of John Lennon.

Lennon's murder at the hands of a deranged fan in 1980 is largely responsible for this bending of the truth. Death has elevated the English rock star-turned-peace activist to the stature of a saint who, the legend goes, single-handedly authored the Beatles success.

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But as Carlin, a U.S. based cultural journalist who previously penned an acclaimed book on the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, clearly shows, it was McCartney who mostly drove The Beatles to unprecedented heights.

He was the group's de facto music director, teaching even Lennon how to tune and later play his guitar. He was also behind all the band's spectacular musical experimentations, from the backwards tape loops on 1966's Revolver to the abstract orchestral climax on A Day in the Life, an unsurpassed pop music masterpiece.

But his perfectionism and controlling ways could also alienate the artistic process.

Insisting on take after fastidious take and frequently making his band mates crazy, McCartney dragged out the making of The Beatles (better known as The White Album) for months on end, eventually driving George Harrison to seek a divorce from the group out of sheer frustration.

When the band did break up for good in 1969, McCartney was seen to be at fault - even though that was never what he had intended.

With the loss of the group, composed of all his best and boyhood friends, more than the other Beatles McCartney suffered a tremendous loss of identity, sinking into a massive alcohol-drenched depression that killed off any trace of cuteness left in him.

When he eventually emerged from the darkness, assisted by stalwart wife Linda (she died of cancer in 1998), McCartney was a new man in addition to a solo artist, both brilliant and flawed.

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Taking a clear-eyed approach to this stage in his subject's 50-plus year career, zooming in on the so-called Wings era, Carlin tries to understand how an artist capable of creating ingenious and anthemic pop ( Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, Hey Jude, Let it Be) was suddenly churning out inglorious pop in the form of Mary Had a Little Lamb and Listen to What the Man Said, both feather-light if not pure shite, to paraphrase Lennon.

Even Ringo, the most sanguine of The Beatles, was scratching his head. Carlin quotes him from a Melody Maker interview given in the wake of the release of McCartney's first solo effort saying that the new album revealed his old friend's enormous talent "going strange," almost as if he didn't want to admit he could write good tunes. "He seems to be wasting his time."

McCartney, on the other hand, rarely brooks any criticism and often has the last laugh.

"How many number one records have you had?," he once snapped at a studio producer wanting to suggest a change in his post-Beatles sound. And he has a point.

Love it or hate it, his bagpipe ballad, Mull of Kintyre, ended up being bigger than any of the Beatles singles. "Bigger," as Carlin writes, "than any other single in the history of British popular music." So there.

But while a fan - Carlin's thrilling critique and keen knowledge of the songs is one of the book's greatest pleasures - his compassionate tone often bears the flecks of disappointment and bewilderment.

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He's aware of his idol having feet of clay, and, armed with two years' worth of research, including previously untapped interview sources (among them a secret girlfriend dating to McCartney's Beatle-y days squiring the young actress Jane Asher), Carlin seeks to answer the question hanging on the lips of many a Beatlemaniac: What happened?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Carlin pins the disconnect on the Beatles breakup and especially his falling out with Lennon. Without the partner whom he loved and adored and deeply respected, McCartney lacked the "narrative complexity" that he had effortlessly achieved in his earlier songs. As much as it had inspired him, their legendary relationship came to haunt and even stifle him in later years.

When in the late 1980s he teamed up with Elvis Costello (whose misanthropic lyrics and dark, unsettled emotions recalled Lennon at his best), McCartney grew paranoid: "I thought the critics would say, 'Oh, they're getting Elvis to prop up his ailing career,' you know," Carlin quotes him as saying. Eventually, McCartney gave Costello the boot, determined to make his own way, no matter what the cost.

But rather than diminishing him, Carlin argues that McCartney's pride, drive and relentless ambition makes him a more nuanced artist than the stark trite of his Ebony and Ivory ditty might otherwise suggest.

As befitting the instigator of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the breadth and depth of McCartney is here presented in its full kaleidoscopic range, a psychedelic swirl of the good and the bad. This is what makes the book a must read for anyone wanting fully to appreciate the contributions McCartney has made - and continues to make - to the history of pop music.

His talent helped create not only the greatest rock band on earth, it raised the former council-estate son of working class parents to the heights of aristocratic authority, as witnessed when the Queen knighted him for his musical accomplishments in 1997.

In his personal life, with first wife Linda, he has been an attentive father to four children, raising them beyond the limelight in a loving albeit hippie bohemian environment, and seeing that they stayed out of the tabloids and forged independent careers, his famous fashion designer daughter Stella McCartney being a case in point. In this day of celebrities-gone-amok, this is no small achievement. His penchant for drugs and early insatiable taste for groupies aside, at the end of the day McCartney emerges as fundamentally decent and caring - "all smiles and enthusiastic energy," as Carlin describes him.

And yet the Giant Who Once Walked the Earth (sparking frenzied screams when he shook his famous mop top, yeah-yeah-yeah, during the time of Beatlemania) is only human, as underscored by his disastrous marriage to and subsequent acrimonious split from wife-number-two, Heather Mills.

That ridiculous affair is recent, having just transpired in 2006, and Carlin documents the messy details.

Even so, the book is not a tell-all as much as a celebration.

It both begins and ends with a portrait of the artist as he is right now - still rocking on the stages of the world, a string of hits to his credit, not to mention new albums, among them 2008's experimental Electric Arguments.

When Carlin observes McCartney once more on his Höfner bass, the talismanic instrument of his halcyon days, to play a current round of concerts that includes some of the golden nuggets of the Beatles era, he speaks for generations for whom McCartney's music forms the soundtrack to their lives when he suggests that, for all of McCartney's forward-motion momentum, it is his past that holds us enthralled: "By the time Paul kicked off the big "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End" finale, holding another vast arena spellbound as he sang about the way to get back home, it was easy to assume that this once-and-future Beatle ... was there already," writes Carlin, describing a recent gig.

"He had finally found his way back to where he once belonged."

Globe and Mail staff writer Deirdre Kelly recently published her first book, Paris Times Eight.

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