Part life story, part medical treatise on the long-term mental effects of pot smoking, Peter Ames Carlin’s new biography, Paul McCartney: A Life, chronicles the once and future Beatle from his parent’s meeting all the way through his latest album, Electric Arguments.
Carlin’s book doesn’t deal in those oft-repeated “truths” about The Beatles and Paul McCartney, and it never succumbs to nitpicking. It is written by a fan who loves Paul but is not blinded by that love. Carlin has written an engaging, well-researched biography of the Cute Beatle.
While Paul was for years dismissed as a lightweight next to John Lennon, people have finally started to come around. His contribution to the greatest rock band of all time was nothing short of foundational. Without Paul’s sense of melody and artistic experimentation, John songs like A Day in the Life or Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds would never have achieved their full potential. The Beatles were always a band, and Carlin shows that you can’t discount any member of that group. (Even Ringo.)
In spite of Carlin’s not being able to speak with Paul directly, he has 50+ years worth of interviews, news articles, books, and of course music to draw from. It really isn’t a drawback that the biographer doesn’t have direct access to his subject. Paul usually interviews only when he’s trying to sell something, and he also tends to be just a bit spacey. Not necessarily bad things in themselves, but it isn’t a mixture conducive to introspection.
It also doesn’t help that Paul rarely critiques his past work. I would love to sit him down and ask, as an intrepid Playboy interviewer did with John Lennon many years ago, what Paul thinks about every song on every single one of his albums. My friend Andy, a Beatle scholar of utmost integrity, theorizes that Paul doesn’t think about his past work. He sure doesn’t play the majority of his catalog on tour. If you just saw him live, you’d think he only made about a dozen songs from 1970 to the present. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, whips out a vast assortment of songs on his Neverending Tour, from hits to obscurities.
Paul’s desire to be liked, to keep earning his fame, is probably his greatest motivation. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, but it does force him to “forget” a large part of what he’s done over the years. As Carlin is quick to point out, sometimes a failure can be just as interesting as a success. Much of his commentary in the book is reserved for Paul’s lesser-known works.
Carlin’s portrait of Paul is of an inventive, egotistical, creative, musical, artistic, autocratic, blissful, angry, oblivious, hardworking, chipper guy. Because of all his contradictions, Paul comes off as truly human. That is the great success of Carlin’s biography. Breezy without being glib, deep without seeming pretentious, A Life presents a Living Legend in all senses of that phrase.
Although I’ve read more than my share of Beatles commentary, Carlin’s biography does shed some new light on that oft-written period of time. While Paul always wants to come off as a nice guy in public, he is a huge star and is used to having his way all the time. That tension is the crux of the Beatles chapters. Paul clearly wanted to become the leader of The Beatles after Brian Epstein died, an ill-advised move that probably led as much to the breakup as Yoko’s incessant howling. But it was also his vision that created Beatles out of a group of Liverpool teenagers. So you could say that balances things out.
The part of Paul’s life I was most interested in hearing more about, however, came post-Beatles. How can a man who thought up and executed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band produce utter garbage a few years later? Easy! Carlin tells us how:
Paul’s problem with putting out consistently good albums seems to be:
1. Big ego, plus
2. an unsureness of his own talent, compounded when
3. his big ego gets doesn’t allow him to listen when someone has a bad thing to say about his new songs.
Paul, like all us artists, needs an editor. His best editor, John, was never interested in working with him after the Beatles, and Paul never found another person he could trust as much as John. Paul’s reliance on how easy it all came to him was actually a hindrance, allowing him to put out albums regularly without any of the sweat needed to hone a group of songs to perfection. Then, if the album did well (which it usually did in the 1970’s, because this is a new Paul McCartney album after all), he’d just assume all was well and continue on his merry way.
I was particularly interested in Paul’s brief partnership with Elvis Costello. I really wish he had released the songs they recorded together as-is. Instead, second guessing himself, Paul re-recorded all of them. When they came out (in Flowers in the Dirt and the misbegotten Off the Ground) they had lost their energy.
Sometimes the production got in the way of perfectly good songs, but many times Paul just didn’t have anything to say. He was a blogger before his time. At worst, listening through Paul’s post-Beatle albums is a fascinating way to chart the moods of one of the most famous people on the planet. Feeling it was his duty to keep making albums, Paul sometimes lost the thread.
But that isn’t always the case. Every once in a while he’ll release Band on the Run, or Flaming Pie, or the recent Memory Almost Full. (Although for my money, McCartney is still his greatest solo effort.) Albums that, if they were made by a total unknown, would propel him to stardom.
Carlin compiles the story Paul never seems willing to tell. It is the story I’ve long wanted to hear. What Paul doesn’t know is, it is his failings that make him great. It’s the fact that he can release (and champion!) Give My Regards to Broad Street as if it were the next A Hard Day’s Night. I find it comforting that even a musical genius can have an off day.
I also find it comforting that a book such as this exists. Now I think I’ll put my headphones back on and listen.