Perhaps here lies the paradox of McCartney. Resting in the core of all of this extravagance is so much ordinariness.
It is a marvelous thing to recognize genius. We spot it most often in the grandiose, the intricate, the ones who confront our darkness with clear-eyes. da Vinci, Beethoven, Davis. We like it when people expose our dark underbellies. It feels brave, and it is. Then come along artists like Paul McCartney. I think it’s a bit harder to spot genius in “smoking monkberry moon delight (om pah om pah pah), ho monkberry moon delight (om pah om pah pah).” Not that people haven’t, McCartney is world renowned, but works like “Temporary Secretary” and “Oo You” are often relegated to a granny-rock, for-the-masses category of music.
Philip Norman’s McCartney: The Life, published in 2016 fails to confront this type of artistry. Delivering 853 pages of information on the life of Sir Paul McCartney, Norman did his homework: exploring 1950s Liverpool, interviewing former Wings and Beatles roadies as well as childhood friends. After nearly one thousand pages, readers will certainly know more about McCartney, but they won’t even begin to comprehend why Paul McCartney. His spot on the mantle of greats has yet to gather much dust, and Norman never really explains why. There are many rockers with pretty faces and savvy minds who fail to maintain relevance past the age of thirty, after all. Yet at eighty, McCartney wrapped up his latest tour in October 2022 and published a retrospective photography collection, Eye of the Storm, just weeks ago.
Norman unpacks Paul’s early years, with initially admirable attention to niche details, but as the Beatles years drag on, Norman does too. The book spends pages stewing over business deals gone amuck, chronicling each and every girlfriend, (and there are a lot,) and pretty much every McCartney release and Wings tour stop. Yet, in these hundreds of thousands of words, the play, the charm, of the McCartney touch entirely fails to permeate the pages. For Norman’s fascination with McCartney’s workaholic, perfectionist tendencies, seen as McCartney builds and runs Apple Records for several years, he never so much as touches McCartney’s creative process. Norman also gives special attention to the legacies of Buddy Holly and Lil Richard shaping McCartney’s musicianship but skims over the implications of the McCartney legacy, which transformed modern songwriting and performance–through organic, technical, and lyrical experimentation, and a relentless enthusiasm for his craft. The book ends up reading like a Wikipedia entry with the physical heft of a bowling ball.
Norman begins his epic strangely, admitting a jealousy of Paul that led to several public bashings in his previously authored Beatle biographies. In addition to this challenge, he writes that in tackling this project, he was faced with the reality that “this seemingly most open and approachable of all mega-celebrities is actually one of the most elusive.” Norman’s answer is right, but his math is wrong. He attributes this indefinability to McCartney’s almost-too-courteous nature, his tightness with money, his mind for business. But I think it has something to do with his startling lack of disingenuousness, a simplicity that feels unreal for anyone who has achieved his level of fame.
In a particularly devastating chapter that makes for a worthy case study, Norman decimates McCartney’s universally panned movie Give My Regards to Broad Street. In Norman’s defense, it is a spectacularly bad movie. What is lost on Norman, critics, and the audience of 1984 is the gleeful and mellow stupidity of the film. Give My Regards to Broad Street follows a fictionalized McCartney (played by McCartney) as he attempts to locate his allegedly stolen album master tapes by midnight or lose millions of dollars. The film is a fever dream of costumes, jam sessions, and nonsensical Ringo banter. This movie was a vanity project and money suck for Fox Studios, to be sure, but it was an exercise in self-awareness too. McCartney knows exactly how rubbish his film is, he knows exactly how silly his music can be; he presents as much to the audience with a wink, a nod, and about five minutes of discernible plot. His enormous power coupled with his charming follies just don’t quite compute. Perhaps here lies the paradox of McCartney. Resting in the core of all of this extravagance is so much ordinariness.
It seems to me the thing that separates Paul McCartney is a self-awareness that feels almost superhuman for someone who possesses his level of power and acclaim. Silliness is a difficult thing to hold onto. Growing up will zap a person of their whimsy. But McCartney still checks into hotels under the moniker of “Percy Thrills Thrillington.” It is this earnest ridiculousness for the sake of ridiculousness that first drew me to the Beatles and then McCartney’s solo career. I adored the Beatles tracks that consisted of noises, background chatter, tapes played backwards. It is far too easy to take life far too seriously, this art serves as a reminder that you can say “obla di obla da” for the sake of saying it. Bonus points if it sounds good, too. McCartney has an innate ability to be irreverent without falling into frivolity. There is a respect for the music and lyrics but also an acknowledgement that the art, that life, can also just be about humming along. While Norman admires his adaptable demeanor, he misses, cynically, that McCartney’s breeziness is not a means to an end, not a tactic, but who he is both as an artist and as a person.
McCartney is a figure many of us are numb to. His young face is still everywhere, a mural on the side of Groove Bar and Grill on MacDougal Street, on the T-shirts of passersby. He feels almost anachronistic, doesn’t he? In his old age, his doodly nature is easy to dismiss. He’s had a charmed life; his unthinkable fame has led to extreme wealth and adoration. But the book served as a reminder of the trauma he has endured, initially growing up quite poor: his mother died of cancer when he was fourteen, his best friend was brutally gunned down when he was thirty-eight, he lost his wife eighteen years later, to the same cancer as his mother, and his bandmate and childhood friend died just six years later. It must be lonely sometimes, with so few who came up with him remaining.
McCartney’s work can be serious, but it lacks entirely in acidity. For this, his work is too often deemed safe. His signature cocktail of sincerity and coolness toes a line that is no longer, or maybe never really was, all that fashionable. When he emerged on the music scene in the early ’60s, rockers were to replace crooners. By the mid-80s, punk was dominant and brought with it cynicism and revolution. But the McCartney discography music possesses a timelessness that is hard to find in today’s media landscape. Indeed, it belongs to a Tin Pan Alley era of playful yet universal sentiments more commonly associated with Gershwins and Porters.
The further I trek through life, the more I desperately need the reminder that art is for play, that good feelings, sweet feelings, deserve to be channeled. To continuously rediscover these sentiments and channel them into song after sixty-five years of spotlight is itself a masterclass. The work produced from this life—genius. McCartney’s expertly light touch emerges from an undercurrent of pain, channeled masterfully into a philosophy that life must, nay, life should go on, and go on well. He plays around, indulges in sentimentality, and relishes the gooey, necessary, visceral stuff of life. After all, this is the man who wrote “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” I think he meant it.