Book Review: Many Years From Now
The official biography of the Ex-Beatle shows a man insecure about his place in history.
Published by Secker and Warburg
Rob Blackhurst.com, Spring 1997
A decade ago, when Paul McCartney hit his mid-40s, he became restless. Following the trend of many attractive, affluent middle aged men whose youthful glories had passed, he showed the classic symptoms of the male menopause.
Here was a who seemingly had everything; enormous earnings from the Beatles cash cow, a stable and happy family life that had been remarkable in avoiding the pitfalls of twentieth century celebrity.
And how dignified Paul and Linda’s domesticity seemed when compared to the pubescent antics of Jagger, Wyman, Stewart and co clinging on to their glory days through regular face-lifts and a stream of interchangeable blondes. The McCartneys were that rare spectacle; two sixties swingers who realised the party was over and it was time to go home.
Yet the signs were that McCartney was following many of the baby-boomer generation by becoming afflicted by self-doubt, pondering over his mortality, his final place in the scheme of things. The public perception of McCartney as a saccharine MOR lightweight and the canonised Lennon as tortured genius responsible for the Beatles’ creativity rankled.
He launched a full-scale attempt at historical revisionism, challenging both the hagiography of Lennon acolytes and his own typecasting as sentimental young-fool. The point scoring started with child-hood; Lennon was no “working-class hero”; he lived in the leafy suburbs whilst Paul was raised in a council house. When anatomising the Beatles legacy, Paul claimed mid-60s avant-garde flirtations as his own: He was entertaining the shakers of the Beat generation with his tape loops whilst John was strummed his old acoustic. Lennon indolently basked in stockbroker belt luxury whilst McCartney breathlessly embraced the endless party of Swinging London. Paul listening to Stockhausen John: played golf. Here are the recurring themes of McCartney’s attempts to remould the iconography
The appointment of Barry Miles as court chronologer marks McCartney’s increasing desperation to prove that he was Lennon’s artistic match. Released in the same week as his first full-length classical symphony, they speak volumes of his craving for respect as he reaches late middle age. It is clear that McCartney has been wounded by the sustained critical attack on his post-Beatles output. He is understandably aggrieved by the lazy dismissals of his entire work on the basis of “Goodnight Tonight” or “Mull of Kintyre”. Throwaway 70s dross maybe, but then this was the part of the decade that belonged to Dr Hook, The Carpenters and the Osmonds. Pop became mawkish; apple-pie wholesome in response to the decadence of the late 60s. Even caustic Lennon came up with the cod-disco of “Whatever gets you through the night” and forgettable rockabilly pastiche of “Move Over Ms L ” in the years before Punk’s cleansing influence.
Yet reading the sanctimonious justifications and sideswipes at Lennon which prevent Miles biography from being genuinely revealing, one can’t help feeling that McCartney really should relax about his public image. He is revealed as a man extremely sensitive to criticism, both by the detail in which he can remember sleights, (his memory of the soured love note How Do You Sleep is word perfect despite being written 25 years ago) and in personal confrontation of critics. Even in the early 70s when Willie Russell wrote John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert, portraying Paul’s ruthless ambition as driving the band apart, he provoked a furious phone-call from the McCartney residence. In recent years, Paul was moved to write to The Guardian to discredit a negative review of the Liverpool Oratorio. There no longer seems cause for concern. Despite the sneering that he endured from young male critics sensing any easy target in the 70s and 80s, the last few years has seen McCartney’s reputation rehabilitated.
As he reaches late middle age, he has found himself in tune with the pop aesthetic of a new generation of British swingers. The faux-intellectuals that declaimed from the pages of the N.M.E and broadsheet music pages in the 80s saw McCartney’s everyman domesticity as an anathema to everything they held dear. Since Dylan’s protest records of the Vietnam era, Pop had only been deemed as respectable if it was flag-waving, iconoclastic, erudite or introspective. The sloganeering of early U2, the bile of the Sex Pistols, the gallows humour of Morrissey and the emotional breakdown of Joy Division all garnered critical laurels. McCartney’s whimsical charm and uplifting, simple melodies emotions were denounced in the same breath as the sweet, soulful music of other 60s contemporaries.
In the 80s, furrow-browed journalists dressed in Black who were more interested in Margaret Thatcher rather than Aretha Franklin denounced Motown and other perfectly formed pieces of Bubble-gum pop. The 90s have seen a return to pop being understood on its own terms rather than as a 3-minute polemic. If you want ideas you read a novel. If you want politics you read a newspaper .If you want a sweet, brash rush of excitement you listen to music. And if you want a sweeter, stickier rush you take drugs. Just don’t mix these fine ingredients together or you end up with Ultravox. This rave generation logic is at once simpler and far more sophisticated than the studied poses of 80s rock. We have embraced a simple post-modernism in our acid-lit, bewilderingly diverse pop culture. We are no longer involved in a portentous search for the philosopher’s stone, for a monolithic stance that divides the chosen few from those who do not understand. We celebrate diversity. Shameless reinvention and hybridisation are the social cachets of the 90s.
And here is why the 90s have been kinder to McCartney. A writer who dazzled at every turn, from the Merseybeat of “Can’t Buy Me Love” to the ragtime pastiche of “Honey-pie”, the miniaturist folk of “Black-Bird” to the heavy-metal menace of “Helter-Skelter” could never be accommodated by critics who demanded an authenticity. His range was equated with a lack of commitment and seriousness.
Contrastingly, the beatific Lennon was idolised because he had a recognisable style; a habit of using similar chord sequences, similar vocal phrasing and sharp, surreal lyrics which can instantly be pigeonholed by critics. From the sublime beauty of “Julia” to the half-speed rock of “I’m so tired” his style is instantly recognisable. McCartney always suffered for his willingness try writing music in any style.
The leaden pomposity of critics reached its height when McCartney wrote the frog chorus; to accompany a children’s film, complete with whirling Disney strings and was vilified as if he regularly murdered furry animals. His response of “Of course it’s simplistic. It’s a fucking children’s song” betrayed a logic that was lost somewhere in the late 60s.
Post-Anthology, Post-Britpop, Post-knighthood and Post-Flaming Pie, critics are treating the old man with a new respect. The favourable reviews that his first Symphony has received, the presence of a new generation of apologists from Noel Gallagher to Julie Birchall suggest that his time has come. That is why the point scoring that regularly seeps into Mile’s biography irritate. Paul’s memory of how much better he was able to relate to Julian than John himself; “John never got the hang of it. John was always a man” and his dismissal of John’s belief in human touch; “He was right, but the thing is, I knew it more than he did, because he was only discovering it” show that though old rivals may die, old rivalries die hard. Barry Mile’s exacerbates this distasteful trait in his subject by inserting his own mindless jibes; some of which are just plain wrong;
“The song (How do you sleep) does focus on all John’s resentment of Paul and it is no surprise to find in it a reference to Yesterday. John never got over the fact that the two biggest Beatles records (Yesterday and Michelle) were solo efforts by Paul on which John did not even play”
This pettiness is at odds with the revelation of McCartney as a man of warmth and great personal integrity. The sections that deal with his relationship with Linda are genuinely moving; the story of a Prairie-plain, headstrong American capturing his heart with her rebelliousness and intuitive femininity. Where he was cautious, she would be daring; where he was caught up in the trappings of wealth and success, she was a hippie whose belief life’s simple pleasures, providing a relief from the effete decadence of metropolitan London. Mile’s tells the story of how Linda would relax the focused behaviour of a control freak;
“When we first met, it would be late at night after a session or something and I would be trying to unwind and so we would go for a drive around London in the in the late-night clear streets, two in the morning or something, and she’d say “Try and get lost” and I’d say, “that goes against every fibre in my body. As a driver the last thing you do is try and get lost!” She said, “Try it”. And I’d try it: “For you, I’ll try it”. So I’d turn off the little back streets round Battersea and the side streets-“Hey this is great”- but pretty soon you’d see a big sign saying, “West London” Signs everywhere. It’s actually very difficult to get lost around London. We used to end up in the greatest places that I’d never even seen before. We never did get lost”
Miles’ revelations of their intensely creative relationship are telling. In retrospect,. Linda was not the replacement for Jane Asher. She was the partner who replaced his old fiancé, John.