Beatle fans who still think that Yoko Ono broke up the band should take a look at the recently released Paul McCartney: A Life (by Peter Ames Carlin; Touchstone Books; 374 pages; $ 25), a new biography that takes a clear but also honest look at the Cute Beatle’s from his early days in Liverpool all the way to his most recent live CD/DVD Good Evening New York.
Unlike most celebrity biographies, this is not some kind of tell-all book with nasty revelations and behind-the-scenes gossip. It is a deep look at the man and his music, his life and times and the lasting influence that McCartney – with or without the other three moptops – has left into popular music.
Having said that, let me say that a good first half of the book – which chronicles his youth and the years with the Beatles – does not bring any new information to light. Instead, it analyzes McCartney’s attitude towards the group – a musician whose perfectionism got the best of his mates, including early members Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best, ultimately leading to the (quiet) end of the group in the fall of 1969. But because Ames chose to focus solely on McCartney, in the end he becomes the contol-freak villain who – because he wanted to keep a tight ship without allowing the other Beatles to enjoy a break from the band (which might have helped them return to the band refreshed). A more complete chronicle of the Beatles’ , however, can be found on the excellent 983-page The Beatles, by Bob Spitz.
Paul McCartney: A Life also paints him as a control freak who tells his sidemen exactly how to play – which caused a lot of tension with Wings, his 1970s band that kept a rotating lineup all the way to its breakup in 1980 following a drug bust in Japan. Early on, Ames demonstrates that while he wanted to have a real band with full collaborators, he really wanted to be in charge. Ames quotes New York session guitarist Dave Spinozza (who played on the 1971 RAM) as saying that they “were told exactly what to play.”
“He took some suggestions – two out of ten,” Spinozza said. “But changed into a McCartney thing.” He also describes how he practically forced his wife Linda to learn how to play keyboards and write music, even if she was not at all eager to be part of his band. “I’m going to teach you how to write if I have to just strap you to the piano bench,” Paul is quoted as telling Linda. So much for being part of a nurturing relationship.
During the Wings years, he antagonized his fellow bandmates just as he’d done with the Beatles the previous decade (fans will remember George Harrison’s famous blow-up during the Get Back sessions, when he told Paul off on camera) until he found a group of yes-men who would do what they’re told and collect their paycheck at the end of the week. For instance, guitarist Henry McCullough (who created that beautiful guitar solo on “My Love”) came from a blues background and did not want to repeat the exact same guitar parts over and over; as a result, he abruptly left the band as they prepared to fly to Africa to record Band On The Run:
“[Paul] had allowed McCullough to follow his own path here and there, but Paul was determined to
to make these songs exactly right, and now the guitar player wouldn’t stay in line. McCullough kept finding new variations, new riffs, to add to songs they had already played through dozens of times. The air between them grew chilly. Paul glared at the Irishman, who simply stared back. Then Paul interrupted a song and confronted him. ‘I need you to play this!” he implored the guitarist. ‘You developed it; now just play it the way you played it before, so we get used to hearing it!’ Everyone else could only stand and watch.”
Paul McCartney: A Life also looks at his different romantic relationships, including Linda and the ill-fated marriage to Heather Mills, who he divorced in what became a feast for the tabloids with accusations of abuse (from Mills) and other tidbits. But it also looks as how over the years, he made peace with Lennon, Harrison and Starr (with whom he continues to collaborate to this day) and with his image as a Beatle. Most importantly, it takes a caring analysis of songs that inspired and have continued to inspire generations of musicians and music lovers alike – a legacy that isn’t going away anytime soon.