Despite all the scrutiny applied to the Beatles at the remove of 50 plus years, I’m always taken aback by how rarely they’re truly examined. My own experience in writing regularly about the band and their art suggests that the Beatles have become something akin to sacred plush toys.
People are loath to probe, and prefer to deify, making a kind of Beatles cosmology, as if that veneration process reflects favorably on who they are, by dint of what they choose to esteem. Pulling out truths, and then considering those truths from myriad angles, can be seen as a personal attack, rather than what it really is—a good faith effort to enrich a rich experience even further.
There can be joy—I think so, anyway—in citing how a song might not work, or how a guitar solo falls to bits, or an instance where creativity faltered but good old-fashioned pluck saved the day. Not everything need be the masterpiece of a “Strawberry Fields Forever” or a Revolver to be cherishable. Sometimes, even with the Beatles, human moments—which are not always the same as Valhalla moments—say a lot about why we love what we love, if we let them.
Beatles tropes persist, despite how easily they can be debunked. They’ve long been out there, and they remain out there. Consider, for example, the oxymoronical “fourth wheel” status of Ringo Starr, when the man was a master technician on his instrument, and there were times in the Beatles’ seven-year run—as with their glorious, leave-taking Abbey Road—when Starr evinced that he might have been their most gifted instrumentalist, and that’s with Paul McCartney as a James Jamerson-level bassist.
Many of what we’ll call Beatles-based “unexaminings” are oriented around the McCartney-John Lennon axis, because how could they not be? The partnership became a shifting balance of competition in which each man essentially tried to “out-art” the other, but with sufficient humility and fealty that they’d still assist the other’s cause. Need some help with that melody on “In My Life,” and McCartney would step up for Lennon; unsure about the “movement you need is on your shoulder” line in “Hey Jude,” and there’s the former Johnny Moondog telling the ex-Paul Ramone to just leave that sucker be.
And just as Lennon and McCartney came to pull apart as distinct artistic stylists, Beatles people have tended to fall into camps. You’re a Paul person or a John backer. You have your go-to. Saws and tropes head up each man’s camp as that camp is usually thought of. Lennon was the artier fellow, the rebel, the burgeoning avant-gardist, and the lyric master. McCartney was the all-around musician, the melodist, the balladeer, with homespun, sometimes hokey words which mattered less because of the quality of the tunes—in their very tunefulness—that he wrote.
Lennon later requested a helping of truth—as in, give me some, brother—and we should probably say that there’s not a lot of truth here, in the tired, repeated old ways of thinking about these things, which takes us to this remarkable new addition to the literary annex of Beatledom, and it comes from Paul McCartney, with a book simply called The Lyrics, though it is not so simple at all.
Cherry-picking through his catalogue of songs, from the Beatles era on up, McCartney talks his way through the songs in conversation with the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon (himself no stranger at fronting a rock ’n’ roll band). But he’s conversational the way Samuel Pepys’ is in his diaries; that is to say, he’s convivial, but conviviality works best when it has the larger purpose of depth, substance, and the ease of the tone helps get that substance across.
In a way I’m surprised that McCartney did this book, but I’m also not. Up until now, he’s never been a chronicler, like, say, Bill Wyman was for the Rolling Stones. He’s not an archivist of displayed memories. I think that the era of the podcast and social media—when it’s so easy to set the record of one’s life straight and do so quickly—probably provided both some inspiration and a suggestion of the relative ease of this format.
But you’re also going to want to remember that in many ways, McCartney was the brains of the Beatles. Lennon was the edge, the fashioner of the emotionally searing musical poetry, and he could be the balls, but you weren’t getting much shrewder than McCartney, who also possessed a grace that Lennon did not.
We learn in these pages, for example, about a high school English teacher named Alan Durband, who instructed a young Paul in the deceptively simple power of rhyming couplets, and it’s not hard to imagine some other schoolmaster similarly turning on, say, a young Keats. Which isn’t to say that McCartney was a formal poet, or that his lyrics work as poetry; but he was a poet of sound, and as such, the king of a kind of rocked up, euphonic, versification. His lyrics are tailored to his music. They are music. They might not be as quotable as assorted Lennon chestnuts, but that is not their point.
And again, McCartney had the brains and grace to accept what their point was, which is one reason his best songs will never go anywhere so long as human ears exist. My sense of McCartney has always been that he’s a straight-up guy whose nature is to be kind. I also think he’s always needed to be liked. He’s that person who would maintain a relationship with a favorite teacher from the past, visit the old woman across the road as a kid, whereas Lennon would have been more likely to seek revenge on a pedagogue who had punished him by, I don’t know, pissing in his shoes.
One man is an energy guy, an attitude guy, a “be here now” guy, which is how Lennon summarized rock ’n’ roll, but he might as well have been talking about himself. In his darkest song, “Yer Blues,” the singer is suicidal precisely because he even hates rock and roll. That is, himself, at his core. McCartney was the Beatle better suited at looking back, measuring the depth of experience, telling the stories, which become larger than anecdote, and in a book like The Lyrics, take on the stuff of narrative.
Let’s go back to the mid-1960s, when the Beatles were at their apex as sonic revolutionaries with absurd populist cachet. It’s 1966-67, and one thinks of Lennon as tripping out of his gourd on LSD, plumbing labyrinths of creativity and living the life of the genius intellectual. This would be false. Lennon slept a lot, did a huge amount of laying around, excelled at the soporific, and sometimes roused himself to write about it (“I’m Only Sleeping”). He’d work a song over with intensity, in a “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but this was the period when McCartney was the real culture vulture of the band. Dating Jane Asher, he was the London sponge, present at the reading, the play, the experimental film. McCartney wanted to learn, and he learned.
History doesn’t talk about him as an intellectual, as an envelope-pushing artist, which gives this book further utility. I say “utility” and not agenda, because though McCartney will from time to time sniff that Lennon got some credit that should have been his—which isn’t a great look with Lennon being dead—he has every right and reason to set the record straight, which in my view is akin to giving the likes of Sgt. Pepper a final, proper mastering before sending it off into the world.
In the entire Beatles discography, McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” is the most surreal song they ever waxed, and that surreality is enriched and undergirded by a quotidian Englishness. An everyday-ness. It’s like when Henry James has a ghost pop out during the daytime hours—that ghost becomes more ghost-like. The way this works in The Lyrics is, we get the words of the songs on one page, and then McCartney’s Pepysian thoughts on the facing page. Thus one learns that “Eleanor Rigby” was in part born of Nivea cold cream—his mother Mary’s favorite. The line that rocked my cerebral cortex as a 14-year-old first getting into the Beatles was “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door,” with its follow-up query of, “Who is it for?” which was every bit as discordant and thrilling, but also sensical, almost despite itself. That paradox is life’s gist. The song helped me understand that discordance is far more congruous with human existence than a stable tonality.
Cold cream is pretty prosaic, but it put McCartney in mind of this living ghost of a person with a face that comes and goes. His gift was for a way of seeing the world. The world is always trying to tell you its stories. I don’t mean in the news cycle way. Story and image are embedded in all we see and hear, and some people simply look and listen past the levels of everyone else.
Do that, and you can fashion a prodigious body of work of art, as McCartney did. As a kid, he had a friend—I think that’s the word we should use—who was an older woman he helped out with some chores. That’s just so McCartney to me. As he puts it about these people he’d know in one way or other, “I wanted to write a song that would sum them up.” Regarding the “original” Eleanor Rigby, “I would go around to her house,” McCartney says, “and not just once or twice. I found out that she lived on her own, so I would go around there and just chat, which is sort of crazy if you think about me being some young Liverpool guy.”
Is it? He doesn’t actually mean crazy. He means “against type or expectation,” but also entirely keeping with who he was, which helped him become the songwriter that he did. In life, not a lot is going to happen to you each day, if you’re most people. Gets rather humdrum. The events in art are often unlike the events in life, save that encoded in the characters experiencing those events in art are the feelings, thoughts, fears, joys, doubts, riddles of existence, and sometimes the answers, that everyone back in the humdrum world harbors within themselves. One might call that the “trick” of art. I call it the miracle.
McCartney understood this just as well as Charles Dickens understood it. They’ve always been linked in my mind, and this book makes that link more explicit. It’s McCartney’s Pickwick Papers, a big collage of storytelling bouncing from world to world; the world of imagination, the world of a bus in Liverpool. My larger focus is on the Beatles songs, but he spans his entire career. Something that nettles me with post-Beatle McCartney—and people can get cross when you say this, but I don’t think there’s any diminishing its truth—is that he was content to have peaked in his twenties. As an artist, anyway. I’d be down on myself if that was true about me, but what you’ll see in The Lyrics is how the post-Beatles efforts were often more about a lark, about trying an approach to try it, because hey, why not?
Whereas the Beatles era was a time of pushing. Striving. Seeking to evolve seemingly by the minute. I admire that. And it’s not like there’s a big, central character to the Beatles’ output, but if there was one, I think it would be an entity of imagination incarnate, and that character’s core belief would be that you always try and better what you just did. You raise the standard continuously. That’s the way for a human to be most human. And it’s certainly the way for an artist to be as formidable an artist as possible.
A feeling I have throughout reading the book—which you can do cover to cover, moving alphabetically by song title, or hop-scotching around, dipping into your favorites—is “Why have you been keeping all of this great stuff tucked away?!” and also “What more might there be to say?!”
It’s a feeling of gratitude, which is also Dickensian. Reading Dickens, you have the sensation that he’s doing you a kindness. He wanted to be rich and have you pay him for that kindness, and I’m sure the already super-rich McCartney wants loads of people to buy up this not-inexpensive book. But Dickens always makes me want to say, “Good looking out, brother man,” and McCartney is the same way.
Talking about “Drive My Car,” the number that opened Rubber Soul in December 1965—an album that changed much in Western music—McCartney states, “Once you get into creating a narrative and storytelling, it’s so much more entertaining. It draws you forward so much more easily.”
I read that, and it makes sense to me what he’s doing with The Lyrics. It’s a book that itself is a song—or a song suite, if you prefer. A concept album. And extended session, like the 585-minute affair that resulted in Please Please Me on a winter night in 1963. It’s narrative, and it’s a drawing in. I would say it’s McCartney close to his best, and at his most musical, which is all the more remarkable in that there isn’t even anything to hear, save story itself, which is a sound unto itself.