Long and winding road

For Paul McCartney, that birthday came in 2006 and, ironically, not long after his split from second wife Heather Mills.

Long and winding road

Now, six years on and we are at a yet more definitive milestone still — Paul ‘Macca’ McCartney, legendary former Beatle, one half of one of the world’s greatest, most enduring songwriting partnerships, the most successful and richest man in pop music, the knight who insists he has never lost his working class roots, will be 70-years-old on Jun 18.

The way McCartney tells it, he’s still the same old cheery chap, nipping down to B&Q for the odd bag of nails. Sometimes that self-protective image has served him well, other times, less so: While plenty of rockstar drug habits have caused all manner of moral apoplexy, Macca was always benignly dismissed as a harmless old hippie who favoured the odd toke, despite extensive dabbling in LSD and cocaine and a lifelong cannabis habit only recently ditched at the request of his latest wife.

On the other hand, having much of his post-Beatles musical output equally dismissed as safe, bland, harmless must surely have galled the most musical of all members of the Fab Four; testy rejoinders to criticism surface regularly in his interviews.

In recent times the public’s perception of this rather more complex man has changed markedly. For that 64th birthday, Paul McCartney’s children from his first marriage re-recorded a new version of the old Beatles’ quoted song above, a rumination on aging and whether a relationship would stand the test of time, and judging from their thinly disguised contempt for Mills from the off, you can’t imagine they dithered long over any potential lyrical insensitivity.

Certainly, the public at large were equally unconcerned: during the separation and divorce that followed, poor old Mills, for all her faults, was utterly eviscerated by the British press and Great British Public alike; Macca, martyr, saint, still-grieving widower of Linda, meanwhile, entered that privileged realm, becoming one of the ‘nation’s sweethearts’.

In Ireland, we’ve always loved McCartney as one of the Beatles. Coming as they did from Liverpool, the 33rd county and so forth, we’ve always secretly regarded them as our own. And despite the hoopla when he and Mills married in Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan, in 2002, when it came to the divorce, we all merrily weighed in with multiple digs on Mills.

But in tandem with this new-found level of public veneration is another more curious development — simply, is Macca finally becoming ‘cool’? Of course, Macca has done ‘cool’ — for god’s sake, he was a member of the most important pop group in history, triggering as much social change as musical change. Macca was one of the early pioneers of LSD as a means of spiritual and mental exploration. He was a true innovator in the recording studio, bringing esoteric musical influences to bear on a revolutionary approach to recording. Macca was and remains a serious and committed collector of modern art. Macca wrote the Frog Chorus. Oooops.

You see, even during The Beatles’ heyday, you were either a Lennon or a McCartney man or woman. One was acid-sharp, scabrously witty, politically active and impeccably cool; the other was Paul McCartney, the ‘safe one’. You chose sides the way others choose between Conservative and Liberal, Capitalism and Communism, God and Atheism, ignoring any hint of common ground, defining yourself in choosing. While Macca may have had the greater musical mind, Lennon invariably filtered out his crasser, more populist instincts. Even ‘When I’m 64?’ from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was largely disliked by fans of that era, Lennon saying in a later interview that he ‘could never have written that song’.

And the theory goes that post-Beatles, Macca lost the Lennon filter, churning out tons of material with the inability to separate wheat from chaff. While a case was being made for the merits of Yoko Ono’s vocal discord on the first Lennon solo album, a secret roadies tape isolating the microphone of Macca’s first wife, Linda, as she excruciatingly attempted to sing backup, was circulated for years to universal derision.

McCartney was born in Liverpool in 1942 to Jim and Mary McCartney. She was a midwife, her husband a part-time bandleader and, along with younger brother Michael (later Mike McGear of The Scaffold), young Paul lived a regular, unremarkable life. Both parents had aspirations for their children, so Paul sat grammar school entrance exams. He passed and it was on a bus to the school that he met fellow pupil George Harrison in 1954 and they soon formed a friendship bonded in music. Then in 1956, Mary died following surgery for breast cancer.

McCartney’s initial response was, “what are we going to do for money?” In a 1984 interview, he said, “And I’ve never forgiven myself for that. Really, deep down, you know, I never have quite forgiven myself for that. But that’s all I could say then. It’s like a lot of kids; when you tell them someone’s died, they laugh.”

On a scorching hot day in July, 1957, 17-year-old John Lennon, hair piled high in a rockabilly quiff, sporting a loose-fitting tartan shirt, and his group, The Quarrymen, piled haphazardly through rock’n’roll covers from atop a flat bed truck at a local garden fete. Watching was a 15-year-old McCartney.

Afterwards he was introduced to Lennon and played his own versions of some of the songs The Quarrymen had just done — Gene Vincent’s ‘Be Bop a Lula’, Eddie Cochran’s ‘20 Flight Rock’. What’s more, he played them better. Lennon recognised his ability, McCartney instantly fell for Lennon’s rakish, cocky charisma, his quick, witty articulacy. It was the beginning of the relationship that defined McCartney in the public eye for decades, still does to some extent: McCartney taking the sharp corners off Lennon’s rough edges; Lennon spiking McCartney’s sentimentality with some much needed acid. A year later, Lennon’s mother Julia, absent for most of his childhood, was killed in a road accident. It cemented the growing bond between the two youngsters.

Like most parents who encountered the young Lennon, Jim McCartney didn’t think he was a good influence on his son. Sure, Jim encouraged the young Macca’s obvious musicality, after all he was a musician himself, but he wanted his son to get a backup trade or occupation. Instead, 18-year-old McCartney wanted to head off to Hamburg to play with what had now evolved into The Beatles and included young George Harrison on lead guitar, Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums.

Hamburg was to be the making of them — or at least, John, Paul and George — as a group. As Lennon once said, ‘I was born in Liverpool, but grew up in Hamburg.’ Playing shows twice or three times daily in dodgy clubs and bars in the city’s red light district to often disinterested audiences, they goofed around on stage but also experimented. They honed their razor-sharp three part harmonising and musicianship. And they learnt how to party. In this port city, pretty much anything was on offer, sex, drugs and they brought the rock’n’roll. Even the angelic-faced McCartney gave as good as he got, womanising with abandon and popping uppers.

They had residencies on and off in Hamburg for the next three years and by 1962, they were a different proposition entirely, playing blistering live shows in Liverpool’s legendary Cavern Club. Sutcliffe had left in 1961 to concentrate on his art with McCartney taking over the bass. Sutcliffe died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1962, but McCartney had long replaced his rival for Lennon’s intense if platonic affections. They acquired a manager in the person of local record store-owner Brian Epstein who sharpened up their scruffy rocker image. Soon after Best was replaced by Ringo Starr. That same year, in October, having been legendarily rejected by Decca Records (‘guitar groups are on the way out’), their first single, ‘Love Me Do’ (Parlophone), reached number 17 in the charts. The following February, after a mere ten hours in the studio, they released Please, Please Me, eight songs of 14 bearing the imprimatur, Lennon-McCartney, including ‘I Saw Her Standing There’.

It had been something McCartney had been gnawing at for some time, first line, ‘she was just seventeen,’ followed by the clunker, ‘but she was no beauty queen.’ Lennon’s alternative suggestion was the lasciviously knowing, ‘if you know what I mean.’ Perfectly encapsulating their complimentary talents, their unique formula yielded its first rock’n’roll classic. And for a spell, they spurred each other on to greater and greater musical heights. “He was like our own little Elvis …. We all looked up to John. He was older and he was very much the leader; he was the quickest wit and the smartest,” recalled Paul in 1987.

A group writing their own songs was unheard of at the time. It was the first step in The Beatles revolution. The duo cobbled together ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ in minutes before an astonished Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, gifting them the song and apparently inspiring their future rivals to have a go at writing their own material. 1963 was the year The Beatles achieved national renown after a Royal Command Variety Show performance and Beatlemania was truly born after a legendary appearance on the US Ed Sullivan Show. The next two years were a relentless treadmill of recording and touring. Though Lennon and McCartney confessed to a factory approach to writing, it was an extraordinarily fruitful period musically.

‘She Loves You’ became the first single to sell a million copies in Britain. They released six albums in three years, hit followed hit, but they were fast wearying of the relentless slog and 1965’s Rubber Soul (‘Drive My Car’, ‘Norwegian Wood’ (This Bird Has Flown); ‘Nowhere Man’ (‘Michelle’, ‘In My Life’, etc) was the beginning of the next transition. They gave up touring for good and concentrated on writing, spending longer and longer on each album and at the heart of this new stage was McCartney.

In his classic analysis of all The Beatles’ songs, Revolution in the Head, musicologist Ian McDonald said ‘McCartney [was] by nature drawn to music’s formal aspects yet wholly untutored, produced technically ‘finished’ work almost by instinct, his harmonic judgement based mainly on perfect pitch and an acute pair of ears.’ (McDonald also called the songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney ‘a clash between truth and beauty’.) Harnessing longstanding producer George Martin’s classical background, studio productions and arrangements became ever more complex, McCartney experimenting as multi-tracking became an integral part of the modus operandi, culminating in the legendary Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Though the others participated to varying degrees, Lennon later complained his songs got short shrift in the studio compared to the hours spent on painstakingly picking over McCartney’s work. It had after all been years since they had operated as a genuine writing team. Neither was it a secret that McCartney would overdub Ringo’s drums after Starr had left the studio for the day. Quite possibly, it may have been McCartney’s most productive and happiest time; as the swinging sixties took on more menacing hues he retreated more and more into the studio.

The signs were evident that Lennon’s interest was waning as he sought spiritual succour in more far-flung places. Eventually it led him to Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono — the woman who ‘broke up The Beatles’. Said Paul in 1984, “As he was with Yoko, anything about the Beatles tended inevitably to be an intrusion. So I think he was interested enough in his new life to genuinely not miss us.”

The group that defined not just a decade but pop music fell commercially and artistically asunder in a welter of recrimination and acrimony that took years to resolve, with Lennon and McCartney trading barbs, on record and in print for some years after that.

Saddest of all, much of that resolution still had to take place when Lennon was assassinated on Dec 9, 1980. Cue another bizarre response from McCartney, this time telling a crowd of reporters Lennon’s death ‘was a drag’. But that was just McCartney’s way. In a subsequent interview, he said, “we just went home, we just looked at all the news on the telly, and we sat there with all the kids, just crying all evening. Just couldn’t handle it, really.”

At least his final conversation with Lennon a few months prior offered some comfort. “That is a nice thing, a consoling factor for me, because I do feel it was sad that we never actually sat down and straightened our differences out. But fortunately for me, the last phone conversation I ever had with him was really great, and we didn’t have any kind of blowup.”

On Nov 29, 2001, George Harrison lost his battle with lung cancer. For once, McCartney was more considered, issuing a statement calling Harrison, “a lovely guy and a very brave man who had a wonderful sense of humour. We grew up together and we just had so many beautiful times together — that’s what I am going to remember. I’ll always love him, he’s my baby brother.” True, but one largely shelved once he met his ‘big brother’ John.

While Yoko Ono may have shouldered the lion’s share of the blame for The Beatles’ split, McCartney’s first wife earned her own share of opprobrium. Linda Eastman, was a wealthy Jewish New Yorker, already married and with a daughter, Heather, when she set her sights on McCartney, though Lennon had been her ‘Beatle hero’. McCartney previously had a five-year relationship with English actress and beauty Jane Asher, but their engagement ended in Jul 1968 when Asher found him in bed with US scriptwriter and erstwhile McCartney squeeze Francie Schwartz. In September he invited Linda to join him in London and six months later married the already four-months pregnant Eastman.

McCartney and Eastman retreated for a spell from the limelight, including a hippy period ‘down on the farm’. But McCartney is nothing if not prolific and continued to produce music at a ferocious rate with Linda’s tuneless warbling featuring in the early days. He formed Wings, including Irishman Henry McCullough on lead guitar. While critical acclaim was much slower in coming the band enjoyed considerable commercial success and had big hits, including ‘Band on the Run’ and ‘Live and Let Die’, but essentially it was McCartney and a bunch of hired hands.

The couple became activists, vegetarians supporting high profile animal rights campaigns while Linda founded the veggie burger/sausage company that still trades today. They had three children, Mary (1969), fashion designer Stella (1971) and James (1977), and life was good. McCartney had extensive business interests outside of his Beatles earnings and is now reckoned the richest earner in pop music. But then Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she fought bravely before dying in 1998. “That was the beautiful thing about our marriage,” said McCartney. “We were just a boyfriend and girlfriend having babies.”

He was obviously devastated and his children rallied round him but they were stunned when he began dating 32-year-old charity campaigner and high-profile amputee Heather Mills in 2000. Much media hay was made, most especially by Mills, of a very healthy, active sex life and Macca now appeared a randy but rather silly old goat who’d just been given another belated ‘turn’ in the pasture. Despite weak protestations to the contrary from all parties, it was soon a rather open secret that Macca’s children despised Mills. She, in turn, didn’t invite them to a surprise 61st birthday party for her new husband whom she had married in 2002. The British media revelled in the mudslinging, uncovering soft-porn pics of Mills and endlessly highlighting ‘inconsistencies’ from one of the finer fantasists of modern times.

Despite the birth of a daughter, Beatrice, in 2003, the divorce in 2006 was high profile, with Macca the winner on all counts, the judge dismissing Mills’ testimony as ‘not just inconsistent and inaccurate but also less than candid … [overall, a] less than impressive witness’. She took McCartney for St£16.5m and about St£8m in property and assets, some way short of the St£125m she initially sought and her reputation was left in tatters. McCartney, obviously rueing the whole affair, but still relatively discreet in comparison, resumed his transformation into treasured national icon status. Mills unleashed a savage attack on ‘evil’ Stella; Stella designed a necklace featuring one leg, an apparent dig at Mills which even notoriously bitchy fashion industry insiders considered ‘a bit out of order’. His 2011 marriage to wealthy New Yorker Nancy Shevell went largely unremarked. Macca had finally earned the right to a little privacy.

But what about the cool thing? Recent tours and recordings have yielded fresh critical enthusiasm from formerly jaded quarters. The re-release of his 1970 ‘hippie album’ Ram, is hailed on über-hip rock website Pitchfork, of all places. He has also worked with producer Youth on heavily dance-oriented tracks and has always maintained a keen interest in experimental music. Perhaps it is simply belated guilty recognition for his extraordinary contribution to The Beatles and their extraordinary contribution to the world. Too often, he was relegated to second place by those nebulous definers of what is and isn’t ‘cool’, now realising, without Paul McCartney, John Lennon would probably have remained an average art student with exceptionally large chips on his shoulder. So is Macca finally truly cool? Well, maybe if he ditches the bottle of Ronald Reagan hair dye.

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