Alone Near the Top

Review: Philip Norman, 'Paul McCartney: The Life'

Paul McCartney in 1976 / AP

One night this past winter, after the presentation of the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Paul McCartney decided he wanted to go to a party. So he gathered up a pair of previous Grammy winners—the folk fusionist Beck and Taylor Hawkins, drummer for the post-grunge rock band, Foo Fighters—and was promptly turned away, denied entrance to a gathering of pop stars at the Argyle Club.

In the days after video of the incident was released by the paparazzi website TMZ, the club owners joined rappers Tyga and Bow Wow (who had performed at the party) in spinning furiously, attempting to explain away as inadvertent any rejection of the former Beatle. And maybe so. Certainly so, if they could have predicted the mockery that quickly descended upon them.

But there remain a pair of interesting moments from the brief Twitter-driven tempest. The first comes in the original video, when McCartney turns to Beck and Hawkins to say, "How VIP do we have to get? We need another hit." And the second comes in a first reaction video, when the rapper Bow Wow suggested that the rejection of McCartney was a compliment to the standing of Tyga and himself—since they’re "younger than Paul" and "a new generation" knows them and doesn’t remember the old, forgotten stuff the 73-year-old McCartney has done.

Of course, that’s a lot not to remember: all the old, forgotten stuff McCartney has done in the almost 60 years since he met a schoolboy named John Lennon at a church hall in a Liverpool suburb. And, for those unfamiliar with his story (Tyga, Bow Wow, and the bouncer at the door of the Argyle Club, for example), it’s all recounted in mind-numbing detail in the over-800 pages of Philip Norman’s new biography, Paul McCartney: The Life.

This isn’t a book anyone needs to read. Successful pop performers are like sports stars: By the end of their careers, you’ve read the equivalent of a large biography of them—just scattered through a hundred newspaper pieces, liner notes, and magazine profiles. To learn what Norman has to offer, all you really need is to browse the reviews, which have helpfully strip-mined the book for the previously unknown tidbits that Norman has uncovered. As, for instance, the claim that McCartney had legs covered with thick, wiry hair, which he liked to have brushed (a story with which the British had great fun when advance copies of the book were released this spring).

By any measure, Philip Norman is an odd choice to receive Paul McCartney’s "tacit approval" to write this semi-official biography. Back in 1981, Norman published Shout!, a chronicle of the Beatles that broke many of the subsequently famous stories of their early days in Hamburg and Liverpool. But Shout! was also a straightforward anti-McCartney book, painting a picture of the Beatles as a group dragged forward by John Lennon’s intelligence, artistic impulses, and political radicalism—and a group held back by Paul McCartney’s mop-top boyishness, desperate desire for pop success, and apolitical apathy. Norman had softened his description of McCartney’s role in the Beatles by the time he published John Lennon: The Life in 2008, but still he wouldn’t have seemed a likely candidate to follow the ones by Barry Miles in 1997, Peter A. Carlin in 2009, and Howard Sounes in 2010.

As it happens, McCartney proves to have made the smarter, wilier choice in choosing a new biographer. And that’s rather the theme of Paul McCartney: The Life. Almost in apology for the portrait in Shout!, Norman devotes himself to showing McCartney as a prodigy who came from a deeply musical family, a genius who proved far more avant-garde than Lennon in the 1960s, and a single-minded artist who pursued music through a life that has extended 45 years past the Beatles’ breakup.

And fair enough, one has to say, even after plowing through Norman’s programmatic details and peculiar sense of metaphor. (A saddened McCartney once walked through rain "the size of wet crowbars," the biographer writes, which isn’t so much an image as an assault on readers.) McCartney is, after all, a man who has written 32 songs that reached number one in America and won the Grammy Award 21 times. He’s performed for the largest-paying concert audience ever assembled, when in 1990, his concert in Rio de Janeiro was attended by 184,000 people. His career has been so full that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has elected him twice: first as a Beatle and then as a post-Beatle.

Just take his decade with Wings. The group’s 1977 sing-along folk outing "Mull of Kintyre" became the all-time best-selling single in Great Britain. Wings issued eight albums, of which five reached number one in the United States. And that’s to say nothing of the six number-one singles. That would be a career for anyone else, but McCartney dissolved Wings in 1981 and kept working.

In the following years, he recorded hits with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Performed twice at the Super Bowl. Recorded with everyone from Elvis Costello and the surviving Beatles (after John Lennon’s murder) to Kanye West and Rihanna in 2015. A multi-disc selection of his solo work has been announced for later in 2016, and it will contain 42 hits that reached the top 40 on the Billboard charts.

Think about that for a moment: the man has over 40 hit songs, after he’s left out "Yesterday," "Hey Jude," "Let It Be," and all the other Beatles’ songs that gave him a permanent place toward the very top of the pop-music pantheon. Except perhaps for Andrew Lloyd Weber, McCartney has made more money from songwriting than anyone since the invention of recording—with a personal fortune possibly over a billion dollars.

In other words, Paul McCartney is, without much competition, the single most successful performer of the twentieth century. And maybe even something more than that. Mostly self-taught (and still weak at reading music), he proved himself one of the best bass players in the history of rock even back with the Beatles, contributing the notably aggressive bass lines in "Rain" and "I Want You/She’s So Heavy." As a songwriter, he showed a talent for melody in "Yesterday"—or "Mull of Kintyre," "Maybe I’m Amazed," dozens of other songs—that ranks with the melodic skills of Schubert and Schumann. As a pop star, he lived through the insanity of Beatlemania and came out the other side relatively sane, if Norman’s biography is to be believed.

So why is he turned away from the post-award parties at the Grammy awards? Or, to put it another way, why isn’t he granted a love commensurate with his success? Philip Norman’s Shout! was only one of many efforts to portray McCartney as the lightweight, pop-oriented Beatle, and though Paul McCartney: The Life attempts to walk it all back, the new biography doesn’t entirely succeed.

McCartney, as he emerges from Norman’s book, seems supremely talented. The most gifted musician of his time. But there’s some failure lurking just beneath the surface of the man and the text of his biography. The body of work that Paul McCartney has produced would be a wonder, an astonishment—for anyone else. Not one of the best known fame-hungry, money-seeking stars of 60 years of pop music can draw near him. You’d have to add them all together to match McCartney’s success.

But success is all it is, when seen from a certain angle. Given all his talent, all his work, all the time of his 73 years, shouldn’t it have added up to more? Shouldn’t the artist have reached even further toward the unobtainable apotheosis of music? The man is so great that he can only be compared to himself. But by that measure, he seems somehow to have fallen short.