Review: Paul McCartney, The Life by Philip Norman

Paul McCartney, The Life. Philip Norman. Kindle Edition, 2016, $15.99

I loved Philip Norman’s revealing biography of John Lennon. This hefty volume doesn’t quite match up, but that

A winsome Paul McCartney.

A winsome Paul McCartney.

may not be Norman’s fault. McCartney has lived 36 years longer than Lennon now, and is quite a different character. Part of what must have made the biography a difficult task is that it is very hard to pierce Paul’s shell and the people around him have been discreet. However, this book definitely washes away the silly stereotype of Paul as “the cute Beatle” once and for all. It replaces that caricature with a shrewd and nearly always cautious character (except for the 1970s drug bust in Tokyo!), who was also completely blindsided at certain points in his life and left reeling, confused, and vulnerable. The haunting picture on the book jacket shows that side of Paul.

I came away with an appreciation of McCartney’s immense talent and work ethic, as well as a greater understanding of what makes him tick. He’s someone who’s lost the three people closest to him (his mother, John Lennon, Linda). Norman skillfully shows that Paul’s first long-term relationship with actress Jane Asher was quite hollow in some ways and that issues of control emerge in his relationships, which is why I think Norman dwelt so much on the awful marriage and divorce to Heather Mills, who really exposed Paul at his worst. (But also it’s very revealing that Paul would have gone for a “bad girl” and apparently self-aggrandizing liar like Heather in the first place.)

Still, I can’t help liking someone who when asked if marrying Heather was the greatest mistake of his life, replies, “It would have to be a prime contender.” It made me want to know what his other great mistakes were–but such transparency is rare with this guy. Yet he “tacitly approved” of Norman as his biographer, which shows some good judgment. I wonder if he thought he would outlive Norman, so that the secrets that are inevitably revealed after his death wouldn’t be added to the biography! Sir Paul is a very calculating person, it’s clear, and Norman seems to deplore his actions much of the time.

But this is no hatchet job and there’s plenty of careful analysis that rewards the reader. It was good to fill in the gaps. For example, of course it makes sense that the “Paul is dead” period was after the Beatles broke up when Paul retreated in despair to Scotland, but I’d never quite got this before. In fact, Norman’s narrative of the Beatles breaking up *from Paul’s viewpoint* is fascinating. He does a fine job discussing Paul’s music as well.

After I finished I realized to my astonishment that Norman is the author of the memoir Babycham Night, about his difficult childhood with a narcissistic father on the Isle of Wight. More people should read that—it’s excellent. And my hunch is that Paul has read it. He would be someone who would do his homework, and the oddly compassionate, familiar way he treats Norman (despite Norman’s earlier rudeness towards him as a journalist) seems to prove this.

I think biography is such an intimate task, and Norman shows restraint and some empathy in his portrait of Paul. Recommended for Beatles fans.

PS. However, Norman is quite venomous about George Harrison, so any great fans/friends of George may be infuriated by his put-downs.

I came across an excellent interview that Paul did with David Frost shortly before Frost’s death. Check it out here.

About Gabriella West

Author of LGBT historical fiction and contemporary queer romance. Copyeditor/proofreader.
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