McCartney, With and Without Lennon

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By David Hajdu

1956 to the Present
By Paul McCartney
Edited and with an introduction by Paul Muldoon

When they first started to write songs as teenagers in Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney decided to credit everything they wrote to “Lennon and McCartney,” no matter what or how much either of them had contributed to the words or the music. The echo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and other famous songwriting teams led people to assume that Lennon and McCartney were adhering to the traditional division of songwriting labor, with one partner serving as the composer, and the other, the lyricist. The New York Times critic Dan Sullivan, writing in 1967, credited McCartney for most of the group’s music, which he lauded for originality “matched by John Lennon’s freshness as a lyricist.” The composer Ned Rorem, much the same, thought McCartney was responsible for the music and, as such, “the Beatles’ most significant member.” Patting Lennon on the moptop, he congratulated him for writing lyrics “well matched to the tunes.”

Over time, as the Tin Pan Alley model of songmaking faded into memory and singer-songwriters became pervasive in pop music, the proposition that both Lennon and McCartney could be composers and lyricists in equal measure — as well as singers and instrumentalists — seemed easier to grasp. In fact, a new conception of pop artists as do-it-all vertically integrated singularities redefined pop artistry, thanks in large part to the Beatles having changed the rules. Yet the ongoing (or never-ending) conversation about the Beatles has long been informed by a lingering perception of Lennon as the word man, the more literary and cerebral Beatle, and McCartney as the more musical one, an intuitive artist attuned to the pleasures of the senses. This line of thinking has tended to diminish McCartney in the eyes of rock critics more disposed to textual analysis than musicology, and it clearly drives McCartney bonkers, as he demonstrates on a grand scale with the lavishly prepared two-volume boxed set of books “The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present.”

McCartney, a songwriter of staggering prolificacy, has been writing or co-writing songs — as well as music of other kinds, including extended works in classical forms, a ballet score and experiments in electronica — at a steady rate with few pauses since 1956, when he was 14. “Fans or readers, or even critics, who really want to learn more about my life should read my lyrics, which might reveal more than any single book about the Beatles could do,” McCartney writes in the foreword to “The Lyrics.”

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    The books present the words to 154 of the songs McCartney has created on his own or with various collaborators — with Lennon while they were Beatles; with his first wife, Linda, before and during their participation in McCartney’s post-Beatles group Wings; with their bandmate Denny Laine; and with a few others from time to time — over the years. The books’ title, in its declarative terseness, proclaims the books’ definitiveness. It’s not “Selected Lyrics” or “Paul’s Favorite Lyrics” or “Lyrics That Remind Paul of a Little Story He’d Like to Share,” but just “The Lyrics,” and it’s misleading. The books provide a carefully curated selection of lyrics: 154 out of the more than 400 songs McCartney wrote or co-wrote on 22 Beatles studio albums and 26 Wings and solo albums, along with singles and B sides.

    It would be easy to fill the rest of this review space with the titles of less-than-print-worthy lyrics from McCartney’s vast catalog. One can’t blame him for not including goofy doggerel such as “Oo You,” “Mumbo” and “Bip Bop.” Nor should one fault McCartney for the pride he takes in the lyrics selected for these books, though some are treacherously close to doggerel, too. (I’m thinking of “My Love” and “Live and Let Die,” the latter of which has been rewritten since the original published sheet music to eliminate “this ever-changing world in which we live in,” though the amended lyric is still awfully trite.) To read over the words to these 154 songs is to be impressed not merely with McCartney’s productivity but with the fertility of his imagination and the potency of his offhand, unfussy style. The best of the songs collected here (“For No One,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “When Winter Comes,” “On My Way to Work” and quite a few more) reflect eyes fixed on the small niceties and curiosities of everyday life and a mind that bounces freely, taking childlike pleasure in that freedom. “The Lyrics” makes clear that McCartney has written on a high level long past his Beatles years, and even the weakest lyrics in the books have a character all their own: a feeling of giddy playfulness and unguarded experimentation. They’re a joy to read because they exude the joy their maker took in their making.

    Like most pop lyrics, the words to McCartney’s songs are considerably more effective with the music they were written for. With the addition of melody, harmony, instruments, the human voice and studio electronics, a piece of recorded music can come together like, say, “Come Together” — a song by Lennon that McCartney transformed in the studio by radically altering the music. “The Lyrics” does not present a partial view of McCartney’s songs, though; it presents a different view of them. In the absence of music, the books add to the words with new elements of accompaniment: photographs, reproductions of manuscripts, images of mementos and artifacts related to the songs or the time of their making, and lengthy commentary by McCartney. These materials are far from ancillary and actually constitute the bulk of the contents of “The Lyrics.” (Only 156 of the books’ 874 pages are used for lyrics.)

    The commentary was constructed with the aid of Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who also happens to be a rock musician and songwriter. In 24 sessions (face to face before the pandemic, and then by videoconference), Muldoon led McCartney in conversations about the songs and later edited McCartney’s language to produce the first-person prose in the books. The text is loose and ruminative, and it reveals a great deal about what McCartney thinks about life and music, and what he would like us to think about him.

    Over and over, McCartney shows how deeply he is steeped in literary history and how much his output as a songwriter has in common with the works of the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. “John never had anything like my interest in literature,” he announces at the top of his commentary on “The End,” before pivoting to a mini-lecture on the couplet as a form. “When you think about it, it’s been the workhorse of poetry in English right the way through. Chaucer, Pope, Wilfred Owen.” Apropos of “Come and Get It,” the trifle he wrote and produced for Badfinger, McCartney notes, “When you’re writing for an audience — as Shakespeare did, or Dickens, whose serialized chapters were read to the public — there’s that need to pull people in.” Aaaah … we realize: Paul really is a word man, the more literary and cerebral Beatle.

    As one would expect from the pop star who posed with his baby tucked in his coat on his farm for his first post-Beatles album, McCartney talks with ardor and respect for his parents, his extended family in Liverpool, and the traditional values of hearth and home in general. He attributes the buoyant positivity of his music to the happiness in his family life and, by extension, ascribes the bite and cynicism that distinguishes much of Lennon’s work to the domestic upheaval in John’s early years. To McCartney, a dark view of humanity is a failing and must be a mark of suffering, rather than an attribute of thought.

    While pronouncing his love for Lennon as a longtime friend and creative partner, Paul is pretty rough on him at points in “The Lyrics.” His main crime is one of omission, passing on opportunities to point out Lennon’s signature contributions to songs they wrote collaboratively, such as “A Day in the Life.” In the context of conflicts between the two of them, McCartney describes Lennon as “stupid” or an “idiot.” Yes, we all know that McCartney can’t help defining himself in relation to Lennon. Still, as he shows convincingly throughout “The Lyrics,” you don’t have to make the other guy out to be an idiot to prove that you’re a genius.

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