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Authors: Philip Norman

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography / Composers & Musicians, #Biography & Autobiography / Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Biography & Autobiography / Rich & Famous

Paul McCartney

BOOK: Paul McCartney
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PROLOGUE
All Our Yesterdays

On 4 December 1965, the Beatles appeared at Newcastle-on-Tyne’s City Hall during what would be their last-ever British tour. I was a 22-year-old reporter in the Newcastle office of the Northern Echo, a daily paper circulating throughout the north-east. Orders from my newsdesk were ‘Go along and try to get a word with them.’

I set out on the assignment with zero hope. The Beatles had already been the biggest story in pop music–and, increasingly, beyond it–for more than two years. From my lowly, limited vantage-point, what new insight could I hope to add? As for getting ‘a word’ with them, this tour came in the wake of their Rubber Soul album, their second smash-hit film Help!, their historic performance to 55,000 people at New York’s Shea Stadium and their investiture as MBEs by the Queen. I’d be competing not only with Tyneside’s own heavyweight media but also the national newspapers and broadcasters who had offices there. Even if I did manage to get close to them, why would they waste a second on some nobody from the Northern Echo?

Like almost every young male in the Western Hemisphere, my daily fantasy was to swap lives with a Beatle. And there was no question as to which one. Paul, a year my senior, was the most obviously good-looking; John for all his magnetism could never be called that while George had good bone-structure but unsightly teeth and Ringo was… Ringo. If the adolescent female frenzies that engulfed them had any rational focus, it was the left-handed bass guitarist whose delicate face and doe-like eyes were saved from girliness by the five o’clock shadow dusting his jawline.

Paul wore his Beatle gear with greatest elegance: the high polo necks and long-collared, button-down shirts, the corduroy once confined to farm labourers, the black leather jackets still uncomfortably reminiscent of Nazi storm troopers, the elastic-sided boots last seen on Edwardian men-about-town. He also seemed the one most enjoying the band’s (presumably) mounting riches; I remember with what inexpressible envy I read this gossip snippet in the New Musical Express: ‘On order for Beatle Paul McCartney–Aston Martin DB5.’

He’d become known as their PR man, before we quite understood what PR men were, with his charm, good humour, impeccable manners and air of what could only be called refinement. There was always something aspirational about him, as in his dating of a classy young actress, Jane Asher; at the same time, none of the others seemed happier amid the mindless, balcony-buckling, seat-wetting mayhem of their live shows. A friend who saw them at Portsmouth Guildhall told me how, in the crazed opening moments, someone threw a teddy bear onto the stage. Paul picked it up, sat it on the neck of his bass guitar and kept it there throughout their performance.

So now here I was on a slushy December night in Newcastle, waiting outside the City Hall’s rear entrance with a knot of reporters including my friend David Watts from the Northern Echo’s evening stablemate, the Northern Despatch. Forty-five minutes before showtime, a black Austin Princess limousine, which had driven from Glasgow through heavy snow, drew up and from it emerged the four most famous haircuts on earth. The only one to acknowledge us was John, who shouted a sarcastic greeting. Despite the cold, he wore no topcoat, only jeans and a white T-shirt, the first I ever saw with something printed across the front. I couldn’t make out what it said, but I got the impression that was sarcastic also.

In those innocent days, the only security was a single elderly stage-door keeper. Dave and I between us easily talked our way past him and a few minutes later found ourselves in the corridor outside the Beatles’–totally unguarded–dressing-room. Some other media people had also got this far, but no one dared knock on the closed door, let alone barge in. As we loitered there indecisively, a rising crescendo of shrieks and stamping feet from the adjacent concert hall warned that potential interview time was running out.

Then suddenly Paul came along the passage wearing a black polo neck, just like on the With the Beatles album cover, and unwrapping a stick of Juicy Fruit gum. As he opened the door, Dave said ‘I know that face’ and, as he paused with a grin, I managed to ask, ‘Can we come in and talk to you?’

‘Sure,’ he replied in the Liverpudlian voice that was so conspicuously higher and softer than the others. So, scarcely believing our luck, we followed him.

It wasn’t a dressing-room, in fact, but a spacious lounge with green leather sofas and armchairs and a wall of French windows looking on to nothing. The Beatles had just finished a meal of steak and chips and trifle and the plates were being cleared by a squad of brisk Geordie waitresses in black dresses and white aprons. There were no other females present, nor any visible trace of alcohol or drugs. The only entertainment provided was a TV set showing an episode of The Avengers, its only audience George’s pale, unsmiling face.

I started talking to Ringo, who was sitting in one of the green leather chairs, then John perched on an arm and joined in. Both now also wore their stage uniform of black polo necks and were astonishingly friendly and easy: I felt I had every bit as much right to be there as the Melody Maker big shot who’d come up specially from London. (John’s patience seems especially remarkable now that I know what pressures he was under at the time.) George never looked up from The Avengers and Paul moved around restlessly, chewing Juicy Fruit and looking for one of the Moody Blues who were also appearing that night. ‘Anyone seen the Moodies?’ he kept asking. I recall staring at his jeans and wondering if they were the everyday kind they seemed, or custom-made with specially reinforced seams and rivets to prevent them being torn to shreds by frantic hands.

On a nearby sofa lay the Hofner ‘violin’ bass whose long-necked Stradivarius silhouette had become his particular trademark. I’d once played guitar myself, in a no-hope band on the Isle of Wight, and to show my kinship with the Beatles I asked him if the bass was heavy to wear onstage. ‘No, it’s light,’ he said. ‘Here… try it.’ With that, he picked it up and tossed it over to me. I’m a hopeless catcher, but I somehow managed to grab its fretboard and shoulder-strap together. For a few moments I found myself fingering the same frets Paul McCartney did, and thumbing the same steel-wound strings. I asked whether violin-shaped basses were more expensive than regular ones. ‘Only 52 guineas [£54.60],’ he said. ‘I’m a skinflint, you see.’

The three were just as nice when I found a blank page in my notebook and requested an autograph for my young sister. ‘You’re her favourite,’ I blurted, as Paul added his surprisingly grown-up signature. ‘I’ll be all right then, won’t I,’ he murmured, ‘if I’m her favourite.’ It was the gentlest possible put-down.

Like all their interviewers, I felt I got on better with them than anyone ever had before. ‘Is it OK if I stick around for a bit?’ I asked Paul, then looked at John. ‘Sure,’ they both nodded. Just then, a hollow-cheeked man in a yellow shirt with leg o’ mutton sleeves entered the room and noticed me. This was their roadie, Neil Aspinall, one of whose main functions on the road was saying to journalists what the lovely, cuddly Fab Four couldn’t possibly say themselves. More than likely he’d received one of their secret signals that a visitor was becoming tiresome.

‘You,’ he said with a jerk of his thumb. ‘Out!’

‘But… they just told me I could stay,’ I protested.

‘Well, I’m telling you you’ve got to go,’ he snapped, then glanced down at a newspaper, forgetting my existence.

As I made my ignominious exit, I consoled myself that at least I had a Beatles angle none of my rivals did: how Paul McCartney threw me his violin bass and told me he was a skinflint.

For the rest of the Sixties, and the century, our paths were never to cross again. At the London Sunday Times, where I went on to work, all Beatles coverage was jealously guarded by older colleagues. So I wrote not a line about the flowering of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting after they stopped touring in 1966, which brought their album masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and superlative ‘Paul’ songs like ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’. It was for others–so many others–to chronicle the two eventful years after Brian Epstein’s death, with Paul seemingly running the band, that saw their journey to a Himalayan ashram, their Yellow Submarine cartoon film, their White Album, their Magical Mystery Tour and their launch of a business called Apple, which had nothing whatever to do with computers.

All that time, I remained just another of the countless young males for whom Paul McCartney’s life seemed like paradise, and whose girlfriends mortifyingly melted at any sight of him (especially the ‘Fool on the Hill’ film sequence with those melting brown eyes in extreme close-up). There were already fears that the Beatles mightn’t last for ever; an awareness that their life together maybe hadn’t brought the supreme happiness we all presumed and that strange discontents and doubts were starting to gnaw at them. But one, at least, seemed to stand for continuity. George might have found Indian religion and lost his sense of humour; John might have dumped his pleasant wife for a Japanese performance artist and be off with her on all kinds of weird tangents. But Paul stuck with lovely Jane Asher, still maintained a flawless Beatle cut, wore the latest Carnaby suits, attended West End first nights, signed autographs and kept smiling.

Then, as the Sixties ran out, even his sense of public duty seemed to weaken. He parted from Asher, who had seemed so perfect for him in every way, and took up with an unknown American photographer named Linda Eastman. On their sudden wedding day in 1969, millions of heartbroken young women weren’t the only ones to feel let down. Dry-eyed young men like me, who’d lived his life vicariously since 1963, also wondered what on earth he could be thinking of.

That same year, I was finally commissioned to write a Beatles story in a national publication, though not yet a British one. America’s Show magazine asked me to investigate their Apple organisation, the fortunes it was devouring and the resultant blizzard of rumour about their imminent break-up. I approached their press officer, Derek Taylor, expecting the fact I’d published nothing about them, save long ago in the Northern Echo, to count against me. However, Taylor liked some Sunday Times pieces I’d written on other subjects, notably the strong man Charles Atlas, and agreed to give me accreditation. For several weeks that summer, I was allowed to hang around Apple’s London headquarters, 3 Savile Row, the Georgian townhouse which seemed the ultimate expression of Paul’s good taste.

By that point, his taste was all that remained of him there. John and Yoko were in almost every day, running their peace campaign from the front ground-floor office; George and Ringo both dropped by frequently. But there was no sign of Paul. Disgusted by John’s appointment of Allen Klein as the Beatles’ manager, he’d left London with Linda, to go to ground on his Scottish farm and record his first solo album. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, I had a ringside seat at the Beatles’ break-up.

A few months into the bleak, hung-over morning-after we were learning to call ‘the Seventies’, I received a phone call from Tony Brainsby, a freelance publicist known for his bumptiousness and shock of bright red hair. Brainsby now represented the solo Paul McCartney who was putting together a new band, to be named Wings, and asked if I would care to interview him about it for the Sunday Times? I answered no without a qualm. Then, and for years to come, the Beatles were considered immeasurably greater than any individual member. The only story of interest was when they’d get back together.

For the Sunday Times Magazine I went on to interview many major names in rock, country and blues–Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Beach Boys, David Bowie, Bob Marley, Elton John, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, B.B. King, the Everly Brothers, Diana Ross, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin, Bill Haley–but was never offered another talk with Paul, and never sought one. I shared the media’s feeling of offence that he should have started another band–adding insult to injury by putting Linda in it in place of John–and resolution to give it no encouragement. As the (daily) Times’s first-ever rock critic, I had ample opportunities to talk to him at press launches for the early Wings albums, yet somehow never did. In 1973, I had to concede his triumph with Band on the Run, even if some of the rhymes (‘And the county judge/ held a grudge…’) seemed a comedown for the creator of ‘Penny Lane’.

BOOK: Paul McCartney
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