THE ENIGMA OF JOHN LENNON
'He wore a suit of armour'
Paul's love of the broad tapestry of show business always transcended that of the other Beatles. To John, the entertainment world was full of posers. Rock 'n' roll was his passport to fame and fortune, from which he might become a young, contemplative philosopher. George liked rockabilly music, the sturdy guitar work of his friend Eric Clapton, and the lyrical potency of Bob Dylan. Ringo liked country and western music long before it became fashionable. None of them equalled Paul in envisioning the scope of the Beatles.
When Brian Epstein insisted that they smartened their appearance and bought them suits to replace the leathers, it was Paul who understood his motive more than Lennon, Harrison or Starr. On the borders of show business and rock 'n' roll, as he saw the Beatles, Paul was able to accept that if they were entertainers, they needed to be professionals. Lennon sometimes fought that view but usually acquiesced. The role of Beatles diplomat, as well as the one who sang romantically, was therefore established as Paul's from the beginning. And it continued throughout the decade that the Beatles lasted.
A perfect example of Paul's acceptance of the ethical boundaries of show business came when the Beatles were appearing in Rome in 1965. Epstein told them all that Noel Coward, staying in the same hotel, would like to meet them. Paul recalls that the other three sounded bored by the prospect and suggested they all pretended they were not in. But Paul thought: 'We can't snub Noel Coward! He's two flights downstairs and he's asked to meet us! He's the grand old dame of British show business and we're the new young things.' So Paul went alone to meet him.
Paul's more outward approach, and the songs he wrote such as 'Yesterday', helped the Beatles in reaching what he always believed was the goal: being admired and accepted by a wider audience. Pragmatic and persuasive, sometimes ruthless, compulsively creative, he was always able to convert, uncannily, his sentimental inner self into his work. That was how 'Yesterday', a quintessential song of yearning, came to be set amid his penchant for lyrical ambiguity. It had been so from childhood, when he was learning the ropes of popular music, linking it with the new sounds, and applying his nifty word-play to complete the picture. Once, when another songwriter told him he had hit a creative block in his search for lyrics, Paul said to him succinctly: 'Try love. It never fails'.
For Paul, the anchor of 'trouble' seems to have been, consciously or otherwise, one of his personal themes. Writing in 1973 in Punch, where he reviewed a book of lyrics by Paul Simon, Paul said how much he relished the challenge of such an assignment, adding that his entries as a sixth-former for the school magazine had been rejected. 'Not even a deep poem which I rather fancied, that began: "The worm chain drags slowly..." and ended ". . . the trouble with living is nobody dying".'
Trouble recurred as a theme for one of five poems he had published in New Statesman and Society in January 1995. In one, entitled 'Trouble Is', Paul wrote that Trouble is - shadows don't fight back.' Thirty years earlier, the lyrics of 'Yesterday' had spoken of 'a shadow hanging over me' and 'all my troubles seemed so far away'.
As a writer of poems or songs, Paul bares his sensibilities so that people can identify immediately with his recounting of everyday occurrences. The passage of time characterizes many of his songs, as in 'Yesterday'. In 'She's Leaving Home', he sang of 'Something inside that was always denied for so many years'. In 'Blackbird', he sang of 'waiting for the moment to arrive'. His song to John Lennon was entitled 'Here Today', pondering what John might say if he heard such words addressed to him.* In
* - In the planning of 'Here Today', Paul had backed away from his initial idea of using a string quartet behind his vocal and acoustic guitar. Ever since 'Yesterday' had become a touchstone by which much of his ballad work would be measured, the idea of replicating the string quartet had worried him. But finally, discussing the idea with George Martin, who believed 'Here Today' was 'screaming out' for a string quartet, Paul agreed. He says he concluded that he did not have to avoid a good idea simply because it had been done by him once before.
'Hold Me Tight' he sang that it 'feels so right now'. The Beatles songs included 'Things We Said Today', 'The Night Before' and When Fm Sixty-Four', with the reference to time being upfront in the very titles.
His songs invoking the past include 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', in which he sings: 'It was twenty years ago today.' In 'Paperback Writer', he sings of taking 'years to write'. 'A Day in the Life' cast his mind back to getting up for school in the morning. In 'I've Just Seen a Face', he wrote: 'I can't forget the time or place where we just met.'
In 'I Saw Her Standing There', he sang that he would 'never dance with another.' In 'She's a Woman', he sang of 'love for ever and forever'. In the first Beatles hit, 'Love Me Do', he wrote that he would 'always be true'. In 'For No One', he sang of 'a love that should have lasted years'. And 'Get Back (to Where You Once Belonged)' is a powerful retrospective.
By contrast, John Lennon's nearest equivalent to baring his soul in the manner of 'Yesterday' was the beautiful 'In My Life'. Magically evocative in his autobiographical look at friends and places he had left behind, Lennon's 'In My Life' was as direct (and framed traditionally) as McCartney's 'Yesterday' was oblique (and framed in a revolutionary musical setting). Recorded exactly four months after McCartney's opus, Lennon's work differed totally in its execution, too. Paul sang an accompanying vocal on the track and, on a visit to John's house during a writing session for the lyrics, worked on a Mellotron to construct the melody's middle section.
Tender, powerful and immensely moving though 'In My Life' remains as a majestic piece of Lennon's art, it has been dwarfed by the universal popularity of 'Yesterday', and if John ever wanted to ignore Paul's commercial strength with that one song, the public would never allow him to do so. He was often confronted by the song in amusing situations. Shortly after leaving Britain for America, never to return, John was interviewed on TV's Dick Cavett Show on 9 September 1971. By then the Beatles had split and his relationship with Paul was at its lowest ebb. As John walked on to the television set, the resident band struck up with a McCartney composition, 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da'. John grimaced.
'Thanks for playing Paul's tune for me. It's very nice of you. Wonderful!' he cracked. 'I always get it! I sat in a restaurant in Spain and the violinist insisted on playing "Yesterday" right in my ear! Then he asked me to sign the violin! I didn't know what to say. I said: 'Well, OK.' I signed it and Yoko signed it. One day he's going to find out that Paul wrote it.'
Settled in New York, John enjoyed taking tea in the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel. When he walked in, the violins would often strike up 'Yesterday' in his honour, oblivious of the fact that he would have preferred what was by then his own anthem, 'Imagine'. McCartney music seemed to be everywhere for John as he moved around Manhattan. When his wife was pregnant and he walked into a maternity store in Madison Avenue to buy her some clothes, he did not realize until the time came to pay with his credit card that the name of the shop was Lady Madonna. 'Another bloody Paul McCartney song!' he laughed to his friend Elliot Mintz, who accompanied him on the shopping outing.
Lennon admired the achievement of the song, and Paul's talents, too much to display any jealousy about success and creation of 'Yesterday' in Beatles years. When the song was first played to him in 1965 by Paul, he said: 'Phew, that's quite a piece of work.' And as the Beatles caravan rolled, he spoke admiringly of Paul's work. But, later, when enmity set in, he seemed less generous. 'I don't agree with the idea of loving yesterday', he said in one interview. 'I don't buy that bit about yesterday was wonderful and today's no good, even though in those days he [Paul] wouldn't have been thinking on that level. But the lyrics for "Yesterday", even though they don't make sense if you look at them as a whole - they don't resolve into any sense - they are good lines. They certainly work as lyrics to that song.'
There had been some typically waspish Lennon asides to show that the meteoric success of 'Yesterday' probably rankled occasionally. In the midst of his vindictive exchanges with Paul during the legal battle when the Beatles split, John sang in his song 'How Do You Sleep': 'The only thing you done was "Yesterday"/and since you've gone you're just another day.' In the same song, he dug at Paul: 'The sound you make is Muzak to my ears.' [John later admitted to Paul that some of the lyrics had been suggested by Allen Klein or Yoko.]
Paul was hurt by John's double-edged sword. 'He knows that's not true, that "the only thing I wrote is 'Yesterday'," Paul said shortly afterwards. 'He knows and I know that it's just not so'. Interviewed by Playboy magazine in 1980, John was as cryptic as ever. His old buddy had written a masterpiece which he knew had by then been recorded by about 1,500 other arists. 'Well, we know all about "Yesterday",' John said. 'I have had so much accolade for "Yesterday". That's Paul's song and Paul's baby. Well done. Beautiful - and I never wished I'd written it.'
While the eternal success of 'Yesterday' is a source of pride to Paul, he is faced with the reality that his most commercially successful composition bears the songwriting credit: 'Lennon-McCartney'. The name of their partnership, in that order, is as familiar to the world as Rodgers and Hammerstein, whom Paul says he originally hoped John and he would aspire to equal.
With no formal leadership of the Beatles, and with shared creativity of many of their songs, the issue of whose-name-goes-first might never have mattered. The Lennon-McCartney credit for songs, now almost a generic trademark, had its roots in a handshake during their early Liverpool years. Paul had written their first hit single, 'Love Me Do' and 'PS I Love You', but he deferred to John's name going first because, he says, both John and Brian Epstein were assertive about it.
'I said: "Whoooooah. What about McCartney-Lennon?" They said: "It just sounds better as Lennon-McCartney." I said: "McCartney—Lennon sounds pretty good."'
That argument for a switch to McCartney-Lennon won through for the pecking order on the Beatles' second single, coupling 'Please Please Me' with 'Ask Me Why', which were both Lennon compositions. Paul's name took priority, too, on the third single, which coupled the jointly written 'From Me to You' with 'Thank You Girl', a Lennon song. The wording reverted to Lennon-McCartney for the coupling of 'She Loves You' and 'I'll Get You'. Perhaps to appease Paul as the Beatles escalator to success moved so rapidly, all of their eight new songs on the Beatles' debut album Please Please Me were credited to McCartney-Lennon.
But the plot thickened, or rather solidified, thereafter, when everything they wrote, whether alone or together, was projected as Lennon-McCartney.
'I stepped down,' Paul says. 'I have actually thought since that I should have said that some of the songs can be called Lennon-McCartney, some McCartney-Lennon.' There were clear individual levels of contribution to their works, even when they collaborated; he who had instigated the idea, or dominated a song, could have had his name first. And that would have avoided the 'slight resentment' that Paul admits has been on his mind over the years . . . 'that my greatest moment in a song [on 'Yesterday'] has got some other guy's name in front of mine. I really anticipate a possibility in the future when people might look at 'Yesterday' and say: "That's a great John Lennon song." But I have learned not to mind.'*
McCartney becomes animated, demonstrating a wide spectrum of emotions, on the subject of John Lennon. His assassination outside his New York home on 8 December 1980 came ten years after one of the most vitriolic bust-ups in the history of entertainment. In 1971, a year after McCartney had mounted an action in the High Court in London to dissolve the Beatles partnership and John and his wife Yoko had settled in New York, Paul's relationship with his former buddy plummeted. Their fights raged in public: in song, in press interviews, and through their lawyers.
Things had begun to go awry for the Beatles after the accidental death, at thirty-two, of their manager, Brian Epstein, on 27 August 1967. In conversations for this book and elsewhere, Paul has often criticized Epstein's business decisions for the Beatles. Epstein, however, had qualities as a peacemaker, and the rancour that built up after his death had no precedent within the Beatles during his tenure as their manager. Certainly he and the Beatles were growing apart in the months before his death, but he might have been able to plead successfully for unity. He had cool diplomatic skills which cured many temperamental scenes during their touring years. And the Beatles liked him.
Paul declares that a key to understanding the real Lennon, his
* - A reversal to McCartney-Lennon was implemented by Paul on several post-Beatles records by him. All of the Beatles-era songs on the 1976 triple live album Wings Over America, including 'Yesterday', are credited 'McCartney-Lennon'.
own chemistry with John, and by extension the bitter scenes between them, is rooted in several factors. One is John's insecurity, which stemmed from his childhood. Another is the suit of armour which John wore, presenting a 'tough guy' image when he was in fact quite sentimental. Yet another was John's political cunning.
'John shouted louder. John was a forceful guy. He was more insistent on the Lennon—McCartney description,' Paul says. 'Why did John go away with Brian on the so-called gay episode? [The eight-day visit by Lennon with Epstein to Spain in 1963 which provoked rumours of a homosexual liaison.] I think it was to establish that he was the leader of the Beatles: "If you want to talk to this group, you talk through me." I think it was a power play.' McCartney discounts the theories that there was a homosexual encounter between Lennon and Epstein, adding that he slept in a million hotel rooms with John and there had never been the slightest indication that he was anything other than heterosexual.
John Lennon's wish for some sort of control stemmed from his insecure childhood, in Paul McCartney's opinion. By the time Paul met him, he was 'very focused, very witty, very sensitive, and one of my theories is that he was that way because he'd come from the school of hard knocks. If you look at his life ... his dad leaving him when he was two, his mum getting killed by a car driven by an off-duty policeman who didn't get brought to book ... he went through some terrible things. He was brought up by his auntie and John was always having to defend himself. . . after all, it was Liverpool and it was the Teddy Boy era and there'd be the odd brush with kids: "Who are you looking at, then?" I came from a much more secure family, though I remember John telling me he thought there was a jinx against the male members of his family. His dad went away, then his Uncle George died.'*
Partly because of such traumas, John developed a battling personality and an outer shell that was difficult to penetrate, says Paul. After flopping badly in his grammar school examinations, John was on the verge of being expelled from Liverpool College of Art when the Beatles came along as his lifeline. 'John read a lot,
* - George Smith died two years before Paul met John. John's mother died one year after that meeting.
you know,' Paul says. 'Lewis Carroll, the complete works of Winston Churchill; he was the only person I've ever met to this day to have read that.'
The contrast with Paul, who often did quite well at Liverpool Institute, was acute although there were examples of reprobate behaviour in the young McCartney, too. His school reports contained comments like: 'If he doesn't improve I shall punish him' (from the headmaster) and: 'He is the biggest disappointment in the class.' And so the foundation of the Beatles was an extraordinary partnership of the iconoclast and the traditionalist, both gifted but approaching their chosen art form from different perspectives. McCartney's orderly family background, 'until it went to pot when Mum died', was rooted in music and a caring, demonstrative gathering of aunts, uncles and cousins. To that, he added the natural teenage fascination with the rock 'n' roll sounds of the 1950s. Paul's was a more rounded, orderly approach to life, work and music.
Although John enjoyed debunking older music, particularly show tunes, which he told Paul he hated, buried deep in him was a sweeter person than he wanted to exhibit, particularly in the Beatles years. 'The thing about John was that he was all upfront,' Paul says. 'Most people stayed up late and got drunk with him and thought they were seeing John. You never saw John! Only through a few chinks in his armour did I ever see him because the armour was so tough. John was always on the surface tough, tough, tough.'
There were contradictions in Paul's partner that gave him away, however. 'He didn't like many musicals, although he enjoyed West Side Story. Yet one of his favourite songs was "Girl of My Dreams". And he loved "Little White Lies". He also went on to write the lullaby 'Goodnight,' which Ringo sang. That side of John he'd never dare show, except in very rare moments.*
'I remember one of my special memories. We were in Obertauern, Austria, filming for Help! John and I shared a room and
* - A radio favourite in the early 1950s, the sweet ballad 'Girl of My Dreams' was recorded by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, the Four Aces and Vic Damone, all of whose music Lennon would lampoon as 'boring' during his Beatles years. 'Little White Lies' was a 1957 hit in America for Betty Johnson; it had been written twenty years earlier.
we were taking off our heavy ski boots after a day's filming, ready to have a shower and get ready for the nice bit, the evening meal and the drinks. And we were playing a cassette of our new recordings and my song 'Here, There and Everywhere' was on there. And I remember John saying: "You know, I probably like that better than any of my songs on the tape". Now, if I say that, people will say: oh great - how can we prove or disprove that? But I know it's so.' That was, Paul said, the only time John said that about 'Here, There and Everywhere' (always one of McCartney's favourites of his own work); and it was one of the rare moments when John allowed that he could enjoy a slice of sentiment in song.
'He was not the kind of guy who would say: "Hey, my mate's written 'Here, There and Everywhere'." He would never say that, so unfortunately I think the world has to have had a false impression of John. I think John was a really nice guy - covering up. He didn't dare let you see that nice side. So it was always rock 'n' roll, rock 'n' roll, rock 'n' roll ... till you actually caught him in the right moment. When you admit to being sentimental, as I do, you set yourself up for pot shots. John could never risk making himself vulnerable like that.
'And you can see how my reputation has progressed. For some people, I'm the soppy balladeer, that's how my detractors put it. John would guard against that. It wasn't until his final album [Double Fantasy], with songs like 'Beautiful Boy', written for Sean [Lennon's son, five years old at the time of his father's murder], that you'd see such beautiful warmth.
'One of my other great memories of John is from when we were having some argument. I was disagreeing and we were calling each other names. We let it settle for a second and then he lowered his glasses and he said: "It's only me . .." And then he put his glasses back on again. To me, that was John. Those were the moments when I actually saw him without the facade, the armour . . . which I loved as well, like anyone else. It was a beautiful suit of armour. But it was wonderful when he let the visor down and you'd just see the John Lennon that he was frightened to reveal to the world.'
McCartney insists that his old partner was 'no more rock 'n' roll than me. At the beginning we all bought leather jackets. You didn't have to persuade me to get the leather jackets or trousers; I was down there as fast as anyone. One of my annoyances about the film Backbeat is that they've actually taken my rock 'n' roll-ness off me. They give John the song 'Long Tall Sally' to sing and he never sang it in his life. But now it's set in cement. It's like the Buddy Holly and Glenn Miller stories. The Buddy Holly story doesn't even mention Norman Petty [Holly's manager and mentor] and the Glenn Miller story is apparently a sugar-coated version of his life. Now Backbeat has done the same thing to the story of the Beatles.'
If McCartney is keen to draw a portrait of Lennon different from John's abrasive image, he is equally prepared to admit his own flaws. Dewy-eyed though he is about people, relationships and particularly his family, he admits to handling the deaths of loved ones badly. It is another difficulty in grappling with the complexities of his personality. As one whose work centres on people's feelings, he might be expected to know how to confront the low moments as well as the many celebratory events in his life. But he's bad at it. The same fourteen-year-old who blurted out something he would later regret, upon the death of his mother, did something similarly inept when his old buddy Lennon was shot dead.
'I'm very funny when people die. I don't handle it at all well, because I'm so brought down that I try to bring myself up. So I don't show grief very well. It actually leads some people to think I don't care, and I do. I'm not good at it like some people: my brother goes to many funerals, whereas I don't, which is bad news because really, getting older, I'm just going to have to. And I hate them.
'My excuse is a conversation I once had with my Dad, who said: "I hate funerals." So when it came to the time of my Dad's funeral, in my own mind I was doing him the honour of not going. Which was very perverse, and nobody in the family appreciated it. But, knowing he hated funerals, I determined to be like him. I said to myself when it happened: "I hate funerals, too. I won't be going to this one." It's obviously a bad handling of the situation. It's so much easier just to go. If only for what people think of you.
'But I've always been kind of inward about those things. So I just deal with it myself. When John Lennon died, someone stuck a microphone in the car as I was coming out of AIR studios in London. We'd all gone to work, George Martin, me and the guys. We were all so devastated and shocked, none of us wanted to stay at home. When someone stuck that microphone in front of me and asked: "What do you think about John Lennon's death?" I said: "It's a drag," trying to come up with the most meaningful thing.'
Later, realizing how that remark appeared flippant in print, Paul regretted not saying something that reflected his real sadness. 'Of course when I got home that night I wept like a baby, calling Chapman [John's assassin] the jerk of all jerks. If my true feelings would have come out in the press, I would have looked better. But I'm actually very bad at showing my true feelings at times like that. I keep them to myself, except for showing them to my wife, my kids, and people close to me. I'm not very good in public at showing what my true feelings are.'
The assassination of John Lennon hangs over the entire story of the Beatles. The sadness of Paul McCartney at the loss of his partner has been joined by an irritation at what he sees as an inaccurate rewriting of history being applied to John's life and work, and its relationship with McCartney, Harrison and Starr. The death of John has, in McCartney's view, generated too much guesswork about their association that he finds unfair. 'There was a book of poetry in which "Blackbird", my song which John didn't have anything to do with, went down as a Lennon-McCartney poem,' he says. 'It's a pity really, because it tends to make for revisionism of the whole thing.'
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The complexity of their characters has been portrayed too simplistically in Paul's view: Lennon as the tough guy, McCartney as the romantic. 'On the surface I think John was more rock 'n' roll, but when you scratched that surface the truth of it was that we were all very similar people who showed various sides of ourselves. And it was all to to do with how secure your upbringing was. Mine was pretty secure, until I lost my mum. But before that, it was very secure. There were always lots of babies being thrust on me, so when Linda and I finally had a baby it was no worry for me.' He vividly remembers an episode at John and Yoko's home in New York. 'Linda and I went to visit and John and Yoko wouldn't even let us touch Sean! We said: "Oh, lovely baby, come on, can we get hold of him?" They said: "No, you'd better not." We said: "Well, we've had kids, we're all right, I won't drop him." I didn't come from that syndrome where you think they're like glass when you hold them. I jiggled them and relaxed.'
That incident, and a conversation that followed which explained John's attitude, brought home to Paul their different backgrounds. 'Linda said, as American women do: "Whenever our family had company, I pretty much had to go to bed." Yoko [her father was a Japanese banker working in America] said: "When we had company, we had to go to bed, too." John said: "We didn't even have company." And I said: "Well, we did and we never had to go to bed. Mind you, it was always Uncle Joe, Auntie Joan, Auntie Gin and other relatives. But we never had to go to bed." And I think that meant quite a lot to John.' It underlines, to Paul, the solitariness of John's youth and the barrier he erected.
The healthy partnership and camaraderie that evolved from Paul and John's competitive streak was only one step away from sibling rivalry. It now transpires that one of John's earliest 'hurts' inflicted by Paul was McCartney's solo writing of the music for the Hayley Mills film The Family Way in 1966. 'I was told recently by Yoko that one of the things that hurt John over the years was me going off and doing The Family Way," Paul says. The filmmaking Boulting brothers had approached him via George Martin. 'I thought this was a great opportunity. We were all free to do stuff outside the Beatles and we'd each done various little things.'
When he mentioned it to John, Paul said, 'He would have had his suit of armour on and said: "No, I don't mind." However, my reasoning would be that at exactly the same time he went off to make a film. He wrote his books [In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works]. It was in the spirit of all that. But what I didn't realize was that this was the first time one of us had done it on songs. John would write a book and I was supposed not to be jealous, which I wasn't. He acted in a film [How I Won the War]. But I didn't realize he made a distinction between all those solo things and actually writing music because this was the first time one of us had done it in film scoring. I suppose what I should have said was: "I'd like to write it with John," and then that would have been OK. It actually didn't occur to me at that time at all. So I went off, saw and liked the film, said: "Right, come on George [Martin]," and I must say it was all over very quickly.' He was especially proud of the speed with which he wrote the song 'Love in the Open Air', 'which picked up an Ivor Novello award as the best film song that year, which I was always very proud of.
Confusion over Paul's work in the Beatles sometimes extends to the Inner Circle. Paul even had to assure George Martin that he had co-written 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'. 'I remember going to John's house and him showing me Julian's drawing [from school], and John saying: "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Good title, eh?" And we wrote it: it's John and me doing something like a Lewis Carroll. Now, John will have told George Martin that he had this great new song. He won't have told him: "Hey, yesterday Paul came to my house and we wrote it together." You don't. You just say: "I've got this new one." George would say: "Super, John, it's lovely." And he would assume it's John's song. In a recent book by George [Martin] it very nearly went down as one of John's solo compositions. So I find myself these days trying to fight for some of the credit, particularly because John's died in such crazy circumstances.'
The prospect of 'Yesterday' being partly attributed to John in the future does concern him. 'I do resent that. So there was a little point there, way back, when I did think I should have stuck McCartney-Lennon on that one song. But you know what? These are small regrets. And it didn't happen that way. So it's fine.'