Sir Paul McCartney’s memoir aims to affirm his status as a writer

The Lyrics. By Paul McCartney. Edited by Paul Muldoon. Liveright; 960 pages; $100.Allen Lane; £75

THE LIVES of distinguished people often take a lot of telling. Yet even devotees might raise an eyebrow at the heft of Sir Paul McCartney’s memoir: two volumes totalling 960 pages. Casual Beatles fans may be surprised by the title, too. Though most would consider Sir Paul the band’s best musician (with an honourable mention for George Harrison), John Lennon typically gets the plaudits for writing. In a poll by the BBC in 2001 to rank the greatest lyricists, Lennon received more than twice as many votes as McCartney.

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Superficially, “The Lyrics” is a coffee-table book. Sir Paul has arranged 154 favourite compositions alphabetically, with lots of glossy photos. But in the essays that accompany each song, his underlying purpose is to affirm his status as a writer. They are based on 50 hours of conversation with Paul Muldoon, a prizewinning poet, in which Sir Paul reflected on his life, his lyrics and the relationship between them. Mr Muldoon calls Sir Paul a “great writer” who has learned from “an impressive array of literary masters: Dickens, Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll”.

Sir Paul flaunts his bookish side. He fondly recalls his favourite bookshop in Liverpool and an inspirational English teacher. The autobiographical snippets include many encounters with writers. As a young Beatle, he found himself talking to Bertrand Russell about imperialism, listening to Allen Ginsberg praise “Eleanor Rigby” and stumbling across Harold Pinter’s bathtub of champagne bottles.

His songs are full of allusions. The index includes authors ranging from Edward Lear (mentioned in “Paperback Writer”) to Rabindranath Tagore (who inspired “Pipes of Peace”). Echoes of Shakespeare recur. “Lend me your ears” in “With a Little Help from My Friends” is pinched from “Julius Caesar”. Sir Paul says the girl who is “way beyond compare” in “I Saw Her Standing There” harks back to the sonnet about a summer’s day. His link to Hamlet’s near-dying words—“but let it be”—seems more of a stretch.

The melody usually comes first, Sir Paul says of his writing process. The tune of “Yesterday” arrived in a dream; its working title was “Scrambled Eggs”. Next he looks for characters to sketch: “Once you get into creating a narrative and storytelling, it is so much more entertaining.”

Some songs are ensembles of voices, such as “Band on the Run” and “Penny Lane” (written partly in free indirect speech). Others are portraits, such as the solitary woman in “Another Day”, or Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ spiritual adviser, in “The Fool on the Hill”. Even when Sir Paul uses the first person, he often inhabits another persona. For “The Long and Winding Road” he pretended to be Ray Charles; mimicking other writers is a habitual “disappearing trick”. Of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, usually interpreted as an ode to Linda, his first wife, he insists that: “Starting with myself, the characters who appear in my songs are imagined.”

Overall he makes a strong case for treating his work as poetry. Lennon, he says, “never had anything like my interest in literature”. It was cynicism that secured his bandmate’s acclaim: “It’s easier to get critical approval if you rail against things and swear a lot.” Frequently he contrasts Lennon’s tough childhood, in which guardians absconded or died, with the jolly, loving family who gave Sir Paul an optimistic outlook. That is why his songs are often about the happiness of ordinary folk.

Lennon is arguably the main character in “The Lyrics”, memories of Sir Paul’s best friend and fiercest rival popping up in songs written long after his death. Harrison and Ringo Starr rarely intrude. All the same, this is an enlightening account of how some of the greatest-ever songs came about. It also illuminates Sir Paul’s attachment to his Liverpudlian and Irish heritage, the challenges of going solo and his musical ambitions today. If at times it is rambling and repetitive, what fan will not enjoy a meander that feels like a long private audience with one of the Fab Four?

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