It’s slightly galling, after years of sticking up for Paul McCartney, to read a new biography of the bloke and realise that you don’t, in the end, really like him that much. But that’s how good Philip Norman’s book is — Macca has no agenda, it simply lets you make up your mind. And for me, it was the leg-combing wot won it.
You can’t argue with McCartney’s work. In fact, what you have to argue against is the ridiculous notion that he was the poppy, pappy one while John Lennon was the radical. It was Macca who funded the underground newspaper International Times; who was into Stockhausen, Cage and Berio while Lennon was (to quote McCartney himself) ‘living on a golf course in bloody Weybridge’. And you can understand McCartney’s irritation when ‘Hey Jude’ (entirely his own work, but subject like all their songs to the joint-credit agreement) is rendered by his iPad as ‘Hey Jude by John Lennon and…’
No, the work is supreme — it’s Macca himself who grates. OK, he’s coped with fame better than most: anyone who has witnessed him meeting fans will know the vast well of patience he deploys. (The trick, he learned during Beatlemania, is to stay calm: ‘If you bolt and run they’ll tear you apart.’) But what Norman’s book reveals is that the effortless charm predates the fame, and it’s the sort of charm that isn’t always charming. As John’s famous Aunt Mimi put it, ‘Oh, yes, he was well mannered — too well mannered. He was what we call in Liverpool “talking posh” and I thought he was taking the mickey out of me. I thought “He’s a snake-charmer all right,” John’s little friend, Mr Charming. I wasn’t falling for it.’
This sort of affability can be useful — having forgotten his passport while filming Magical Mystery Tour Macca smooth-talked both British and French customs officers into letting him pass — but equally it can arouse suspicions. One of McCartney’s first girlfriends was Iris Caldwell, sister of Rory Storm (as in the Hurricanes). ‘Wherever we went, he always had to be the centre of attention,’ she says. One night in a coffee bar ‘Paul’s showing off got on my nerves so much that I picked up the sugar bowl …and emptied it over his head.’ Macca would get Caldwell’s mother to comb his hairy legs, because it relaxed him. ‘Oo, Vi, give me legs a comb,’ would come the request. It was always complied with — but Violet Caldwell was never completely won over. Irritated by McCartney always smoking other people’s cigarettes rather than buying his own, she would tell him: ‘You’ve got no heart, Paul.’ Relations remained good enough after Iris and Macca split up for the star to visit with his new girlfriend, Jane Asher. But although Asher was allowed in the house, Violet wouldn’t admit McCartney until he’d been to the local shop to buy a pack of fags.
You can see the quality to this day. It’s there in the trademark V-sign, the mannered drawl that carefully retains a touch of Liverpool but hovers somewhere halfway over the Atlantic, the ‘man’ at the end of every other sentence. Behind those famous doe eyes there shines, as it always has, a single thought: ‘What’s in this for Paul McCartney?’
Still love your music, Macca. Just not sure about the man, man.