By Gillian G. Gaar
Though he cooperated extensively on the memoir Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, which covered his life up to the breakup of The Beatles, McCartney declined to do a volume two. Instead, he decided to examine his life through his songs — an understandable move for a composer. And so The Lyrics features his thoughts (edited by poet Paul Muldoon) on 154 songs from his impressive catalog.
The songs are arranged alphabetically, making this a book you can dip into at random. His stories about Beatles songs will be familiar to longtime fans, but there are new details. Handwritten lyrics for “Hey Jude” reveal he considered the line “By making his life a little colder” before changing “life” to “world.” His inspirations can be a mystery, even to him; he has no idea what inspired “a wave of her hand” in “Here, There, and Everywhere” (“Was I thinking of the Queen?”), which he also cites as the favorite of his songs.
As his Beatles work tends to capture the lion’s share of attention, it’s fascinating to see him discuss his post-1969 song, though some of the choices are curious (is anybody that interested in the backstory of “Check My Machine”?), and they’re mostly drawn from the ’70s and ’80s. Overall, you get the sense that McCartney almost regards his songwriting as a duty; it’s his mission to accentuate the positive in his work, in order to leave his listeners with hope and a sense of optimism. No wonder he spends so much time writing “Silly Love Songs”; as he reminds us, “love isn’t silly at all.”
The two volumes, packed in a slipcase, are wonderfully illustrated. Along with handwritten lyrics, there’s a treasure trove of rare photos and other ephemera (he’s actually held onto the pay-by-installment book for a Rossetti Solid 7 guitar he purchased in 1960). There are also two previously unpublished works, a jokey poem he wrote for comedian Spike Milligan, and a pre-Beatles song, “Tell Me Who He Is”; its slight, lovelorn lyric indicates why it was never completed or recorded. What more finds could be in his archives?
McCartney’s as prone to his own mythologizing as any Beatles fan, still making the incorrect assertion that The Beatles vowed they’d never tour the U.S. until they had a No. 1 record there; in fact, Brian Epstein had signed the contract for their Ed Sullivan Show appearance weeks before they topped the U.S. charts. He also places his name first as songwriter on some Beatles numbers, never having understood that the order of names in songwriting credits was not meant to signify the order of importance. But how splendid it is to have one of the most significant songwriters of his generation talking so extensively about his work, in two handsome volumes that are a visual delight as well. Needless to say, essential for those interested in McCartney.