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

Words. By Paul McCartney. Edited by Paul Muldoon. Right of exploitation; 960 pages; $ 100 Allen Lane; £ 75

THE LIVES distinguished people often take a lot to say. Yet even the faithful might raise an eyebrow at Sir Paul McCartney’s memoir: two volumes totaling 960 pages. Casual Beatles fans might also be surprised by the title. Although most consider Sir Paul the best musician of the group (with honorable mention for George Harrison), John Lennon generally receives praise for his writing. In a survey of 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 table book. Sir Paul has listed 154 favorite compositions alphabetically, with many glossy photos. But in the essays that accompany each song, her underlying purpose is to assert her status as a writer. They are based on 50 hours of conversation with Paul Muldoon, an award-winning poet, in which Sir Paul reflected on his life, his words and the relationship between them. Mr. Muldoon calls Sir Paul a “great writer” who has learned from “an impressive number of literary masters: Dickens, Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll”.

Sir Paul displays his bookish side. He fondly remembers his favorite bookstore in Liverpool and an inspiring English teacher. The autobiographical excerpts include numerous encounters with writers. As a young Beatle, he found himself talking about imperialism with Bertrand Russell, listening to Allen Ginsberg praise “Eleanor Rigby” and tripping over the tub of Harold Pinter’s champagne bottles.

His songs are full of allusions. The index includes authors ranging from Edward Lear (mentioned in “The Pocket Writer”) to Rabindranath Tagore (who inspired “Pipes of Peace”). Shakespeare’s echoes return. “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 comparison” in “I Saw Her Standing There” recalls the sonnet on a summer day. Its connection to Hamlet’s almost dying words – “but so be it” – seems more exaggerated.

The melody usually comes first, says Sir Paul of his writing process. The air from “Yesterday” came in a dream; its working title was “Scrambled Eggs”. Then he looks for characters to sketch: “Once you get into storytelling and storytelling, it’s so much more entertaining.

Some songs are sets of voices, such as “Band on the Run” and “Penny Lane” (written in part in free indirect speech). Others are portraits, like the lonely woman in “Another Day”, or Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual advisor to the Beatles, in “The Fool on the Hill”. Even when Sir Paul uses the first person, he often inhabits another character. For “The Long and Winding Road”, he pretended to be Ray Charles; imitating other writers is a usual “sleight of hand”. From “Maybe I’m Amazed”, usually interpreted as an ode to Linda, his first wife, he insists that: “From myself, the characters that appear in my songs are imagined.

Overall, he is a strong advocate 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 laugh at things and swear a lot.” Often he pits Lennon’s difficult childhood, in which the guardians ran away or died, against the cheerful and loving family that gave Sir Paul an upbeat outlook. That is why his songs are often about the happiness of ordinary people.

Lennon is arguably the main character in “The Lyrics”, memories of Sir Paul’s best friend and fiercest rival appearing in songs written long after his death. Harrison and Ringo Starr rarely interfere. All the same, it’s an illuminating tale of how some of the greatest songs of all time were born. It also highlights Sir Paul’s dedication to his Liverpudlian and Irish heritage, the challenges of going solo and his musical ambitions today. If at times it’s disjointed and repetitive, what fan won’t appreciate a meander that feels like a long private audience with one of the Fab Four? â– 

This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “A Long and Sinuous Ode”

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