On the bookshelf
The lyrics: from 1956 to the present day
By Paul McCartney
Edited by Paul Muldoon
Liveright: 960 pages, $ 100
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Paul McCartney hasn’t crossed paths with anyone for at least 60 years, since the days when you might have walked into a random Hamburg nightclub (the Indra! The Kaiserkeller!). It was a brief window of anonymity: The place they played is now called Beatles-Platz, and everything McCartney does is like breaking news, long, frank interviews (The Stones? blues) to his spontaneous composition of the riff for “Get Back” (52 years ago but still relevant!) in Peter Jackson’s hugely popular new eight-hour documentary of the same name.
And yet “The Lyrics,” McCartney’s collection, released this fall, of lyrics he wrote over those 60 years, has kind of slipped out on us. There is nothing calm about it, exactly. This is a beautifully designed large issue in two volumes, valued at $ 100, with hundreds of revealing and surprising images. It’s no surprise, however – every historical artist seems to offer a similar product now, from Dolly Parton to Grateful Dead. What’s surprising is how much people love him. The book landed on numerous Best of 2021 lists, was called a “triumph” in The Times of London, normally sour. and a “joy” in the New York Times. As of this writing, it is the # 1 sales book on the Barnes & Noble website.
Much of the credit goes to McCartney’s publisher and unlikely collaborator on the project, Irish poet Paul Muldoon – a writer with his own long list of laurels, including a Pulitzer Prize and faculty positions at Oxford and Princeton. Muldoon is part of a rarefied world; he got the job when he went to opera with McCartney’s editor.
But if the match looks like a weird high-low mashup, it worked. “We’re about the same age,” Muldoon told me on a New York Zoom, spinning a sort of stress ball on a short braided leash for most of the hour. It’s a gregarious, edgy, attractive, owl presence – a John to Paul, well, Paul. “We had very similar training. And Liverpool sound rather Irish. It’s also worth noting that Muldoon released a rock lyrics book in 2013, which he performed with a band from Princeton, NJ called the Wayward Shrines, and previously collaborated on a song with Warren Zevon.
Muldoon and McCartney met dozens of times between 2015 and 2020, the last virtually, and together they’ve created something much more than a lyric book (in case the idea of a lyric reprint book) from McCartney’s 2012 album “Kisses on the Bottom” doesn’t electrify you). Organized into 154 texts, it’s more of a collage of memories, covering an incredible amount of ground: memories of Paul’s practical and loving parents (his father, Jim, ordered him and his brother Mike to descend into the street to collect horse manure when bored), John Lennon’s coruscating Liverpool dreams (“to go beyond what we once were,” as McCartney puts it), his literary influences from Jarry to Dickens , his deeply happy marriage to Linda Eastman. It’s already a book that the Beatles fundamentalists claim has contained the most information about the band in decades.
Muldoon’s master stroke was to organize the book alphabetically rather than chronologically. “I really wanted to do it that way,” he said. “It takes away the curse of the Beatles bulge” – the predominance of the Beatles despite their brevity – “out of things”. The charming freedom of the book comes from this chance. “We know his life,” Muldoon said. “We were very conscious of coming up with something he hadn’t said before.”
Muldoon’s own work is witty, puny, often obscure. (His new book is called “Howdie-Skelp,” a term for “the slap in the face a midwife gives a newborn baby.”) I asked him if that made him somewhat different from McCartney’s lyrics, which are often straightforward at times, as McCartney puts it, written on the fly. It’s pop music. Muldoon agreed, to some extent – for the sheer density of lyrical meaning, he admires Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen – but he and “Lyrics” are eager to extract some hidden poetics from McCartney’s words.
For Muldoon, it starts with the strange power of the first songs: “They understood that if you used pronouns in a certain way, it created a kind of very strange bond between them and the people listening”, a- he declared. The longing “Hold me – love me” of “Eight Days a Week”, the obscured but powerfully meaningful “she” and “you” of “She loves you” – these define new emotional issues for rock music, both generalizing the emotions of the songs and making them sound fiercely personal to the Four Beatles. As Muldoon told me, “The lyrics of a song are not a poem. It doesn’t have to be either.
Virginia Woolf observed in her diaries that art should not be representative of life in general, for artists (especially writers) are so often melancholy souls. Who describes the inner life of the happy and satisfied butcher? “Lyrics” answers the question; the thing that struck Muldoon was how McCartney could have survived his immense fame, wealth and reverence to become such a good person. (An example of ingenuity: “The reason I don’t eat animals is that I want them to get vaccinated, like I had my shot.”) The book is down on Trump and Thatcher but for the most part he’s surprisingly positive, portraying characters from Ringo to Mal Evans to Jane Asher with clear-headed but unmistakable love.
“He’s a very generous person,” said Muldoon, reflecting on his time with McCartney. “I never felt anything unsettling about him.” Maybe this is the reason people react to “lyrics”: like “Get Back”, it’s a dump of good feelings in a tough year. Writers treat complexity more skillfully than simplicity, but Muldoon was able to edit McCartney’s memories in a form that allows both. The result is a surprise hit in the form of a book that could never have been more than a hit.
Because, of course, he’s still Paul McCartney: turn to the page featuring the beautiful handwritten lyrics of “Blackbird” – McCartney describes writing it “just weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” – and you remember the magic of music, the reason the book exists. Sixty years later, McCartney himself often seems the most curious about this part, and in particular his magnetic connection with Lennon, the results of which still travel the world.
“We wrote one song a day,” remembers MCartney of “Can’t Buy Me Love”. “We would just meet at my house or at John’s. The two usual guitars, two pads, two pencils. This is one of the few places in the book where McCartney’s powers of memory seem smaller than it does at the moment. But then, it’s The Beatles, more than the sum of any of its parts – more to many of us than we even understand. As Muldoon said of McCartney’s thoughts in those distant days, “He still seems almost surprised himself by this.”
Finch’s novels include the mysteries of Charles Lenox.