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Book Review

McCartney as more than second fiddle

By Carlo Wolff
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2010

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The story is familiar: As arguably the greatest rock ’n’ roll band, the Beatles ruled ’60s culture. John Lennon was the smart one and the leader; Paul McCartney, the cute No. 2; George Harrison, the restless genius-in-waiting; and Ringo Starr, the funny reality check.

In “Paul McCartney: A Life,’’ Peter A. Carlin offers a reconsideration of the dynamics of the band and McCartney’s role in it, arguing that Paul was as much a leader as John. But he also offers a complex portrait of an artist whose insecurities were fanned when he was in the presence of talented musicians with strong artistic visions, but who did his best work when around them.

As primary evidence, Carlin presents an appropriately unflattering analysis of McCartney’s work after the Beatles broke up in 1970. Despite occasionally great post-Beatles music like the singles “Maybe I’m Amazed,’’ “Live and Let Die,’’ and the albums “Band on the Run’’ and the fabulously retro “Run Devil Run,’’ he observes that McCartney failed to grow beyond the work he did with Lennon.

For this warm, fair book, Carlin interviewed childhood friends, former business associates, and members of various McCartney bands, particularly Wings - but was not, unfortunately, granted interviews with McCartney or Starr. Carlin’s description of the process involved in McCartney’s creation of “Yesterday’’ and of the influence McCartney’s effortless musicality had on the group underscore how much influence he had on the direction of the iconic band.

Personally, McCartney comes across as a bit of an odd-man out, a controlling cheapskate, and a comparatively straight guy, though he sure does love his pot. While the others leapt into experimentation with LSD, McCartney dabbled in it. While the other three were sick of touring even before “Rubber Soul,’’ McCartney never lost his appetite for the stage, a yen that prompted the McCartney-driven movie debacles of “Magical Mystery Tour’’ and “Give My Regards to Broad Street,’’ Carlin suggests.

Nat Weiss, a New York attorney and a friend of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, helped the Beatles promote their company, Apple, in the late ’60s. His take is astute:

“ ‘Neil Aspinall [original Beatles road manager and ultimate Apple manager] used to explain that it was John’s band,’ says Nat Weiss. ‘And at that point (in the mid-’60s) Paul was very conscious of wanting the approbation of John, in anything he did. I think Paul felt John was the cool one, the avant-garde one, the true artist. Paul is basically a very bourgeois, middle-class person. Extremely talented, for sure. But the rebel was John.’ ’’

When Lennon was murdered in 1980, McCartney felt as adrift as he did at the dawn of the ’70s when, Carlin suggests, Yoko Ono spearheaded the move to disband the group. The Beatles didn’t really come together again until 1994, when the survivors finished Lennon’s “Free as a Bird.’’

Carlin also writes about McCartney’s personally tortured but largely successful collaboration with Elvis Costello. Cut from similarly acute cloth, Costello was as threatening to McCartney as Lennon. These examples bolster the argument that McCartney tended to do his best work while in challenging company.

Regarding McCartney’s wives, Carlin doesn’t gloss over Linda Eastman’s faults as a performer, but also celebrates what she meant to McCartney as his partner of more than 30 years. He juxtaposes that with details of McCartney’s second marriage to, and nasty divorce from, Heather Mills, rounding out a portrait of a musical genius full of himself, an aesthetic adventurer who needs to run the ship, an insecure schemer who also is a bit of a bore.

Carlo Wolff, author of “Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories,’’ is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

PAUL MCCARTNEY: A Life By Peter A. Carlin

Touchstone, 384 pp., $26