If apology can take the form of biography, Paul McCartney: The Life is it and, thanks to 'tacit approval' from McCartney to interview relatives and close friends, Norman delivers the most thorough and insightful biography of Paul McCartney to date...[F]or each annoyance, Paul McCartney: The Life is loaded with wonderful passages, fascinating stories and cracking humor.
McCartney told friends and family to cooperate with Norman, met with him a few times, and hoped for the best. He got it. Norman’s portrait of McCartney is fascinating and exhaustive. This is the story of a relentless entertainer, working well into his 70s to make everybody happy. He is also portrayed as a deep contradiction: generous but petty, mostly kind but sometimes cruel. To his credit, Norman manages to avoid most of the oft-told tales, leaving the Beatles’ saga refreshed by his account...In this massive biography, Norman lifts the curtain to show us the real guy, and he’s somewhat different from the musician we’ve been listening to for decades. But he still largely feels like the act we’ve known for all these years.
The prologue is just a few cliché-clogged pages, but the messiness is tense and exciting. It teases a biography prepared to reckon with the lifetime of co-dependence between a thin-skinned icon and his covetous baby boomer fans. The book that follows is vastly more conventional. Paul McCartne is an 853-page cinder block of facts in which we learn that young Paul enjoyed condensed milk and every kind of meat except tongue...Paul McCartney is full of things that happened to Paul McCartney, and through absurd fame and a few tragedies he appears to be an unusually decent man with few regrets. But facts aren’t insight, and readers won’t emerge with any real idea what it was like to have lived one of modernity’s most amazing lives.
If there aren’t many grace notes in his prose, neither is there much perceptive musical criticism. When Prince Charles presents Mr. McCartney with an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Music, for example, Mr. Norman writes, 'Never again would the classical music world be able to condescend to him.' Does Mr. Norman understand how condescension works? I don’t wish to be too hard on Paul McCartney: The Life. The story of its subject’s life from his childhood in Liverpool through the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 has lost none of its ability to charm. The first 400 pages relate, once more, one of the best stories the past century has to tell.
It wraps up Beatles matters about halfway through and isn’t very polarizing, but then again, McCartney himself rarely has been. Norman is thorough, though, and his book gives us a fuller McCartney than you’ll find anywhere else, in part because of McCartney’s studious management of his brand over the years.
As if atoning for his earlier misjudgment, Norman offers scant criticism of McCartney’s erratic solo output, and diplomatically tiptoes around his subject’s less appealing qualities ... Given the landslide of books about the Fab Four, the dearth of fresh revelations here is unsurprising, though Norman provides the first full account of McCartney’s highly uncomfortable nine days in a Japanese prison after Tokyo customs uncovered half a pound of marijuana in his baggage in 1980.
...once the excitement of his self-reinvention leading the band he named Wings is over and done with Paul McCartney: The Life becomes a bit of a slog, though that’s not Norman’s fault. He’s just got to march his readers through a whole bunch of frequently winsome but mostly inconsequential albums, along with pages of stuff about Linda the animal rights activist and vegetarian entrepreneur and the couple’s many houses ... Regrettably, beyond some standard-issue truisms about the cute one’s melodic facility and penchant for whimsy, Norman doesn’t have the chops for a serious evaluation of McCartney’s music or his place in pop history ... All the same, his book does convey a strong enough sense of McCartney’s temperament and life priorities to give readers a new understanding of how utterly they’re reflected in his art.
This is a capably executed biography, brimming with detail. But there are also three big problems. First, when the story gets to the Beatles’ rise and fall, the idea of telling the tale from McCartney’s perspective tends to fall away; in its place we have a very familiar saga. Second, though Norman is good at placing his subject in the midst of various histories – of the Irish diaspora, Liverpool and the socio-cultural passage of the 1960s – he has a tendency to write about music in a register rather redolent of the op-ed pages of the Daily Mail. The Sex Pistols’ 'God Save the Queen' is definitely not 'a shrieking parody of the national anthem,' any more than Kate Bush’s 'unearthly wail,' 'Wuthering Heights,' ever made Yoko Ono’s ear-shredding shrieks 'seem positively normal.' These odd touches are also applied to his subject’s career and work: anyone who knows what the term 'glam rock' denotes, for example, would know McCartney’s post-Beatles vehicle Wings were anything but. This feeds into probably the book’s biggest flaw of all: its neglect of McCartney’s talent.
[Norman] draws on interviews with family members, friends and associates in a comprehensive biography of the legendary pop music icon that sheds light on his childhood, his tumultuous relationship with John Lennon, his career after the breakup of the 'Fab Four,' his marriage to Linda Eastman, the love of his life, his struggles with alcohol and drugs, and his disastrous union with and divorce from Heather Mills ... Mr. Norman’s narrative of Mr. McCartney’s life since the 1970s is far too long. Most readers, I suspect, will grow bored with the details of every charge and countercharge in Mr. McCartney’s divorce proceedings. And when Mr. Norman ventures into politics, they will find some of his claims dubious.