Book Reviews - Paperback writer
by Adam Newey
Monday 12th March 2001
Blackbird Singing: lyrics and poems 1965-1999
Paul McCartney Faber & Faber, 164pp, 14.99
It is, perhaps, Paul McCartney's peculiar tragedy that he wasn't John
Lennon - the edgy one; the one who, though not so gifted a singer, had the
more memorable voice; the one who could make even myopia seem the apogee of
cool; the one who had at least some measure of post-Beatles critical
success. The one, above all, who managed to get himself killed before he
could do any damage to his reputation. Well, not lasting, anyway.
It is true that Lennon wasn't much without McCartney, and vice versa. If
Lennon has attained the iconic status that McCartney lacks, it is in part
because of such mythologising about the nature of their extraordinarily
fruitful collaboration. And the myth has certainly clouded the reality,
which is that McCartney was, in many ways, the most radical-minded,
artistically inclined and musically eclectic of the Beatles.
And now he wants to be taken seriously - as a poet. In the past few years,
Sir Paul, as I suppose we must now call him (and can there be any sadder
sign of the long and winding road he has travelled from cheeky
anti-authority popdom to vacuous establishment acceptability?) - Sir Paul,
as I say, has made several well- publicised forays into "classical" music
(his Standing Stone was premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra at the
Albert Hall, no less). After Linda bought Magritte's easel for him one
Christmas, he took up painting (though after his first exhibition, in
Germany a couple of years ago, one critic fulminated that Sir Paul
"shouldn't be allowed" to paint). And last year, a book of his paintings
was published. On top of all that hefty artistic endeavour, there now
appears this book of lyrics and poems, brought out by the colossus of
British poetry publishing, Faber & Faber.
In his introduction, Adrian Mitchell argues, reasonably persuasively, that
any artist who attempts to fuse different forms or bridge different
traditions inevitably invites hostility from the (usually self-appointed)
guardians of those traditions. It is limiting, he points out, to see poetry
as the preserve of the university-educated middle classes. "Paul is not in
the line of academic poets or modernist poets. He is a popular poet. Just
as Homer was."
Though I would want to stop some way short of comparing Sir Paul to Homer,
there's certainly a point to be made here. Popular doesn't have to mean
bad, or shallow. Strangely, however, Mitchell does not compare Sir Paul to
the one popular singer who could justifiably publish a book of this sort,
namely Bob Dylan. But then, Sir Paul lacks Dylan's bardic sensibility.
Anyway, there are limits to the possibilities of fusion. You do not, on the
whole, expect to hear of poets receiving enormous advances for their latest
collection, going on tour with vast entourages of minders and roadies,
playing to sell-out crowds at Shea Stadium or Candlestick Park, trashing
hotel suites and going on month-long coke'n'groupie benders. Poetry, in
other words, is not the new rock'n'roll. Not, I hasten to add (in the event
that his lawyers are reading), that Sir Paul has ever indulged in such
behaviour. In fact, it is rather hard to imagine Sir Paul trashing a hotel
suite, and more's the pity.
No, the trouble with Sir Paul is that he is almost irritatingly well
adjusted to the unprecedented breadth and duration of his fame. Perhaps
that's the problem with his writing, because a dash of neurosis does help
the creative juices to flow and coagulate in novel and interesting ways.
And it is impossible to read even the best of Sir Paul's songs as poems -
that is, free of the phrasing used in the singing and shorn of their
melodic context. The poems themselves betray no sense of an internal
rhythmic life that provides the music of poetry. It is clear that Sir Paul
is striving for a more "poetic" voice here, yet he too often ends up
sounding crashingly prosaic. Take "In Liverpool":
"I spent my early life in Liverpool/Something I'm not likely to
forget/People blend with faces/Faces that I know but never met". And
compare it with the more truly poetic "There are places I'll remember, all
my life, though some have changed". But then, it was Lennon who wrote "In
It is about time someone told Sir Paul to rest gracefully on his laurels.
His extraordinary facility for writing tunes has made him a legend; he has
a whole jukeboxful of immortal songs to his name, and he earns more money
in a day than most of us do in a year. Ah yes, but money, Paul. Money can't
buy you artistic credibility, no no no.
Adam Newey is a poetry critic for the NS
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