OCTOBER 17, 2014
IF HE WASN’T a Beatle, then who was he? What was he? These were questions Paul McCartney had never had to ask himself, but he was asking them now. It was 1969, the year he’d made the legal moves to dissolve the Beatles, feeling he’d been left by his bandmates with no other option, and the resulting identity crisis left him despondent — genuinely and severely depressed. This was also a time when many had the notion that McCartney was dead, and they had good reason for thinking so. Sometimes, McCartney himself had to wonder.
This was the beginning of McCartney’s 1970s, a period he spent “struggling to escape the shadow of the Beatles, effectively becoming an outlaw hippie millionaire, hiding out in his Scottish farmhouse before traveling the world with makeshift bands and barefoot children. It was a time of numerous drug busts and brilliant, banned, and sometimes baffling records. For McCartney, it was an edgy, liberating, sometimes frightening period of his life that has largely been forgotten.”
That’s how Tom Doyle puts it, and he should know, having just researched and written the remarkably vivid Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s. One of Doyle’s stated objectives — and one of his book’s chief virtues — is to make a case for Paul McCartney as “eccentric,” as “a man living outside normal society and, for better or for worse, acting on his own tangential whims,” a state of being much more commonly associated with John Lennon. The more Doyle considered this eccentricity of McCartney’s, in the early stages of his research, the more it seemed to be
the key to everything [in the period covered] — the release of the bewildering “Mary Had a Little Lamb” single, to his 1972 European tour in a gaudily painted open-topped bus, to the beautifully dreamy, softly psychedelic U.S. No. 1 single written about his uncle Albert, to his incarceration in Japan in 1980 after attempting to sneak half a pound of marijuana into the country.
With such material, the case for McCartney-as-eccentric is not a difficult one to make. And with the access McCartney has given to Doyle, sitting for extensive interviews and talking candidly, Doyle has all the resources he needs to make it. His book is at least twice what it would have been without McCartney’s cooperation. This isn’t one of those regrettably “authorized” deals, either — an ostensible reassurance that should never be taken as anything other than a threat or a warning. Man on the Run is that rarest phenomenon: a biographical work about a living subject that attains access without having to sacrifice honesty.
So he wasn’t quite dead, no matter the rumors, but to the few who closely observed McCartney during this period of reclusion, he wasn’t far from it. Some friends believe he experienced a genuine nervous breakdown. In his nightmares, he would see former Beatles manager Allen Klein as a crazed dentist chasing him around with a needle. Not yet 30, he was already finding gray hairs in the mirror. In press reports of the Beatles’ breakup, it was always McCartney — not Klein or Yoko Ono, let alone any of the other three — who was cast as villain. And he was drinking way too much. One night, when he and his wife, Linda, had a guest over to the house, he’d gotten so deep into the whiskey that he began muttering over and over to himself things like, “Fuckers… fucked me up… fucking carve-up.” It was his Linda who saved him. “If I’d been doing that on my own,” McCartney tells Doyle, “I’m not sure I’d have got out of it.”
Just getting back to making music was difficult, which seems impossible for someone as prolific as McCartney had always been. But there it is. “It’s a bit like after an operation,” he tells Doyle, “where you want to rest but you’ve got to push it.” So he pushed it, making one solo album, McCartney (1970), quickly followed by another, Ram (1971). Doyle proves himself a sufficient appreciator of Ram, perhaps even going too far by calling the album not just “something of a marvel,” but “the true successor to Abbey Road,” for “in its baroque detail and flights of imagination, it was variously funny, daft, touching, and knowing. It was also deliberately eventful in its structure, featuring songs within songs and unexpected dips and turns.”
Linda got to play the keyboards and sing on that one, and whatever ridicule she received for it, it was nothing compared to what she would experience once Paul formed Wings and made her a full-performing member of the outfit. (Paul himself would threaten to fire his own wife from the band and replace her with Billy Preston.) Wings went on tour for the first time in 1972, “a bunch of nutters on the road,” to use McCartney’s own characterization, borne out by the evidence. Nobody was more of a nutter than guitarist Jim McCulloch, who years later, at the beginning of a different tour, would get in a fight with David Cassidy after calling him a “fag,” delaying the tour by months because of his fractured finger. He also fought with at least one member of the Sex Pistols and even McCartney himself, although McCulloch didn’t throw the first punch for that one. He didn’t have to; he refused to go back out for an encore instead. McCartney, responsible leader that he was, showed the initiative.
Musically, McCartney continued to work in mysterious ways. Never especially known for his cool, he apparently thought he was cool enough to make a cover of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and get away with it unscathed. He wasn’t. “I do things that aren’t necessarily very carefully thought out,” he admitted, unnecessarily, at the time. But when he was commissioned to write the title song for the James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973), he came through with a craftsman’s skill and pride, creating something grander and more moving than was considered likely under the circumstances — thereby “revealing,” Doyle proposes, “that he worked best perhaps when given a directive or challenge or, as in his partnership with Lennon, a spot of friendly rivalry.”
In Lagos with Wings to record Band on the Run, McCartney was robbed of his master tapes by some thugs who — according to their reputation in those parts — could have just as easily killed him. They couldn’t have guessed that what they’d taken off their victim would have been the score of a lifetime. McCartney, meanwhile, got to work trying to pack all those songs inside his cerebellum just long enough for him to make it to a studio and lay them down again. They never were entirely the same, but some of them probably benefited from the reconstruction.
That wasn’t the last time he almost died, down in Lagos. Whether the bronchial spasm that knocked him unconscious and sent him to the emergency room, unable to breathe, was caused by too much smoke in the lungs or by paranoia, the “strong Nigerian weed” Doyle writes about had certainly made its effects known. “His eyes were closed and I thought he was dead,” Linda would remember.
McCartney wasn’t about to give up marijuana, not yet. Other than Linda, it was his constant companion in these years. To the reporter at a press conference in 1975 who asked what kept him going, McCartney got cheeky-chipper and exclaimed, “Drugs!” Sometimes that was certainly true. But then there were those other times, like all the occasions he’d been arrested or otherwise harassed by the authorities. Exactly one month after extolling his pharmaceutical devotion at the press conference, he was refused entry to Japan because of a narcotics conviction in Scotland two years earlier.
To secure a visa the next time he wanted to return to Japan to tour, five years later, he’d have to sign an affidavit promising Japanese authorities that he no longer smoked marijuana. Imagine his predicament, then, when at the Tokyo airport customs found a big bag of grass, barely concealed within his bag. They threw him in jail and gave him a public defender who wasn’t bullshitting when he said McCartney could potentially get seven years in a Japanese prison for his crime. That first night in jail, McCartney was crippled by an excruciating headache, and was so scared of being raped that he slept — or tried to sleep — with his back to the wall.
He didn’t receive the celebrity treatment. He had to roll up his too-short tatami mat and sit on the floor of his eight-by-four cell while the guards did their inspection. He subsisted on bread and miso soup and rice. “I kept thinking I was watching a war film,” McCartney tells Doyle. “They shouted out ‘Twenty-two’ in Japanese, and I had to shout back, ‘Hat.’” He was subjected to a six-hour interrogation, during which McCartney told the chain-smoking guards that he still smoked weed because “ciggies were worse.”
It was that kind of bizarre, the whole thing a catalog of preposterousness. Just as preposterous as any of it is the way the whole incident made McCartney an icon of outlaw cool even as it scared McCartney into quitting pot altogether. Nothing else about the incident makes sense (beginning with how McCartney could have been so stupid in the first place), so why should this counterintuitive outlaw iconography?
He ended up not being jailed for long and so was free to return to the West, free to be the same inexplicable eccentric he’d been of late. He was free to throw farm implements at reporters and then placate them with interviews; free to walk into the Apollo, him and his wife the only whites in the joint, and check out the show like it was no big deal; free to be the kind of “overbearing” presence that could inspire George Harrison even then to tell reporters, ‘“I’d join a band with John Lennon any day, but I couldn’t join a band with Paul McCartney”; free to leave his Rolls-Royce open, let some chickens move in, and then reupholster it for £6,000; free to make a song with bagpipes, “Mull of Kintyre,” that actually outsold “She Loves You”; free to do a benefit in Venice for preserving the city’s architectural heritage, only to watch as his band’s heavy equipment wrecked some paving slabs that, until then, had survived several centuries just fine.
Free to do all of that, all the things that make Man on the Run such a satisfying biographical sketch, all the things that inspire McCartney to tell Doyle that “to just come out of that period was a good thing. I survived.” And he was free to put on parties for his own band, dressed in ways people didn’t even recognize as entirely human, and he didn’t have to acquire the sanction of three more-or-less equal partners to do it, either. Like this one instance, when McCartney’s suit wasn’t done in time. The white stitching was still showing, and would have looked bizarre even on a suit that wasn’t checked and wide-lapelled. McCartney said to the tailor who’d told him it wasn’t ready, “Maybe not, but it’s a look.” All those at the affair couldn’t believe Paul let himself show up dressed like that. Some even approached him, with the best of intentions, to inform him that he was wearing a specimen of tailoring that wasn’t quite right; that wasn’t quite complete; that was more than a little odd.
“Yeah, I know,” he’d tell them. “Great, huh?”