Entranced by Paul McCartney’s book of lyrics? Thank the great poet Paul Muldoon
On the Shelf
The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present
By Paul McCartney
Edited by Paul Muldoon
Liveright: 960 pages, $100
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Paul McCartney hasn’t snuck up on anyone for at least 60 years, since the days when you could have walked into a random Hamburg nightclub (the Indra! the Kaiserkeller!) and happened upon the apprentice-years Beatles playing one of their noisy sets. It was a brief window of anonymity: The square where they played is named Beatles-Platz now, and everything McCartney does feels like breaking news, from the long, candid interviews (The Stones? A blues cover band) to his spontaneous composition of the riff to “Get Back” (52 years ago but still news!) in Peter Jackson’s wildly popular new eight-hour documentary of the same name.
And yet “The Lyrics,” McCartney’s collection, published this fall, of lyrics he’s written during those 60 years, somehow snuck up on us. There’s nothing quiet about it, exactly. It’s a big, beautifully designed number in two volumes, clocking in at $100, with hundreds of revealing and surprising pictures. That’s not the surprise, though — every legacy artist seems to be offering a similar product now, from Dolly Parton to the Grateful Dead. What’s surprising is how much people love it. The book has landed on numerous Best of 2021 lists, been called a “triumph” in the normally acidic Times of London and a “joy” in the Times of New York. As of this writing, it’s the No. 1 book in sales rank on Barnes & Noble’s website.
A good share of the credit for this must go to McCartney’s unlikely editor and collaborator on the project, Irish poet Paul Muldoon — a writer with his own long list of laurels, including a Pulitzer Prize and professorships at Oxford and Princeton. Muldoon is part of a rarefied world; he got the job when he went to the opera with McCartney’s editor.
But if the match sounds like a strange high-low mashup, it worked. “We’re of about the same age,” Muldoon told me over a Zoom from New York, twirling some kind of stress ball on the end of a short, braided leash for most of the hour. He’s a gregarious, nervy, appealing, owlish presence — a John to Paul’s, well, Paul. “We had a very similar education. And Liverpool sounds quite Irish.” It’s also worth noting that Muldoon published a book of rock lyrics in 2013, which he performed with a Princeton, N.J., band called the Wayward Shrines, and once collaborated on a song with Warren Zevon.
Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour Beatles doc both refutes the canard of Yoko as band-wrecker and reminds us of what was lost when Paul and John went separate ways.
Muldoon and McCartney met dozens of times between 2015 and 2020, the last few virtually, and together they created something much more than a book of lyrics (in case the idea of a book reprinting the words of McCartney’s 2012 album “Kisses on the Bottom” doesn’t electrify you). Organized into 154 texts, it’s more like a collaged memoir, covering an incredible amount of terrain: memories of Paul’s practical, loving parents (his father, Jim, would order him and his brother Mike into the streets to pick up horse manure when they were bored), John Lennon’s coruscating Liverpool dreams (‘to go beyond where we once belonged,” as McCartney says), his literary influences from Jarry to Dickens, his deeply happy marriage to Linda Eastman. It’s already a book that Beatles completists agree holds the most new information to come out about the band in decades.
Muldoon’s masterstroke was to organize the book alphabetically rather than chronologically. “I was very keen to do it that way,” he said. “It takes the curse of the Beatles bulge” — the predominance of the Beatles despite their brevity — “out of things.” The book’s charming freedom comes from this randomness. “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, full of wordplay, often recondite. (His new book is called “Howdie-Skelp,” a term for “the slap in the face a midwife gives a newborn.”) I asked him if that didn’t make him something of a mismatch with McCartney’s lyrics, which are often simple, sometimes, as McCartney says, written on the fly. It’s pop music. Muldoon agreed, to an extent — for sheer density of lyrical meaning, he admires Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen — but both he and “Lyrics” are eager to draw out a hidden poetics in McCartney’s words.
For Muldoon, this begins with the uncanny power of the earliest songs: “They had figured out that if one used pronouns in a certain way that it made some kind of very strange connection between them and the people listening,” he said. The yearning “Hold me — love me” from “Eight Days a Week,” the obscured but powerfully meaningful “she” and “you” of “She Loves You” — these set new emotional stakes for rock music, both generalizing the emotions of the songs and making them seem fiercely personal to the four Beatles. As Muldoon told me, “A song lyric is not a poem. Nor does it have to be.”
In an entry from his COVID-19 diary “What Just Happened,” out Nov. 9, critic and novelist Charles Finch binges on the Beatles and reaches a turning point.
Virginia Woolf observed in her diaries that art must be unrepresentative of life in general, because artists (especially writers) are so often melancholy souls. Who is describing the inner life of the happy, contented butcher? “Lyrics” answers the question; the thing that struck Muldoon was how McCartney could have survived his immense fame and wealth and veneration to become such a good person. (A sample ingenuousness: “The reason I don’t eat animals is that I want them to have their shot, like I got my shot.”) The book is down on Trump and Thatcher but for the most part it’s startlingly positive, describing figures from Ringo to Mal Evans to Jane Asher with clear-eyed but unmistakable love.
“He’s a very generous person,” Muldoon said, reflecting on his time with McCartney. “I never once had a sense of anything troubling about him.” Perhaps this is why people are responding to “Lyrics”: Like “Get Back,” it’s a jolt of good feelings in a hard year. Writers deal in complexity more ably than simplicity, but Muldoon was able to edit McCartney’s memories into a form that permits both. The result is a surprise hit in the shape of a book that could never have been anything but a hit.
Because, of course, he’s still Paul McCartney: Turn to the page laying out the beautiful handwritten lyric of “Blackbird” — McCartney describes writing it “only a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” — and you remember the magic of the music, the reason the book exists. Sixty years later, McCartney himself often seems most curious about that part of it, and in particular his magnetic connection with Lennon, whose results still course through the world.
“We wrote a song a day,” MCartney remembers of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” “We would just meet at my house or John’s. The usual two guitars, two pads, two pencils.” It’s one of the few places in the book where McCartney’s powers of memory seem smaller than the moment. But then, it’s the Beatles, so much more than the sum of any of its parts — so much more to many of us than we even understand. As Muldoon said of McCartney’s musings on those distant days, “He still almost seems surprised by it himself.”
Finch’s novels include the Charles Lenox mysteries.
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