One of the criticisms various Beatles fans leveled at Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In is the relative lack of attention paid to the death of Mary McCartney. The event, its emotional aftermath, and the presumed psychological and emotional consequences it had on her widower, Jim, youngest son, Mike, and, oldest son, Paul, receives roughly half of the page coverage devoted to the death of Julia Lennon. For a Beatles historiography which has tended, over the decades, to zero in on John’s trauma while seemingly neglecting that of the band’s other members – Ringo’s childhood health struggles, for example – this lack of equal page time from the band’s preeminent historian on a subject which many fans felt had already been inadequately explored left them disappointed.
While the argument can be made that Lewisohn’s coverage of Mary McCartney’s death leaves unanswered questions, — the primary one being the claim, made in Bob Spitz’s Beatles bio by Paul’s Auntie Dill, that Mary McCartney was actually diagnosed with cancer when Paul was six, not twelve – (a claim that, if true, changes the whole tenor of Pauls’ childhood) — this has to be balanced with the acknowledgement that the McCartney family as a whole receives considerable attention. The most notable example of this involves Lewisohn’s use, in Tune In, of numerous quotes and material from Mike McCartney, Paul’s only brother. Indeed, Mike receives more coverage than George’s or John’s siblings. (Ringo, of course, was an only child). None of George’s older brothers, or sister, or John’s half-sisters, are as extensively quoted, or their lives as intertwined with the future members of the Fab Four, as Mike. In the band’s early days, Mike was casual friends with the other members of his brother’s band and served as their unofficial photographer. Simply put, no Beatles sibling has made as significant an imprint as Mike McCartney has on the band’s story or its historiography.
Part of this can evidently be attributed to Mike’s seeming closeness to his only sibling: only 18 months apart in age,[i] Paul and Mike, while fighting as fiercely as only brothers can, apparently grew up in each other’s pockets. While John’s friendship with Pete Shotton and George’s with Arthur Kelly are emphasized, it appears that Paul’s primary childhood partner in crime was Mike. Tune In discusses, among other incidents, Mike’s arm being broken while away with Paul at Scout camp; their entry into a talent contest as a duo of singers; and Mike’s first forays into photography and performance art (an act which evidently included walking around Liverpool with a handkerchief stuck in his mouth: older brother Paul, evidently, was unimpressed).
Much of the material Lewisohn uses for his information on Mike comes from Michael McCartney’s 1981 book The Macs: Mike McCartney’s Family Album. Part family photo album, part memoir, The Macs provides the most extensive account available from Mike McCartney on McCartney family history, his relationship with his brother growing up, and his own experiences as a member of the comedy/musical group The Scaffold. Part of a wave of early 1980s Beatles memoirs, including ones from Pete Best and Alan Williams, The Macs, with its arch tone, Scouse wit, and fly on the wall perspective, resembles Shotton’s 1982 John Lennon In My Life, another wry, tongue-in-cheek but fond remembrance about growing up with a future Beatle – although, obviously, without the tragic coda which ends Shotton’s account.[ii]
Mike sets the stage with his summation of McCartney family history, providing valuable information on, among other subjects, Mary McCartney’s background and almost Dickensian childhood. The book provides literal and figurative snapshots of childhood adventures and misadventures shared by Paul and Mike (including one where the two boys almost burned down their own garage). While the overall tone of the book is one of wry remembrance, there are brief sketches of events – such as Paul and Mike, as children, falling into an old lime pit and almost drowning before they were rescued by a passerby who luckily heard their cries, or Mike’s observation that Mary was not overly demonstratively affectionate with her sons, presumably due to her own deprived childhood — that make it clear that life was not always easy for members of the McCartney family, even prior to Mary’s death. Mike’s discussion of that tragedy is relatively brief: he praises his father’s overall response — noting how, struggling with his own grief, Jim could have pawned his two boys off on other relatives, or become an alcoholic, but instead ‘soldiered on’ as an involved, stable parent.
Lewisohn is not the only major author to use The Macs as a primary source in their depiction of Paul’s childhood: Most post-1981 McCartney or Beatles biographers, including the aforementioned Spitz, Chris Salewicz, Philip Norman, or Peter Carlin, among others, include quotes or stories lifted from Mike’s recollections. Particularly before the 1997 publication of Paul’s semi-autobiography Many Years From Now, authors looking to discuss Paul’s childhood had little else but The Macs to draw from, excepting interviews and the Authorized Biography.
It is notable, and presumably not coincidental, that most of Mike’s fly on the wall accounts of life with Paul taper off once he reaches the point in the narrative where his older brother becomes an international superstar. One could speculate that geographic distance played a role in this – that with Mike no longer sharing a house with Paul and the two of them no longer living in each other’s pockets, Mike simply had less material to recount.
Yet reading between the lines of other works, including those by Barry Miles, Tony Bramwell, and accounts of others, including Tara Brown’s life, indicate that, particularly once Paul moved into Cavendish in 1966, Mike was a frequent guest at Paul’s house and still a significant presence in his brother’s life. (However, interestingly enough, Mike’s description of his thoughts regarding Linda the night before he was to serve as best man at her and Paul’s wedding — “What would she be like? Would I like her? Would she like me?” — imply he had not yet met her in person.) That is not to say that, like Neil Aspinall, Mike was present to consistently witness the band’s every day lives. However, the reality of having grown up with and remaining close to Paul, gone to the same school with George, and knowing and being friendly with both John and Ringo, indicates there’s good reason to believe Mike witnessed moments in Beatles history and enjoyed a level of access to them in both their private and recording lives (Mike recounts independently popping by George’s and John’s while visiting Paul in London) that very few others could ever hope to claim. However, whatever access he enjoyed, Mike endorses Shotton’s and George Martin’s claims regarding the utter insularity of the four: “Four soul brothers on a deserted tropical island, upon which nobody was allowed to set foot.” Nor did Mike’s relationships with the other three end when the Beatles did: The Macs includes an account of Mike visiting John while in New York in 1974. While the meeting was evidently amicable enough, Mike, in later interviews, expressed criticism of John’s breakup-era comments, and of how their impact, coupled with John’s death, prompted a skewed version of both his brother’s personality and artistry and of the Lennon/McCartney partnership.
Mike’s approach of largely restricting his comments on Paul to childhood/adolescent anecdotes and adopting a relative post-1963/64 silence regarding his brother’s life is not limited to The Macs, but is instead a pattern with Mike’s overall contribution to Beatles history. The reality is that Mike McCartney is, along with Jane Asher and John Eastman, one of the three remaining great untapped sources on Paul McCartney. Both John Eastman — Paul’s brother in law — and Mike McCartney — Paul’s biological brother — have, given their profound connection to one of the world’s most famous men, provided a relative scarcity of interview material, and Asher has, for over fifty years, politely refused interviews on the subject . In Eastman’s case, his few interviews tend to focus on the Eastman’s family’s approach to supporting Paul and countering Klein during the business and legal issues which accompanied the band’s breakup. Mike’s offer humor and childhood anecdotes that, with some exceptions, largely stop around 1964, screening from the public view what little remains of his brother’s private adult life. For his part, Paul has emphasized his trust in and dependence on Mike: in one interview, the musician described Mike as one of the most important men in his life, along with their father Jim, George Martin, and fellow Beatles. In another, recent interview, Paul describes Mike as one of the people he turns to for advice (along with his wife, Nancy, and …. Lorne Michaels, Producer of Saturday Night Live. Because …. why not).
Given Mike’s relative refusal to reveal information regarding his brother’s post-adolescent life, it seems probable that, unless Lewisohn is able to gather new material from Michael McCartney, Mike’s presence in the second and third volumes of Tune In will diminish. Shotton, whose memoir provided intruiging claims regarding John’s perceptions of the other Beatles and/or Yoko up to the very end of Lennon’s life, will presumably continue to have a strong voice in later volumes. (For example, Shotton provides a fascinating fly-on-the-wall account of the debate between John and Paul regarding the selection of “Hey, Jude” as the A-side over “Revolution”). While there’s good reason to believe Mike McCartney could provide any number of similar, intriuging recollections, there’s even better reason to believe that, despite his value as a source, The Macs will remain Mike’s most extensive addition to Beatles historiography.
[i] Doggett notes how telling it is that, in Anthology, Paul mistakenly identifies the age gap between himself and George as eighteen months rather than the correct nine: eighteen months is actually the amount of the age gap between Paul and Mike, not Paul and George; a slip by Paul that seems to further cement his habit of placing George in the little brother role.
[ii] For those who have not read it, the last page of Shotton’s account of his time with John finishes with the equivalent of a literary gut punch: “What a fucking end.”
The Macs has sections, not page numbers, which is why the direct quotes in my review do not include page numbers.
Apologies for the much-later-than-intended post: it turns out my annual response to the return of Spring is to contract bronchitis. Which, for the record, still stinks even when you’re not pregnant. But we’re all finally healthy again. Just in time for Finals and grading.
For those who were curious regarding a previous discussion involving Jim McCartney and gambling: in The Macs, Mike says that, prior to his marriage to Mary, Jim had “a flutter” on the horses in order to raise the money to send his mother on a short holiday. The flutter didn’t pan out, and Jim’s employer covered Jim’s gambling debts, which Jim then paid back by walking, rather than taking the bus, to work for six months. However, Mike does not mention whether Jim’s gambling was a source of tension between himself and Mary.