Transcript for Joshua Wolf Shenk on Lennon and McCartney

Jim Fleming: [music] That of course is the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two people destined to make beautiful music together?  Not so much says writer Joshua Wolf Shenk.  In his Creative Pairs series for Slate, Shenk writes that Lennon and McCartney did complete each other, but probably not in the way you might think.

He says they weren't so much like chocolate and peanut butter as they were like an oyster and a grain of sand.  Take for example their very first meeting when Lennon was 17 and McCartney was almost 16.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: The meeting between those two guys is a classic illustration of these big bang moments of these explosions, these moments of chemistry and electricity that most creative pairs have at some point.  It's not necessarily the first time they meet, but the people that describe John and Paul seeing each other for the first time, you know, you could almost feel this sort of ferrel sense in the air.

Fleming: Somebody talking about that first meeting said that they were attracted to each other, but they also kind of circled each other.

Shenk: Yeah, this is a fantastic image from one of the bandmates who is watching them as they circled each other like cats.  There was an intense awareness and interest, and also kind of weariness because what they were about to embark on would be enormously vulnerable.  I think this is one of the really important lessons of my study that you know, we veterate and romanticize electricity and chemistry.  It's actually really hard to be with and to be around.

Fleming: Well, when you look at McCartney then and as you pointed out, McCartney was more sweet, wrote more ballads.  Lennon was more introspective, more bluesy and together neither one of them went too far off in their own direction, and both of them sort of saw the other as part of themselves.

Shenk: Yeah, that's exactly right and took a lot of pleasure from it.  Paul was so wistful in the years after the breakup and after John's death, there's one moment that stands out when he said, I think he actually sang it for the interview, getting better all the time; and then he sang John's part you know, can't get no worse.  He loved that.  He loved that ballast and that balancing, and I think depended on it.  And I think even when they worked entirely alone in the Beatles years, they were so aware of each other that the collaboration was implicit in everything they did.

And that helps explain why this idea that John and Paul were entirely separate in their later years as Beatles I think is totally wrong.  And it helps explain why, even if they were doing a lot of writing on their own, why the work they produced as Beatles was so different than the solo work.

Fleming: Give me an example.  I mean we all know of the Lennon/McCartney years, Lennon/McCartney, it was almost as if they were one thing.  Even then you suggest there was tension.  McCartney I think you said represented loss of control to Lennon; and Lennon sort of represented bossiness or something to McCartney.

Shenk: Yeah, well there was tension from the beginning.  I mean to go back to this meeting scene, John remembered several times, it was a really poignant moment for him and really stood out that when he saw Paul he immediately recognized that here was a guy who was a better musician than him, and bringing him into the band would make the band better, it would make him a better musician, but it also would mean that his undisputed role as the front man would be threatened.

And he decided to take that risk, but that sense of you know, who's in control and the important of it to both men in their own way never dissipated.

John really needed for people to think of him as the boss, and when he decided to act forcefully he wanted everyone to listen.  Paul is more kinda classic guy, slightly in the shadows who didn't mind John having that perception of himself as the boss so long as things were going the way Paul thought they should go.

And for a lot of years that worked just fine for them.  It came to a head in a really ugly way around the breakup, and even then I think the inherent beauty and depth of connection between them would have persisted were it not for a perfect storm, a cataclysm that wasn't fundamentally musical or even temperamental and relational, but had to do with these business crises that they had gotten themselves involved in in a series of mistakes and misunderstandings. 

And even then I think that the two of them were intensely aware of each other.  I think it's a huge mistake to read Lennon's life in the '70s without acknowledging and understand that he was intensely aware of Paul the entire time and vice versa. 

Fleming: Do you hear it in their music?  I mean are there songs that you can think of that each wrote separately perhaps with the other in mind?

Shenk: Yeah, I mean John was sort of famously this sort of bluesy, risky one, but Paul wrote Helter Skelter.  [music]

A lot of times Paul would record these really raucous vocal parts and he would insist on doing it alone and not in harmony.  You don't need to be a Freudian to see that this was an element of his competition coming out.  John also wrote in addition to his you know, a lot of very weird, very associative stuff, wrote a lot of very beautiful ballads.

Fleming: Yeah, but it's interesting isn't it because the thing that we all remember is revolution that is John.  But I wasn't aware until I read it in your piece that McCartney was the one who was actually out with a tape recorder doing loops of sound and odd things that maybe didn't get onto the albums, but that may have fed John's creativity.

Shenk: Yeah, I mean I think that their relationship was sort of one would dart ahead and the other would race to catch up.  They would circle each other.  This detail was a great one because John is remembered as the bizarre one and the risky one, and the avant-garde one, when in fact when they stopped living together John moved to the equivalent of Westchester County for New Yorkers.  He moved to the suburbs.  He moved where the bankers and stockbrokers lived.

Paul was downtown.  He was right around the corner from the studio and he was out every night.  John was home.  John was a really introverted guy fundamentally and often said that he was just scared by people; he needed a big impetus to go out, he really needed to rouse himself.  He also was literally dropping LSD every day for a number of years and just sitting and watching television, occasionally writing music.

Whereas Paul would go home from the studio and head out, and he'd be out all night in what was one of the most artistic environments in history in London in the '60s, and he's the one who, as you say, first experimented with experimental sounds and tape loops.  And he did actually bring it and became the sound for, if I'm not mistaken, Tomorrow Never Knows.  [music]

It's a very famous John song and people associate the weirdness of it with John, but Paul was the one creating the sound.

And I think then you have to say well, then what's going on in the later years when John teamed up with Yoko and they did Revolution 9.  And to what extent is that John saying look, you think you're the weird one, I'm gonna show you.

Fleming: This is still the competition then.  Was it George Martin who said they had a tug of war going all the time?

Shenk: Yeah.  George Martin's image is a beautiful one that they were at the end of a rope tugging all the time, pulling as hard as they could, smiling all the while.  Then he said the tension made for the bond.  I love that image because I think it captures something essential.  We were talking earlier about the space between two people, and really in a very basic way, my Slate series and the book I'm writing for the Penguin Press is a kind of biography of the space between creative people.

I think that space needs to be open, you know, just like two boxers in the ring, a way for them to avoid contact is to hug each other.  You can't have creativity when you're actually fused, but you obviously can't have it when you're a million miles away.  So the image of the tug of rope really kind a captures that moment and that space of tension in a beautiful way.

Fleming: Maybe you could say it musically.  Is there a composition, a Lennon-McCartney composition that you think really sums up their relationship?

Shenk: Oh, man, so many great ones.  The first thing that pops in my head is We Can Work It Out, which is you know, a great place where you know, you have a song that was primarily written by Paul, at least instigated by Paul.  And you have these sort of darker hues, these minor notes that John brought in and it just adds up to something so huge and beautiful.  [music]

Two of Us is a great song.  There are a lot of things going on.  Paul said it started because Linda suggested that they just go off driving in the middle of nowhere and that's the first verse of the song.  [music]

But when you get into the heart of it it really feels like you know, one partner relationship that is on it's way to estrangement, really pointedly calling out and there's great tape of the two of them playing around with that song in the studio, an ostensively miserable time.  They were miserable in a lot of ways.

You know, business fights were just a total nightmare, but when they got together and were playing together, the pleasure was totally palpable.  [music]

Fleming: The Beatles with Two of Us, from their final studio album, Let It Be.  Joshua Wolf Shenk is the author of the Creative Pairs series, Slate.  He's also writing a book about the subject.


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