For my money, there is no greater miracle in the world than the music of The Beatles. Their records fairly burst with exuberance at the same time seeming flawlessly arranged; the melodies felt inevitable, as though they existed in the collective ether, yet they constantly delighted and surprised; and their lyrics—running the gamut from simple, elegant, funny, allusive, deeply felt, and spiritual—seemed to combine realism with uplift and intelligence with accessibility. The 213 tracks that comprise their officially released catalogue is as close to perfect as pop gets. No one else has come close.
The Beatles were actually a string of miracles. The first was John Lennon, the second McCartney, and the third that they met. There were two people in the world, it would turn out, who could rival Lennon as a singer and songwriter in popular music. One of them, Bob Dylan, lived in Minnesota. The other happened to live a mile and a half away.
Lennon and McCartney’s cooperative as well as competitive songwriting partnership, spurring each to ever greater heights, has been widely recognized by commentators, biographers and Lennon and McCartney themselves. But there was something more poignant going on that hasn’t been adequately acknowledged: John and Paul saved each other. Each made the others’ life what it turned out to be, something beyond anything they—or the world—could have imagined.
To understand what I mean, you have to know a bit about John and Paul. When John met Paul, he was an angry, self-destructive sixteen-year-old. His father permanently away at sea, his mother deemed too irresponsible and preoccupied with her new partner, John was raised by his strict and puritanical Aunt Mimi. He found comforting adult companionship in the form of Mimi’s more easygoing husband, George, whom John loved.
When John was fourteen, however, George suddenly died. Not long after, John began to reconnect with his mother, largely through their shared love for and taste in music. In what must have felt like the cruelest of jokes to young John, however, she too died shortly thereafter, struck by a car. It was more than he could bear. Already prone to rebellion and disenchantment with the options society offered an imaginative English school kid, he went over the edge. Unable to get into a university due to poor grades, he was sent as a last ditch effort to art school. There he fared no better. Caring only about rock and roll, he did practically no work (fellow students would loan him theirs so he had something to show his instructors). Instead he played the class clown while getting drunk and picking fights in his free time, aided in these pastimes by his sharp wit and predilection for cruel mockery.
Before he met Paul, John could only sense his brilliance in flashes amid the chaos of his soul. Paul, though, was a like a mirror in which Lennon could see a stable image of this inner self. As such, Paul was a lifeline towards a future for John. Since high school, John had kept a band going with rotating personnel but they weren’t going anywhere. It was only Paul’s incandescent talent along with his ambition, discipline, charm and diplomacy that allowed The Beatles to march doggedly forward and corral John’s feral genius . Perhaps crucially for their connection as well—another synchronicity in the dazzling array that blessed The Beatles’ career—Paul had also lost his mother, to cancer, at about the same age as John. (Much has been made of this parallel in both musicians’ early lives.)
After they met, it was clear to everyone around them that they were the nucleus of something—and things began happening for the group. Skilled and dedicated themselves, they began tolerating less amateurism in other group members. A new determination and sense of purpose took form. It was Paul who suggested George become a member. It was Paul too who sparked John’s songwriting. To an English kid in the early sixties, songwriting seemed unreachable, the province of “experts.” No groups in Liverpool wrote their own songs, and before meeting Paul, John too was content to sing the rock and roll hits of his day. But Paul, with his own brand of boldness, had written a few songs, which he played for Lennon.
If McCartney likely saved Lennon from an early death, Lennon saved McCartney from an early life. For without John, Paul would likely have eased unnoticed into Liverpudlian adulthood to lead a comfortable existence as a school teacher who played music on the side, just like his dad. Unlike John, Paul had options. He was self-possessed, canny, successful in school and surrounded by loving parents and other relatives. Though, like John, he had been robbed of his mother at an early age, his upbringing allowed him to absorb the blow with less world-negating despair.
True, McCartney loved rock and roll. But he also loved music hall tunes and much of the other tamer fare of the kind his piano-playing father exposed him to. On his own, McCartney lacked the drive or desperation to form a rock and roll band. He was not actively seeking a band when he met John, nor had he ever formed one of his own. To fork in the direction of the trail-blazing pop-star he became, he needed John’s go-for-broke energy. John’s middle finger to society’s boredom was a rallying flag for the secretly irreverent, Little-Richard-loving rocker in Paul, who would emerge over the course of the sixties as a musical genius with a mind-boggling array of talents.
In McCartney’s touching 1985 song about Lennon, “Here Today,” he wrote that, through everything , John was “always there with a smile.” That smile is what roused Paul in the first place. It said, “Life is supposed to be fun!” It’s the smile the two of them spread across the world.