Songwriters Play Central Role In New Music Books

The John Lennon-Paul McCartney songwriting team broke up 40 years ago but their influence lives on in music, pop culture and now in two prominent new books about music.

Lennon is one of the five seminal artists who shape the backbone of “Corn Flakes With John Lennon,” a memoir by Robert Hilburn, the influential former critic and reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Author Peter Ames Carlin focused on Lennon’s partner for the biography “McCartney: A Life.”

Photo: “© Apple Corps Ltd, 2009
During a photo session, 1962.

Hilburn, 70, is a throwback to when music writers such as himself carried enormous influence, and had the access and longevity to get to know musicians better than few in the media do today. He can write about corn flakes with John Lennon because he shared meals with the ex-Beatle. Hilburn is soft-spoken, but has a strong enough voice both editorially and in person that when Bono asks, he’s not afraid to let the U2 singer know when he’s made a wrong turn.

Carlin is a pop culture writer for The Oregonian in Portland and author of a Brian Wilson biography.

Hilburn said Lennon was one of the few artists with whom he had ever developed a social relationship, a relationship cut short in 1980 when Lennon was murdered outside his Manhattan home. But Hillburn never had the same relationship with Lennon’s former partner, who is guarded and rarely self-reflective with journalists.

“I hate to say this, but there is nothing to learn from McCartney,” Hillburn said.

Carlin, though, found McCartney’s life in the 1970s and the evolution of his band, Wings, of great interest, despite the library load of books written about the Beatles and McCartney.

He was most interested in how McCartney dealt with the concept of being 27 and recognizing that he’d be known as an ex-Beatle for the rest of his life.

Not well, at least at first. McCartney retreated to life on a farm with wife Linda and his family, and drank too much. But McCartney, whose mother died when he was a teenager, learned early from his father Jim that you soldier on when you take some hits. He formed the band Wings and did just that — he soldiered on.

Photo: AP Photo
Grammy Awards, Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif.

McCartney’s breeziness and seemingly endless font of melodies, gave the impression that things came easily to him, and that his work was somehow less valuable than songs by Lennon and his tortured artist persona. To many, Lennon’s lionization after his death further minimized McCartney’s contributions and frustrated him.

“People want it to be simple — John is this guy, Paul is that guy,” Carlin said. “Paul was as serious and radical an artist as John. John was as much a showman and pop musician as Paul was.”

Carlin received cooperation in his research from many people around McCartney, but not from the man himself. And while McCartney said he’s grateful that people are interested enough to write a book about his life, he doesn’t plan to read it.

“I’m living it, not reading about it,” McCartney said in an interview. “There’s always something that I’ll see that isn’t true and I’ll either worry about it and say, `Oh, God, people are going to read this and think it’s true because it’s in a book,’ or I’m just not going to be a part of it.”

McCartney’s last decade has been rough. He lost Linda to the same cancer that killed his mom, and went through the tabloid misery of his marriage to Heather Mills. Yet while many of his fans weren’t paying attention he’s had an artistic resurgence, at least compared to his work in the 1980s and 1990s, and is combining that with a comfortable embrace of his formidable catalog.

“You take this guy for granted,” Carlin said. “But one day he’s not going to be around anymore … and then people will realize that this was quite a guy.”

The seeds for Hillburn’s book came from an in-depth series he did for the Times in 2004 on songwriters talking about their craft. When he was thinking about who to include, Hilburn drew up a list and showed the names to an industry friend who pointed out an obvious omission: Bob Dylan. Hilburn had over-thought things. He worried about whether Dylan would say no, or if the music legend, who can give inscrutable interviews, would not be revealing.

So he asked, and Dylan gave hours of his time, telling someone later that he did so because he thought “it was important to Bob.”

Photo: AP Photo

It was the thrill of Dylan’s music that led Hilburn, then a news reporter, to music writing in 1966. He also recognized, as a youth obsessed with Elvis Presley in the 1950s, that not enough people took pop music seriously.

“You couldn’t find out anything about your heroes,” he said. “I had a thirst to find out more about these people.”

He’s not alone. Bono would frequently pick Hilburn’s brain about what those heroes were really like. But while part of the book shares the anecdotes Hilburn would relate to colleagues following his interviews, the overall structure of the book comes from a simple computer exercise.

Hilburn dove into the Times’ archives one day and typed his name and “Bob Dylan” to see how many entries came back. He found he’d mentioned Dylan in 424 stories over the years. He tried the same thing with about 30 other artists and the five with the most citations were Dylan, the Beatles or Lennon, Presley, Bruce Springsteen and U2.

That struck him as pretty representative of the best artists he had covered as a music writer, and he had interesting stories to tell about all of them and the arc of their careers.

Hilburn always figured the best way to develop relationships with important artists was to write about them early in their careers; he talked to Springsteen before “Born to Run,” U2 on their first visit to Los Angeles. That way, as they got famous and had less time to talk to journalists, they would already have a relationship with him.

His moment of acceptance with Dylan sounds like a Mafia don’s approval. Hilburn traveled to the set to do a story when Dylan was filming “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” Although Dylan wouldn’t speak to him, others did. Dylan was apparently unhappy about that, and one night at Los Angeles’ famed Troubadour club, Hilburn heard a voice calling to him from the dark.

Photo: AP Photo
Bob Dylan brings his artisty to the Roskilde Festival in Denmark.

It was Dylan. He said a screenwriter Hilburn had quoted in his story denied ever talking about Dylan.

“It was a moment of decision,” Hilburn recalled. “I thought my only chance to connect with Dylan was to be honest. I said, `Bob, you may be upset at me for putting those things in the paper, but I swear to God he told me those things.’ He looked at me and nodded and said, `OK.’

“I think that was helpful.”