Sir Paul McCartney’s new book, “The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present,” is “as close to an autobiography as we may ever come,” according to the book’s editor, Professor Paul B. Muldoon, University Professor in the Humanities and a professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts.
“The Lyrics,” published last Tuesday, is a two-volume, 960-page “self-portrait” of McCartney told through 154 of his songs, along with commentaries, photos, and other notes from his life. They range from the first songs he ever wrote at age 14, through his time as a Beatle, as the frontman of Wings, and his work as a solo artist up to the present day.
Muldoon’s collaboration with McCartney started when Robert Weil, the editor-in-chief of W.W. Norton/Liveright Publishing company, invited Muldoon to the Metropolitan Opera in 2015 to see Giuseppe Verdi’s “Don Carlos.”
Weil, who also published McCartney’s book “Blackbird Singing,” first floated the idea of a book focused on McCartney’s life through his song lyrics during the first intermission of the nearly five-hour epic.
According to an announcement from McCartney’s website, Weil developed the idea with McCartney’s brother-in-law, John Eastman.
“They thought of the idea of putting together lyrics and associated material, and I liked it, so we put things in motion. Then it was suggested that I could work with the poet Paul Muldoon and give him loads of information, as much as I could remember about each song, and that was that,” McCartney wrote.
Muldoon is a Pulitzer-prize winning poet who published his 14th collection of poems, “Howdie Skelp,” on Nov. 2. The title is an Irish term for the slap on the face that a midwife gives to a newborn. He had worked with Weil in the past to write an introduction to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” also published by Liveright.
“[Weil] knew I was deeply interested in the process of songwriting and thought I might be right for the job,” wrote Muldoon in an email statement to The Daily Princetonian. “So he arranged the marriage, as it were.”
“By the time the opera was over the deal was pretty much done,” noted Muldoon in his interview with the ‘Prince’ this spring.
McCartney and Muldoon met 24 times in the next five years to work on the book.
“The conversations took place mostly in New York, though there was a bit of Zooming towards the end. Each session lasted for three hours and was recorded,” Muldoon wrote.
The pandemic did not slow them down.
“There was no interruption in the process. If anything, the pandemic focused us even more. And it meant that I was able to work very intensely on the editing,” Muldoon wrote. “Put crudely, there was nothing else to do.”
During each conversation, they would look in depth at five or six songs. Muldoon would then take the transcripts of their conversations and edit them into the commentaries now published in “The Lyrics.”
“I know that some people, when they get to a certain age, like to go to a diary to recall day-to-day events from the past, but I have no such notebooks,” said McCartney in a statement on his website in February of this year, when the book was announced.
“What I do have are my songs, hundreds of them, which I’ve learned serve much the same purpose. And these songs span my entire life,” he added.
Muldoon worked with McCartney to make a book of songs into a life story.
“We weren’t setting out to write an autobiography per se, though it may be read partly as such,” Muldoon wrote to the ‘Prince.’
“I pushed very hard early on for presenting the songs alphabetically rather than chronologically,” he continued. “This has the effect of creating even more excitement as one turns the page. One main ambition was to be nothing less than exciting and anything that stood in the way of that was cut.”
Though McCartney commented in his website that the process “took forever,” both he and Muldoon said that they enjoyed the experience.
“It was an absolute hoot,” noted Muldoon about the process of working with McCartney. “He’s a very upbeat — I’d say joyous — person.”
“I had never met Paul [Muldoon] before, but he’s a great guy and I was very happy to work with him,” wrote McCartney on his website.
Muldoon and McCartney’s collaboration has extended beyond “The Lyrics.” This February, the professor invited the Beatle to be a surprise guest for his class ATL 496: How to Write a Song, which he co-taught with Bridget Kearney, a founding member and bassist of Lake Street Dive. McCartney spent two hours workshopping songs from students, giving feedback and sharing anecdotes.
After editing his book, Muldoon believes that McCartney is a major lyric poet and an important literary figure in the English canon. He hopes the book will underscore that belief.
“I say he’s extended [lyric poetry] because he’s been able to give the lyric a new dimension — incorporating into it many aspects more often associated with film, television, radio, stand up comedy, theater and the visual arts,” Muldoon wrote. “This book is going to be interesting to anyone interested in song, poetry, and the history of an era from which Paul McCartney derives, of course, but which he also helped define.”
Miguel Gracia-Zhang is a staff writer who often covers University affairs and local news. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @gracia_zhang.
Gabriel Robare is a news contributor, as well as the Co-Head Puzzles Editor, for the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social @gabrielrobare.