Changing my life with a wave of her hand - The Barnum & Bailey Beatle - Paul McCartney: The Life - Philip Norman

Paul McCartney: The Life - Philip Norman (2016)

Part II. The Barnum & Bailey Beatle

Chapter 13. ‘Changing my life with a wave of her hand’

Paul’s relationship with Iris Caldwell had ended in early 1963. By that time, their cosy dating routine in Liverpool was long over and they saw each other only in brief interludes between his tours with the Beatles and her engagements as a cabaret dancer.

Lately, Iris had moved upmarket from seaside cancan shows to the chorus line at the swanky Edmundo Ros Club in London’s Mayfair. Ros’s calypso orchestra, broadcast every Sunday morning on the BBC Light Programme, was a cherished childhood memory of Paul’s, so one evening he dropped by the club unannounced, bringing Ringo with him. ‘They weren’t allowed in,’ Iris recalls. ‘The doorman didn’t think they were well enough dressed.’

Despite all the new diversions offered by London, breaking up with Iris wasn’t easy for Paul. They’d been together for two years; besides, he remained hugely fond of Iris’s eccentric mother, ‘Violent Vi’, and her brother, Rory Storm, who’d been top dog in the Liverpool music scene when Lennon and McCartney still fronted the Quarrymen. Somehow, Liverpool’s ‘Mister Showmanship’ had been left behind by the national Mersey Beat craze which the Beatles had sparked off and which had brought recording deals to other city bands like Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Searchers, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Fourmost, the Mojos, Faron’s Flamingos and many more.

Unfortunately, no one had spotted Rory’s potential as a glam rocker ahead of his time. Nor was he himself all-consumingly ambitious; still involved in athletics as much as music, he feared that going to London might stop him competing for his running club, Pembroke Harriers. So he settled for remaining a big fish in that small ‘Pool’, with a stage act now featuring a pet monkey in addition to his turquoise suits, gold lamé briefs and feats of indoor mountaineering.

On a visit home during the first throes of Beatlemania, Paul heard that Rory had been hospitalised for a cartilage operation, and decided to pay him a visit. It happened that Rory’s selfless father was working in the same hospital as a volunteer porter. ‘He came into the ward with his trolley and saw this crowd of nurses around my brother’s bed, who couldn’t believe it was Paul McCartney,’ Iris remembers. ‘Poor Dad had no idea that Paul was coming… he thought it was because of some medical emergency to do with Rory, like his heart stopping.’

In the end, she took the initiative and dumped Paul. ‘It was on the day before my 19th birthday. My mum said I should have waited in case he’d got me a nice present.’

Wherever the Beatles were on Saturday nights, they always tried to watch Juke Box Jury on the BBC’s single television channel, a 30-minute show in which a four-person panel listened to the newest pop releases, then voted each a ‘Hit’ or a ‘Miss’. Most panellists were broadcasters or entertainers of the older generation who were still hostile to pop and there purely to be facetious at its expense. But in 1963, a newcomer, the actress Jane Asher, broke with tradition by being only 16, yet forthrightly articulate and intelligent.

Jane had been an actress since the age of five, appearing in British films like Mandy and The Greengage Summer, becoming the youngest-ever Wendy in London’s traditional Christmas stage version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and appearing on record in a dramatisation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Following her success on Juke Box Jury, she was asked to commentate on a pop concert called Swinging Sound ’63, and headlined by the Beatles, which the BBC staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall on 18 April, two weeks before her seventeenth birthday. Part of her assignment was to interview the headliners backstage.

Seeing her on black and white television, the Beatles had thought Jane was blonde, but in real life her shoulder-length hair proved to be a rich Pre-Raphaelite red. Following their custom with any sophisticated ‘southern bird’, all four immediately proposed to her. At that stage, it was George (‘the quiet one’, always the most sexually forward) who seemed likeliest to score.

After the concert, Jane found herself hanging out with a group comprising all four Beatles, fellow performer Shane Fenton (whom, coincidentally, Iris Caldwell later married) and the pop journalist Chris Hutchins. They went to Hutchins’s King’s Road flat, where a drunk-and so, inevitably, malicious-John Lennon began plying Jane with questions designed to make her blush as red as her hair: ‘What do girls do when they play with themselves?’ and the like. She maintained her poise impressively, but was still forced to admit to being a virgin.

To rescue her from John, Paul led her into an adjacent bedroom amid knowing winks and nudges from the others. In fact, they spent the time sitting on the bed and discussing their favourite foods. Jane had been educated at Queen’s College, one of London’s most famous girls’ schools, and was extremely well-read. One subject that came up was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, from which, thanks to his teacher ‘Dusty’ Durband, Paul could quote long passages from memory. As he would later recall, Jane seemed less impressed by his being a Beatle than his delivery of a line from ‘The Prioress’s Tale’ in its original Middle English, ‘ful semely hir wimpel pinched was’ (which makes schoolboys snigger but only means ‘her head-covering was neatly arranged’).

Later, when the group headed off to party until dawn, Jane declined to go with them and asked to be dropped at her home. Paul saw her to her front door, taking the opportunity to get her telephone number.

Jane’s father, Richard Asher, was one of Britain’s most distinguished medical men, a specialist in haematology (blood) and endocrinology (glands and metabolism) who in 1951 had been the first to identify Munchausen’s Syndrome, or attention-seeking by means of non-existent illness. Her mother, Margaret, was a classical oboe-player and a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, whose past pupils on the instrument included the Beatles’ record producer, George Martin. Martin consequently had known Jane when she was a small child; as he observed when Paul introduced them, ‘The last time I saw you, you were in the bath.’ ‘She didn’t seem all that thrilled to hear it,’ he recalled.

All the Ashers’ three offspring, in fact, were child actors. Jane’s bespectacled older brother, Peter, now studying philosophy at King’s College, London, had also been in several British films and children’s television programmes (once appearing alongside Jane in the Robin Hood series, whose theme-tune was sung by the Beatles’ future music publisher, Dick James). Not to be outdone, their young sister, Clare, had landed a part in the BBC’s famous radio soap Mrs Dale’s Diary before leaving school.

The Ashers lived at 57 Wimpole Street, a six-floor Georgian terrace house on the edge of London’s West End and in the heart of the district colonised by exclusive private doctors and clinics. If Wimpole doesn’t have quite the professional cachet of nearby Harley Street, it is immortalised in a stage play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, about the love affair between two great nineteenth-century poets; brash and breezy Robert Browning and the semi-invalid Elizabeth Barrett. Now another dashing young wordsmith came wooing a young woman almost as innocent and sheltered as Elizabeth.

Jane gave Paul instant access to all the refinement and culture his mother Mary could ever have wished for him. They spent their first dates mainly going to the theatre, spoilt for choice in the West End that was only a few minutes’ walk from Jane’s house. When she was first allowed to go away on holiday with him-to Athens-culture still predominated. Also on the trip were Ringo Starr and his soon-to-be wife, Liverpool hairdresser Maureen Cox, neither of whom had previously felt much fascination with Ancient Greece. But inter-Beatle tolerance kicked in, as always: Ringo ruefully reported ‘going round the Parthenon three times just to please Jane’.

Behind the Georgian fanlight of 57 Wimpole Street, life was very different from 20 Forthlin Road-the high rooms with moulded ceilings and the elegant staircase, all not in the very best repair; the constant comings and goings of Dr Asher’s patients and Margaret’s oboe-students; the scraps of classical music floating up from her tuition room in the basement. Not only the eminent specialist and the music professor but all three of their children seemed to have diaries permanently crammed with engagements; Paul, so he later said, had never known people ‘who stuffed so much into a single day’.

The Ashers of Wimpole Street, though pillars of the establishment, were anything but conventional. Richard Asher was a maverick in his profession, a startlingly original thinker and writer whose articles in medical journals seldom failed to cause a sensation among his colleagues and in the wider world. For all his sober suits and suave consultant’s manner, he was a one-off eccentric who’d taught himself to sign his name upside-down on the letters his secretary put in front of him, rather than waste time turning them right way up. During mealtimes, he liked to surprise his family by giving himself a (harmless) injection in the back of the neck. At night, he’d change into a blue boiler suit and occupy himself with ambitious if not always very skilful DIY jobs around the house until the early hours of the next morning.

Though the Asher household was like none Paul had ever known, he fitted into it quite naturally. Jane’s family’s addiction to intellectual word games made him bless those many times at Forthlin Road when his father sent him to look up a crossword conundrum in Chambers’ dictionary. If he didn’t understand a word, he’d say so frankly-then remember its meaning for always. Margaret Asher had a small sitting-room where she liked to serve afternoon tea to her children’s friends and her students. At these gatherings, Paul would always be the soul of politeness, passing teacups and handing round plates of cakes.

It wasn’t long before the Ashers met John, too-now on the best behaviour that, when he chose, could outshine even Paul’s. Since the pair still had nowhere in London peaceful enough for their songwriting sessions, Margaret offered them her basement tuition room and piano.

It was there-‘playing into each other’s noses’, as John put it-that they got the idea for ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, the single which cracked America for the Beatles. Strange to think of its genesis in that high-priced medical quarter, where foreign potentates disembarked from Rolls-Royces for doctors’ appointments, motorcycle couriers collected or delivered blood and urine samples and nurses and receptionists hurried to and from work.

When the Beatles first moved down to London permanently, Brian’s plan was that they should live together like puppies in a basket. Accordingly, a flat was found for them at 57 Green Street, on the side of Mayfair nearest Hyde Park. Paul was last to view the accommodation-a rare instance of tardiness on his part-and found the others had already bagged the best bedrooms, leaving him a tiny, cramped one at the back.

For John, George and Ringo, the flat was merely somewhere to sleep, entertain their pick of the night’s ‘birds’ and change clothes. All Paul’s pleas to make it more homey, even buy basic necessities, such as a kettle, fell on deaf ears. As a result, it was hardly more comfortable or cheerful than the crash-pads they used to occupy together in Hamburg.

When John’s wife, Cynthia, and baby son, Julian, followed him to London (not to his unalloyed pleasure) a family-sized flat was found for them in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington, overlooking the old West London Air Terminal. George and Ringo moved to another part of Mayfair, William Mews, sharing a flat in the block where Brian himself lived. But for some time the fans who tracked the Beatles’ every movement had no idea what had become of Paul.

In late 1963, returning from a holiday in Rome with Jane, he’d meant to drop her at 57 Wimpole Street, then go home to Liverpool. But he missed his last connection, so the hospitable Margaret Asher invited him to stay the night. Rather as in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play The Man Who Came to Dinner, that one night lengthened into weeks, months and finally years.

Jane’s brother, Peter, had a large L-shaped bedroom at the top of the house, overlooking Wimpole Street. Paul occupied a former maid’s room across the landing, overlooking Browning Mews (named after the poet) and right next to the bathroom. Jane slept on the floor below, but it was understood that there’d be no nocturnal creeping around. ‘Jane had always slept in that room, and still had the nameplate on the door which had been put up when she was little,’ recalls Barry Miles, another key figure in Paul’s cultural education. ‘For Paul, I think, it was like being in the world of Peter Pan.’

His room, in fact, was about the same size as the one he’d slept in since boyhood at Forthlin Road. There was space only for a narrow single bed and a heavy wooden wardrobe. A single shelf held guitar-picks, correspondence, a couple of drawings from Jean Cocteau’s Opium: The Diary of His Cure and a constantly changing selection of improving books. Under the bed were a growing collection of Gold Discs and his MBE medal in a frame. With the Ashers’ indulgence, he also managed to fit a piano into his tiny garret-a ‘cabaret’ model with a top low enough for its player to maintain smiling eye-contact with the audience.

His surroundings were so Spartan and his general lifestyle so modest that Peter Asher could almost forget that his music, and John’s, virtually monopolised the international charts. Then one day he opened a drawer to reveal thousands of US dollars, still in the paper bands in which they’d come from the bank. He also showed Peter a letter he’d just received from the Beatles’ accountant, Harry Pinsker. ‘I thought you might like to know,’ wrote Pinsker, ‘that on paper you are now a millionaire.’

The Ashers regarded him as one of the family-all the more welcome now that so much of the world regarded him as a god. A few blocks from Wimpole Street, the Post Office’s new 620-foot telecommunications tower was nearing completion. With the sublime self-assurance of London’s old upper class, Richard Asher wrote to the Post Office that he, his wife and children would appreciate a guided tour of the miraculous structure before its official opening. This was granted-and Paul naturally went along, too.

After Jane, his closest relationship in the house was with her mother. Margaret Asher suffered from insomnia due to chronic migraine, and so was usually still up when Paul returned from gigs or nights out with fellow Beatles. No matter how late the hour, she would provide the warmest of welcomes, then cook him whatever he wanted to eat. She also did his laundry, never minding how many dirty tab-collared or long-collared or round-collared or button-down-collared shirts he presented her with. How could he not think of the mum whose last gift had been a pile of freshly-ironed shirts and towels?

For Peter Asher, having a Beatle in the house couldn’t have been better timed. As a pupil at Westminster, the famous school in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, he had teamed with a fellow pupil named Gordon Waller to form a guitar-playing folk duo named Gordon and Peter. They had recently signed a recording contract with EMI, who had reversed the order of their names and were preparing to launch them as folk singers, though their producer, Norman Newell, said he would consider pop material, too, if they could find some.

Peter then remembered an unfinished song by Paul (‘two verses, no bridge’) that John had rejected as too soft for the Beatles and no one else seemed to want. This ‘orphan’ McCartney song, ‘World Without Love’, credited to Lennon-McCartney, became Peter and Gordon’s debut single, reaching number one in the UK in April 1964-displacing the Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’-and in the US a month later.

‘People often ask me, “How did Peter and Gordon get all those Beatles songs?”’ Peter Asher says. ‘It tends to be forgotten that in those days John and Paul were thinking of their future in terms of songwriting as much as performing. After “World Without Love” was a hit, they looked in the songwriters’ manual, where it said “If you write a hit, for God’s sake don’t let anyone else write the follow-up.” So then Paul came up with “Nobody I Know”.’

Peter’s new star status brought still more pop people into the Ashers’ classical home. For a while, he dated the Jamaican singer Millie Small who, as plain Millie, scored a worldwide hit in 1964 with ‘My Boy Lollipop’. The ever-surprising Richard Asher not only approved of their relationship but hoped Peter might marry Millie and so extinguish ‘the family gene’ that had given him his flamingly red-headed children.

Paul’s cover among West End surgeons and urologists was eventually blown and fans formed a round-the-clock picket outside 57 Wimpole Street. He was deeply embarrassed that such a distinguished couple as Richard and Margaret Asher should run the risk of being mobbed whenever they left or entered their home. But the whole family took the squealing siege in stride. Jane might have stayed coldly aloof, if not shown open resentment, towards these deranged young women from all over the world who treated her boyfriend as their collective property. Yet she always took the trouble to be nice, even though envious kicks or yanks of her hair soon became an occupational hazard.

The nuisance intensified during the spring of 1965, when the Beatles were filming Help! Paul’s fans wrote messages on the surrounding street signs, defaced Dr Asher’s brass nameplate and, in their hunger for souvenirs, even managed to break off one of the two ornamental pineapples from the iron railings flanking the front steps. Instead of exploding with fury, as many a paterfamilias would have done, Jane’s father gleefully rose to another DIY challenge, taking a cast of the remaining pineapple, then melting down various household utensils (many of them in crucial daily use) to fashion a new one.

The ever-inventive doctor also found a way for Paul to exit the house unseen that had echoes of prison-camp dramas in the Second World War. The next-door house, number 56, was also a residential property whose upper floors were occupied by an elderly retired military man. Donning his nocturnal blue boiler suit, Dr Asher climbed through the window of Paul’s attic room and discovered a narrow parapet on which it was possible to inch along to his neighbour’s top-floor windows. An arrangement was made with the bemused but obliging old military man whereby, if necessary, Paul would make the rather perilous journey along the connecting parapet, climb through number 56’s open window, then exit from the rear via a house in Browning Mews, whose occupants also had to be brought into the Colditz-like plot. From there, it was just a couple of streets to the home of the Beatles’ chauffeur, Alf Bicknell, in Devonshire Close.

The Browning Mews house belonged to a young married couple, who asked no recompense for having Paul make his way through their home at all hours. However, one day he noticed they didn’t own a refrigerator, so he had one delivered to them.

The moment of falling for Jane is marked by a new tenderness and specificity in Paul’s music. There’s the naturalistic catch of breath in ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’; the unnamed presence in ‘Here, There and Everywhere’-perhaps the most charming of all Beatles ballads-‘changing my life with a wave of her hand’; above all, the unqualified ‘And I Love Her’:

A love like ours, will never die

As long as I

Have you near me.

He couldn’t wait to show Jane off to his home city, as soon as his Beatle work schedule-and her packed engagement diary-permitted. They arrived at 20 Forthlin Road late at night, after Mike McCartney had gone to bed. Paul couldn’t wait for him to get dressed, but brought Jane upstairs to meet him while he was still in his pyjamas. Mike, too, instantly fell for her-as, needless to say, did ‘Gentleman Jim’. And the starched-aproned ghost of Mary seemed to smile down on this more-than-fulfilment of all her hopes.

Nor could Paul resist taking Jane to meet the Caldwells at the house their rock ‘n’ rolling son had renamed ‘Stormsville’. Vi Caldwell’s riotous ménage had now been further enlivened by Rory’s pet monkey, which had fallen in love with Vi’s husband and, like a Beatles fan in miniature, showed its hostility to her by dropping dinner-plates on her head.

‘Violent Vi’ bore Paul no ill will for already having found a successor to Iris. But she was determined he shouldn’t still behave as he used to when he’d rely on his angel looks to get round people-smoking their cigarettes without ever buying his own-and she’d told him, only half-jokingly, ‘You’ve got no heart, Paul.’

‘My mum said that Jane could come in,’ Iris remembers, ‘but she sent Paul off to English’s, our local shop, to get 20 cigarettes out of their machine. And when he came back, she was furious because he hadn’t bought another 20 to give to her.’

At the same time, he was a Beatle, adored by millions of young women, many only too willing to turn adoration into positive action. To resist the temptation to be unfaithful to Jane that daily-hourly-came his way would have needed the superhuman self-control of some medieval saint.

Sex had always been pressingly on offer, whether on the Reeperbahn or outside the Cavern, when roadie Neil Aspinall and his hulking deputy, Mal Evans, would bring in willing females along with the takeaway fish and chips or chicken. After Brian arrived and the world touring began, it became part of room service. Among the Beatles’ welcoming delegation at airports across America would usually be four high-priced, prepaid hookers to console them for being unable to set foot outside their hotels.

Not that it ever needed to be a commercial transaction, especially not for Paul. In any room he entered, he knew he could have his pick of the most beautiful young women there. During early Beatlemania, he would often act as a judge at bathing-beauty contests-as yet unchallenged by feminism-whose winners might then receive an extra prize along with a crown, a sash and a bouquet of roses.

Pop musicians with wives or steady girlfriends observed an unwritten rule that ‘sex on tour doesn’t count’, but for Paul it was more often a matter of keeping count. To his cousin, Mike Robbins, he once described a four-in-a-bed session in which he’d been the only male. The holiday camps where Robbins once worked used to be saturated in sex, but even he had to admit Butlin’s had nothing on this.

The Beatles’ on-the-road sexual activities were well-known to the large media contingent who travelled with them, at close quarters that today seem extraordinary. But no newspaper or TV reporter would have dreamed of dishing the dirt on the sacred Fab Four, any more than of delving into their murky Hamburg past. The media were as complicit in preserving the illusion as White House correspondents during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

The same rule also held good when, as inevitably happened, figures from their past began to pop up, seeking a share of their supposedly unlimited wealth either for having contributed to their success or suffered wrongs at their hands. In this second category, the most potentially ruinous were from the ranks of young women they’d carelessly had sex with when they were nobodies.

Two of the earliest such claims involved Paul, threatening to unravel all the positive PR he had worked so hard to create. They came at the worst possible moment, both at the start of his idyllic relationship with Jane and the apogee of the Beatles’ triumph as ambassadors for Britain and Liverpool.

The first was by a former Reeperbahn club waitress named Erika Hubers, who’d allegedly dated Paul throughout the Beatles’ intermittent spells in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962. In January 1964, she came forward, claiming he was the father of her 14-month-old daughter, Bettina.

The story reached the London Daily Mail early in February, during the band’s all-conquering first trip to America. The Mail’s New York bureau chief, David English, joined their media-packed train journey to Washington DC and, in a quiet moment, put the allegation to Paul. No clarification was forthcoming, however, and the Mail decided not to risk running the story.

Less easily suppressed was the case of Liverpudlian Anita Cochrane, a hardcore Beatles fan since their earliest days at the Cavern. Anita claimed to have had casual sex with Paul twice when she was 16 and still a virgin, and, as a result, to have given birth to a son in February 1964-again while the band were conquering America. According to Anita, when she was four months pregnant she and her mother had visited Jim McCartney, telling him she was not seeking marriage or to damage Paul’s public image, only some financial provision for the child. Jim, she said, had been ‘really nice’, given them ‘a nice cup of tea’, but told them ‘Paul says he doesn’t know you’.

They’d then gone to Brian Epstein, who was long familiar with such allegations against his ‘boys’ and had a policy of buying them off without trying to establish their truth or otherwise. Brian initially offered Anita the equivalent of £2.50 per week maintenance, then upped it to £5. When her lawyer threatened to call for blood-tests, Brian proposed a one-off payment of £5000 in exchange for signing a document promising ‘not to make any allegations or statements to any person under any circumstances that or to the effect that Paul McCartney is the father of said child’. He seemed to regard Anita’s claim as something more than the usual opportunism, for he visited her personally at her grandmother’s house to make the offer. The money was then deducted from Paul’s payments through NEMS.

Anita duly signed, but some of her family were outraged by the size of the settlement-and not bound by the same confidentiality agreement that she was. In July 1964, following the London premiere of A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles made an almost royal return to Liverpool, driving in via Speke-Paul’s childhood home-to a civic reception by the Lord Mayor for them and their families. Afterwards, they appeared on the Town Hall balcony, waving to a cheering crowd estimated at 200,000.

As Brian looked proudly on, he learned that leaflets were being circulated among the crowd, denouncing Paul as ‘a cad’ for his alleged mistreatment of Anita Cochrane. A poem had also been circulated to local newspapers, written by her uncle as if in the voice of the baby she’d named Philip Paul, and referencing one of the alleged father’s sunniest love songs: ‘In spite of all her lovin’, she got no thanks from him/ It seems he loved my mother just long enough to sin/ Besides his lust, she took his money to compensate a lie/ But Mr Paul McCartney, Dad, you make mother cry.’

Helped by his brother, Clive, Brian quietly put a stop to the leaflet-distribution and suppressed the poem. Neither Anita nor Erika Hubers had even dented the protective shield thrown around the Beatles by their manager. Alas, it was not to last for ever.