“That’s great work,” David Bailey says to Linda in the mid-70s when she’s preparing a collection of her best photos. She needs a foreword or at least a pull quote for the cover, and Bailey is still one of the most famous photographers on the planet, so she is prepared to put up with a certain amount of bullshit from him. The amazed tone in which he compliments her still raises her hackles. He looks up from some of the photos she made of Paul and John in the Abbey Road studios and studies her.
“And here I thought you were just in it for the sex,” he says. He’s not the only one, of course. Half the reporters who interview her seems to assume she only picked up a camera to score with musicians, and the other half thinks she pays someone else to take the photos for her. Still, coming from David Bailey, who is famous not just for his skills but for getting it on with two thirds of his models, this is a bit rich. She widens her eyes in a way she picked up from Paul.
“Gee, David,” she says in her best clueless American abroad voice, “that’s just what I thought about you!”
One has to give credit where due: Bailey laughs. “Here’s to the perks of the job,” he says, and picks up one of her prints again. “Almost as good as mine,” he adds. She knows which series of photos he’s referring to, of course, and she considers them some of the best she’s seen, but he’s still condescending, and she’s less and less in a mood to be condescended to.
“Better,” Linda says pleasantly. This time, Bailey is startled out of both condescension and amusement.
“Is that so?” he drawls, eyes narrowed. She refuses to back down.
“Yours are great,” she says. “Intense, sexual, and you captured something in Paul most don’t. You’re fantastic in the way you use lighting. But they’re posed, and they’re from the outside looking in. There is nothing spontaneous in them. They kept you as a distance. Mine are from the inside, and there’s no barrier left. That’s why they’re better.”
“Well, I wasn’t fucking one of them,” Bailey snarls, by now distinctly miffed. She takes that as a victory as well as an admission she’s right about the photos. She also remembers what Paul told her about David Bailey and David Bailey’s desire to photograph only John at first, and replies sweetly:
“Not for lack of trying.”
The Nijinskij of photographers looks for a moment as if he’s ready to storm off. Well, so much for that pull quote, Linda thinks, but she doesn’t feel too sorry. There are other photographers, and it’s not like she needs high sales of the book anyway.
“So how did that feel... Mrs. McCartney?” Bailey says at last, voice calm again, if full of coiled traps to be sprung, and gestures at the photos. “Being inside, and faced with that?”
It must have been a very frustrating session for David Bailey, Linda concludes, and doesn’t answer his question. There are things she shares, and things she doesn’t, thoughts and emotions she’ll take to her grave.
Besides, it’s much more fun to keep him guessing.
It’s one of the anecdotes she tells her children, something to smile about, something ironic and cute, polished into harmless memorabilia. “Before I met Daddy, I was a John girl,” she says, and the girls giggle. “John was my favourite Beatle.”
The first time Linda tells this story, it isn’t to her daughters or to her son, though. The first time she tells it, she does so because she and Paul are having a somewhat awkward dinner with John Lennon and his new girlfriend, May Pang, who started out as John’s and Yoko’s personal assistant and doesn’t seem to know how she should treat the McCartneys – as John’s old friends, as enemies who had come to a truce, as business partners or as friendly strangers. She keeps looking from one of them to the other, and Linda feels sorry for her because she remembers all too well how confusing it feels to share space with both Paul and John for the first time. So she tells her anecdote to make everyone laugh, and Paul, picking up her signal with the practice of a four years old marriage, plays along and exclaims mock-indignant: “I’ve been had! Divorce! Divorce!”
They all laugh, May sounding somewhat relieved, but then John looks over his glasses at her and asks: “So what made the Lovely Linda change her mind?”
She can almost hear the capital letters in his sardonic voice, but he has called her far worse in the past, and he sounds genuinenly curious instead of taunting, so she swallows her first reply. Unfortunately, he seems to have developed telepathic abilities, because he continues: “Let me guess. You found out I was an asshole?”
It’s the part of the truth she would have said out loud if she’d felt hostile. But this is only the second time Paul and John have seen each other in Los Angeles, and so far, everything is going well, even if everyone is tiptoeing around each other as if afraid to break china. It’s been so hard and has taken so long to reach even this stage of affairs, and she doesn’t want to endanger it. Besides, the complete truth, if there even is such a thing, is far more complicated.
“No, I became a Rolling Stones fan instead,” she says lightly, and everyone laughs again.
After Linda had left Arizona, somewhat overweight, miserable, with a failed marriage, unfinished college education and a child, she is not yet sure what she wants from life, just what she doesn’t want, which is the life of her parents. If at that point someeone would have asked her whom in all the world she’d want to meet, she would have unhesitatingly replied with “John Lennon”. Not just because she liked the Beatles, which she did, or his voice in particular, which she did, but because he seemed witty, smart, with an answer to just about everything, and as opposed to herself with no uncertainty, no hesitation and no fear to try just about anything life had to offer. By the time she actually meets him, she has known more than enough rock musicians so that the giant gap between image and reality doesn’t catch her completely unprepared, and besides, she’s just fallen in love again, which for a while makes reality in general like a giant rush, and everything in it beautiful.
No, she doesn’t really start to get disillusioned until later. It’s a months long process grinding away at her really, the arguments she witnesses as well as the silences, running her hands over Paul’s body and finding his sense of self splintering as if it was physical, but the day she knows it has happened is the day when her brother John encounters John Lennon for the first time. Her brother is in London to present himself, and their father, as Paul’s choice for future Beatles manager, and the stakes are high. She had been prepared to feel some smug Schadenfreude, she has to admit, because the initial meeting is bound to include some clashes; John Lennon and her brother, John the good child, their father’s perfect son who did brilliantly at Harvard and always fulfilled Lee Eastman’s expectations, as opposed to herself. Who prepared for his encounter with the three other Beatles as if for one of his exams. John Lennon: the literary Beatle. Is famous for his surreal sense of humour. Make sure to bring up Kafka; ask about favourite work. She could almost see the notes in her brother John’s careful script. But what actually happens goes far beyond some comic misunderstandings. After it’s over, her brother, ashen-faced, says to her: “Lin, tell me he isn’t always such an asshole.” And that’s when it hits her, that she’s been ready to say “he’s not always like that”, but does she really have reason to believe that? Out of her own experience?
Linda has never spent much time thinking about being Jewish, not least because she can’t stand any organized religion, and her parents never managed more than two or so regular passover observances in her entire childhood. But two hours of John Lennon calling her brother non-stop “Mr. Epstein” or "animal" and referring to her as a “Jewish American Princess” have made her ready to sing Hava Nagila in the Abbey Road studios on top of her voice. It’s the pettiness of it that gets to her. She and Yoko do not talk often, but after that disastrous encounter, they have one of their rare exchanges.
“Your brother should not have behaved as if my husband was uneducated and stupid,” Yoko says, as if by way of explanation, and at another time Linda would have seen the fact that Yoko apparantly believed an explanation was due as a positive sign, but not right then.
“Your husband should not have behaved like an antisemitic asshole.”
“Well,” Yoko says cooly, “if you want to talk about racism, by all means. At least he didn’t call you a Jap tart.”
Paul hasn’t told her that story yet, but it’s not hard to figure out whom Yoko must be alluding to. We need to get out of here, Linda thinks, because she doesn’t doubt it’s true, that Paul did call Yoko this, and maybe that is why John behaved the way he did towards her brother and herself; it’s as if everything good about this group of people has turned into poison.
There are no photos of that day, and she wishes she could erase it from her memory as well, but she never can.
The photos she keeps are from other days, because nothing is ever only one thing or the other, and a photographer would know. John’s face has an odd chameleon quality, which makes him such a good subject. He keeps recreating himself, and it takes her a while to figure out the transformations are so radical, make him look so different every time he changes his appearance yet again, because he doesn’t like who he is, not really; in fact, he loathes it. If she puts photos of Paul from the moptop days to her own photos of Paul at the Sgt. Pepper launch party and all the later photos she made of her husband next to each other, he is instantly recognizable as the same person. Not so John.
During the two years the Beatles are falling apart and throughout the 70s, she sees John Lennon at different times happy, miserable, apathetic, pensive, brooding, cheerful, longing, but there is only one time she has ever seen him at peace, and because her camera never is out of her sight, she managed to preserve it. It’s a photo taken at Cavendish, on one of the good days, the day after John and Paul were recording The Ballad of John and Yoko together, joking and laughing and on fire as if the drawn out horror of the Get Back sessions never happened. It is such a good session John and Yoko visit them again at Cavendish the next day, under the pretext of John needing to check whether the tapes have turned out alright. In her photo, they are sitting at their living room table, John on one side, Yoko on the other, both writing, song lyrics presumably, or maybe poems, Linda doesn’t remember, the afternoon light through the window is mild, and Paul is sitting behind Linda while she takes the picture, softly playing piano. There is no tenseness in John’s face, no need to prove anything; he’s utterly in the moment, and utterly at peace.
Years later, when she goes through her old photos with Paul and comes across this one again, Linda says something on that note, of how this looks as if was the perfect moment for John.
“Because I’m not in it,” Paul returns. He says it as a joke, but she is familiar with every nuance of his voice by then and can see the darkness in his eyes, can almost smell the stale sweat and booze of those months when he was busy drinking himself to oblivion. But that isn’t why she shakes her head. She’s honestly surprised he doesn’t realise, but then again, if you are too close to a subject, you can’t see it, you can see only dots, never the full picture.
“But you were,” Linda says. “You are. Paul, this is your house, your room. Everything around him at that moment was you. He was breathing you in. You and Yoko both.”
“You as well,” Paul says, and she feels his arm around her shoulder tightening gratefully. “You and me and...and we were all together,” he finishes, switching into an I am the Walrus quote, because Paul always finds jokes and songs an easier way to express difficult truths than any other type of conversation.
Perhaps you have to be a photographer to know how much the space around a person can be part of that person. Linda’s own personal space is Arizona, where she found herself and invented herself for the first time, away from New York, the plains and red cliffs, the sunlight, the endless free space. Paul’s space is the house at Cavendish, the garden with its whimsical glass dome and uncut grass, the ground floor filled with pictures from Magritte, drawings from the children and his own attempts, the first floor full of instruments and unexpected lights and shadows, and the doors and walls to separate and guard against the rest of the world. The farm in Scotland and later the one in Sussex is their shared space, theirs and the children’s. There are memories of the Linda Eastman that was and all her life in Arizona and echoes of John all over Cavendish, but John has never seen the farm in Scotland, and maybe that is why she fell so quickly in love with it when Paul showed it to her the first time.
She doesn’t know what John’s space is. Not Tittenhurst, which always struck her as real as a film set, and not the Dakota which is Yoko’s with its white walls and curious elegance. Not Los Angeles, either, that bungalow full of fragments from past celebrities and May’s attempts to make it into something more permanent. Liverpool maybe, but Linda has never seen John in Liverpool, so it’s impossible to tell. When she asks him whether he misses England during those careful, cautious visits in Los Angeles, it’s an attempt to find out whether there is such a place he lays claim to, one that expresses who he is, at least in his own view.
“Actually, I miss Paris,” John replies, and she feels Paul next to her go tense, then relax again. John’s face isn’t taunting, or mocking. In fact, it comes across as utterly serious and open, partly because he has put down his glasses. She surpresses the urge to take a picture just then. Sometimes your memory just has to do. Soul camera.
“I didn’t know you liked Paris that much,” May observes innocently.
“Did you know?” John asks Linda, and now there is a challenge in his look. The glasses are back on. Paul’s hand is on the small of her back, caressing or reassuring.
“I’ve seen the photos,” Linda says calmly, which is true and yet a reply to something he hasn’t asked.
“Did you like what you saw?”
The edge is definitely back in his voice. But it’s not 1969 anymore, and she discovers that she has just reached a third stage in her feelings regarding John Lennon, after fannish veneration and disillusioned ire. She feels sorry for him.
“I did,” she says. “After all, I know better than anyone how precious photos are. They preserve the memories that make us who we are, and we love them for it. But once they are made, we can never, ever get back to that moment again. We can only keep it with us in spirit while we go forward.”