Everyone, especially John and Paul, remember the day, the occasion and the words exchanged when they first met. Nobody, including George, who has an excellent memory, remembers the first time he met Paul, and he knows Paul doesn’t remember, either. In his more philosophical hours, he doesn’t mind, because John is the type of person you do remember entering your life, like a lightning stroke, and he and Paul are not. It’s a long series of bus trips he remembers when he tries to, no individual trip standing out from another, but in his memory Paul is always sitting down next to him every time the bus stops at Allerton, chatting away about guitars and the newest Little Richard song, and suddenly the prospect of yet another dreary day in school where he hates all the teachers and is convinced they hate him isn’t quite as bad anymore.
One particular occasion he does remember is when Rock around the clock is shown in Liverpool, and the older kids on the bus are talking about it. George is painfully aware that he doesn’t have the right age to watch it yet, and that feels like a monstrous injustice. Paul is too young as well, and looks even younger with his baby face, but he’s still confident he’ll bluff his way in, and George doesn’t doubt him, because Paul has a way of getting everywhere he wants to be and then making it feel like he has a perfect right to be there. Maybe it’s because Paul doesn’t doubt for a moment he’ll be welcome whereever he goes, while George is not. George is convinced half of the world consists of phoneys who are just out to get you, and they’ll probably be in the cinema as well, so he tries telling himself he won’t miss anything. It doesn’t work too well, and he slinks a bit further into his seat, feeling utterly miserable.
“Tell you what, son,” Paul says, watching him. “What you need is a moustache. They’ll let you in then, you’ll see.”
George hasn’t even started shaving yet, though he watches his chin every day in the mirror for signs of hair, so at first he thinks Paul is crazy. When he realizes what Paul actually means, he still does, but Paul has a way of making you hope his madness has method, and besides, it’s just easier to hold still while Paul is pencelling a moustache on his face with dirt from the garden and coal. Paul is as focused and serious about this as he is when they’re trying out new chords, and somehow this makes George feel this isn’t a stupid girly thing to do which will make people laugh at them but something cool, something James Bond would do on a spying mission.
“There,” Paul says, satisfied, and George thinks of offering to return the favour, because surely, Paul looks just as young and needs a moustache too, but Paul is already dragging him to the cinema, talking excitedly about the songs in the film and whether they’ll be able to play them themselves afterwards or whether they’ll need to hear them more than once.
In the end, the film is a bit of a dissapointment in that regard, far too talky, they decide, the feeling of buying the tickets without anyone demanding proof of their age, the feeling of sitting in an audience of people all 16 and older, that feeling is glorious, and George catches himself humming all the way home.
It should be his day of glory. George knows Taxman is a great song, and everyone else knows it, too. Yes, John helped him a bit with two lines, but everything else about it is George’s, and it’s not something either John and Paul would have written, not something that feels like he’s still doing what half the songwriters in Britain are doing when trying to get out hits, imitating them. Taxman is George’s voice entirely, and it won’t be on the album because they have to give him one song there, but because it deserves to be, because any album would be lucky to have it. Even George Martin sounded impressed when George played the demo for him and hinted it might end up as the opening song of the album, get that covetted first spot, which none of George’s songs ever did before.
It should be his best day at Abbey Road studios ever, the perfect day. And maybe that is the problem, maybe it’s because his expectations are so incredibly high, but it slowly turns into a nightmare instead. The vocals are fine, both his leading vocal and John and Paul singing backup vocals for the chorus, but when it comes to recording lead guitar, George inexplicably starts to feel nervous. He knows he’s a good guitarist, hell, he knows he is a great guitarist. He also knows how the solo should sound; he’s heard it in his head a thousand times. Somehow, what he heard in his mind just won’t translate into reality. He bungles the first take, the second, the third, the fourth, and he can almost feel George Martin getting impatient behind the glass of the control room while John makes a bored face and Paul, looking not at George but at John, just rolls his eyes.
That is so unfair, and George tries to tell himself this isn’t a musical judgment at all but Paul being bitchy because of the LSD matter. Which is really Paul’s own fault for being such a square and refusing to take acid, so of course they call him out on it, John and George. They have done for over a year now. George has to admit it feels good, sharing something with John that Paul doesn’t, and maybe he’s rubbing that in now and then, but given all the time Paul tells him how to play his own instrument, George thinks he’s entitled. And here is Paul again, saying “look, Georgie, why don’t you try...”, and it’s all George can do to stop himself from yelling back “I know how to play my own bloody song!”
Except his fingers somehow refuse to translate what he knows into practice. As he bungles take after take, he feels John’s bored stare and Paul’s increasingly irritated one, and that makes it even worse. Having sex for the first time in Hamburg while both of them were in the room had been easier than this, because then at least they waited with the comments until he was done. His hands are slick with sweat by now and he wipes them and wipes them but the bloody solo still doesn’t come about, and then the door of the studio opens and it’s George Martin, whose idea of tact appears to be making the suggestion crushing George’s heart not via the talkback but in person.
“George,” the producer says kindly, “maybe you should take a break. I’d like Paul to have a go at the solo, just so we have an alternative in the can.”
George doesn’t say that he’s the lead guitarist, and George Martin would never have asked him to play bass in Paul’s stead on a John and Paul song. He doesn’t that this is his song, and surely that gives him the right to decide who plays what. He doesn’t say anything at all. Instead, he just clutches his guitar and looks at Paul, thinking: Please. Please don’t do this.
It doesn’t even occur to him for a second to appeal to John instead. Because things have changed ever since they entered a recording studio for the first time, and while none of them would ever have verbalized it to each other or to someone else, they all know the balance of power has shifted. If Paul refuses to play the solo, if he says they should just give George a bit more time, then George Martin will accept it without question. Please, George thinks, and if he ever needed Paul to express confidence in him, to back him up, it is then.
Paul looks at him, and says in his most irritating benign I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good tone: “Have a smoke outside, Hari. It won’t take long.”
Of course it won’t. George lets go of his guitar, stands up and leaves the studio. Later, when he’s a bit calmer, he hears the tapes, and sure enough, Paul’s solo is great. Not like George would have played it, but somehow just what the song needs, ferocious and vital. The engineer sounds pleased as he mentions Paul did it in one take or two.
For the rest of his life, George will get compliments for his guitar playing on Taxman, and he won’t ever forgive Paul for this.
They’re all exhausted from touring and in desperate need of their holidays in the January of 1966, but once George has decided to go ahead with his marriage, he’s not willing to postpone. Still, it means that neither John nor Ringo will be there. When he’s asking Paul to be his best man, he half expects being turned down as well, because Paul’s girlfriend Jane, who has a tour schedule of her own, will only be able to share holidays with Paul in January and has mentioned this to Pattie.
“It’s okay if you can’t come,” George says, to soften the invitable refusal in advance. “Brian will be there. And my family, of course.”
“Don’t be daft. Of course I’ll be there,” Paul says, and sure enough, he is, re-knotting George’s tie on the morning of the wedding because he’s fussy and a square like that. It reminds George of the moustache painting, and should be irritating, but somewhow is not, perhaps because his own fingers shook a bit when he put on the tie earlier. He’ll be deliriously happy, he just knows he’ll be, because Pattie is gorgeous and sweet, adores him, and is just the type of blonde they all dreamed about in Liverpool, down to a Bardot pout. Even John is impressed that George managed to land such a beauty, though he was tactless enough to ask whether Pattie was pregnant when George mentioned he proposed. She’s not. Cynthia was, Maureen was, but George is proud that he made the decision to marry Pattie for no other reason than love, and because this is what adult people do.
“Sorry for leaving you with the when-will-you-get-married questions, mate,” he says to Paul. It has become quite a routine between them at press conferences this last year; reporters asking “Paul and George, as the sole remaining bachelors” about their marital intentions, and George replying “well, Paul won’t have me”.
“I’ll just say you broke my heart the next time they ask me,” Paul says, and ruffles George’s hair.
Paul is in great form through the wedding, making George’s mother, who always has had a soft spot for him, laugh and blush by flirting with her, spotting the boredom of Pattie’s little brothers and taking them away for some adventuring which somehow ends up involving George’s old bow and arrows, archer lessons for the boys from Robin McCartney Hood and one particular arrow hitting directly on the bonnet of Paul’s own car. By that time Paul is already sloshed enough to just giggle which he does when he’s very happy or drunk or high, and George gets a fit of the giggles as well because the nervousness that has been plaguing him ever since his proposal unwraps itself like a giant knot. There is nothing to be afraid of; marriage was the right decision and all will go well, he just knows it.
For a moment, he imagines having had to face this day alone, and shudders.
John has barely started recording How Do You Sleep? and is still rewriting the lyrics every other minute when Ringo pulls George aside and quietly says: “We shouldn’t be here.” George doesn’t pretend not understanding what Ringo is referring to. And to whom.
“And why not?” he asks back heatedly. “Paul started it. For God’s sake, Rings, the fucker is sueing us in court!”
Not only that, but Paul appears to be winning. This morning George’s lawyer rang up to ask him whether George had really co-signed several letters granting Allen Klein higher comissions than were agreed upon in his original contract, because this, he said, was pretty much irrefutable proof of the second of Paul’s charges, “the defendants entering into contracts which affected the property of the partnership without McCartney’s knowledge or consent”. George went to Tittenhurst still seething about this, which put him just in the right mood when John told him he had a new song he wanted on his album, a song who’d end the smug bastard who’d betrayed them all.
“And it’s for the court to decide who’s right,” Ringo says, maddeningly fair-minded because that is his way, and it’s why George loves him most of the time. “But this” - Ringo gestures at John singing a pretty face may last a year or two but pretty soon they’ll see what you can do, the sound you make is muzak to my ears, “this is wrong. You know he’s not doing it because of the lawsuit.”
Ringo is wrong about that; the lawsuit is one of the reasons, George knows it, because he knows John, and he knows his own feelings on the matter. But it’s true that the lawsuit alone wouldn’t have caused this particular outburst set to music, John at his most savage and devastating. There are a lot of other reasons, some of which neatly wrapped up in that homespun cover of Paul’s second solo album with its songs about clueless partners who threw away the best thing that happened to them, three-legged creatures which were lacking a fourth and therefore incomplete, and a photo of two fucking beetles on the back.
After India, George has started to write songs where he acknowledged to himself were addressed to John and Paul. He even made them record more than a hundred takes of Not Guilty, not that the song ever made it on the White Album. It did not seem to affect them in the slightest, and if they ever noticed what he meant with lines like I look from the wings to the play you are staging, they never let on. John hadn’t even bothered to show up for the recordings of George’s songs during the last year anymore, and Paul had been oblivious enough to call I Me Mine a “nice song”. But John didn’t even listen to RAM for five minutes before dialing George, because apparantly Yoko as his audience wasn’t enough anymore for a rant about Paul, his so-called music, and the need for retaliation.
“I don’t care why he’s doing it,” George says to Ringo while they both watch John who is laughing with Yoko and Allen Klein about some line regarding Yesterday while his eyes are not amused at all, are in fact stone cold, but you have to know John to notice, and not many people do anymore these days. “I care about why I’m doing it. And it needs to be done. He needs to be taught a lesson, Rich, Paul does, and one he won’t forget.”
And that’s it, really. George is convinced he could record an entire album of Paul-directed songs, and Paul would not notice. But Paul will notice one of John’s songs, and the fact that George is playing guitar on it. He won’t even have to look at the credits to figure that one out. He’ll recognize George’s playing, Paul with his perfect ear, George’s playing united with John’s voice, and he won’t be able to tune it out, not ever. Paul can ignore anyone else’s criticism, but not John’s. Paul has complete faith in John’s musical judgment, always did, even when they were reduced to yelling at each other in office meetings, and if John tells him he’s nothing, his music is nothing, then Paul will believe it. He’ll never recover from this.
He’ll finally understand how George felt every single time Paul made one of his oh so helpful musical suggestions.
“That’s not a lesson,” Ringo says, shaking his had. “That’s us holding Paul down while John fucks him, and I don’t want any part in it.”
He’s true to his word, and when John goes from singing “How do you sleep, babe?” to How do you sleep, you cunt?, Ringo steps towards him, says “That’s enough, John” and walks out. The other musicians are starting to look very uneasy as well, especially Klaus who has known them all since Hamburg, but John has explained to him that Paul has sold them out and betrayed them first. Yoko appears to be oblivious to anyone’s ambiguity, and for a second, George envies her. His own rage hasn’t been soothed by Ringo’s words, on the contrary. He remembers now even more reasons for his anger, including the way Paul let them all find out he’d finally given up on the group as well, via the press. But the human heart is a curious instrument, and memory can be perverse, because even while the energy of George’s rage is flowing into his playing slide guitar for John – in one or two takes, Paul, a solo in one or two perfect takes, how about that? – he remembers the one and only time he shared lead vocal with Paul, singing Don't ever change for the BBC, and he wonders whether he’ll ever hear Paul’s voice united with his own again.
Is sure he never will. Which he should be happy about. Instead, that perfect solo over with, George feels empty and very, very cold.
George is early at the studio, but not really surprised Paul is already there, given that Paul lives only five minutes away. The bed brought into the studio for Yoko is empty, which means John isn’t here yet, and there’s no sign of Ringo, either. Paul and George haven’t been alone together for a while. Maybe it’s fitting they should be now, today of all days.
Paul looks a mess, George thinks distantly. He’s shaved off his beard again, but that only reveals his face is still bloated; presumably he drinks too much by now. Or maybe he is just busy acquiring a sympathy belly because his wife is pregnant. The wife in question isn’t here, which is a relief. Not that George minds Linda; he hardly knows her. But that is the problem. After what he heard on the phone this morning, he’s too shaken to keep it together in front of a stranger, and he has no idea how he’ll manage once Yoko gets here.
“Your bass line on Something yesterday was a little bit busy,” George says harshly, in lieu of greeting. “You’ll have to do it again.”
Which isn’t what he has meant to say at all, but it’s something he’s been waiting to say for years now, and he knows Paul promised George Martin there won’t be any arguments during the sessions for this new album. John would have lit up and yelled at George for such an audacity anyway, and you’d know he was pissed off; John, even now, was comfortingly open and honest this way. Paul just looks at him from where he’s currently hiding, behind the piano, dark eyes blank, and shrugs.
“Sure,” he says obligingly, which irritates George in a way Paul getting angry would not have done. Then Paul makes it even worse by saying “It’s a great song, Something”, and George explodes.
“I don’t care that you think so. Not anymore.”
That makes Paul stop playing distracted single piano notes. “What’s your problem, man?” he asks wearily, and oh, that is just too much. But George’s tongue betrays him yet again. Instead of making a cutting remark about Paul’s obliviousness and monstrous ego, he says: “My mother has a tumor in her brain.”
It’s the first time he hears the words in his own voice, out loud, and they make it horribly real. He tries telling himself that death is only the gate into another state of being. He has tried to meditate. He has listened to the Hare Krishnas currently camping outside of his house, to their chants. He has tried to listen to the voice of God in all his creation. But right now, it eludes him.
The piano chair gets pulled back and a moment later Paul is hugging him, which they haven’t done since India at least, if not before, holding him tight, and only then does George realise he’s shaking. He clutches Paul’s shoulders, but the need to lash out, to hurt, hasn’t abated.
“Am I in the dead mothers club now?” he whispers harshly. “Am I? Or do I have to wait till she’s dead? Till she…”
It is unworthy behaviour, and he should know better. He does know better. He would never behave this way with Ravi, or Eric, or Bob, all of whom know the George he wants to be, see the George he wants to be, as opposed to Paul who keeps seeing only the George he used to be. But right now there is freedom in that, because there is no dignity to be lost with Paul, no respect, and so George cries without shame or attempt at spiritual equanimity, curses and shakes while Paul whispers “that’s bullshit, George”, holds on and doesn’t let go.
Everyone, especially John and Paul, remember the day they start reconciling, in Los Angeles, on the evening of John’s first day of recording his new album, early on during his Lost Weekend. Nobody, including George, remembers the first time he sees Paul again after playing guitar on How Do You Sleep?, but that’s mostly because the early 70s tend to flow into each other for him, Bangladesh and the success of All Things Must Pass giving way to the plagiarism suit over My Sweet Lord, his marriage falling apart, falling out with Allen Klein, and far too much cocaine until Olivia enters his life and it becomes organized again. It’s a series of visits he remembers rather than one single occasion, Paul showing up at his concert in Madison Square Garden in one of his ridiculous disguises, showing up at Paul’s wrap-up party on a boat – and wasn’t that typical of Paul, a bloody boat! – in New Orleans, both of them attending Pattie’s wedding to Eric and getting into a cake fight and breaking down in drunken giggles again.
He’s not sure whether they made up or are just going through a series of truces, not least because Paul, being Paul, hones his maddening let-me-just-hop-over-this-alligator-to-catch-a-look-at-that-gorgeous-silver-lining! attitude to perfection whenever they meet. There is one exception, and it happens in the year that will end with John’s death. When Paul gets himself arrested in Japan for possession of marijuana, George sends a supportive telegram, because he’s under no illusion of how dangerous this is. Superstar or not, they take their drug offenses seriously there, and Paul could end up spending years in prison. He can’t imagine Paul surviving that. Not Paul, who couldn’t even spend four weeks in Rhishikesh where he was supposed to be meditating and exploring his inner self without treating it as a working holiday, complete with improvised jam sessions, and literally can’t live without his music.
Finding himself genuinenly afraid for Paul the Indestructible instead of being amused by his misfortune is a disconcerting sensation. Once Paul is back in England, George arranges for a casual visit at the farm in Sussex and half way through one of Linda’s veggie loafs asks with mock indignation, alluding to the end of their first time in Hamburg where Paul and Pete spent a night at the Davidswache: “What is it with you and the clink? First condom burning in Hamburg and now this?”
Paul smiles fleetingly, but it doesn’t reach his eyes, and then, to George’s surprise, he doesn’t reply with a joke. “I was fucking scared, George,” he says.
As indifferently as possible, George answers: “You weren’t the only one.”
Some of the old gleam returns to Paul’s eyes and he says, his voice getting more animated and back to his cheery patter: “Most of all, I was scared of smelling like jail soap afterwards. That’s what happened to Robert when he got out, remember?”
George does remember Paul’s friend Robert Fraser and the Rolling Stones bust, alright, not least because he had been at Keith Richards’ house that same day and only afterwards figured out the police must have waited till he and Pattie left, not wanting to arrest a Beatle. He also remembers, all too well, Paul’s tendency to deflect from anything he doesn’t want to face, be it fear, anger or resentment. Oddly enough, it doesn’t irritate George right now the way it used to. Maybe it will again, but at the moment, he thinks that if that is what helps Paul to survive, good for him.
“You? Never,” he says lightly. “You’re the cute one, Paul. You don’t smell like jail. You smell like home.”
Paul gives him an undecypherable look and bends over the table to light the cigarette George has just gotten out of his pocket. “Like fish and chips, you mean?”
“No, dafthead,” George says, feeling something inside ease into the comfort he never quite could stop himself longing for. “Home.”