Mike McCartney as a guide, an excursion through his hometown of Liverpool quickly turns into a magical history tour. Driving through the gray and decaying port city, he points out places that “our kid,” as he calls his older brother, Paul, frequented as a boy. “See over there?” Mike, 44, asks excitedly. “That’s Hessey’s Music Centre, where our kid used to get his equipment.” Other landmarks include Blackler’s store, where George Harrison worked as an electrician, and Gambia Terrace, once home to a young art student named John Lennon. But at least one historic site has disappeared. The Cavern, a rock club where Paul and his buddies played as the Silver Beatles, was unceremoniously demolished 14 years ago. “The workmen who knocked it down said, ‘It’s just another job,’ ” Mike laments. “Can you imagine?”
Two years younger than Paul, Mike McCartney was one of the privileged few present at the birth of the Beatles. Brian Epstein, the original manager of the Fab Four, dubbed him “Flash Harry” because he was forever snapping pictures of the young rockers onstage and off. Now, a quarter of a century later, Mike has gathered a nostalgic collection of those early photographs in a new book, Mike Mac’s White and Blacks: An Intimate Portrait of Liverpool in the ’60s.
The McCartney brothers were children of simple means. Their late father, Jim, a cotton salesman and sometime pianist, encouraged an interest in music by giving them first a guitar and banjo, and later a drum kit. “In Dad’s view,” Mike says, “playing an instrument was a passport for getting into a better class of life.” Mary McCartney, a nurse, had other plans for her sons, and Mike says if she had not died of breast cancer in 1956, at age 47, the brothers “would have been Dr. McCartney or Father McCartney. But God took her away, and our dad allowed us to do what we wanted with our lives.”
For a while it appeared that the brothers might become a musical duo, with Mike playing drums and singing harmony. But as a teen Mike came to fancy photographic flash over the rock variety. Given a Rollei camera by Paul in 1962, he shared vicariously as an amateur photographer in the early success of the Beatles. But with the emergence of rabid Beatlemania, Mike decided to go his own way. Anxious to succeed—or at least proceed—on his own, he even adopted the name Mike McGear, “gear” being contemporary slang for “great.”
Still, Mike was not completely above trading on his brother’s good fortune. In 1967, the year the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Mike and the poet Roger McGough went to Abbey Road to record The McGough-McGear Album with help from rockers Jimi Hendrix, Graham Nash, Dave Mason and Jack Bruce. “I couldn’t pay any of the musicians,” says Mike, who did arrangements and vocals, “so I offered them drinks instead.” The album flopped. But a year later, as part of a group called the Scaffold, Mike struck gold with a novelty song entitled “Lily the Pink.” The song rose to the top of the British charts and, despite Mike’s name change, the London Daily Express announced: “Beatle Paul’s Kid Brother Hits No. 1 Spot.”
Mike’s success was short-lived. In 1974 Paul helped him produce the album McGear, another commercial disaster. Two years later Mike took up transcendental meditation to cope with some psychic demons. “I had been taking a lot of sleeping pills, and I wasn’t an alcoholic, but my drinking was pretty heavy,” Mike says. “So I began to meditate for two hours a day, and our kid used to ring up and say, ‘Have you flown yet?’ ” By 1979 his 11-year marriage to Angela Fishwick had ended, he gave up meditation and decided to take up photography again. Remarried in 1982 to Rowena Home, a BBC wardrobe assistant, Mike now keeps busy supporting three children from his first marriage and two from his second. As a matter of principle, he will not accept financial help from Paul. “He’s his own man and I’m my own man,” Mike says. “Thank God. If he was giving me money then I would be a bought man.”
Watching the sun set over Liverpool, Mike waxes nostalgic about his yesterdays. “There was a time,” he says, “when you wouldn’t have been able to hear anything except the horns on the boats.” Now the port is eerily silent—because of the decline of its shipping—and the brother of Liverpool’s most famous living son is left to ponder what might have been. “Our kid is lucky,” he says. “The Beatles shot to the stars in one big rocket and stayed up there satelliting around the world. I’ve ridden a series of small rockets. But my worries are more fundamental than our kid’s—like how to pay for the next bag of groceries.”