Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney (Da Capo, 2010).

Howard Sounes' mammoth (600 page!) biography of Paul McCartney is, easily, the best ever written about the guy who wrote such critically adored tunes as "Bogey Music" and that one on Press to Play about the cavemen. I've never enjoyed reading about Macca nearly so much as the fun I had with this book. It is, however, far from perfect, and an aggravating shift in tone made the experience less pleasant than I had hoped.

To his considerable credit, Sounes really does his job as biographer very well. For years, the only McCartney bios available have been far too biased towards the sixties, with Paul's now forty-year solo career dismissed in short chapters towards the end. This is the first book that I know of that really does it right, and gives Paul's post-Beatles years the bulk of the narrative.

The problem, sadly, is that the author doesn't really like Paul's post-Beatles years.

There's so much to enjoy about the way that Sounes tells his story, and in the amazing amount of research that he completed. He conducted more interviews that would have been strictly necessary, even nailing down freaking Imelda Marcos to talk about the time that the Beatles were thought to have offended the presidential family of the Philippines. He gets several of Paul's musical collaborators on the record, and they help illustrate a really fascinating story. Eric Stewart, a friend of McCartney's for years who co-wrote much of Press to Play along with some other, mostly abandoned mid-eighties material (some of which surfaced as a bootleg "lost album" called Return to Pepperland), has a lot to say, some of it quite juicy to fans. Much of Soanes' story is new to me; I had paid just a little attention to Paul's tempestuous marriage to Heather Mills and none at all to their fractious divorce, so this material was quite striking and occasionally wild.

But while I appreciated the attention to detail and Soanes' more generous focus on what Paul's been doing since 1970, the author's editorializing, frequently negative, just becomes wearying. He has an obnoxious habit of confusing fact with opinion, stating boldly, for example, about the song "Live and Let Die," "It is in fact one of the best half-dozen songs of his post-Beatles career." No, Mr. Soanes, that is not a fact. We all learned the distinction when we were nine. He goes on to dismiss the delightful, entirely hummable "Magneto and Titanium Man" from Venus and Mars as "virtually unlistenable," when it's really no different from the earlier, silly kids' song "Yellow Submarine," which he'd praised in a previous chapter. (No. It isn't. Think about it.)

I enjoyed the work, but I certainly would have enjoyed it more had Soanes saved the record reviews for the critics. I think that it's the job of the biographer to assemble that part of the story by quoting from period sources, and Soanes did the work a disservice by principally using only Melody Maker and Rolling Stone, but not even those as fully as he should. Never mind that the Maker had at least three rival weekly music papers from which he might have drawn stories, the one biographical flaw in this story is that I don't believe readers will get any sense of just how loathed Paul was in the eighties by music journos.

When the Maker reviewed Paul's album Pipes of Peace in 1983, whatever hack writer was assigned the LP took Paul to task for the possibility of the title track eventually being released as a single, speculating that the 45 might come with a sticker on the front announcing that half the profits would go to charity, and then attacking Paul for having the audacity to keep half the profits for an as-yet unscheduled single release for himself. That's just one example of the sort of petty, small-minded insanity that McCartney had to - well, McCartney's publicist; I doubt that he cared much - see in print about him for ages, but I never got that sense from this book.

I did like it, and a good deal, but not as much as I had hoped. There's only one aggravation for every five points to praise, it's just that the aggravations are really annoying. Perhaps that's the stickler in me talking, but while this biography is certainly the best yet, the definitive book on McCartney is still waiting to be written. Recommended, but with one or two reservations.

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