New Paul McCartney Bio a Mixed Bag

 

 

Biographer
Howard Sounes (Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski) submits the latest entry to the
Beatles bookshelf – published by Da Capo on Oct. 26, it’s a good read, but a
few questionable statements and some stray errors prevent it from being an
essential one.

 

By Rick Allen

 

Paul McCartney has always seemed the least interesting Beatle;
a craftsman and a superb bass player, who nevertheless lacked the intellectual
depth of John Lennon, the quiet mysteriousness of George Harrison and the
straightforward unpretentiousness of Ringo Starr. But the portrait painted in
Howard Sounes’ Fab: The Life of Paul
McCartney
(Da Capo Press) is of a man with more to him than meets the eye
or ear. The death of his mother when he was barely a teenager weighed more
heavily on McCartney than he admits he showed at the time. It was a devastating
blow intensified the bond he shared with Lennon. But his way of dealing with it
was to move on, his frenetic nature forcing him to hasten the grieving process
and sublimate it into a fury of creativity, not all of it as superficial as it
seems. Like all the Beatles, McCartney has a remarkable ability to “get down to
it” a solid working man’s characteristic and when they were together the
collective effort increased the depth and character of his work.

 

Still, compared to Lennon, McCartney comes up short in most
areas though it’s not a completely fair judgment; he is what he is and taken as
a whole his music and the effect it had are far from inconsequential even if
his music is often seen as being more substantial than a lot of it is . As the
book relates, while McCartney likes to talk about his relationship with
avant-garde figures of the 1960s his work never really reflected that other
than in the quite obvious influence of William Burroughs’ cut-up method (especially
on his first two solo albums). Lennon, on the other hand, was more curious, a
seeker while was always more self assured; ready to forge ahead, confident in
his ability to handle whatever he encountered. Lennon was naturally
avant-garde, his curious and insecure nature making him constantly on the
lookout for an answer, any answer to endless lifelong mysteries. That was part
of the attraction to Paul as well as to Yoko. Both McCartney and Ono had an
aura of self-assuredness and Paul certainly enjoyed the excitement of
indulgence and rascal-ness, even though unlike John, he preferred to maintain
the public face of a good boy. If McCartney was the one who sneaked sips of the
sacramental wine after the service, Lennon was the one who imbibed behind the
priest’s back, yes, but in full view of the congregation. Paul liked to get
away with it; Lennon put it in your face.

 

Because McCartney knows he is clever rather than brilliant
he has always worked very hard to prove otherwise. Certainly he has hit the
bell many times. When Lennon sang of him “the only thing you’ve done is
yesterday” it was an overstatement even if, beyond most of Paul’s Beatles
compositions, it’s closer to the truth than it should be for one of the most
successful composers of the 20th century.

 

Sounes’ treatment of Paul, however, is fairly
even-handed. He doesn’t shy away from the bad and doesn’t overstate the good
and the book isn’t likely to push those on either side of the fence to the
other. But it should come as no surprise to anyone that the book is most
interesting when it deals with the Beatles’ early days in Liverpool and Hamburg,
Paul’s family and his relationships with his fellow Beatles, though both George
and Ringo are given short shrift. There is also very little about Paul’s
songwriting process although the note about “Blackbird” being about the
American Civil Rights movement is interesting in that it and “Ebony And Ivory” make
Paul the only Beatle to have directly addressed racism in song. Point to Mr.
McCartney.

 

Sounes’ “facts” are also a little suspect. When
Sounes calls German-born Nico an American singer one wonders if he had deep access
INS records of if he just missed the heavy Bavarian accent. Mistakes like that
make it hard to trust other, less verifiable information. His casual dismissal
of Ringo’s talent and his value to the band also marks Sounes as one or both of
two things: a non-musician who has accepted as fact the word of other
non-musicians instead of trusting his own ears (fear of not being taken
seriously by his peers?), or someone who just wasn’t there to see how things
really were when the Beatles exploded onto the scene. The fact of Sounes having
been born after the Beatles rocked the world is particularly evident when he
states (or cites others as saying) that it’s hard to believe how famous they were. That’s not hard to believe at all.
What is hard to believe, or rather, most impressive, is how famous they still are, even though, as Sounes
correctly states, the Beatles, who broke up forty years ago, are the number two
selling musical act in the first decade of the 21st century. 

 

As is true of McCartney’s music, the book is fine
when it deals with McCartney’s best work, but reading about his lesser stuff is
no more interesting than listening to it. Sounes, an engaging enough writer who
has also done well-received biographies on Bob Dylan and Charles Bukowski, also
makes some odd word choices that can’t be explained away simply by the
differences between British and American usage. He additionally insists on referring
to Ringo as “Ritchie” – his explanation being that’s what his family and
friends call him so he will too. Since he doesn’t claim to be related, and from
his unflattering references to the most famous drummer of the last hundred
years or so it’s doubtful that the two are friends, why the affectation? Put it
down to pretentiousness and the need to use what must have been a newly learned
fact like a word-a-day addict. Reading “John, George and Ritchie” will bring up
short even the most knowledgeable fans mostly because the name  was only used by family and friends, and in
public none of them, including the Beatles and associates, ever referred to him
by any name except “Ringo” (although one imagines Pete Best may have come up
with a few alternate choices).

 

There’s still a hunger for all things Beatle and
Sounes’ book has its place even if it doesn’t belong in the “must read” category
like Phillip Norman’s Shout or even
the only authorized biography of the group, Hunter Davies slightly sanitized The Beatles. Diehard collectors should
feel free to pick it up. Otherwise, some questionable statements and opinions
and the book’s once-through nature as an overall read, make it best for others
to pop down to the local library for this one.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply