Fab: The Life of Paul McCartney

January 01, 1970

 

(Da
Capo)

 

www.perseusbooks.com

 

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 McCartney was always 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 had
an aura of self-assuredness and, like John, 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 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 realizes
he’s clever rather than brilliant- though with flashes of brilliance to be
sure, especially as a bass player -he has always worked 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, Paul’s Beatles compositions aside, 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 is fairly even-handed though. 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.

 

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