Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes

As I look back on all the Beatle-related books I have read over the years, I'm a bit shocked to find I tend to gravitate either toward books on theory and band history, or books solely about John. I know this can't be attributed to a lack of material on the other three Beatles - surely there are as many biographies on Paul available now, and recently I learned of a new George bio due later this year. I suppose I've resisted all this time to read a Paul bio, at the very least, because he's still kicking and apparently making news...therefore his story is far from over. As it is, I already have a backlist of just Beatles-related books to read, though the pile is shrinking. Paul is Undead, a zombie fantasy picked up out of sheer curiosity - however - has unfortunately been transferred to the DNF pile for now. My dissatisfaction with that book encouraged this most recent dive into non-fiction and an oft-heard story.

I chose Fab mainly for its length (an impressive 650+ pages in hardcover, which amounted to well over 900 in the eBook version I obtained) and its recent publication, this version in October of 2010. One won't find the McCartney stamp of approval as given to the authorized tribute by Barry Miles, Many Years From Now, but the latter book misses out on the last decade of McCartney's life - when his ill-fated second marriage provided the stuff of pre-Twitter tabloid dreams. Fab is rather exhaustive, chronicling an impressive life from McCartney's birth to Jim and Mary in Liverpool, through the Beatle years and the flight of Wings and a predominantly happy and rural-toned marriage to Linda Eastman, finishing with his more recent and rejuvenated touring career and relationship with Nancy Shevell (their engagement was only announced this past spring).

It is the post-Beatles years that interested me most here. I wouldn't exactly say that I followed Paul to Wings - I own Wingspan and a few solo McCartney albums - but the second phase of Paul's career is no less fascinating, especially when you consider how it mirrors that of his friend and musical rival, John Lennon. Each sought to prove himself a superior songwriter on his own, even if unconsciously, and both incorporated their spouses into their business. Having gone through grade school at the height of Wings' presence, I didn't question Linda McCartney's talents or lack thereof, though Sounes in Fab almost takes pleasure in pointing out her shortcomings as a musician as well as other personal faults. Opinion on Linda runs hot and cold here, with interviewees referring to her as either a bitch or a saint. The question of who pursued whom is also called into question: where Peter Brown's The Love You Make affirms Linda as the aggressor in forging a relationship, Fab doesn't commit one way or the other. It's interesting to note, though, that Fab covers quite a bit of Paul's romantic relationships, including an on/off fling with actress Peggy Lipton that even the authoritative Wikipedia doesn't list.

In fact, you'll find more personal than professional history in this book, which is peppered with stories of McCartney's generosity toward friends and family (albeit at times reluctant, done more perhaps out of a sense of duty) and juicy Heather Mills gossip. One might suspect author Sounes writes with a thread of jealousy for his subject.

Reading Fab, you get the impression that the author is only a marginal admirer of McCartney, or else a jaded Beatles fan set out to prove that everything McCartney accomplished since pales greatly in comparison. The author comes off as highly opinionated with regards to which of McCartney's compositions and projects are sublime and which are marginal at best, and interestingly enough omits notice of many of the musician's honors awarded during and after the Beatles. You won't hear about the Beatles' Oscar for Let it Be, or McCartney's two subsequent Best Song nominations for "Live and Let Die" and "Vanilla Sky," nor any of his band or solo Grammy wins. In the author's defense, though, two of McCartney's more notable achievements - the Gershwin Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors - were awarded after publication.

Still, while Fab may be mainly factual, it doesn't read as an objective piece. A song is mentioned, and the author delivers an off-handed comment about how lousy it was, or how this album wasn't good, etc. While I don't expect McCartney to have lived as a saint, the author appears to have taken great care to highlight moments where McCartney most visibly acted like an ass. Fab isn't necessarily a character assassination piece, and while it need not read like a gushing love letter it seems as though the author put too much personal emotion into the work.

If you believe Macca can do no wrong, you're probably not going to like this book. I expect a thorough biography to pull up the occasional scab, but there are moments in Fab where the author appears to take great pleasure in doing so. It's off-putting, and given McCartney's life and body of work, it is deserving of a more objective presentation.

Rating: C-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

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