Wednesday, August 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney


Paul McCartney certainly needs no introduction...he's arguably one of, if not the most famous musician in the entire world.  As a Beatle and one half of the legendary Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership, he and John Lennon wrote the songs that have soundtracked countless lives since the Beatles' first release in 1962. From the ashes of the Beatles' split in 1970, he has fashioned an immensely successful career as a solo artist, churning out hit records and songs continuously, starting with the eponymous McCartney album in mid-1970 all the way through 2013's excellent album, NEW. Almost universally loved by fans and media alike (although his native UK press has been a bit prickly with him in recent years), he's no stranger to most people. However, despite his engaging and friendly public manner and his willingness to engage with press and fans alike, he's also in many ways an intensely private person who walls off both his emotions and the parts of his life he wishes to keep private from public attention, most notably his cherished home life with his wife and children. Thus, there is still much to learn about one of the most famous men in the world who is the subject of Howard Sounes' in-depth biography, Fab.

***special thanks to Sean at Da Capo Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Sounes is a noted author of biographies on Bob Dylan and Charles Bukowski, as well as a new book on the 27 Club that I've recently reviewed. His McCartney book weighs in at nearly 600 pages and begins, naturally, with Paul's birth in Liverpool in 1942 during the middle of WWII. From here it runs linearly throughout Paul's life and career, from his youth to the Beatles years in the 1960s, Wings in the 1970s, and his subsequent life and career to the time of publication (2010). No aspect of Paul's life is spared from examination, from his personal life and relationships with family and friends, to his musical career, other creative endeavors, even his fortune and how he earned it...all of it is discussed in this book.


As mentioned above, Sounes begins the book with some brief family background on the McCartney family and Paul's birth and childhood in Liverpool. Special attention should be paid to the word "brief" that I just used, as it takes all of sixteen pages for the author to get Paul's life to the point where he his mother has passed away and he first formally meets John Lennon in 1957. While the more interesting parts of his life are obviously from when he met Lennon onward, it would have been nice to have a bit more of an in-depth look into Paul's childhood and the experiences he had growing up during that time, especially as they had such a positive (for the most part) influence on the man he became later in life. It's probably a moot point since this aspect of Paul's early life was covered in excellent detail in volume one of Mark Lewisohn's recent Beatles biography, but for a book purporting to be "an intimate life" of McCartney and a definitive biography, I would have liked to have seen more. From here, however, Sounes does an excellent job, for the most part, telling Paul's story, with of course a healthy focus on the Beatles years of 1962-1970. Unfortunately, he does include several apocryphal facts, most of which have been completely debunked years ago (for example, the story of John throwing bricks through Paul's windows in the midst of the lawsuit to dissolve the Beatles' partnership in the early 1970s...it never happened), which knocks the book down a few notches, however slightly, in my eyes. Continuing on throughout the Beatles breakup and into the 1970s, the author does a nice job discussing the history of Wings and drawing on interviews with many of the non-McCartney band members, and this section is a nice complement to the excellent recent book on Paul's life and career during this decade. Something that has struck me as fascinating, and which is pointed out in both books, is how different the 1970s were to anything before or after in Paul's life. In the 1960s he was a Beatle, always sharply dressed and impeccably presented to the public, both in terms of fashion and how he interacted with the press, while in the 1980s he was an elder statesmen, universally respected and lauded as a musician, who again presented himself in a very polished manner. However, in the 1970s Paul and Linda were bohemian, unkempt, and lived a gypsy lifestyle with their band and family which Sounes delves into in this book, especially the effect it had on the couple's children. Indeed, there are many new bits of information regarding the family life Paul, Linda, and their four children had. Most of it is admirable and a testament to how down-to-earth and normal they were as a family, but some of the interpersonal dynamics, mainly with eldest daughter Heather and youngest son James, are quite interesting...not in a salacious way but simply in terms of what really happened versus what has been perceived by the public. As someone with four children myself, I could relate to a lot of the challenges they faced (minus the vast fortune and worldwide fame Paul and Linda enjoyed).  In general, Sounes does a good job approaching Paul's story with an objective eye, although you do know as you read through it that he is also a fan. However, he doesn't let this get in the way of the narrative and is not afraid to be critical of certain albums and projects when it is deserved. While I disagree with some of his assessments of certain albums and songs, in general it's done in such a way that it's unobtrusive.

Sounes deals with several touchy subjects of McCartney's life, including the infamous Tokyo drug bust in 1980, the various fraudulent paternity claims that dogged Paul during the Beatles years and into the mid-1990s, and the heartbreaking event of Linda's death in 1998. Overall, he discusses these in a respectful way, laying out all of the facts while also offering perspective on the aftermath. He's also no afraid to tackle how ruthless and overly ambitious Paul has been throughout his career...it's something that is well known but is usually not talked about by the press or his fans. I do commend the author for bringing it up in the instances when it's appropriate, although it should also be mentioned that this is one of the reasons that Paul has been so successful. Also, in many instances, such as his work in getting the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts (LIPA) off the ground, it was done for admirable purposes. Indeed, Sounes does take time to mention that, as a person, overall Paul McCartney has always been a kind and generous man.  I also give him points for treating Linda McCartney fairly, and again he points out that while the British press (and to a lesser extent, the American press) always painted her in a negative life, everyone who knew her personally is on record as to how nice, friendly, and giving she was. She truly was Paul's soulmate and to read about the state he was in after she passed away wasn't easy, especially when subsequently reading the section about his disastrous second marriage to Heather Mills. Again, Sounes treats Mills fairly, using the facts to paint the picture of her accurately. Unsurprisingly, it matches up with the low regard she's been held in since she first came into Paul's life and this is her own fault, not the author's.

One thing I did take issue with during certain sections, as well as throughout the whole book in general, was how much of the supposed dialog was attributed to people during specific events. It wasn't clear how much was actually on record and how much was just speculation on the part of the author. In some cases it was obvious which was which, but I would have liked some clarification in either direction as I'm never comfortable when authors do this. In cases such as Paul's high-profile second marriage to and subsequent divorce from Heather Mills, where much of it is on the record, I have no problem with it (and indeed he does a nice job showing just how dishonest she was not only about her marriage to Paul, but about her entire life), but much of the speculative dialogue is presented during the Beatles years, with a fair amount of it sourced from Peter Brown's 1983 book The Love You Make, a book notorious for its made up dialogue, where rumor and innuendo were presented as fact and where much of Beatles misinformation has stemmed from in the intervening years. Again, this diminishes the book every so slightly in my eyes, but as a hardcore fan and student of the Beatles, as well as of Paul McCartney, it's significant. There is, however, a section at the back of the book with all of his source notes although I'm still skeptical many of the supposed private conversations have concrete sources.

There have been numerous books written about Paul McCartney, ranging from unauthorized biographies such as this one and another by Peter Carlin that I hope to read and review soon, an officially sanctioned book titled Many Years From Now (which I will be reviewing in the future), and there is an upcoming semi-authorized biography from controversial Beatles and Lennon biographer Philip Norman due out in 2015. In addition to what has been covered in the seemingly infinite number of books about the Beatles, there certainly hasn't been a shortage of ink spilled over Paul's life, yet thus far there hasn't truly been a definitive book written about him; even his authorized memoir, Many Years From Now, was written with his longtime friend Barry Miles and only covered his life up to the end of the Beatles in 1970. Since Paul is one of my favorite musicians of all time and one of the most famous to boot, it only follows that I and countless others would greatly welcome a book that told the story of his life in a way that could be viewed as definitive...think something similar to the excellent biography of Keith Moon, for instance.  While Fab misses the mark, it's very close and until I find otherwise, it's the book I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn about McCartney's life and career.

MY RATING: 6/10




2 comments:

  1. You can't be much of a Paul fan if you liked this hatchet job. The guy barely disguised his contempt for McCartney's music and repeatedly diminished McCartney's contributions even to the Beatles.Plus its so badly written.

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  2. I'm a massive Paul fan and I didn't think it was that bad. It did get tiresome how much he harped on the lyrics, but he does make a point that many of the albums could have been better with a little more quality control. The author clearly doesn't know squat about music and barely mentions it, and when he does his choices for what's great ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer?") and what's not (Venus and Mars?) is laughable. It's not a great book but it's probably the best comprehensive bio of Paul around (Many Years From Now is better but only goes up to 1970).

    Interesting how this book seems to divide fans!

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