“Take a sad song and make it better…”
Peter Ames Carlin wrote what was likely the second-best biography of Brian Wilson, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. It was very good but a bit dry in places, especially when compared to The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White. White’s earlier biography masterfully blended the migration of the Wilson family from the Midwest to Torrance with the history of Southern California itself. (The title referenced the phrase used by Brian’s mother whenever she wanted to escape to the not-so-close and not-too-far-away community of Ventura.)
This time Carlin has come closer to fashioning a definitive, lively and warmly human account of the man they call Macca in Great Britain. More than half of this bio covers the story of the Fab Four, which seemed to have had its last good moment with John Lennon and Paul – just the two – recording The Ballad of John and Yoko. Said Paul, “It always surprised me how with just the two of us on it, it ended up sounding like the Beatles.”
This is far from a totally fawning tale of Sir Paul, and Carlin does well in picturing the band as a dysfunctional family. In Carlin’s eyes, John was the wild husband, Paul the responsible mother figure trying to keep the family on track, George the often brooding and secretly rebellious son, and Ringo the “What, me worry?” older brother. And yet… Yet they all came to realize – in one way or another – that they had destroyed the household too soon. The break-up came too early.
Carlin illustrates several times how much Paul came to miss John once he was suddenly gone: “I really loved you and was glad you came along / and you were here today, for you were in my song.” This is the Paul who was subsequently again destroyed by George Harrison’s untimely death: “To me he’s just my little baby brother. I loved him dearly.”
The one caution with Carlin is that you should certainly feel free to disagree with his musical judgments, as when he praises the disastrous – to this listener’s ears – remixes of the Beatles songs on albums like Yellow Submarine, 1s (Ones) and Love. They’re louder and brasher, but not better nor true to the original recordings. He also fails to understand the simple genius of the album called McCartney – which contained Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night (the alternate version of You Never Give Me Your Money) and That Would Be Something.
But in the end, we see here a musician who carried on quite, quite well even after the loss of his two quasi-brothers and two wives (one by death, one through a bitter divorce). If you love Paul McCartney, you will feel the same way about him once you’ve finished A Life. If you’ve never much liked Beatle Paul, you may grudgingly make your way through this bio and find that he’s earned a bit of your respect. “Take it away…”
A review copy was provided by the publisher.