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Maybe I’m Amazed

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes (Da Capo, $20.00, 624 pages)

In Fab, biographer Howard Sounes achieved his self-stated goal of creating “a better balanced, more detailed and more comprehensive life of Paul McCartney than has previously been achieved.”   It surpasses the earlier-recommended Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin, and provides details that are not found in any of the band bios of The Beatles.   For example, want to know why Paul began wearing a moustache in the 1970s?   (Something the other members of the band quickly copied.)   The answer is found within the pages of Fab.   Want to know why George Martin admitted that he “made the biggest mistake of my professional career” when it came to compiling the songs for the Sgt. Pepper album?

A highly illustrative example of Sounes’s thoroughness is when he explains the many surprising similarities between Linda Eastman McCartney and Yoko Ono.   The “two strong women” both grew up as girls in Scarsdale, New York; and each of them had a very successful, domineering father.   Both attended and withdrew from Sarah Lawrence College.   Both became involved, as young women, in the New York City art scene and both had an initial unsuccessful marriage that produced a daughter.   Linda and Yoko were to each make “a beeline for the The Beatles,” and they each achieved their goal of marrying one of the best known men on the planet.   Sounes even throws in the fact that when John Lennon had a tiff with Yoko in 1973, and left her in Manhattan for a fling in Los Angeles with their assistant May Pang, he was seeing a childhood friend of Linda’s!

Most every other writer who touches the story of the Beatles will tell you that Linda and Yoko were very different women.   Kudos to Sounes for arguing that the exact opposite is true…  Another strength of this account is that Sounes does not give short shrift to McCartney’s time with Wings.   Fab devotes just as many pages covering Paul’s time with Wings, and their tours, as he does to McCartney’s time as a member of the Fab Four.   This is quite fitting as Sounes notes that during the years 1989 through 1991, Paul and Wings played live before 2.8 million people – including this reviewer and Sounes.

Sounes’s weakness is when it comes to Paul’s music.   He makes some huge mistakes, as when he critiques the song Let Me Roll It for sounding too much like John Lennon.   Wrong, it was Paul’s intent to show how “easy” it was for him to write and perform a song that sounded like John and the often-ragged Plastic Ono Band.   And he criticizes Magneto and Titanium Man from Venus and Mars as being “virtually unlistenable” – it’s still a very fresh sounding track – while ignoring the brooding classic Letting Go, where Paul compared Linda to wine and cocaine.

“There is one thing you’ve got to remember about Paul: he’s a very, very private guy.   He doesn’t like to be talking about his family, or anything to do with anything other than music, if he can possibly help it…  He doesn’t like to share things.   He takes them on his own shoulders.”

Speaking of shoulders, Sounes includes several interesting tales about Paul’s songwriting experiences, including one about how when Paul was finishing the song Hey, Jude he was determined to excise the line that reads, “The movement you need is on your shoulders.”   It was John Lennon who convinced him to leave the  line in, and John who realized that the throw-away line was brilliant (many heard it as Paul’s way of encouraging John’s son Julian to use his brain as a means of taking a hard life – a sad song – and making it better).

The Sir Paul McCartney portrayed within the pages of Fab has not led a perfect life, but then no human being does.   He is shown to be a sentimental creature (“Obviously one of my feelings is how proud my mum and dad would have been…  But I won’t go into that because I’ll start crying.”), sometimes harsh, but often generous with those in need.   His career, without a doubt, has been a fine gift to the world of music and the world in general.

This intimate biography is a model for future rock biographers.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Fab delivers all you need to know.”   Rolling Stone magazine   “A McCartney bio that intrigues all the way through.”   The Times of London/U.K.

Howard Sounes also wrote Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan.

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All My Loving

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Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone, $16.99, 384 pages)

“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…”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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