Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney
by Howard Sounes
Reviewed by Carl Rollyson
The Wall Street Journal
Like other works of art, biographies have provenance. Each comes with a history that has to be understood in order to judge the authenticity of its account. How did this book originate? What is its chain of evidence? In the case of unauthorized biographies -- which appear without the blessing and, perhaps, with the curse of their subjects -- the author must be upfront about his sources and the potential limitations of his working methods.
Howard Sounes's subtitle, "An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney," implies some kind of extraordinary access to the subject, and Mr. Sounes touts more than 200 interviews, including some with family members who preferred to remain anonymous. But he says nothing about Mr. McCartney's reaction to being written about in this way. So what to make of the biographer's claim that he has studied his subject "closely, as an entomologist might put another kind of beetle under the microscope"? Isn't something missing from Mr. Sounes's laboratory slide?
Mr. Sounes does provide sound background on Mr. McCartney's working-class roots, the environs of Liverpool, and the bonding of two song-writing youths (Mr. McCartney and John Lennon) who both lost their mothers while still in their teens. The author turns up new details on these early topics -- although some of what he has gleaned (about a family scandal involving larcenous "Uncle Will," for example) does not really add to an understanding of Mr. McCartney or his music.
Yet if Mr. Sounes's book fails to impress, it is in part because in his source notes he resorts to headings such as "Relations with brother: author's interviews." Well, yes, but tell us with whom. No one expects an unauthorized biography to boast the parade of big-name sources that adorn the pages of the approved accounts. In the end, though, an unauthorized biographer's credibility will actually benefit from a candid discussion of any piece of evidence that does not come directly from the subject. Otherwise the biography does not even meet the People magazine standard.
Speaking of which, former People senior writer Peter Ames Carlin has written a book that treats the evidence in an even dodgier fashion. But where Fab is rather ponderous -- "A large part of the Beatles' success, and thereby Paul McCartney's, can be put down to the fact that the boys worked with first-rate people from the start" -- Mr. Carlin's Paul McCartney: A Life at least has the virtues of readability and style. In his acknowledgments, Mr. Carlin includes a doughty paragraph saluting a list of names for "interviews, insights, and fact-checking." Who did the interviewing and how extensive it actually was remain a little murky -- but a notes section does nail down the identities of key informants.
Mr. Carlin's most disturbing tic is a faux-intimate style. Describing Mr. McCartney's appearance at the celebration of his 66th birthday in his old working-class Liverpool neighborhood, the biographer notes that his subject has his "Hofner bass strapped around his neck, and this makes him look -- and almost certainly feel -- ageless." But couldn't it just as easily make him feel aged? After all, this bass is the instrument of his youth, one of his iconic symbols, as Mr. Carlin affirms on the way to this muddle-up of the moment: "It is his Rosebud, his Excalibur. It's not the key to his past, exactly. But that he still has it, and wields it so frequently in public, tells you something." Tells us what? You can turn the page, but it does not get much better.
Still, Mr. Carlin has a knack for setting a scene. Crisp reporting makes his version of the Beatles' encounter with Elvis a fascinating cultural and political misadventure: John Lennon twits Elvis for his support of LBJ and the Vietnam War, but Mr. McCartney saves the day and dispels the stilted atmosphere by saying: "Can we play some music?" This episode emphasizes the generational differences between the King of Rock 'n' Roll and his British acolytes turned rivals. Indeed, Mr. Carlin might have developed this moment further, since it is rich with irony -- the subversive, hip-swinging Elvis of the 1950s having become the stodgy supporter of the 1960s establishment. Even so, Mr. Carlin's scene adds a few sharp details to the account found in Peter Guralnick's biography of Elvis, a work that sets the gold standard for biographies of rock musicians.
The Elvis scene works so well for Mr. Carlin because he's not afraid to acknowledge the limited perspective of his source -- in this case, journalist Chris Hutchins, barely mentioned in Mr. Sounes's account but right at the crux of the action in Mr. Carlin's riveting re-creation of a pivotal time in rock-music history. This single source gives Mr. Carlin what he needs to capture a moment, when, as Paul McCartney put it, the "styles were changing in favour of us."
I found myself constantly shifting between these two books, hoping to find that one remedied the other yet never finding the sustained balance between fact and interpretation that is crucial to the integrity of unauthorized biography.
Mr. Rollyson is the author of seven biographies and of Biography: A User's Guide.