Thursday, January 07, 2010

Book Review - Paul McCartney A Life - By Peter Ames Carlin

I got the book Paul McCartney – A Life, by Peter Ames Carlin for Christmas and just finished it last night. It’s a comprehensive book that looks at McCartney’s entire life and career up to present day. Carlin interviewed scores of people – old bandmates, employees, friends etc. The only people not interviewed are members of McCartney’s family, or any of the former Beatles/their families. Maybe he tried and they said no.

But what he got let him put together what reads like a facts-based account of McCartney’s career. He looks at all the angles – was McCartney an obsessed workaholic who disregarded the input of all but his closest collaborators (Lennon and Linda McCartney)? Or was he an insecure worry-wart, eager to ‘set the record straight’ by rewriting history of his contributions to The Beatles and the songs credited to “Lennon/McCartney?” Or was he a savant following his muse to greater and greater heights (but in the shadow of Lennon), anyone with an opinion be damned?

The cool thing about Carlin’s book is that unlike most writers, he does not take sides. This is not a “Paul is an insecure dick” book, nor is it a glowing re-writing of history putting forth that Paul for the most part drove The Beatles and Lennon was along for the ride. Most books take one of those two angles. Rather, Carlin lays out the facts and lets the reader decide.

Where did I land? Well, I have always seen McCartney as unnecessarily insecure. There is no reason why he needs to trumpet what he did in The Beatles. His vast catalog of amazing songs speaks for itself. Latter 70s Wings material and a few glowing spots in his solo career back up the notion that he is a master of the melody, an amazing songwriter who didn’t need anyone else to help him.

Of course he was rudderless in the early 70s. Unlike Lennon and especially Harrison, McCartney didn’t have a backlog of songs to draw from. Also he was the odd man out, shut out creatively and business-wise by his three best friends who at the moment despised him. It’s amazing the dude landed on his feet at all.

The book portrays Linda McCartney as the savior who helped him get on his feet when he was down and out. Carlin again reports the facts, that Linda was not a good musician (by her own account even), but that her presence in McCartney’s creative life helped drive him to the great success of Wings and his other endeavors. The fact that she could be a bit overbearing was offset by the fact that anyone not overbearing was pretty much ignored by McCartney!

Having read way too much about the Beatles already, I knew a lot of the subject matter. But there was a lot that was new to me as well. For example, the turmoil of the songwriting sessions for the Anthology series, where the three surviving Beatles were all concerned they would not be fairly represented in the mix of the new song Free As A Bird. And how they had a three hour ‘airing out’ session in Harrison’s back yard and seemed to come back happier and got back to work.

I appreciated the themes that Carlin kept coming back to, that 1) events in Paul’s childhood affected how he behaved through the rest of his life, and 2) because he was mega-successful from a very early age, McCartney has a very distorted sense of how things are supposed to be, and this frequently clouds his judgement across the board.

Another recurring theme in the book is all of the ‘what if’s’ and close calls regarding Beatle reunions. I didn’t know that Lennon and McCartney hung out several times in the 70s and even jammed in a studio one time, with McCartney on drums. I found the bootleg of that session and it’s interesting to say the least but not very magical. They are all pretty wasted and it’s during Lennon’s “Lost Weekend.” But damn, it's interesting!

There were even a few times in the 70s when three of the four Beatles played together and just for purely logistical reasons the fourth wasn’t there (not because he wasn’t invited or because there was bad blood). The recounting of these events in the book makes me believe that the Beatles absolutely would have reunited at some point if Lennon had not been killed in 1980, if even for a one-off.

Anyway, for the most part McCartney comes across as a positive if slightly bemused artist (in the purest sense of the word) who struggles with various insecurities and the inability to identify a really good idea from a really bad idea.

It’s a fascinating read and even if you think you know all there is to know about the Beatles or McCartney I promise you will learn something from this book. And Carlin does it in 340 pages, which is a feat in and of itself. There is a LOT to cover in those pages and he does a great job not glossing over anything but not hammering the reader to death with details. And to back up his facts, there is a much appreciated appendix that outlines where he got all of his quotes and info. Very nice.


Bob K said...

This is getting strange - I'm just reading this book myself and I started two days ago. I was going to post a review when I was finished but maybe I'll just point people to yours.

Nicely done.

Isorski said...

That's funny, Bob! But maybe not a huge shock since we are both major Beatles fans and the book is new. Now, if you had said we were both reading Snow Crash or something...That would be weird!

I'd appreciate a link but I'd also like to know what you think after you read the whole book.

LisaO said...

I am presently reading this book. Have really enjoyed it so far. Have been a big fan of Paul's since about 1966/7. Later, in my 20's, was the "Trivia expert" at a local Philly rock station's Sunday "Breakfast with the Beatles" show during the 1980's. As such, I have quite a library of Beatles and Beatles-related books. Since it has been some time since my sideline as a "trivia expert" a lot of the little things I used to know have faded away with the advent of my starting a family and having little kids (brain cells frying!). However, I agree with your assessment that the book is fun, pretty fair, and really doesn't "chose sides" in the Paul vs John debate (which I always thought was a useless exercise...they were both great in their own unique ways). It is a very enjoyable read. Also, having attended art school and rubbed elbows with some pretty big egos there, I don't see Paul as any different from other accomplished artists I have known: most are insecure under the surface, and that is precisely what pushes them to achieve, and keep on achieving! The only bit of trivia I read in this book that I hadn't recalled from other sources is the "fact" Carlin states that Paul was given his first Hofner by Stu when Stu decided to leave the band. I'll have to see if other books of mine speak to that. Thanks so much for the review.


Isorski said...

Lisa, thanks for the comments. That radio gig sounds fun. What a great way to spend a Sunday morning in your 20s as long as the night before wasn't too outa hand! Elsewhere on my blog I reviewed the Fireman CD that Paul and Youth put out - it's still one of my favorite recent works of his. I hope he just keeps on trucking. You are going to have hits and misses in a 45 year career at ANYTHING.

LisaO said...

Agreed! "Electric Arguments" was one of the best things I heard all last year. What a great, cool, fun listen! The man has the energy level of a flea! I don't know where he draws if from. I get tired just thinking about his world touring at the age of 67!!! (Altho' I selfishly hope he does another concert in Philly in the coming year or so, so I may complete the near total Beatle Brainwashing of my two young daughters by taking them to hear and see the total Macca concert experience!!!...even if it does cost their entire college bank accounts!! LOL And to think I saw him in 1976 for about $20, or less!!!) :O

Isorski said...

Lisa - yeah I hope he comes around again too. I saw him in Portland a couple of years ago and he was great - excellent band, too. Also, just took my 10 and 12 yr old boys to see Rain last weekend. Try to catch them if you can.

Totally jealous that you saw Wings. I loved that band from Band on the Run all the way to the end but too young to have seen them live. Here are a couple of reviews you might be interested in:

Sean Coleman said...

I didn't know that this was out there. Another one to pick up. Thanks for posting about this.

Don Capone said...

I've read most of the recent Beatles/Lennon books, but somehow I missed this one. It's going on my list!