He's one of the most famous musicians on the planet, a former member of the most famous rock band of all time, and one half of the greatest songwriting partnership of the 20th century. He's been in the public eye for 53 (and counting) of his 73 years on this planet and every aspect of his life has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Still, Paul McCartney remains somewhat of an enigma as he has always guarded his emotions and true feelings from all but the handful of people closest to him. Published in 2009, Peter Carlin's biography Paul: A Life is usually held up alongside Howard Sounes' Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney as one of the better biographies on Paul (not counting Paul's autobiography Many Years From Now). I've previously reviewed Sounes' book so I was eager to read and review Carlin's book, which I've heard good things about, in order to see how it compared.
While overall I liked Sounes' book, it had flaws that marred my enjoyment of it; these were mainly misinformation that he cited and his lack of emphasis (and seeming disinterest) in Paul's music. One of the first things I noticed about Carlin's book was that he had a list of references and endnotes at the end of the book, giving me confidence that it should be for the most part a fairly accurate book. Starting with a vignette of Paul onstage in Liverpool in front of thousands of adoring fans, we are then transported back to post-War Liverpool and the story of how Paul's parents, Jim and Mary McCartney, came to meet, marry, and settle in Liverpool. Soon after, Paul and brother Michael arrived and the family was complete. There isn't anything new in the author's telling of Paul's childhood and he breezes through it quite rapidly: the period covering Paul's school years and the sudden death of his mother in 1956 were covered in roughly twenty-five or so pages before we finally get to the big event of 1957...the day John and Paul officially met each other. Carlin takes Paul's story through the Beatles years without anything that will surprise any seasoned Beatles fans although it is clear that, unlike Sounes, Carlin is a fan of their music; his discussions focuses mainly on the various albums and songs Paul worked on and released throughout his career in a way the other book didn't. He does a good job capturing Paul's anguish and the sorry state he was in during the immediate aftermath of the Beatles split and how he transitioned first into a solo career before forming Wings. From here, we get through the Wings years with a nice history of the band including some perspective on Linda as a musician. While she clearly wasn't too talented (and she would have been the first person to admit this, as she did many times over the years as well as in this book) everyone Carlin either spoke to or quoted mentioned that what she lacked in talent she made up for in perseverance and a good attitude. Again, a nice contrast from the Sounes' book where he was much more backhanded in his praise of Linda when discussing anything about her life and considered her little more than a predatory groupie who nabbed a Beatle.
From this point onward to the end it seemed as though the book was a bit rushed. The overall length of the book is only 350 or so pages and the period from Paul's 1980 bust in Japan to the end took up a bit less than a hundred pages. When discussing Paul's struggling career in the 1980s there are quite a few instances of people recalling haughty and arrogant comments he made when things weren't going his way; none of it was too surprising and many have been discussed previously, but it does paint the portrait of someone who was losing their grip and not taking it well. There is an interesting discussion on his collaboration with Elvis Costello in the late 1980s and early 1990s that yielded his comeback album Flowers in the Dirt and the subsequent tour (his first since 1979). Part of what made his collaboration with Costello so effective and also short lived was the same type of relationship that also seemed to be Paul's lifelong bugbear: John Lennon. More specifically, Carlin portrays Paul as endlessly tilting at windmills when it comes to his relationship with John Lennon and how other people perceive it. As any longtime Beatles and/or Paul fan knows, he has made it almost his life's mission to reclaim his place in the hierarchy of the Beatles and his partnership with Lennon. While his behavior can get a bit tiresome, even for his fans, Carlin does a good job pointing out the many ways in which Paul is actually justified in doing this: there's the famous Philip Norman biography of the Beatles titled Shout! which paints Lennon as a genius and the other three Beatles as imbecilic lackeys who were lucky to ride John's coattails to fame and fortune. I've read the book and this is indeed how Norman portrays them, from his constant swipes at Paul, George, and Ringo to his incessant mentions of the "cow-eyed McCartney." There has been the almost canonization of John since his tragic murder in 1980, much of it aided and abetted by Yoko Ono, where all of John's flaws and foibles have been whitewashed out of existence and he's become an almost holy figure. Perhaps the worst bit, which Paul is quoted on in the book and for which I commend the author for pointing out, is over his frustration at how in order for John to be elevated, Paul always has to be simultaneously diminished. While Paul's effort to combat this over the years has sometimes even made his biggest fans (myself included) cringe, while reading this book you can at least understand why he has felt the need to fight it (and for the record, I agree with him). Carlin's portrayal of Paul and Linda's thirty year marriage is very touching and the way he describes her death and its effect on Paul was very moving. The book was published around the time that Paul had started dating (but had not yet married) his current wife, Nancy, so he does have the chance to describe the disastrous second marriage to Heather Mills. While he doesn't get as in depth as in the Sounes book in talking about it, he does show how Paul was vulnerable and on the rebound after Linda's death and how all involved (except for Heather) like to pretend as though this never happened (not counting the young daughter Paul adores who arose from the marriage).
At just around 350 pages, Paul McCartney: A Life seems a bit lightweight in terms of any depth or profound insight into Paul's life and career. However, whatever it may slightly lack in gravitas it makes up for with the style of the writing. Each major event in Paul's life is written in a breezy, almost situational vignette style that puts you there with him as it happens. While some of the dialogue attributed to those involved is obviously made up so as to reflect what could have plausibly been said, quite a lot of it is taken from reputable sources; in either event, there is a good balance and it helps to make each chapter seem almost like a scene in a play. Carlin's writing style is enjoyable and he doesn't seem to have too much of an agenda. While it is clear that he's a big Paul fan (something that Sounes didn't necessarily seem to be in his book), Carlin doesn't fall into the trap of trashing John at the expense of Paul. There are a few unnecessary (in my view) cracks at Ringo's expense, but he's obviously a Beatles fan at heart. There are some instances where old Beatles tropes that have been debunked or misattributed over the years are brought up that will stick out to any serious fan, but overall it's a solidly researched book. There are endnotes at the end of the book, as well as a list of people Carlin interviewed for the book so he clearly put in a lot of work researching material. While this book isn't a definitive biography, it's a solid and worthy take on Paul's life. It might not have the weight of the Sounes book, but on the whole it's much more enjoyable and satisfying. I suggest Paul fans get and read both books, but if you're only going to choose one, Carlin's book is the one you'll like more.
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