The first one published, Paul McCartney: A Life by Martin Ames is the slighter one, laying out the basic story competently and succinctly, focusing attention on the Beatle years, which is the conundrum of any Beatle bio. Yes, these are the years that the casual reader would be the most interested in, but this era has been written about time and time again. Ames brings very little new to the table here.
Like Norman’s John Lennon: A Biography, Howard Sounes’ heftier Fab does the experienced Beatle-reader a favor and gives equal weight to McCartney’s post-sixties career (including his wince-inducing, train-wreck second marriage to former high-class callgirl Heather Mills in the early 2000s.) Is the recording of Wings’ 1979 album Back To The Egg as fascinating as the recording of Sgt. Pepper? Probably not. But I’ve already read about the recording of Sgt. Pepper 10,000 times.
Sounes is a typical British journalist, with all that implies — impeccable prose and a clear taste for the salacious, while pretending to be above such things. He’s not a particularly gifted music writer, though, and tends to inject his own opinions a little more than necessary. To his credit, he interviewed over two hundred people for this book, many of whom had never been interviewed before. Most Beatle aficionados know about all the trouble they got into in the Philippines on their 1966 world tour by refusing to attend a state reception given by the evil, dictatorial Marcos family. Sounes actually interviews Imelda freakin’ Marcos about this “snub.” Unfortunately, she’s kind of an idiot and offers no real insight. But I appreciate the effort. Interviews with former Wings members such as Denny Laine and Hugh McCracken add much more to the tale.
But does Sounes reveal anything about the McCartney personality that we didn’t already know? Not really. Macca’s a cheerful, dedicated family man, a driven businessman, frequently kind and generous, sometimes thoughtless and gauche, militantly (at times obnoxiously) vegetarian, with an overstuffed ego that few are brave enough to puncture. Heard it all before, but it’s nice to have it set down in a meticulously-researched work that can stand as the go-to source for all things McCartney — at least until the wheel turns again, and the next generation gets their “definitive” biography.
Spitz’s The Beatles is a great read, but stops precisely when the band does. No epilogue, no “last chapter” about what became of the Fab Four in future decades. For those who are curious about the post-Beatles developments, Peter Dogget’s You Never Give Me Your Money can be seen as a companion volume to Spitz’s work. You can read the Spitz book, then jump into Dogget’s at about Chapter 3 without missing a beat, and the story continues.
Knowing what I already know, I was fearing that Dogget’s book would be mostly about the lawsuits and counter-suits associated with breaking up the Beatles’ enormous and profitable business empire. And it was. But he made me understand the purpose of those cases, and why the outcomes were so important to the individual Beatles on a personal level. For years, Yoko Ono was painted as the Chief Villain in breaking up the Beatles, then her repuataion was re-habilitated in the wake of Lennon’s death. She became the Sainted Widow and Misunderstood Artist for awhile. Now, the tide has swung against her once again. Ono was acknowledged by everyone Dogget interviewed to be a colossal pain in the ass during the Beatles’ last couple of years, and while nothing could have stopped the Beatles break-up, she was a vocal and obstinate roadblock to any reunions that John was amenable to in the 1970s. (She also derailed McCartney’s attempts to finally buy the Beatles’ songwriting catalog from Michael Jackson’s estate, for reasons that seem to be little more than spite.)
With his towering reputation for debauchery and decadence, and his slurred, mumbling speaking voice, Keith Richards rarely gets credit for his intelligence. But he may be one of the sharpest knives in the rock n’ roll drawer. I was always a fan, but I came to truly believe there was much more to Keith than met the eye around the time Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light was in theaters. An interviewer asked Richards about working with Scorsese, and was treated to a lengthy, informed diatribe on film history and technique, and touched on everyone from Chaplin to Cocteau. This is the Keith Richards to which we are treated in Life. Film lover, history buff, blues scholar. A hardcore bibliophile, the one major trait he shares with the Holy Bee. And musician. His love for guitars, and playing them, permeates the entire book. What they feel like. How they make him feel. Different tunings, different sounds, different styles. How he’s heard dozens of bands cover Stones songs over the years, and vows they will never get the them right until they discover the “secret” of open-G tuning. Open-G is found all over scratchy 78-rpm recordings of old country and blues songs, and it is the key to classic Stones riffs from “Jumping Jack Flash” to “Start Me Up.”
His personal relationships and history of bad narcotic habits are dealt with with unblinking candor. After the craziness of the 1960’s and 70’s, Richards was “clean” and one of the great rock music survival stories. But being “clean” for Keith simply meant “no heroin.” Everything else was still fair game. This all changed after an accident in 2006 led to brain surgery, and now the strongest things he ingests are cigarettes and endless cocktails of Sunkist orange soda and vodka, a concoction he calls “nuclear waste.” (Make that two things we have in common. This beverage has been a Holy Bee favorite since 2001.) Decades of pharmaceutical abuse has made him a cultural icon just as much as his music has, but he never comes off contrite or ashamed. He credits his survival to a strong genetic make-up, only accepting the highest quality drugs (no “Mexican street shit”), and never trying to get just a little higher when we was already high.
What about his relationship with the other Rolling Stones? His love-hate brotherhood with Mick Jagger is complicated, to say the least. It’s clear he respects Jagger, but every compliment he pays him (on his lyric-writing, his harmonica-playing, his business sense), is augmented by two complaints (about his fad-chasing, ego-tripping, and uptight-ness.) Like all right-thinking people, he reveres drummer Charlie Watts. He’s fond of other Stones guitarist Ron Wood — but clearly not as fond as he used to be, becoming increasingly exasperated by Wood’s inability to manage his own substance intake. Richards confirms the general assessment of original guitarist and band founder Brian Jones as a musical prodigy, but a world-class asshole. Original bassist Bill Wyman might as well have been furniture for all Richards seems to think of him or acknowledge him.