Gary James' Interview With The Author Of
Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney is the subject of a new book on his life titled: Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney (Da Capo Press) by Howard Sounes. Howard spoke with us about his book.
Q - I have to be honest with you, when I saw your book on the shelf, I said to myself "What? Another book on Paul McCartney? How much can you say about the man?" Is there anything new you found out about him?
A - Oh, yeah. I think so. There's lots of new anecdotes. There's new information, if not on every page, then in every chapter. Some of it is just deepening the detail. Some people who have never spoken before have spoken. Imelda Marcos about The Beatles' famous trip to The Philippines. No one had ever interviewed her before to my knowledge.
Q - How many people did you interview for this book? Were you greeted with open arms when you told them what you were doing, or was there some resistance?
A - Paul's office essentially said he was too busy to help me, but he didn't mind me doing it, good luck on the thing. But actually in practice I found him a bit obstructive. He would probably deny that. I came across people who wouldn't speak to me because they felt Paul wouldn't like it. I got the impression that he's quite controlling. But having said that, it was OK. Some people obviously one would like to speak to, I couldn't, but you have to be cheerful and carry on and make the best of things and try to find new people. So, it was OK. I probably interviewed 200 people certainly.
Q - That's quite impressive.
A - Yeah.
Q - You had to do a lot of digging.
A - Yeah, well I guess that's what I do. I've been doing it for a long time. It's hard work. It's not easy, but it's part of what you have to do to create a book like that.
Q - Did you uncover any evidence that Paul was in an auto accident in 1966 that left a scar above his lip? Supposedly that is why he grew a moustache for Sgt. Pepper.
A - Yeah. My understanding is that it was a motorbike accident, up on the Wirral, which is the part of Merseyside he moved to after he became famous. He moved across to the Wirral, which is kind of a nicer part of Merseyside in Liverpool. He was up there with Tara Brown. He asked Tara up there for the weekend. They were horsing around on motorbikes. I think they were on their way to see his cousin, Mike Robbins. Mike told me the story and he fell off his bike. He cut his lip and grew the moustache. That was the story. I think he lost a tooth, didn't he? I think he actually does wear a false tooth. I think he's been pictured without it.
Q - I've never heard that before.
A - Yeah. I think he's missing one of his front teeth, and as a result of it, I think he has some kind of a denture. He was photographed quite famously a couple of years ago (2010) without it. That picture made the front page in Britain.
Q - Why did Brian Epstein want to manage The Beatles? What did he see in them on The Cavern stage that everybody else missed?
A - Well, I spoke to people who worked with him in The Beatles. People like Peter Brown. He knew him very well. And Tony Bramwell of course. The general consensus was of course, he was homosexual. I think that was part of his interest. They essentially were nice looking men and they caught his eye. But I think above and beyond that, that could have been all of it. He saw something in them that was remarkable. And of course they were charming. Almost everybody who met them was charmed by them. They were very ambitious and of course he was kind of at that stage in his life where he was looking for something to do. I mean, he failed in various pursuits in life. He was a failed actor. He failed in other careers. He was working for his parents essentially, managing a sort of a shop for his parents. It wasn't really much of a career for a young man. I think he was looking for something to do and he got lucky. I guess that's partly true.
Q - The mystery is how he came to the conclusion that the band he saw onstage at The Cavern, not the band America saw on Ed Sullivan, would become more popular than Elvis. It's just too bad he didn't live longer to explain how he came to that conclusion.
A - Of course a lot of people who knew or saw The Beatles before they became famous, they almost unanimously say The Beatles were much more exciting, much more kind of Fab before they put the suits on and came to America. The really great days were in Liverpool and Hamburg. So, a lot of people say that. Now, in the sweep of history, that's hard to justify if you look at Abbey Road, the whole album and all those great records. But a lot of people say they were much more dynamic, kind of exciting and visceral as a 'live' act when they were in a sweaty club in Liverpool than when they were on The Ed Sullivan Show. And of course there's probably some truth in that. They weren't cleaned up. They were young and full of energy and vigor and I'm sure that was very exciting.
Q - I don't know how old of a man you are, but did you ever happen to see The Beatles in concert?
A - No. I'm 47. I was born in 1965, so I grew up on The Banana Splits really. I've seen Paul many times, but that's not quite the same thing of course. And the book is about Paul. The important thing about Fab is that unlike many other books about Paul, what makes it pretty different is the structure of the book. It's not about The Beatles. It's about Paul in The Beatles and after The Beatles. The book is in two distinct halves because I think the previous authors have made the mistake of getting obsessed with The Beatles to the exclusion of everything else. You have to bear in mind, there's a long life and a lot happened after The Beatles broke up.
Q - Many of the books on Paul were written 20 years ago. Today, there's more to say and 20 years from now, Paul's story will be even more complete.
A - Yeah. Right. Absolutely. My interest as a writer is an interesting life. I'm interested in the people more than the music to be frank. I find that Paul McCartney's life, his long life, his complete life is a much more interesting story than just the first 30 years of his life and his recent disastrous marriage for instance. Many people kind of shudder when one mentions Heather Mills. But in fact, as a story, in terms of human interest, that's an absolutely fascinating part of his life. You know, an older man falling in love with the wrong woman and its disastrous, messy consequences is a very interesting story and there's a lot to write about there. That's partly why Fab is different than other books, 'cause the other books haven't got to grips with Heather because they were either too early or there's a case of another book recently whose author didn't want to write about it. But personally, I think it's very interesting. She's a hell of a character. She's a good character in the sense of an interesting person.
Q - I don't suppose you've ever met Paul face to face, have you?
A - Yeah, I have. I did, when I was researching the book, introduce myself to him.
Q - While The Beatles were together, they wrote so many beautiful songs. On their own, they never matched it. In other words, Paul as an artist, never wrote a song like "Yesterday" or "Michelle" or so many others I could mention. Why is that? Did he need someone like Lennon to bounce off of?
A - I think so, yeah. That's right. He needed a partner who was an equal, someone he couldn't dominate and whom he wanted to impress. I think the problem with his post-Beatles career is that there's been no one who's been a big enough personality to stand up to him. He's dominated everyone around him 'cause of his success. Unfortunately he's got a whimsical side which is charming in The Beatles but in his solo career the whimsy seems to have no boundary. There are great post-Beatle songs. There are good songs. "Live And Let Die" is a good song and there are other very good songs, but there's an awful lot of pap as well, to be pretty frank.
Q - Record producer
Huge Padgham told me he worked with Paul for about a year and didn't think the material he was bringing in was very good. Paul started to irritate him.
A - I know Hugh and there's quite a bit in the book about Hugh. He's very outspoken on the subject about working with Paul and they clearly didn't get along at all. There's quite a few people he's rubbed up the wrong way. You have to be fair. On balance, when you bear in mind how very, very famous he is and how very successful he has been, he's among the most eminent people in popular music, I think he's carried that success quite lightly, really. He could've become a complete bastard, couldn't he? He could've become a over-bearing spoiled prick, a Michael Jackson for instance. He didn't become like that. He's actually worn that success remarkably lightly. He's quite approachable. He's quite modest generally speaking and he's been very generous with his money in many ways. He's well behaved generally speaking, apart from the drug busts and a couple of other mistakes. I think he's carried himself very well, really. He's basically a pretty sensible, pretty clever, level headed guy. And of course, unlike people like Michael Jackson and the people I'm writing about in this new book, all of whom come from a dysfunctional background, Paul McCartney came from a very happy family. He had a mother and father who loved him and who encouraged him and he had that solid foundation on which to build a successful life.
Q - When Paul's mother died and he was only 14, he could've reacted the way John did to his mother's death when he was only 14, and he didn't. There is something to be said about that.
A - Up until his mother died, it was a very solid, loving, harmonious family, where as John Lennon's family was fractured from the start, wasn't it? It wasn't that she died and it all went wrong. He was living apart from Mum when she died and Dad was nowhere to be seen. When you look at successful people in Rock 'n' Roll like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, they've all had those pretty basically stable, happy family backgrounds and that's been a part of their success I think.
Q - For so many entertainers, the loss of a mother in their life, their early life, does something to them.
A - Yeah. I think it unbalances you. He had a happy childhood. His first marriage was stable and he's basically been a very good father. There is some problems in that area as well, but basically he was successful father with Linda. Family is a big thing in his life.
Q - When I interviewed
Pete Best several years back, he told me he still does not understand why he was kicked out of The Beatles. Did you, in your research, find out why it wasn't John, Paul, George and Pete?
A - Well, he says he doesn't know, but everybody else is quite clear that he was kicked out because he wasn't good enough. George Martin thought he wasn't good enough.
Q - And then I've interviewed musicians who have said Ringo wasn't much better than Pete Best as a drummer.
A - I guess that's probably true. But I think it's also true, isn't it, that Pete never really fit in with the band. He didn't have the same sense of humor. He wasn't quite as sophisticated and bright as the others. Although Ringo isn't a sophisticated person, he kind of fit in better. He was more a part of the gang. If you go to Hamburg and speak to the people who knew them in Hamburg, they all say that Pete was the odd man out. Astrid Kirchherr always said Pete was the odd man out. You know, no one really spoke to Pete. Pete didn't kind of join in, whereas Ringo was part of a gang and of course a band is a gang, isn't it? A gang of boys. I don't think Pete fitted in. Of course the other thing was Pete was kind of good looking and he had lots of girl fans, which kind of put Paul and John's nose out of joint.
Q - There you go! Now we're getting to the heart of it. No one would ever admit to that, but Pete Best had that James Dean look. No doubt there was some jealousy.
A - Maybe, but in the great scheme of things, he's not particularly important, is he? He's a footnote really in the history of the band. Pete Best is not a very important figure really.
Q - Well, if you think Pete Best is a footnote, would you think Stuart Sutcliffe is a footnote as well?
A - Yeah.
Q - Even though Stuart Sutcliffe is responsible for the Beatles' haircut and the collarless jackets they wore in the beginning?
A - Things like haircuts and jacket styles, it's just ephemeral, isn't it? The important thing about The Beatles was the music, and the music has nothing to do with what their haircuts were. In fact, in my mind, the music really got interesting and really important around the time of "Revolver", up until "The White Album". They're the great albums. It's got nothing to do with Pete Best or Sutcliffe. They're just part of the back story.
Q - When you start a book on Paul McCartney, do you begin at the beginning and work towards the present, or do you start with today and work backwards?
A - In terms of research you read everything there is to read, you listen to everything and then you draw up a huge list of everybody in his life and you draw up a chronology of his life and then you go out into the world and you try to find as many people as you can on that list and speak to them. But then when you put it together, then that's another part of the process. I go back into the family history a bit because it's a big book and the idea of the book Fab is it's a pretty authoritative look at his whole life. So, I do go back in the family history. In terms of the story, I basically start with Mom and Dad and growing up in Liverpool, as you would expect really.
Q - It was rumored years ago that Ringo was offered two million dollars to write his autobiography and then nothing was ever mentioned about that again. What do you know about that?
A - Right. Well, I'm sure a Ringo memoir, autobiography, would be a massive book. It would command a very high price. But you know, he's not terribly literate. He can read and write, but I think he says in the Anthology that he's got pretty sketchy reading and writing skills. So he certainly isn't going to write it himself. He would need someone to help him. He's probably not that interested in books. Books don't feature, I should think, in his life very much. I don't think he needs a book unless he needs two million dollars, which he probably doesn't, why would he do it?
Q - Because it's better to have Ringo tell his story in his own words than have someone else tell it for him. That's why.
A - But we have that. We've got the Anthology and we've got Paul's Many Years From Now. Paul's Many Years From Now is a very authoritative book that Barry Miles did. I think it's a great book. The Anthology has got everything in there that you'd really need. It's got Ringo talking about every aspect of The Beatles' story. So, we haven't got Ringo on his post Beatles career. Personally, I don't find Ringo very interesting. I know some people think I'm selling him short, but I don't find him a particularly compelling character. I'm not sure I'd rush out to buy Ringo's memoir. But I'm sure many would.
Q - I would be included in the many that would. As a Beatles fan, when the video Anthology was released, it left me wanting more. I could only wonder what was left on the cutting room floor. Was there more?
A - Of course. If you're a fan like you evidently are, you're never gonna get enough, are you? I'm not a fan. I wouldn't call myself a fan. I'm just someone who's interested. There's enough there for me, but if I were a true fan... There are people that have a subject they just can't get enough of, whether it's the life of Winston Churchill or Star Trek or the Second World War or the Third Reich, you could never give them enough information. They're just insatiable. But most people are like me. They just have kind of a general interest in lots of things. For me, the Anthology is abundant. There's plenty of it. If you read that book from cover to cover, there's a hell of a lot in that book.
Q - And Howard, as much as is in that book, I want more!
A - You're obsessed. Go to the doctor. Go to the psychiatrist.