Howard Sounes has a tendency to rewrite music history. In his 2001 Bob Dylan biography Down the Highway, Sounes revealed that there had been a Mrs. Zimmerman that no one, not even the most diehard of fans, had ever known about, Dylan’s six-year marriage to former backup singer Carol Dennis. The author’s 2006 book Seventies tried to prove something even more daunting—that the disco decade was actually the high point of musical creativity. And now with Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney, Sounes is tackling the life of Sir Paul, from his birth to his breakup with the notorious Heather Mills—the first book to do so. He conducted more than 220 interviews for Fab—and probably would have done more if it weren’t for McCartney himself—revealing a side of the “nice” Beatle most people never knew existed.
Paul McCartney and his family, from his brother to his children, refused to talk to you for this book. Do you ever think Sir Paul didn’t want this book or that he was actively trying to hamper you?
I think he is a very controlling person. When I did my book on Bob Dylan, he was totally neutral on it. He gave it no thought at all. When I talked to his kids, I got the impression that their dad didn’t care. With Sir Paul, he didn’t want this book and he didn’t want to talk to me.
You were even sitting in the living room of one relative [Sounes won’t identify who] who suddenly changed his mind about talking to you.
I had the tape recorder out. I was in his house and ready to talk, and he said he better talk to Paul. Now one doesn’t think you can just get Paul McCartney on the phone. That doesn’t happen. Then, bugger me, if he doesn’t hit speed dial and he has Paul on the other line. There’s a bit of talk. Then, sorry, can’t do it.
Paul McCartney is a very powerful man, and he’s very present in people’s lives. He calls people. He’s involved. Bob Dylan was not present. He never calls up. Paul could call this person up or see him at a party. And whatever Paul wanted happened. He’s a very controlling, interfering guy. It made the process much more difficult.
McCartney himself comes off difficult at times in the book even if he is supposed to be the “nice” Beatle.
I think he’s a more interesting person than that. His image is a bit bland, and he’s cultivated that image. But he didn’t become Sir Paul by accident. He worked at it. He’s a very busy, clever, somewhat ruthless man. You can’t be so wealthy and powerful without being interested. Of course, some of his music is bad. That’s the great paradox. If he’d been able to reach deeper into himself could he have made better music. That’s an interesting point.
Your first book, Fred & Rose [about serial killers in England] sprung from your coverage of the case of Fred and Rosemary West for the Daily Mirror, though you gave up your press pass in 1997. Now that you’re writing about less gruesome topics, do you attack the subject matter the same way—as a seasoned reporter?
Sir Paul’s office accused me of this, of being a newspaperman, of showing up banging on people’s door. I don’t like to do that, but sometimes you can’t get any response from people. Sometimes you have to knock on a door. But when I became an author rather than a reporter, I left behind the “black arts.” We were pretty amoral and aggressive. Now I’ve become much more punctilious and quote people exactly. When I was writing for the newspaper, I could hide behind it. Now everything has to be more “copper bottom,” as they say in newspapers. Sometimes you have to be a bit pushy. A lot of music books are written from cuttings or from fans sitting in living room, not from original research. That takes work.
You’re the first biographer to deal with McCartney’s marriage to Heather Mills. Will that ultimately tarnish his legacy?
I think we like him more now. I think we know him more now. And at the end of the book we feel sorry for him. He had a tough old ride with that woman. And we really now see him as more human now.
What was he thinking?
Sex was part of it. She turned his head. And he was grief stricken. He wanted to take care of her after her accident. And don’t want to say anything slanderous, but she’s a very cunning lady. We can just leave it at that.
Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney
Da Capo / Oct. 26, 2010 / 9780306817830 / $29.95