How not to write a biography, Part II

(This is edited from a review I wrote of Many Years From Now, Barry Miles’s overly fawning biography of Paul McCartney, about 2007, intended for my Angelfire site but never put up.)

I honestly enjoyed perhaps a good half of this book. The first few chapters, and those on Paul’s life in the Asher household, the making of the albums, and his romance with Linda, are quite good and fast-paced. However, there are numerous long, boring stretches, particularly most of the “Avant-Garde London” chapter. Mr. Miles isn’t a professional writer, and it shows. He’s a longtime close personal friend of Paul’s, and he’s way too close to be objective and analytical. He even writes himself in as a character, which is really pretentious and unprofessional.

It’s also really unprofessional when at least half of the book consists of huge block quotes. Merely presenting information would never pass muster in a high school research paper, so why should it be accepted in a supposedly professional bio? A good biographer is supposed to analyse and synthesise the information, challenge it when need be, and rewrite it in one’s own words.

Apart from a number of typos and grammatical errors, there are a lot of glaring factual errors too. And Paul can’t stop intruding into songs which have long been established as having been written entirely or primarily by John, such as “Girl,” “Help!,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “It’s Only Love.” He claims he helped to write the song too, or that his minimal contribution was the most important contribution. He even tries to claim credit for the BBC radio play of King Lear heard in the background of “I Am the Walrus”!

So many times it seems like his underlying message is “Everything John did, I did better.” And Mr. Miles never challenges any of this historical revisionism. At first it seemed like Paul were being really petty, childish, insecure, egotistical, determined to rewrite Beatles’ history, but then I started to wonder if perhaps this attitude were just encouraged by his sycophantic biographer.

It’s really laughable how Mr. Miles seriously compares Paul’s home movies, paintings, and some of his lamest songs to serious artistes. Since he’s so close to Paul, his views suspiciously parallel Paul’s on many subjects.

The constant trashing on John was really over the top, mean, and uncalled for. We get that he had problems with drugs in the Sixties. Do we need to have that repeated with such fervor on every other page? And why is he the Beatle being singled out for his problems with drugs and character flaws? This constant, unprofessional, mean-spirited savaging doesn’t square well with the frequent quotes from Paul about their close friendship! You don’t need to put others down to build your subject up. Although surprisingly, Mr. Miles seems rather even-handed, even sympathetic, when talking about Yoko instead of bashing her too.

Events that might cast aspersions on Paul as an absolute prince are often left out, like how he treated poor George like crap during the Rubber Soul sessions, or how Paul released a couple of musical attacks on John prior to “How Do You Sleep?” And if Paul wants to be taken seriously about how John left him out of recording sessions too, he should not have used “Revolution No. 9” as his example. This is the same song the other Beatles tried to keep off the album, which Paul in particular hated?

I almost wish the book had been written by Paul (as it is, at least half of it is in his words), since he comes across as rather candid, honest, and open. The constant name-dropping also was more than a bit much. And as a fan of classic film, I was angered by his comparison between John and Yoko and William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. Way to keep alive the hurtful urban legend that she was totally untalented and only got work because she had a powerful lover!

Paul does seem like a really nice guy, and he was originally my favorite Beatle, but he just comes across as childish, petty, insecure, and even a liar. Mr. Miles never challenges anything Paul says, no matter that it’s contradicted by every other source. Who seriously believes Paul was really the hard-edged, avant-garde Beatle?

In another biographer’s hands, this could’ve been much better. Paul probably is a lot deeper, more interesting, and multi-faceted than his image suggests.

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