Trying to capture the soul behind the stardom

March 08, 1992|By Michael Anft

WOULDN'T IT BE NICE.

Brian Wilson with Todd Gold.

HarperCollins.

390 pages. $20.

BLACKBIRD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PAUL MCCARTNEY.

Geoffrey Giuliano.

Dutton.

293 pages. $22.95. Ever since Albert Goldman's "The Many Lives of John Lennon" recast the rock biography in the same mold as many literary and popular life histories (e.g., meticulously researched, broad in scope, de-iconizing if rehumanizing their subjects), pop biographers have tried, with little success, to capture the private soul behind the public hubbub.

Mr. Goldman's "rescue" of the form from the fanzine has indirectly led to two recent pop persona histories that promise to bare all. Beach Boy Brian Wilson's autobiography, co-written with People writer Todd Gold, is a compelling confessional, a startling look at a life torn between stardom and mental illness.

Geoffrey Giuliano's "Blackbird: The Life and Times of Paul McCartney," by comparison, is a bummer of a B side, casting Beatle Paulie in the familiar light of pothead/tightwad, but offering no new insights or real research.

Mr. Giuliano, who also hacked his way through "Dark Horse," a biography of Beatle George Harrison, has an uncanny knack for misusing words ("precocious" for "sexy," "phased" for "fazed"), an irritating habit that could be excused if only the matter of Mr. McCartney could be addressed with some certainty and freshness.

But the few new sources he taps are either bogus or misguided. He talks to Mr. McCartney's jilted ex-girlfriend, Francie Schwartz; his jilted Wings mate, Denny Laine (to whom Mr. Giuliano ascribes way too much musical importance); and Mr. Laine's jilted wife, Jo Jo. You may see a pattern developing adjectivally ,, here. (The author's infatuation with the "precocious" Jo Jo is especially annoying, considering she admits that her relationships with the McCartneys were peripheral at best.)

In the end, Mr. McCartney is no less enigmatic than before. He's a worldly loner choosing a bucolic Scottish family life and a silly love song to the glare and complexity of the world outside. If he's guilty of anything, perhaps it's utter simplicity and shallowness. An author who shares those traits isn't the best one to explore these shortcomings.

So-called "pop genius" Brian Wilson has shortcomings, too -- and he'd like to tell you all about them. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is like that, a come-clean book that's a little too poignant and genuinely bizarre for Geraldo, Oprah and the like.

All the dirt's here: Mr. Wilson's lifelong fear and distrust of his entire family (except his late brother Dennis); the torturous abuse by his jealous father, Murry; the descent into drugs and excess to escape his many demons; the inability to maintain relationships with his family, his fellow Beach Boys and his own sanity.

He offers cocaine to his toddler daughters, locks himself in his room for weeks at a time, becomes grotesquely fat and unproductive. The images are vivid, the narrative shocking. The ups and many downs of Mr. Wilson's life are given form by Mr. Gold, who creates a seamless, orderly narrative out of a chaotic, almost unfathomable existence.

Why is it, then, that this book leaves itself open to charges of manipulation? The sticking point: Mr. Wilson's near-decade-long relationship with psychotherapist Eugene Landy is treated almost like the Helen Keller-Kate Sullivan relationship, minus the day when pupil goes out into the world.

This becomes a major problem when Mr. Wilson and Mr. Gold gloss over Dr. Landy's unauthorized prescribing of psychoactive drugs for his patient in 1989, a charge that has lead to a renewed battle between Dr. Landy and the Wilson family concerning conservatorship of Brian's life and estate. (The case is being heard in California.)

But such elisions are to be expected in what amounts to an autobiography with a dual purpose: to cleanse Mr. Wilson and offer an apologia concerning his latest addiction: Eugene Landy.

Mr. Anft is a writer living in Baltimore.

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