August 01, 2010

Paul McCartney: Sing the Changes

I like to picture Paul McCartney running across a coffee mug with this old chestnut on it and he chuckles knowingly: “A woman has to work twice as hard as a man to be thought of as half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.”

That quote neatly sums up his career; be it the Beatles or John Lennon, or even George Harrison, he always seems to work overtime to prove that he’s worthy just as he is, constantly battling the qualifiers of his past. In truth, the total output of his entire musical career is staggeringly weighted toward eternal relevance, but it may take two more brand new generational cycles to erase the ever-present “Yeah, he’s great BUT…”

We drove from St. Louis to Kansas City, MO on July 24, 2010 to see Paul McCartney. We were very clear that we wanted to “see a Beatle” while we still had the chance, and on the drive out, we sang along to a few tracks from every Beatle record, and it was glorious. The Beatles are Everything That Is Music to so many of us, and it is a joyous world because of this.

Here’s the set list from that night. Doing the math on what we paid for a ticket divided by how many minutes they played, it broke down to $1.26 per minute, and it was worth even more than that. The band (and if you see them play, you KNOW it’s a true band – and I wish he’d cut a new song or two with them) played 37 songs. 23 were Beatles tunes, 14 were not; it breaks down as 10 Wings, 2 from the 2008 The Fireman record, one 1982 and one 2007 solo Paul tunes.

It was truly transcendent to hear that undiminished voice do “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “Paperback Writer,” “I’ve Got A Feeling” or “Helter Skelter.” But aside from his tributes to Lennon (“Here Today”) and Harrison (“Something”), the songs that stole my breath and brought tears of joy to my eyes were NOT Beatles tunes. It was 2 Wings tunes (“Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” and “Let ‘Em In”) and The Fireman’s “Sing the Changes” (with a graphic nod to President Barack Obama).

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that Wings tunes plucked my heartstrings; Paul McCartney & Wings were the soundtrack to my grade school 1970s childhood. Same goes for most any early Gen Xer. There were 3 artists that dominated the charts and radio in the ‘70s: Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Paul McCartney. And people our age were pretty much free of The Beatles Baggage that Sir Paul still carries to this day. We reacted to the Wings hits and albums as they happened with a relatively clean slate, and we liked what we heard with no disclaimers.

For those who grew up in the 1960s, disclaimers are all over any of McCartney’s post-Beatles work. Considering how The Beatles changed their lives forever, this is totally understandable. Those 10 years continues to alter the DNA of anyone who hears it, no matter the year or your age. But when only 10 of his 50 years in music were with The Beatles, when does the guy get a break?

Even to this day – even on a 21st century website like – 40 years worth of musical output is still judged against The Beatles, and there always remains the unspoken “Lennon would think this is crap.” But analyzing it in a detached manner, this is a Baby Boomer rock journalist perspective that is being repeated by subsequent generations of music writers, which is really lazy and maddening. It’s especially maddening when all generations’ votes for post-Beatle McCartney via albums, singles and download sales is often dismissed as clueless listeners “falling for” McCartney’s populist pandering (which remains the underlying tone of so many of his solo critiques). It becomes clear that many music writers are trapped in amber, beholden to narratives that will lose resonance as the decades pass. And poor Paul will probably not live long enough to see the day when his entire musical output is justly revered (though nabbing the Gershwin Prize probably soothes a lot of Paul’s wounds).

Of course his entire post-Beatles catalog has low spots; any artist that has been going steady for 40+ years has peaks and valleys. Many times I’ve heard hardcore Bob Dylan and Neil Young fans trashing some of their wonkier albums. But oddly enough, those 2 artists are given a hall pass because when you look at their output as a whole, their levels of consistency far outweigh the momentary lapses of sanity.

But Sir Paul is too often denied that same hall pass by the very same music aficionados. He is rigidly held to an impossible standard that he helped set, and often derided for religiously adhering to a songwriting work ethic, even as they may be haunted by the “du du du du du’s” from “Another Day.”

Considering what he has contributed throughout his entire career, it’s puzzling that McCartney can’t catch a break from a select group of writers and taste-makers of a certain age (and the younger ones who ape their perspective). It’s also puzzling that McCartney is seemingly haunted by this… if you buy into this old narrative.

If you follow the still-popular party line, Lennon and Harrison (and even Ringo) achieved moments of freedom from the oppressive Beatles’ shackles, while Paul continues to run the popular music hamster wheel. Would Paul catch a break if he had taken musical sabbaticals, have public breakdowns, substance issues, or spiritual journeys? Do we need him to be splayed open with misery in order to escape being the lesser in a Beatles compare-and-contrast?

Because it seems that we require our Beatles’ to come down to earth, McCartney had two “opportunities” to rough it up: the death of his wife Linda in 1998 and the sordid divorce trial from Peg Leg in 2008. But rather than show up in a club with a Kotex on his forehead, Paul dealt with his pain through music and by taking the high road. And this may be the rub for many: McCartney is an old-fashioned professional songwriter and performer who keeps his personal life separate from his musical output, which was also the case in the Beatles’ days. He’s been fairly consistent in this manner, but without the protective blanket of The Beatles, he’s been dismissed for the same behaviors and songcraft that was accepted wholeheartedly while in the fold. The double (or triple) standard is, again, maddening.

Wouldn’t you hate to be a Beatle? Wouldn’t you hate to have to live like that? The other three reacted to and tried to move away from that very problem. Paul just seemingly shrugged it off and kept going, unabated. And even though he has given us decades of memorable and hummable songs, it somehow wasn’t enough for the millions of people who still control the narrative.

But that night in Kansas City, for almost 3 hours, we were free of that tiresome narrative. Those of us of all ages were enthralled by everything he gave us, regardless of its pedigree. That’s the power of exceptional songs performed at peak ability: it’s of the moment, of your memories and your emotions. And this does not lessen the impact – there are no disclaimers because this is the truth of right now. Paul McCartney has always written songs for every one of all ages, and this is why – as President Obama noted before handing over the Gershwin Prize for songwriting – McCartney has been on the charts for a cumulative total of 32 years.

It’s ridiculous to divorce McCartney from his Beatles years (and none of us want that, including him!), but it’s equally ridiculous to chain 40 subsequent years of music to The Beatles. Let it be or live and let die, it all matters, and Paul knows this. There is no better protector or curator of The Beatles legacy, and for that he deserves deep gratitude. For everything else, he deserves deep respect. He’s had to work twice as hard to get half of that respect, but for him, that’s not difficult.

October 1965: The Beatles - Yesterday
April 10, 1970: The Beatles - Let It Be

1 comment:

Tony Patti said...

Well put. I think you knocked out your strawman early in the first round, though!

Lazy critics! Myself included. I'm just so grateful that McCartney is still around. If we only have one songwriting Beatle left, at least we have the greatest of them all. Anyone who doubts that can read the long list of songs he wrote almost entirely on his own that are considered Lennnon songs. Or just take one quick listen to his greatest rock song, "I Saw Her Standing There."