This essay may be dismissed as pure self-indulgence.
Today is Sir Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday. I’m sure there is plenty of panegyric and hagiography being churned out on this notable occasion, so let me put your mind at rest.
This is probably going to be more of the same. But then again, maybe not.
I have loved The Beatles since I was 11 years old. I first heard them at my pal Chip’s house while we were doing homework together. It was early November of 1963: a sunlit world where Americans flew in space just as well as the Russians, Sandy Koufax dominated my beloved Yankees, and JFK seemed to be smiling again after the late summer loss of a prematurely born son.
And there were The Beach Boys.
Having really “discovered” music about a year before (though having been drawn to it since I was five thanks to a certain Mississippi-born Memphis boy), the verve and color of that California paradise that Brian Wilson described had enraptured me – and my friend Chip, whose mom would let us listen to the radio while we did homework, something my mom wouldn’t let us do, which explains our presence at his home that evening. We’d just danced out way through their newest release, “Be True to Your School,” in that awkwardly charming way that boys who will have no business dancing when they are older might do. The deejay then told us a funny story: in England a new musical group had conquered that nation – guys with long hair who sang “ooh” and “yeah, yeah, yeah” a lot. And they were called “The Beatles” – having named themselves, he presumed, after bugs. As the punch line for his story he played a song – “She Loves You” – which he laughingly noted had to be released on the “little” label Swan Records because Capitol Records wouldn’t release such tripe on the same label as the great Beach Boys.
I’d like to tell you that I recognized greatness at that moment. I’d like to tell you I understand the meaning of life, too, but I’d be lying in both instances. I liked the song immediately, but when my friend Chip, a truly diehard Beach Boys fan, pooh-poohed them as “not so hot,” I merely shrugged my shoulders noncommittally. It was easier to sit in the sunlight with John Glenn and JFK and The Beach Boys than to think of chucking that safe, optimistic world to follow some long-haired pied pipers from Liverpool.
A couple of weeks later, though, someone blew JFK’s head off and all bets were off. The end of November and even December with the magic of Christmas, that time that Jean Shepherd reminds us “…upon which the entire kid year revolve(s),” had a gray pall over it. Adults and children both groped along trying to get their minds around the horrific truth that our young, vigorous, touch football playing, Russkie threat defying President was no more, replaced by a sad eyed, dog-faced Texan with a drawl like my Uncle Roy who would, within two years, mire us down in an idiotic foreign war that would kill a significant number of my generation’s young men while it enriched defense contractors.
But the new year brought them back. The Beatles. Suddenly, it seemed, January was dominated by “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And they were on Ed Sullivan looking too cool for school. Then came “Please Please Me,” “Twist and Should,” “All My Loving,” and that most Beatle-y of them all, “She Loves You.” It was an avalanche of joyous, barking happiness with a beat so strong it had to drive my (and everyone else’s) parents crazy. Two roads diverged in the gray wooded aftermath of Kennedy and I, like most of my generation, took the one that rocked, as our parents looked on in a mixture of relief that the depression of Kennedy’s murder had lifted and horror that we’d been won over from NASA and The Peace Corps to unkempt foreigners who talked funny and did nothing but play loud music.
Then there was the movie – A Hard Day’s Night. Which served, as mountains of documentation will attest, as a handbook for how to be like them.
Everyone had a favorite Beatle. Initially, mine was John. He had a keen wit, was a leader, and, most importantly, he was a writer – all goals to which I still aspired (having adored John Kennedy for those same qualities and achievements). But after seeing A Hard Day’s Night (I stood in a line a block and a half long in my little Southern hometown of less than 20,000 people for a ticket), I switched my allegiance to Paul. His affability and wish to charm everyone seemed to me to be qualities I needed to cultivate. “I should be like Paul,” I decided subconsciously.
More importantly, in those dark days entering puberty, I could see that girls adored Paul. They feared John. I instinctively knew that that being adored thing would get me more girls. And, as John himself told Tom Snyder in one of his last interviews, one did what one did “for the birds.”
I became a musician to be like those Fabs, especially Paul. I started out on rhythm guitar, then, like Paul, moved to bass “for the good of the band.” I was a lead singer and composer, too, my stuff being like Paul’s: power pop with a slight tinge of the good old schmaltz. I wanted to be like Paul: not be Paul, like that piece of shit Chapman, but be like him. I wanted that unfailing cheeriness, that easy smile, that facility with phrase, musical or verbal.
Paul always made it look easy. And it wasn’t.
In Bob Spitz’s excellent The Beatles: The Biography from a few years ago we finally got glimpses of a McCartney probably none of us knew – certainly not from Hunter Davies love letter to the Fabs or even Phillip Norman’s thoughtful Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation. We found out about Paul’s role in his family as mediator and placater after the death of his mother when he was only 13. How his hunger for a woman to love him and mother him made him something of a Lothario even as he tried to be loyal (and Paul is nothing if not loyal, even if after his own fashion) to Jane Asher.
And it was easy to extrapolate from there to see how he became “Paul McCartney”: the “Cute” Beatle, the charming Beatle, the LOM Beatle. It was his shtick, his act, his persona, his armor.
What wasn’t as easy to see was the deep pain and scars that Paul has carried with him over his losses through the years; how he repeatedly went to John to make peace (and to try to cajole him into giving the band one more try); how he made sure that George got taken care of financially through the Anthology series; how his love for Linda and watching her die led him deep into anguish – an anguish he hadn’t felt since The Beatles’ break up when she had been there to comfort him – and how that anguish allowed him to become prey to a mercenary woman who, superficially, seemed much like his “lovely Linda.” How, when pressed for some comment about the losses of those he loved – his mother, John, Linda, George – he has come off as either flippant or shallow – when he really has only meant to protect us from seeing his pain so that we have only the happy Paul, the chipper Paul, the beloved Macca, as the Brits call him.
But the evidence is there. One has only to look back at the canon of McCartney’s songs to see his story – “Yesterday,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Penny Lane,” “Getting Better,” “The End,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Every Night,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Too Many People,” “Band on the Run,” “With a Little Luck,” “Here Today,” “My Brave Face,” “Ever Present Past” – the real Paul is in the music. Like most great artists, he can say in his art what he fumbles to express here in the “real world.”
Of course, because he’s a pop star (I’d argue the greatest living one), there’s plenty to carp about in his canon – the execrable “Ebony and Ivory,” the even more execrable “Say, Say, Say” – mistakes that, upon reflection, he’d readily admit are not moments he’d want us to recall about him.
But there’s this about Paul – he’s always willing to try a new thing, to make a fresh start.
Unlike John, he’s never believed “the dream is over.” It’s hard not to love – at the least admire him for that.
So, Happy Birthday, Sir Paul.