Monday, February 27, 2006

SIR PAUL. We've been a little hard on Paul McCartney. The thought came to me as I happened upon Sir Paul's PBS solo performance on TV tonight.

I think I'm safe in saying that John Lennon's legacy has sucked a lot of wind out of McCartney's sails over the last twenty-five years. I remember Robert Christgau quoting his wife back when Lennon was shot: "Why is it always Robert Kennedy and John Lennon? Why isn't it Richard Nixon and Paul McCartney?" It is a horrible thing to admit, but I took her point then, and I never got completely past it. After that horrible event, Paul's looked like the glib and easy way, Lennon's the stony path, and many of us felt like the dark genius had been taken from us, leaving us with the glib vaudevillian. That seemed a cheat, too perfect for the shoddy era that was coming.

No matter what the fellow did, it seemed like compensation, a way to get past the early deification of his storied partner. Did Paul play all the instruments on his new album? Oooh, what a genius, snort. Were his tunes tuneful? Yeah, but that's all his craft. Remember punk rock? It got a massive boost from the death of John Lennon, because the howling sorrow Lennon had brought front and center in his solo career became the dropped standard, and the fact that there was this other ex-Beatle still chirping out his bloody tunes only made us more determined to hurl clumps of feces at the high wall of commercial success. If we couldn't get them over, at least we'd make our mark.

Well. Watching the old man play tonight with his eight-track recorder and vintage mikes and invited audience might, in another time and condition, have just made me angry, but tonight it invigorated my long-dormant respect. In the first place, he was that Beatle. He stood on those stages, played those splendid bass lines, wrote those amazing songs. When John Lennon was a shuddering wreck, McCartney still went to the studio and kept things up, and when it was all really coming apart, he got the boys to play old tunes like "One After 909" and "Two of Us." (He and John did "The Ballad of John and Yoko" pretty much by themselves.) The Let It Be album at first looked like an expedient to get the title song on a marketable LP, but now it looks like McCartney's final act of faith in the band. Now, when I see Lennon in that film singing the hell out of "Don't Let Me Down" on that rooftop, I think of how McCartney must have forced it out of him by putting him on the spot -- after trying to convince his partner that they were "like Stravinksy," and getting only stoned stares in response, McCartney resorted to the oldest kind of musical challenge: okay, motherfucker, it's showtime. And Lennon came up.

Most of the ensuing McCartney career is a blur to me, but he wrote, he sang, he produced, he even played the drums creditably. His was a life in music and he kept at it. Trends came and went, and he responded to them playfully. So "Temporary Secretary" isn't so hot. As Groucho said years earlier, they can't all be winners, folks, you have to expect that every once in a while. But McCartney knew his strengths and played to them. Every now and then I'd walk through a mall and hearken to the sound: isn't that Paul McCartney? It may not have been memorable, but it was always pleasing.

Tonight's TV performance was, like all Sir Paul's late ventures, like "Helter Skelter" at the Grammys (See? John wasn't the only rocker in the band), a conscious demonstation of his greatness. He was entitled to it. When he played "Jenny Wren," it didn't matter that we wouldn't remember it as well as we had "Blackbird" or "When I'm Sixty-Four" or "Maybe I'm Amazed" -- it was a very nice song, one of hundreds he'd churned out, and we knew we could count on him to produce such like until his fingers or his brain made it impossible for him to continue. His knighthood made more sense to me then. He had served, continued to serve, and would serve to the end, as a true peer of the Realm should. If rock and roll were as much a spur as honor and duty, why should he not be honored?

Over time the little feuds and cavils will fade, and all we will have (if we have that) are the songs. A McCartney progression will probably still please the ear, and if his lyrics, long after their galvanization by the Beatles' and Wings' popularity has been worn away, are less likely to persist than those of his Liverpool chum, that's no reason to cast those pleasures away prematurely. And as for the pre-eminence we now give to Lennon, let us hear how Sir Walter Scott considered the lives of Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox when both were in the Abbey:
These spells are spent, and, spent with these,  
The wine of life is on the lees.  
Genius, and taste, and talent gone,
For ever tomb'd beneath the stone,  
Where — taming thought to human pride! —  
The mighty chiefs sleep side by side.  
Drop upon Fox's grave the tear,  
'Twill trickle to his rival's bier;
O'er Pitt's the mournful requiem sound,  
And Fox's shall the notes rebound.

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