Sixteen (going-on-seventeen…yes, really) years of loving and breathing the Beatles and I never could pick a favorite Beatle. But it would have been easy–so, so easy–for me to pick Paul McCartney, who turns 70 today.
I wish that was me, clad in a light pastel pink Paul McCartney t-shirt, sitting on the tube with Paul McCartney. Just sayin’–in case that wasn’t obvious.
For my ninth birthday, I received Paul McCartney’s tenth solo album, Flaming Pie. I’d been coveting it for months, but CDs actually existed back then and downloading wasn’t rampant, CDs were also pretty expensive, and I had no steady income. So I had to wait for my birthday and hope that my parents loved me enough to help me in my quest to keep the ten commandments. (“Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s copy of Flaming Pie.” Remember that one? I totally coveted every other nine-year old who owned this album. There were so many of them, although I was slowly plotting their demise, fueled by my envy.) Well, they did, and I was ecstatic. That album is probably my single favorite Macca solo album. Probably. There’s a lot of good ones.
My elementary music teacher had a system where if we earned so many “points” our class was allowed a “CD Day,” wherein we were each allowed to bring a CD to class and when your CD was selected, you picked which song we listened to as a class. I brought Flaming Pie, and I remember some kid was like, “Why did you bring that old guy’s CD?” And I was like, “Hey, did your parents drop you on your head as a baby or…?”
‘Cos Flaming Pie is an awesome album–so awesome I could even forgive “that old guy” for chopping the beloved salt-‘n’-peppah mullet (which he totally needs to bring back, by the way).
And of all the Beatles, Macca’s post-Beatles career is the most satisfying for me. Lennon was too hot and cold, Harrison was sparse and sporadic, and Ringo always needed a little help from his friends. McCartney was always quite fearless–unafraid of making an album with songs as diverse as “Heart of the Country” and “Monkberry Delight,” unafraid of forming a completely new band with unknowns–including his musically inexperienced wife, unafraid of letting said unknown musicians take turns in the spotlight on Wings at the Speed of Sound, unafraid of singing all those silly love songs, unafraid of disbanding his new (and pretty successful) band to make an experimental album full of synth-based compositions that was way ahead of its time. He was also unafraid of packing some pot in his suitcase, but let’s not talk about that right now.
For all his musical talent and success, though, I still sense an inferiority complex in McCartney that upsets me. To the world at large, Lennon was gritty and hard-edged, a political radical and lyrical adept; McCartney was all soft–ballads and babies were his main interests, not world peace, revolution, or anything “important.” When Lennon was murdered, this image spiraled–and continues to spiral–out of control. Lennon’s place in history as an indelible musical and cultural force is solid; McCartney often seems worried about how history will remember him. He likes to point out that he, too, was politically active in his songwriting (“Give Ireland Back to the Irish” is better forgotten, though, dear, sorry), he introduced the other Beatles to the avant-garde scene (which is true), and he could be just as hard-nosed as the best of ’em–just as Lennon could be incredibly tender in his songwriting (in fact, I might even argue that his half of Double Fantasy is softer than McCartney). Let me just say this: I don’t think Lennon ever wrote anything quite as funky or downright cool as, say, “C’Moon” or “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five.” He just didn’t.
McCartney would have been an easy choice for a favorite Beatle. He wasn’t just the cute one; he was the diplomatic one, hardworking, dedicated to perfecting his craft, constantly pushing the musicians around him, always generous to fans, the one with the best post-Beatles hairstyle, the perfect mix of business sense and artistic integrity, just as ardent in his crusades for animal rights as Lennon ever was in any of his causes, the one with the most imaginative and varied song catalogue, really just a nice guy who I used to imagine was my dad who was going to pick me up early from school. He would have been an easy choice for a favorite Beatle, but I loved them all just too darn much to pick just one.
A few years ago, Alan McGee made a controversial, moronic, and insensitive comment that musicians like McCartney should retire once they turn 40 because they become mediocre and complacent. A day does not go by that I do not wonder what Lennon would be doing, musically and otherwise, were he here, and I’m so glad McCartney is still here and still making music (and pretty good music, at that, Memory Almost Full is one of his best) at 70. And I’m hoping he’ll be here for a long while yet.
Photograph by George Harrison
Happy birthday. Now let’s go to that party, party.