Paul McCartney: Carry That Weight
By Brian W. Fairbanks
Does anyone still think of Paul McCartney as the "cute" Beatle? If so, they believe in yesterday. Thirty-eight years have come and gone since the Liverpool quartet sent Bobby Vinton packing, and yesterdays are all that remain of John Lennon and George Harrison. For McCartney, life goes on, but when he turns 60 on June 18, will those who experienced Beatlemania first hand sing a jubilant "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da," or turn to another page in the Fab Four songbook, read the news that day and sigh a weary "oh boy"?
The generation that thought it unwise to trust anyone over 30 is now old enough to regard rock and roll as something their teeth do when they run out of Poligrip. Physical deterioration aside, nothing brings the passing years into focus like an aging icon. McCartney isn't the first major figure of Sixties youth culture to reach the age associated with grandmas. The candles on Bob Dylan's birthday cake represented the same fire hazard last year. However, the grizzled voice that warned of a hard rain to fall never sounded youthful. Dylan also lacked the cuddly qualities favored by readers of Tiger Beat.
The Beatles, concerned with little more than holding hands, seemed destined to remain forever young, as fixed in youth as cartoon characters which they were for a time, first in a Saturday morning kids show and again in the 1968 feature Yellow Submarine. No matter what the birth certificates said, McCartney was the youngest. The "cute" one with an unrivaled talent for writing classic love ballads, he had the most avid following among pre-pubescent girls. The music moved on to more mature themes, but even though McCartney wrote "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby," those songs of sorrow and regret didn't sound fully convincing until filtered through the older, wiser voice of Ray Charles.
After the Beatles disbanded, John Lennon may have imagined a world free from greed and oppression, but McCartney's music was so warm and fuzzy you'd think lions and lambs were already lying down together. Making his marginally talented wife, Linda, a member of the band Wings, added to his image problems. John and Yoko could be equal partners, but the McCartneys were too "straight" in Lennon's lexicon, too similar to the Osmond family, to win respect from the counter-culture that controlled the influential rock press. Rolling Stone called Ram, the first of two 1971 McCartney albums, "the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far," and even faithful fans gagged when he released a version of 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' the next year.
The 1973 James Bond theme "Live and Let Die" cut through the fluff, as did the excellent Band on the Run album. Selling a then astonishing six-million copies, his finest solo effort won over some of his harshest critics. Even John Lennon called it a 'great album.' By 1975, however, it was back to an all sugar diet. A sample lyric, "soldier boy kisses girl," brought to mind the Shirelles and other sticky sweet pre-Beatle pop groups.
By that time, Lennon was about to begin his five year withdrawal from the public eye. Since Lennon and McCartney were rivals as much as partners, McCartney's muse got even lazier, no longer feeling the pressure to compete. Lennon's 1980 murder was a wake-up call and Tug of War offered a hint of stronger McCartney music to come, but in 1984, Maxwell's Silver Hammer came crashing down upon his head and has been pounding him ever since. His vanity film, Give My Regards to Broad Street, was a disaster that year, and his next album, 1986's Press to Play, was an even bigger bomb.
Now too mature to appeal to the under 21 crowd that buys the majority of compact discs, McCartney's new music was facing a losing battle with his back catalogue for the attention of older fans. "Hope of Deliverance" from 1993 is a great song, but that's all it is. It can't trigger the memories that "Penny Lane" or "My Love" does for a middle-aged audience.
By the Nineties, McCartney recognized his dilemma and surrendered to it. Following his own command to "get back to where you once belonged," he released three live albums that favored his Beatles and Wings hits, and also recorded two discs of vintage Fifties rock and roll. It was clear the music that first inspired him still did.
But can he still inspire us?
He's no longer cute. He's no longer young. He could always take a sad song and make it better, and did at the Concert for New York last October, and again at the Super Bowl pre-game show in January. But neither performance spurred much interest in his latest album, Driving Rain. If his appeal is now based on his past glories, he is, as he sang in "Yesterday," half the man he used to be.
He always had the shadow of the Fab Four hanging over him, but now as the most significant of the two surviving Beatles, his signature song might as well be "Carry That Weight," as fans look to him to provide a comforting reminder of the long-gone days of youth, his and theirs.
Will we still need him when he's 64? No doubt we will, more than ever, in fact. For now let's just quote another of his famous songs: "I hear it's your birthday. Happy birthday to you."
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2002 Paris Woman Journal
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