Paul's Rocky Revival
Why do they still bill James Brown as "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business"? He's barely broken into a cold sweat since dodging the police in the '80s. Once, you could've given Dick Clark that title, but clearly someone behind the scenes must've forced him at gun point to give up at least two TV shows or face payola hearings again.
No, clearly that mantel belongs to Paul McCartney, rock's most compulsive workaholic. Since his 1970 public announcement that the Beatles were finished, McCartney's carried that weight like a worker ant, determined to outdo the Beatles on his own and prove that their success was, in no small part, because of his input.
It proved a hollow victory, since none of his nine No. 1 solo hits ("Ebony and Ivory" and "Silly Love Songs" being the two biggest and scariest) has enjoyed even a scintilla of the critical attention or scrutiny that minor Beatles B-sides still continue to garner.
Which is why McCartney, who hasn't placed a solo single in the Top 10 since 1984, regularly trades on his Beatles past now, from readopting his signature Hofner bass to using Beatles memorabilia in his videos and issuing two double live albums of mostly Beatles tracks, even capitalizing on the old Paul is Dead rumor with the silly Paul Is Live album. If all this is a contrived effort to force us to view Mac's solo work as a continuum of Beatlemania, it calls into question just how much smoking California grass has affected the man's judgment. Only a fool on the hill would open his 1989 world tour with heart-stomping film footage of the Beatles at Shea Stadium, only to send expectations crashing rapidly earthward with his first selection, the instantly forgettable, instantly forgotten "Figure of Eight."
Worse than competing with his young-lion days is constantly having to measure up to a dead rival. From the sound he appears to make in the new 654-page book by Barry Miles titled Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (Henry Holt and Co.), the cute Beatle apparently must go to bed each night wishing everyone thought he was the smart Beatle, the clever Beatle, the cool Beatle. How vexing that John Lennon has always managed to impress rebels and pseudointellectuals alike without exerting a tenth of McCartney's industry. That Lennon did nothing for the latter half of the Me Decade but stay home, raise Sean, buy some cows and bake bread seems, in hindsight, infinitely cooler than recording London Town and Back to the Egg. And, since his assassination by a disappointed autograph-seeker, Lennon's inactivity has stepped up, while McCartney's had to work thrice as hard just to get noticed.
It's been a major source of embarrassment to Beatles fans whenever Macca makes sure to inject in every interview that it was he--not Lennon--who wrote "Helter Skelter," the big Charlie Manson number, and that McCartney discovered John Cage avant-garde recordings way before his old partner. McCartney first made these assertions about 15 years ago when interviewed for the updated version of Hunter Davies' Beatles biography, and got plenty o' flack for it. Now, in this officially sanctioned Miles book, Paul recollects his Beatle past, song by song, to set the record straight: The crap he takes ain't equal to the love he's made.
Don't get me wrong. This is a unique and fascinating read. In the Beatles literary world, where every topic's been raked several times over, this is the only book with a personal account of who did what in the Lennon & McCartney partnership, offering insights on their songwriting habits, like how they wrote in three-hour sessions and where.
While it does seem petty to be divvying up the L&M pie at this late date, in fairness, Lennon did plenty of interviews which recalled his involvement in 80-20 percent proportions. In only two instances do Lennon's and McCartney's accounts not jibe; Lennon's recalling his lyrical role in writing "Eleanor Rigby"--which was reportedly nil--and his remembering only a small contribution from McCartney to "In My Life," which McCartney remembers as penning the guitar lick and the entire melody!
Given the volume of erroneous data Lennon gave in his selective Lennon Remembers interviews, it's easy to revert this credit back to Macca. Unfortunately, in the same way that ill-informed fans tended to give George Martin the credit for the group's innovative productions, now casual fans--given McCartney's spotty solo output--tend to hand credit for all that was good about the Beatles over to Lennon.
This clearly rankles McCartney. On the book's cover, he says, "John was great, and I did love him, lest it be seen that I'm trying now to do my own kind of revisionism. He was fabulous, but really all I'm saying is that I have my side of the affair as well, which sometimes gets ignored." Is it revisionism that every instance in which McCartney pats himself on the back is followed by an account of how envious Lennon was of McCartney's carefree bachelor life? Or how Lennon was dulling his senses at home to escape his boring marriage to his first wife Cynthia while McCartney was having dinner with Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs? Or how about this: McCartney brings Lennon into his circle of cool friends, and then Lennon blows it by mispronouncing Nietzsche! Ain't that a shame!
Ever Mr. Public Relations, McCartney puts a happy spin on such unfortunate events in Beatles history like the recording of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." If one song can be credited for expediting the breakup of the Beatles faster than Yoko Ono, Linda McCartney or Allen Klein combined, it's this one. In Mark Lewisohn's Sessions book, an EMI engineer recalls how Lennon was extremely agitated at having to do the song five nights running, literally smashing the piano keys in frustration and playing the song at twice the speed and yelling, "C'mon! This is it!" McCartney recalls that Lennon "bounced in, apologizing [for being late], in a very good mood. He sat down at the piano and instantly played the blue-beat style intro. We were pleased with his fresh attitude. I remember the two of us in the studio having a whale of a time." You tend to take this rosy account with a pinch of salt after realizing that engineer Geoff Emerick quit after the song's completion because he could no longer tolerate the tense atmosphere at Abbey Road.
But it's Macca's relentless name-dropping that arouses the most suspicion. Like a host who is constantly reminding you he's serving tea from Royal Doulton china, McCartney wants so much to impress you that he's rubbed elbows with Willem de Kooning and Michelangelo Antonioni, director of Blowup. Is there any McCartney tome where he doesn't mention that he once showed his experimental home movies to the Italian director?
"I showed Antonioni movies, and he was greatly impressed," McCartney says. You feel embarrassed for him, like when you're a guest at someone's house and the host insists on showing you his holiday slides. What's Antonioni gonna say, "Paul, your films reek," and then sit down to break bread?
It's like that grating moment in Anthology when Macca adds, "People like [Steven] Spielberg, I've read where he says that 'when I was in film school that Magical Mystery Tour was a film we really took notice of.'" Has anyone ever produced this Spielberg quote in any of the million Beatles books already in print?
What you come away with after reading this book is that McCartney's artistic decline owed as much to his estrangement from girlfriend Jane Asher as his split with John Lennon. Moving in social circles teeming with actors, intellects and artists of the ilk that McCartney frequently mentions, the Beatle had to swim or sink in such illustrious company. That he could impress William Burroughs with his narrative on "Eleanor Rigby" surely gave McCartney impetus to keep moving upward artistically.
Once Mac links up with Linda, he becomes the boring homebody he remembers Lennon to be. Imagine Burroughs or any of the Indica Gallery crowd being impressed that McCartney wrote "Magneto and Titanium Man" about a comic book he and Linda frequently liked to read. The author, Barry Miles, is one of McCartney's pals from those old days, and he couldn't even be bothered to look at the Beatles albums to check some fairly obvious facts (like mistakenly saying Lennon & McCartney wrote "Money" for Helen Shapiro when it was really "Misery," or stating that Ringo Starr sang lead on "I Don't Wanna Spoil the Party" and that Revolver led off with "Eleanor Rigby"). Imagine how nonplussed Miles would've been if he even heard latter-day Paulie fare like "Bip Bop" and "Little Lamb Dragonfly."
At least in the book, people like Burroughs and Marianne Faithfull get to speak about their brushes with a Beatle. The Rhino home video In the World Tonight captures the still-dizzying workaholic activities of a post-Anthology McCartney, and no one seems to get a word in edgewise. Linda, McCartney's soul mate for 28 years, offers some valuable insight on her husband in the Miles book, but in this pseudo-documentary, she has a total of eight spoken words, all of which are in agreement with something that Paul has just said. No wonder she's lasted longer than all the dissenting members of Wings combined.
There are plenty of other interesting people involved in the making of this year's album, Flaming Pie, that we see but never hear from: Jeff Lynne, Steve Miller, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, Ringo Starr, even McCartney's son James, who plays a Dave Gilmouresque solo on "Heaven on a Sunday."
Talking about the Beatle-inspired Flaming Pie title, McCartney says, "This album has come off The Beatles Anthology, so any of these connections I'm comfortable with." Anthology and its buy-products returned Mac to the top of the charts after a long fallow period where he had to watch even the relatively inactive George Harrison best his commercial achievements. This video, made presumably to prolong Flaming Pie's shelf life, serves another sinister purpose: proving that Paul can cover the same ground that 10 hours of Anthology did in an hour's time.
Lookie here! McCartney's conducting symphonies just like "A Day in the Life." And whassthis? Now he's being knighted and people are still crowding around Buckingham Palace just like when the Beatles got their MBEs. They even filmed him in black and white, standing in the same hallowed courtyard where the Fabs once stood. But wait--there's more!
McCartney's scoring music for a cartoon just like Yellow Submarine. Then, Alakazam! His 1989 concert in Brazil breaks a world attendance record of 180,000 just like the Beatles did at Shea Stadium. Sheesh! Surely, this man was a Beatle!
Half the time, you feel like you're watching outtakes from Anthology, like when Macca demonstrates the same Mellotron the Beatles used on "Strawberry Fields Forever," even telling you the Anthology crew shot him doing this very activity the other day! Couldn't he play "Flying" instead?
Like Anthology, many of McCartney's interview segments take on stagy, unnatural settings. Harrison and Starr were content just to sit by a pool or window and reminisce. But not our Paul! He had to be on a soundstage, driving a boat, delivering a baby, or in the woods by a campfire hiding out from Linda.
He's made a campfire on the Rhino tape as well, but you also get to see him chain-sawing branches and tearing paper just to make that fire! Even when he's relaxing in his crib, this great man can't just sit still.
It's been a hard day's night already. McCartney should be sleeping. Dare I say it, like a log.
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