Many Years From Then: Sir Paul McCartney Receives the Kennedy Center Honor
On Sunday December 5th, Sir Paul McCartney receives America's most prestigious tribute bestowed upon creative artists -- the Kennedy Center Honor. Beatles historian Martin Lewis, who has known Sir Paul and worked with him on several projects over the past quarter-century, has written this new appreciation of McCartney to mark the occasion. The Kennedy Center Honors event will be aired on the CBS network on Tuesday December 28th.
My mentor and first employer, former Beatles publicist, the late Derek Taylor, once described The Beatles as "the 20th Century's Greatest Romance." His poetic encapsulation of the majestic achievements of the lads from Liverpool was astute, and in that interpretation, Paul McCartney is the charismatic Aramis of the four musketeer-musicians who captured the world's heart.
Sir Paul McCartney has traveled a long and winding road from his childhood in Liverpool to the summit of receiving his Kennedy Center Honor in Washington D.C. By the age of just 27, with his three bandmates in The Beatles, he had already completely revolutionized popular music and created a canon of work that is heralded and unsurpassed in both critical acclaim and public popularity to this day. In the 40 years since the break-up of The Beatles, he has developed into a Renaissance Man for our times. A legacy of compositions and recordings in popular music, acclaimed classical works, poetry, paintings, award-winning animated films and a pioneering presence as an activist in many spheres -- including the instigation of the Concert For New York after the 9/11 attacks.
Born James Paul McCartney on June 18th 1942 in war-bombed Liverpool to Mary a nurse and Jim a cotton salesman and jazz band aficionado, he grew up in municipal housing, in blue-collar districts on the outskirts of Liverpool. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to breast cancer, and he and his younger brother Michael were thereafter raised by his father with the support of extended family. Shortly after his mother's passing he taught himself to play the guitar and wrote his first song, I Lost My Little Girl.
One Saturday afternoon in July 1957, his friend Ivan Vaughan took him to the local church fete. Another of Ivan's pals was playing in a skiffle group that day in front of 400 villagers. (Skiffle was the British equivalent of homemade jug-band music.) McCartney watched the Quarrymen and in particular their scruffy leader, John. After the performance, Ivan introduced his two mates. It was the Big Bang that led directly to The Beatles. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider this: Almost ten years later to the day Paul and his new pal John -- together with two other chums called George and Ringo, were performing live to 400 MILLION members of the global village on the world's first-ever satellite TV hook-up. "All You Need Is Love" was what they sang that day. Love in all its forms was, and remains, the touchstone of Paul McCartney's work and family life.
Though John was older by nearly two years, Paul's comparative mastery of the guitar and knowledge of songs of the emerging rock 'n' roll from America placed him ahead of his new pal in musical craft and in the very early years Paul helped John's nascent musicianship emerge. So began a creative partnership and friendship that literally changed the world. Spurred on by a natural sibling-style rivalry, each drove the other to higher and higher creative achievements. Paul's innate gift for melody informed John's compositions. Lennon's affinity for words inspired McCartney to write ever more evocative lyrics ("wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door"). The teenage Paul had already started composing, and as he encouraged John to do the same, they became a writing team. They wrote together "eyeball-to-eyeball" in their earliest years. From 1964 onwards they primarily composed songs on their own -- yet they almost always turned to each other to polish and improve their songs.
In the span of a few years McCartney composed literally dozens of songs that became instant classics and have embedded themselves into the world's collective DNA. Songs such as "Can't Buy Me Love," "Yesterday," "Eleanor Rigby," "Here, There and Everywhere," "Penny Lane," "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be." As his three Beatle colleagues all married and settled in the Surrey countryside, it was McCartney who stayed in the heart of England's capital in the mid-60s and immersed himself in London's burgeoning counter-culture. He imbued theater, foreign films, art, Stockhausen, John Cage, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. This eclecticism manifested itself in The Beatles' landmark Sgt Pepper album in 1967 -- a song cycle very much driven by Paul's vision. In these years, McCartney also became the first Beatle to score a movie -- the Hayley Mills film The Family Way, and he was the driving force behind their ahead-of-its-time Magical Mystery Tour film -- which impressed (among many) a young film student called Steven Spielberg...
After The Beatles broke up at their peak in 1970, McCartney elected to restart his musical career from a virtual ground zero by creating a new band that included his wife Linda. Wings grew slowly, but by the end of the 1970s had become one of the major musical attractions of the decade, with a slew of memorable hits and world tours under its span. McCartney had proven that he could start and lead a new band on the run to the top. His humanitarian side started to manifest itself with the landmark Concerts for Kampuchea in 1979, which he helped organize and at which he performed with many stellar peers.
The world changed after the tragic loss of John Lennon in December 1980, and Paul made changes in his life. He disbanded Wings and focused more on recordings and family than live performance -- though he gave one of the highlight performances at 1985's Live Aid. His 80s recordings included hugely popular collaborations with younger performers who McCartney was always happy to work with including Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello.
It was in the 1980s and 1990s that McCartney broadened the creative canvas he worked on. He made a series of award-winning animated short films, re-kindled his love of painting and poetry. He also started composing acclaimed classical works. His philanthropy and passion for giving back led him to work with a team in transforming the derelict building that had housed his high school and turn it into LIPA (Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts) -- which has become Britain's finest such academy.
Post break-up, The Beatles had defied the laws of celebrity physics and they had never gone out of fashion. They were discovered afresh by each new generation. When McCartney returned to live performance in 1989, he discovered that in addition to his loyal fans from the 1960s and 1970s, he had a new fan-base that had grown up on his solo recordings in the 1980s and had also discovered him through the omnipresent recordings of his first group -- the one he was in before Wings... Since returning to the concert stage, he has made live performance a staple of his life -- touring the world frequently and bringing together multiple generations at every show.
The 1990s brought both joy and sorrow. The mid-1990s release of the Beatles Anthology TV series and three companion audio albums propelled the always vibrant interest in the Beatles and McCartney to new stratospheric levels. 1997 saw the release of his Flaming Pie album that showed his gift for songwriting to be undimmed by the passage of time. In 1998, Paul lost Linda, his wife of nearly thirty years, to the same dreadful disease that had claimed his mother four decades earlier. A standing testament to the quality of their marriage has been their four children Heather, Mary, Stella and James. All with creative achievements to their credit. And never a whisper of the type of troubles that afflict so many celebrity offspring.
Most people in their sixties slow down. In the first decade of the 2000s, McCartney cranked it up to the speed of sound. Tours, albums including experimental electronic music, playing the Super-Bowl, receiving the Gershwin Prize, collaborations with younger artists and always concerts at which his music is enjoyed by audiences across the generational universe. At festivals such as Coachella and Glastonbury -- the redoubt of today's teenagers -- McCartney is the cherished headliner. A musical Peter Pan from a halcyon era, some of whose music may have been written "yesterday" -- yet sounds as fresh as tomorrow.
The love affair between McCartney and America has been a constant since The Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 when the first glimpse America caught was Paul exuberantly singing "All My Loving." That boyish charm and optimism was the perfect healing balm for a nation still shell-shocked from the tragic events of November 22, 1963. McCartney and The Beatles helped the rebirth of a nation, and America has never forgotten that.
The love affair has always been two-way and McCartney has spent much time in the US -- a country he has always cherished. Nearly 40 years after he and The Beatles helped heal the nation's Kennedy assassination trauma, came another calling -- the horror of 9/11 -- which McCartney had witnessed from the tarmac at JFK. So when America again found itself in times of trouble, it was McCartney who spoke the words of wisdom that the healing might start with what became the memorable Concert For New York. He helped round up his pals and peers including the Who, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Mick and Keith from the Stones. It was natural that McCartney be asked to close the show.
Taking the stage after five hours of stunning music including rousing anthems by The Who that stirred the very soul of New Yorkers, McCartney performed a set that instinctively nurtured the broken-hearted people. When he sang "Yesterday," accompanied by just a string quartet, the words he had written in 1965 as a 23-year-old soul assumed a significance far deeper than his original intent. "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay... Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be. There's a shadow hanging over me..." The lyrics now articulated the emotions of a grieving nation in its hour of darkness, whose present-day had been shattered and who collectively yearned for the world they had lost. When McCartney sang "Oh I believe in Yesterday" he became a much-valued light shining through the cloudy night.
He sang for 300 million Americans and hundreds of millions more throughout the world -- just as he and his pals had done in the glorious 1967 Summer of Love when they spread their message of universal love to the planet. And just as passionately as he did ten years earlier when his musical journey began in the twilight dusk of a mid-summer's eve, in a tiny village church hall in the north of England -- playing Eddie Cochran's Twenty Flight Rock to someone he'd just met who was to become his musical blood-brother and fellow Musketeer. "All For One And One For All Together Now..."
For me, the true mark of a star of Paul McCartney's stature is how he treats others. Most stars schmooze well with their peers and the other leaders of the pack. But many are rather less gracious with others. I still recall the first time I worked with Paul. It was in 1986 and I was producing a little promotional film about one of his heroes -- Buddy Holly. I left the room where I was about to interview him for a few minutes. When I came back into the room, unnoticed by him, I discovered him chatting as warmly with the young production assistants as with the director. Paying real attention to them. A small thing you say. No, it's a big thing. It's what makes Paul McCartney, SIR Paul McCartney -- the shining knight of our era...