The Coolest Beatle

The Coolest Beatle
At 70, more than half the man he used to be.
By Alan Light | From the June 1 & 8, 2012, issue.

When the Beatles went to India in 1968 for a meditation retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the folk-rock star Donovan was part of their traveling party. The musicians had all brought their acoustic guitars, and Donovan wandered around the grounds of the Maharishi’s compound in Rishikesh, playing in a traditional folk-bluegrass style known as fingerpicking.

After a few days, Donovan recently recalled, John Lennon stopped him and said, “How do you do that? That finger style, that picking, will you teach me?” He demonstrated the technique to Lennon, but he also noticed Paul McCartney occasionally hovering in the background. “Paul would stand around, he’d steal a look, and then he’d walk away into the woods. He was listening.”

Too proud or too impatient to sit for instruction, McCartney eavesdropped enough to figure out the method on his own. Then he went off and used the style as the basis for “Blackbird,” “I Will,” and “Mother Nature’s Son,” three of the acoustic masterpieces on the Beatles epic double-LP set generally known as the White Album. With just a glimpse of a new direction, he instantly began blazing a musical trail.

This capacity for constant, lightning-quick creative revelation has characterized McCartney’s music for 50 years. When he turns 70 years old on June 18, perhaps the only thing more remarkable than the idea of this eternally youthful icon reaching that landmark is the fact that he has gotten there without having lost the boundless inventiveness and creative curiosity that redefined the very possibilities of rock and roll. Though McCartney is often overshadowed in the public imagination by John Lennon’s hard-edged cool, and frequently taken for granted after so many years in the pop spotlight, there is simply no other figure in pop who can claim a track record so deep.

The Guinness Book of World Records identifies McCartney as “the most successful musician and composer in popular music history.” He’s had 15 top 10 albums and 21 top 10 singles—and that’s not including his work with the biggest band of all time. His tours still sell out stadiums around the world. His solo compositions have been covered by artists from Michael Jackson to Guns N’ Roses. And his marriage last year to Nancy Shevell, the daughter of a U.S. trucking magnate, helped take his estimated worth from £495 to £665 million, making him the wealthiest performer in British music.

But this ongoing commercial juggernaut exists in tandem with an impressive eagerness to challenge himself and expand musically. At an age when most rockers have long eased into life as oldies acts, McCartney has undergone a startling creative renaissance. His most recent release, Kisses on the Bottom, is a smoothly orche­strated set of such Great American Songbook standards as “Bye Bye Blackbird” and ­“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” while (entirely unverified) rumors have buzzed that his next album will be a straight-up rock-and-roll record, produced with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters.

Not surprising for someone who came of age as half of the most celebrated songwriting duo in history, McCartney has often sought out worthy collaborators, both writers (like Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello) and producers (including Youth, with whom he has released a series of ambient-inspired projects under the name The Fireman, and Nigel Godrich, who has worked with the likes of Radiohead and Beck). McCartney has also composed several extended classical works: two oratorios, a “symphonic poem” called “Standing Stone,” and an album of shorter pieces, Working Classical. Last year he worked with the New York City Ballet to create a new narrative piece titled Ocean’s Kingdom—but he didn’t just write a score and send it in. He developed the storyline, made paintings to suggest the backdrops, and offered suggestions to his megastar designer daughter, Stella, about the costumes.

Prompted perhaps by the death of his beloved first wife, Linda, and a tumultuous second marriage to Heather Mills, ­McCartney’s recent records—Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full, and the vastly under­rated Fireman release Electric ­Arguments—have included a surprising degree of introspection in their lyrics. It feels as if he has finally allowed himself to stop competing with Lennon’s shadow and take on some of the themes that arise later in life, territory that John never got the chance to face.

Contrary to widespread belief that John was the bitter and Paul was the sweet in the Beatles incomparable blend of talents, the fact is that as the group progressed and began to experiment in the recording studio in radical new ways, McCartney not only took more chances musically than Lennon did, he also became more of the band’s driving force. After the other Beatles had all married and moved to the suburbs, he was still living in London with girlfriend Jane Asher’s family, going to art galleries and avant-garde music events, absorbing the city’s youthquake and bringing new ideas back to the records (a point made repeatedly in his 1997 quasi-autobiography, Many Years From Now, which is almost painfully defensive in its endless pleading “Hey, I was cool, too!”)

“I lived a very urbane life in London,” McCartney once said. “John used to come in from Weybridge ... and I’d tell him what I’d been doing: ‘Last night I saw a Bertolucci film and I went down to the Open Space, they’re doing a new play there.’” Paul said that John would reply, “God, man, I really envy you.”

It was Lennon who said that he wanted Revolver’s droning, psychedelic “Tomorrow Never Knows” (recently featured to great effect on an episode of Mad Men) to sound like “thousands of monks chanting.” But it was McCartney, immersed in the experimental work of composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who altered the heads on his tape machine to create the loops of layered noise that ultimately defined the song’s shockingly futuristic sound.

From the Brazilian-influenced chords of “Here, There and Everywhere” to the concept that shaped the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, McCartney spearheaded many of the Beatles’s musical breakthroughs. He had the idea for the extended medley that concluded Abbey Road: “I wanted to get John and Paul to think more seriously about their music,” said producer George Martin of the eight-song suite. “Paul was all for experimenting like that.” (For his part, Lennon later dismissed the medley as “junk.”)

After the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967, and as Lennon drifted further into a drug haze, the artistic leadership of the Beatles shifted from John to Paul, sometimes to the chagrin of the other band members. “I’d play in a band with John Lennon any day, but I wouldn’t join a band with Paul McCartney,” said George Harrison in 1973.

To be sure, McCartney’s more sentimental tendencies could also result in the “granny music” that Lennon ridiculed, songs like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” that have not aged well. Nor have McCartney’s lyric-writing tendencies ever allowed for the kind of personal and intimate confessions that defined Lennon’s songs, from “Help!” all the way through to “(Just Like) Starting Over.”

Yet the impact of Paul McCartney’s musical range and ambitions (along with his incomparable bass playing) meant a shift in the tectonic plates of rock and roll. “Paul has a gift of melody and his lyrics are so inspiring,” says Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, one of McCartney’s own songwriting favorites. “‘Michelle’ from Rubber Soulwas partially my inspiration for creating the Pet Sounds record.”

McCartney has now been an ex-Beatle about four times longer than he was actually in the band. But unlike John, George, or even Ringo, he has never expressed any ambivalence about his time or his legacy in the greatest show on earth—maybe because he has never stopped making new music, reaching such heights as 1973’s first-rate smash Band on the Run and 1982’s eclectic Tug of War, and recharging his batteries with side projects like the cover albums Back in the USSR and Run Devil Run.

If McCartney isn’t as critically revered as idiosyncratic visionaries like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, it’s presumably because he has never made a secret of his desire to please an audience, cranking out accessible singles and love songs, silly and otherwise, aimed straight for a populist bull’s-eye. That approach is most evident on stage, where his irresistible, marathon parade of hits—backed by a stellar band and with just enough surprises to hold the interest of the hard-core fans and the star himself—has charmed audiences from the hipsterati at the 2009 Coachella festival to the crowd of 200,000-plus that attended a free concert in Mexico City a few weeks ago.

McCartney isn’t the first member of the rock-and-roll pantheon to hit the big seven-oh; Dylan, Paul Simon, and Ringo all got there first. But his degree of engagement and activity surpasses not only his peers, but also rockers half—hell, a third—his age.

Sometimes, he recently told the English music magazine Mojo, “I think, ‘That boy was a good writer.’  I’m singing it, my mind wanders, and I’m going, ‘How old was I when I wrote this? Not bad.’ Like in ‘Yesterday’—‘I’m not half the man I used to be.’ I was writing that at 24?”

From : http://newsweekpakistan.com/culture/1236


Anonymous said...

Great article ,thanks for sharing.
But I have to say that as much as I love George Harrison,I really hate the time when he was making stupid comments"I'll never join a band with Paul Mccartney""The best thing that happened to me is to join the Beatles and Leaving them"?????really well George joined the Beatles because Paul recommended him to John,but lets face it Paul wouldn't join a band with George either,and John didn't want George in his new band he took Clapton instead.

Anonymous said...

I agree about George,after the Beatles reakup he kept whining about Paul being bossy and unsuportable yet he hadn't the nerves to leave the band more than a few weeks,and always showed up when Pau called every body to start recording.