Paul McCartney's Conquest of Happiness
Sir Paul's life and work exemplify the courageous striving toward happiness described by philosopher Bertrand Russell — and we all get a share of it, in the music his curiosity brings.
One evening this past spring, we played our grandson, Leo, then two and a half, a few Beatles songs as he finished up his dinner with some fruit. My wife, Jyll, and I (better recognized as Grammy and Grandpa) asked him if he recognized certain songs — “Hey Jude,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road” — and each time, he brightly responded, “I do!’ This came as no surprise because earlier he had specifically requested “Golden Slumbers.”
Before the meal, I had attempted to strum a few Beatle songs on the ukulele Jyll had gifted me a few years back and which I began trying to learn during the pandemic. “Something” first, then “Golden Slumbers,” and “In My Life” — songs by George, Paul, and John, respectively. I made my way fairly through “Something” but lost my way during “Golden Slumbers” and was momentarily flummoxed, fingers fumbling in search of the chord. Leo, starting in on his blueberries and watermelon chunks, let it pass without comment. I like to think I somewhat redeemed myself with an almost plausible “In My Life” before putting the uke away and turning on the real thing on my phone paired with the little Bluetooth speaker we take on trips with us.
It seems fitting that I begin this essay with that account of how the Beatles’ music continues to be passed generation to generation; half a century after the band called it quits, it’s definitely still a thing.
It occurs to me that the mention of the ukulele speaks specifically of George, who in his later years famously handed around ukes to visiting musician friends. As a young teen, I played Harrison’s first three albums — the magnificent All Things Must Pass (1970), the thrilling Concert for Bangladesh (1971), and the often lovely Living in the Material World (1973) — to the point of wearing out the grooves. I somewhat lost track of his music as he began to hang out with the Monty Python gang (who he rightly saw as taking forward the spirit of the Beatles), funding one of their best films (The Life of Brian, when the studio heads got around to reading the script and balked), and created, with Denis O’Brien, HandMade Films, a studio which produced some of the great independent films of the 1980s, such as Mona Lisa and Withnail and I. I had loved a number of Harrison’s singles I’d heard over the years (“Writing’s on the Wall” stands out to me), but I really caught back up with his music, as many did, with what was called his great comeback album, Cloud Nine (1987), produced with Jeff Lynne, of the Electric Light Orchestra. The mid-90s brought the massive excitement of the Beatles Anthology documentary and releases, with two sweet demos by John coaxed into lovely shape by the remaining Beatles and Lynne, who George had suggested as producer.And then, suddenly it seemed, it was over: George Harrison’s ashes were being scattered by his widow, Olivia, and his son, Dhani, in the Ganges, and his fans were left with the beautiful, posthumously released Brainwashed. Many feel George was the coolest, deepest Beatle, and who am I to disagree? Olivia said his last words were, “Love one another.”
I much admired John Lennon’s solo years — first, the music, the peace activism, and then the decision to step away from the limelight. Who does that? (John Lennon, that’s who.) I played and re-played the brilliant, anguished Plastic Ono Band and the druggie-pop Imagine, often burning incense in my room with the very odd wall-to-wall red carpet. (The color was the result of a joking remark I made to my mother when we learned the family was moving from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, to St. Louis in the summer of 1970, when I was 12. She had asked what would make me happy — would I like to pick the carpet color for my room?) One of my favorite memories of learning how to drive was what seemed a daring, long-distance trip I took all the way to Webster Groves — a journey all of 20 miles — to the Spectrum head shop (a wonderland of incense, rolling papers, blacklight posters, and waterbeds, which also had a small, independent record store) where I bought a copy of Lennon’s Mind Games. I vividly recall carefully driving on the highways back home and glancing at the shrink-wrapped album on the passenger’s seat, anticipating the first play-through. Lennon’s later Walls and Bridges became, and remains, a favorite of mine. (Can I imagine a world in which there is no “#9 Dream”?) On what would have been his 70th birthday, we happened to be hosting our annual poetry reading at our house, and I decided to end the evening by attempting to sing “How?” a cappella and then won back the house by leading a singalong of John’s sweet gem that he gave to Ringo to close out the White Album, “Goodnight.” I try not to think about all the great music he would have written in the decades after turning 40.
And who doesn’t love Ringo? During the Beatlemania era (has it really ended?), the lovable lad with the sad eyes, and that distinctive schnoz, received the most fan mail. And he turned out to be the most natural actor of the four, turning in a superlative performance in the brilliant, exuberant “A Hard Day’s Night.” His joining the band was the key to the sound they needed for their astonishing ascent, and he knit the group together from his perch behind the kit with good humor (he was the one who said such things as “It’s been a hard day’s night”) and stoic resolve to be the team player amongst some fairly weighty egos. If the magic were to end, he said he would be happy to be a hairdresser. Ringo had his biggest day, in terms of “solo” albums, with a lot of help from his friends, on 1973’s hit Ringo. Starr remains a paragon of restrained drumming, with his characteristic inventive fills, and continues to delight audiences (since 1989!) with his All-Starr supergroup tours.
But if I had to pick my favourite Beatle (and, yes, I’m purposely using the U.K. spelling there), it would be Paul McCartney. And, as with all such aesthetic choices, my reasons are complex and personal. But basically, I’m a sucker for melody, and I’m an optimist. As it turns out, the man has quietly — and steadfastly — tried to show us a path to happiness all these years.
If it’s not obvious to you by now, like untold millions of other people, I love the Beatles. Growing up with their music had — and still exerts— a major effect on my life, on my worldview. And, yes, I’m old enough to have become a fan while they were still a band. I may have been only six when they appeared, on February 8, 1964, for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, but I was walking around the house singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the song they closed their second set with, for days after.
I heard the early and maturing middle albums playing through my older sister’s bedroom wall. Then came the one that really knocked me out, the eponymous The Beatles (a k a, the White Album). Often I would sneak into her room to scrutinize that fascinating collage poster and the individual color portraits she had hung up in her walk-in cedar closet. I got my own copy, and the only trouble I found was in choosing which side to play. I carried the single “Hey Jude/Revolution” to parties in fourth grade (and, okay, Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy”; maybe I wasn’t all that cool). The Beatles were so popular and busy doing their own thing that they didn’t often bother to show up in person for big-time U.S. television shows; they would simply send a film to Sullivan or the Smothers Brothers. That move seemed the ultimate in cool. Those films of songs turned out to be a vision of the future — of the music video a couple of decades on. When I was eleven, I asked for Abbey Road for Christmas, as did my friend Amy DeVore, and we later gleefully traded notes. Another friend, Lisa Williams, was fascinated by all the clues surrounding the “Paul Is Dead” rumor, and we went over each emerging clue with care. I remember walking to Haag’s Drug store to purchase the Beatles singles “Let It Be/You Know My Name” and “The Long and Winding Road/For You Blue,” which I was impressed to see came in deluxe solid (no hole!) white sleeves with color photos of the band.
I was the guy in high school who made the Beatles mixtapes, first as 8 tracks (with groovy hand-lettered covers) and then cassettes. I recall being at an outdoor gathering one night and hearing Beatles’ songs playing from a van of someone I didn’t know, and I anticipated the next song a couple of times before realizing it was my mix. On the last day of high school, I had a specific song cued up in the Volkswagen Beetle for Jyll (who, by the way, just proofread and commented on this piece) and me, so we could properly celebrate our last drive away from school. The song? “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” a jokey tune that John and Paul goofed on over a couple of years and released as the B-side of the “Let It Be” single. By the way, if you listen to the song, that’s Rolling Stones’ founder Brian Jones, who Paul called in for the session (thinking he’d play guitar), on sax.
After receiving my journalism degree from The University of Missouri–Columbia, where I had accidentally fallen hard for the theater, I studied acting in New York City in the early 1980s while paying my rent working as a waiter. One day a lunch customer asked me what Beatles mix was playing. It was another of mine, a 90-minute TDK cassette that included snippets from the Christmas messages they sent out each year to fan club members. He asked if he could borrow it to copy on his reel-to-reel, promising he would bring it back. That customer was singer/songwriter Steve Forbert. (He brought it back.)
I have so many memories centered specifically on McCartney’s own songs: switching on the radio one late night when I was a young teen to hear the final verse of a song I had never heard before but knew was Paul’s— a song that interestingly ended with African drums — which I later learned was “Some People Never Know,” an underappreciated gem; running long distance on country roads for track in ninth grade with my friend Greg and the two of us singing McCartney tunes (even “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) to pass the time, which led to my idea that if I could sing as I passed other runners in the mile run it might be to my advantage; putting on Wings Wild Life, a critically dissed album from 1972, at a party I hosted in my first off-campus house and being delighted to see the place rocking out to the likes of the infectious nonsense of “Mumbo” and “Bip Bop.”
Our daughters, Anna and Nora, grew up listening to The Beatles and the solo albums, had their own favored mixes on CD, and knew many of the deep tracks. Of Paul’s work, I remember they fell especially hard for “Beautiful Night” and the video, featuring a certain guest drummer who also sings backup. McCartney came to town when Anna and Nora were old enough to remember the concert, and I swallowed hard when I clicked the “finalize order” button to shell out the money for the tickets. At the start of the concert, Paul, backlit behind a white scrim, lifted his famous Höfner bass over his head to cast an impressively large shadow, as a couple of power chords were struck. Then, as the screen rose, he sauntered forward with the rest of his band to launch into “Hello, Goodbye.” I no longer cared about the cost. It was an incredible, unforgettable concert.
Many years later, when Anna was planning her wedding, she and I tried for months to find a suitable song for the traditional father-daughter dance at the reception. We finally, and with some trepidation, selected the upbeat “Sing the Changes” by The Fireman. To our relief, it went down very well — no one had to be encouraged to dance. I remember smiling at some guests and saying, “You recognize this voice, right?” Now, hearing it makes me both smile and get a bit teary-eyed. You can hear it as the second song of the terrific mini-concert McCartney and his crack band did from the marquee of “The Late Show with David Letterman” in 2009 for the handful of New Yorkers who stopped to listen.
Then there was the amazing time I met our younger daughter in London. I was there for work, and she flew up from her semester abroad in Rome. We went to Abbey Road Studios, where she scrawled a note on the wall while listening to “Dear Prudence” on my iPod (a lovely John song, with Paul on drums because Ringo had walked out of the sessions and did pretty much what anyone of us would have done — headed off to Sardinia for a holiday on Peter Sellers’ yacht. Oh, those Beatles!). When I handed my iPod to Nora, I noticed the battery was in the red and feared the song wouldn’t play through. A few minutes later, she handed it back with tears in her eyes, saying the battery had died after the last note of the song, just as she finished what she was writing. More Beatle-y magic.
We did the obligatory walk across the zebra stripes and then strolled a few blocks to stand discreetly, for a couple of minutes, in the street outside Paul’s London home, the one his then-girlfriend Jane Asher helped him find way back in 1966 and where he still resides in when he’s in town. The same year, Jane also encouraged Paul to purchase a place in Scotland, near Campbeltown: High Park Farm. Later, Paul and Linda would make use of the property to escape from town.
I also befriended numerous people over the course of my life partly because we spoke the same Beatles language. (The same happened with my love for the music of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, but that’s another story.)
It goes on and on. Attend a McCartney concert and you will see a multiplicity of generations singing along. Just the other day, I opened the “2021 Rattle Young Poets Anthology” and read a poem with the intriguing title, “Only Days Before Leaving for College, I Note the Existence of My Brother,” by 15-year-old Ivy Hoffman (she’s obviously going early — those poets!), which includes these lines:
He does not listen
To our conversations.
You will only see his foot tap,
Sometimes, when we play Wings,
And then you will know
He is real.
Ivy knows. And the passage speaks to the generation of kids who first knew of Paul McCartney from Wings, not the Beatles. And, likely, the same was true for seventies kids who grew up knowing the Imagine or All Things Must Pass albums front to back. As the story goes, Eric Idle’s and Neil Innis’s dead-on, hilarious satire of the Beatles’ history, The Rutles (“All You Need Is Cash,” from 1978), did much to re-introduce the originals to younger fans.
So this music keeps asserting itself, decade after decade, and will so long as humanity can find a way to survive by focusing more on love and truth, rather than hate and lies (the Blue Meanies have let loose their Dreadful Flying Glove of distrust and disinformation around the world). In a very real way, that music — with that consistent message of peace and love — turned out to be a form of micro-dosing for at least a couple of generations. It was not the music of (in John’s lyrics) the “uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics,” like Nixon and, later, Reagan; it was music befitting the Kennedy-King legacy of hope and promise for a better future for all, of Robert F. Kennedy asking why the measure of our gross domestic product should not speak of our courage, our poetry, how well we educate our children, and how we preserve the environment. All you need is love and Black, white, green, red — can I take my friend to bed? must have sounded like horrific propaganda to the conservatives (whatever would the tightly wound gang at Fox News today say about such lyrics?); to us kids, it simply sounded like the proper state of humanity.
A deep irony about John’s misunderstood comment about Jesus — the one that sparked album burnings in the Deep South in 1966 and death threats from the so-called pious — was that the Beatles message became an increasingly secular generation’s version of Jesus’s teachings, the ones about peace and loving your neighbor and welcoming the stranger and turning the other cheek. (In the following decades, when the Right felt that Jesus’s “eye-of-the-needle” messages were becoming increasingly insulting to them, they twisted the faith to the Prosperity Gospel — creating a new version of the Christ: Country Club Jesus. The religious dogma was admixed with the political to fight the culture wars. As Andrew Sullivan noted long ago, one should never confuse Christianism with actual Christianity.)
I love the Beatles so much I try to not listen to them. I find myself equally delighted and horrified by The Beatles Sirius XM station; I’m reminded of my sister, who loved donuts until she got her first job, working in a donut shop. With The Beatles, Lennon, and Harrison canons set, I feel lucky that McCartney has continued to experiment and put out albums filled with tuneful songs, many of which have been excellent and some superb: Flaming Pie (1997), Run Devil Run (1999), Driving Rain (2001), Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005), Memory Almost Full (2007), New (2013), Egypt Station (2018), McCartney III (2020). And I would add Electric Arguments (2008), the third collaboration of McCartney and Youth (Martin Glover) as The Fireman.
That’s quite a late-career run. When he is occasionally asked if he thinks he is doing his best work now, he’ll laugh and say, “Well, I was in The Beatles.” But he has more consistently been doing strong, often exceptional, work since Flaming Pie, addressing themes appropriate to his age with that same-as-ever knack for finding a memorable melody.
If you haven’t kept up with Sir Paul, take a listen to just a half dozen of his latter-day masterpieces:
“Calico Skies”: A tender reaffirmation of his love for Linda, written as she was being treated for the cancer that she battled until the following year. Flaming Pie is haunted by loss and includes “Little Willow,” Paul’s beautiful tribute to Ringo’s first wife, Maureen.
“Try Not to Cry”: Linda had urged her husband to run with his idea of doing a rock ’n’ roll album, and a year after her death McCartney assembled a crack band (guitarists David Gilmour and Mick Green, pianist Pete Wingfield, drummers Dave Mattacks and Ian Paice) to cover some old tunes he remembered listening to as a kid on the exhuberant, moody Run Devil Run. This song is one of three brilliant originals he wrote, including the title track, that seamlessly blend in with the covers.
“How Kind of You”: A gorgeous song of gratitude coming from someone still recovering from the throes of despair. “How kind of you to think of me/when I was out of sorts/it really meant a lot to be/in someone else’s thoughts.” When the troubled music suddenly takes a turn at the end to a major key and it sounds as if the sun has emerged from behind some dark clouds, and Paul’s bass thrums on like a strong, resilient heart — well, you might catch me tearing up.
“Two Magpies”: The first two Fireman projects, Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest (1993) and Rushes (1998), were electronica/house music. For Electric Arguments, McCartney decided to sing improvised lyrics. Throughout, the words mesh well with the soundscapes and go places where prose cannot travel: “I saw two magpies/one a girl, one a boy/one for sorrow, two for joy/with no salutes I move away/and long to face, face, face/face down fear.”
“I Don’t Know”: A Sgt. Pepper–like introduction of echoing train station and street sounds leads off Egypt Station, and then a slow, mournful piano takes us to the lyrics “I’ve got crows at my window/dogs at my door/I don’t think I can take any more/What am I doing wrong?/I don’t know.” No upbeat opener, this. And who is he promising to protect in this song — his wife, Nancy, a child or grandchild, his true self? However you take the lyrics, it’s a beautiful song of despondency leavened with a bit of consolation.
“Winter Bird/When Winter Comes”: From a man who once wrote cheerily about wanting to find a home in the heart of the country, a song speaking of deeper experience with the land. The message is still upbeat on this, the final song on McCartney III, but a bit more realistic about all the chores that need doing. Still, this is a farmer who has the means to do more than dream of flying toward the sun, when winter comes.
In a relaxed and charming interview he did in 2020 with the actor-hosts of the enjoyable Smartless podcast, McCartney tells funny stories about his “Carpool Karaoke” experience with James Corden: one about feeling ill at ease about doing it — and wishing George had been around to put the kibosh to the whole thing — and another about what happened as they finished up the visit to his childhood home. Paul mentions his vegetarianism in passing, in the context of a question, but it should be noted that he and Linda were coaxing people about choosing a more sustainable way of eating decades before the world started waking up to the climate crisis. If you haven’t heard the interview, it is well worth your time.
In a 2020 interview on the Clear+Vivid podcast, host Alan Alda (whose calm voice and keen curiosity about all things is helping keep me sane through the continuing pandemic) focused on how McCartney approaches writing his songs. It’s a fun, loose conversation that begins with a discussion of vocal warmups and an explanation by McCartney of his use of “sweet, juicy” oobly-do chords.
If you love the Beatles and you are more a John or a George or a Ringo person, you have to nod your head to Paul for keeping their noses to the grindstone for a few years longer than they likely would have worked after the untimely death of manager Brian Epstein, in 1967. One of my favorite quotes from John is the one where Paul “rings him up” about getting in the studio: “Paul had a tendency to come along and say, well he’s written these ten songs, let’s record now,” Lennon said in the infamous interview he did with Jann Wenner, which was published in January 1971 in Rolling Stone. “And I said, ‘well, give us a few days, and I’ll knock a few off,’ or something like that.”
The amazing thing was that Lennon — even feeling increasingly ambivalent about the group and often drug-addled himself in the post-Revolver years— could produce wonders like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “I Am the Walrus,” and the bulk of “A Day in the Life” under such pressure. Perhaps it was possible only because of the pressure — hadn’t he knocked off “A Hard Day’s Night” in an evening to provide the title song for the film? McCartney has remarked that when they wrote songs together, in 2- or 3-hour sessions, they never failed to complete the song at hand, and solo John certainly retained that work ethic when pressed.
And, being The Beatles, concerned about giving value to their fans, they wrote or released extra songs to fill the gaps between albums. It’s stunning to consider, but all the way through the 8-year span of the Beatles as recording artists, nearly all of their singles were purposely not put on the albums (for example, both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were recorded during the Pepper sessions but were released as a single — double A-side — to tide the fans over.) Who would do that, drop an assured hit single from an album? Who had enough material to do that? (The Beatles — that’s who.) Even when later songs from albums were also put out as singles, they were often different takes (think “Revolution” and “Let It Be”).
The aforementioned 30-minute mini-concert for those New Yorkers (“Shouldn’t you be at work?” McCartney laughingly admonishes the crowd) is in keeping with that Beatles’ idea of giving value to the fans. Only a few songs could be a part of the Letterman show itself. But, you know, they went to the trouble of setting up and the guy just loves to perform. On Smartless, he tells a quick story of their days playing grueling sets at the Indra club in Hamburg and how they learned how to draw people into the bar, even if it was just a couple of students sticking their heads in the door to check the beer prices. It was a lesson they took to heart: Showbiz.
Lennon’s complex feelings about The Beatles aside, we would not have had the many, many deathless songs from the White Album onwards without Paul’s incessant output, encouragement, and prodding. As Ringo has recently commented, Paul is to be thanked for the amount of music the Beatles put out.
Lennon sometimes complained that his partner wrote “granny music,” and with such songs as “When I’m 64,” “I Will” (listen to Paul’s bass that is not a bass on that one), and, say, “You Gave Me the Answer,” or the much later “English Tea” (from the superb Chaos and Creation in the Backyard), he certainly did. But many of us like our grannies, and those songs, thank you very much. Paul’s lighter weight, beautifully melodic songs often added sweetness to the sour in the rundown of a Beatles album; they were sometimes a palette cleanser, as it were, between more challenging fare, many of which were also Paul’s. Think of the bouncy “Martha My Dear” falling between John’s complex “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and his druggy “I’m So Tired” — and, yes, back in the day you also had the psychological respite of flipping the album to the other side, after “Happiness,” but the sequencing is still deliberate.
Had John Lennon grown old, he would no doubt have come to more appreciate those years. He was already putting things into perspective before being murdered outside his home at The Dakota, on Dec. 8, 1980, saying in his last interview that he had chosen two partners to write with — Paul and Yoko — and that he thought that was pretty good choosing. We may owe McCartney a debt of thanks for inspiring Lennon to get to work after his 5-year hiatus as a “househusband” in the second half of the seventies. As the story is told, John was writing again but really got inspired to record while on a drive along the North Shore of Long Island when, on the radio, he heard Paul’s new single “Coming Up” for the first time. That friendly competition was still in play.
As McCartney later wrote, in adding a bridge to John’s demo of “Free As a Bird”: Where did we lose the touch/That seemed to mean so much?
McCartney’s thumbs-up good-day sunshine vibe put off music critics of the smarter-than-thou Robert Christgau sort back in the day, and his first solo efforts were largely savaged. The critics eventually came around concerning McCartney and Ram (co-written by Linda McCartney), those homespun albums that became viewed, as explained in an illuminating video by Elliot Roberts, as prototypes of low-fi indie pop. (The rest of us just loved the albums from the start.) As McCartney frequently notes in interviews, the key to his positivity was his family, particularly growing up with a happy and boisterous extended one, the Uncle Ernies and Auntie Gins referenced in “Let ’Em In.” In the Smartless interview, he contrasts his upbringing with that of Lennon and keeps returning to his gratitude to have come from a loving, supportive family.
I recently picked up a copy of Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness(1930),in which the British polymath — philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic — writes of how one can pragmatically set about to find more happiness in life. One often unacknowledged advantage some people possess, he notes, is having come from a supportive, loving family, which provides a child with the confidence he or she needs to freely enter the world:
The child whose parents are fond of him accepts their affection as a law of nature. He does not think very much about it, although it is of great importance to his happiness. He thinks about the world, about the adventures that come his way and the more marvelous adventures that will come his way when he is grown up. But behind all these external interests there is the feeling that he will be protected from disaster by parental affection.
Protected in this way by parental affection, Russell writes, a person is able to develop real curiosity about people and things — in short, to develop a zest for life. And who, one could ask, has more zest than Paul McCartney? He came from such a family — his father a musician who had played in ragtime and jazz bands and continued to play piano — and imbibed the additional benefits of finding yet another warm, intelligent, and musical family when he came down to London and was invited to live with Jane’s family, the Ashers, at their townhouse on Wimpole Street (Paul was dazzled by the conversations at dinner, and Jane’s mother had taught oboe to a certain George Martin). These experiences told in many of the songs he would write for The Beatles. But it was his endless curiosity, which led him from playing with tape loops and listening to modernist composers to checking out art exhibitions and investing in an avant-garde bookstore in the later 1960s, when the other Beatles had moved outside the city, that fueled the sheer output of songs that drove Lennon to distraction. And that interest in people and things later led to his poetry, painting, and such experimental efforts as the “Liverpool Oratorio” and Fireman projects.
In the Beatle days, Lennon would temper Paul’s optimism with a bit of cynicism here and there, to toughen certain songs up — the classic example being Paul’s “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/a little better all the time,” grounded by Lennon’s glass-empty response, “It can’t get no worse.” A decade after the disbanding of The Beatles, Elvis Costello would play a similar role while collaborating with McCartney on a dozen or so songs, including “My Brave Face” and “Veronica.”
Paul has been called the workaholic of The Beatles, but as you listen to him talk with Alda, it becomes clear that he simply loves writing songs — it is what he does, his craft. There is a story about how he accompanied Linda to some social function that he was really not a part of, so he went into the next room and decided to see if he could write a song. When they left he had the exuberant, sneakily philosophical “Young Boy” in his pocket.
There seemed to be some consternation among some critics with a couple of Paul’s “sexy” songs on Egypt Station, “Fuh You” and “Come on to Me.” But, you know, older men and women do often remain sexual beings (horrors!), especially if they have kept in decent shape, as Paul has, with his “legs akimbo,” jogging, and headstands that he joked about on Smartless. As a young person, you can choose to be taken aback at the sexuality of an older adult, or perhaps you can smile and consider that you may have something to look forward to.
Speaking of sexy (and smart), Pattie Boyd — who should be credited more frequently with turning George on to Transcendental Meditation, which led to so much — is rightly known as a muse. But Jane Asher also inspired a number of Paul’s songs, including two masterpieces: “Here, There and Everywhere,” which producer George Martin called his favorite Beatles song, and the lovely, despairing “For No One.” And to my way of hearing, “Looking at Her” and “Confidante,” two fine recent songs, seem to have memories of the ravishing actress/model Jane bubbling brightly just below the surface. Yes, “Confidante” could be about a guitar, or about John, but isn’t there something else in the line “My underneath-the-staircase friend,” given that Paul lived on the top floor of the Asher’s townhouse for a few years? Poets will tell you that even if a line was not consciously intended, well — all the better.
And the family continues to inspire. His brother, Mike, who gets a nod in “I Don’t Know,” comes up again in the energetic medley “Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link,” which closes Egypt Station:
I’ve been taken for my younger brother
Life’s a bastard but I have no other
I keep waking up when I’m trying to sleep
I’ve been naked since I was born.
Born to follow you wherever you go
But my problem is I never do know
Where you’re taking me
I don’t have a clue.
I’ve been naked since I was born.
Save my soul and set it free
Free to fly home
There’s a place I’m meant to be
Back at home.
I’ve been broken in so many places
Brought together by a sea of faces
What to make of that
I don’t hardly know
I’ve been naked for so long, so long
Brought together by a sea of faces. And what could one make of that, after a lifetime in public? If you wanted to stay sane, you would do what McCartney has done since his Beatle days — separate “entertainer Paul” from himself, the real person. “I like the thing I had when I was young, riding the bus,” he told the Smartless hosts. On occasion, the actual Paul will still ride the bus or take the London Underground. Still, entertainer Paul finds something of himself — revisits some of the events, influences, and key people of his artistic history — in front of that sea of faces.
I quailed a bit at calling this piece “Paul McCartney’s Conquest of Happiness.” But he has worked at it, and in many ways of which his countryman Russell would have approved. And both the public Paul and the real Paul have thrived. He’d be the first to say that with a family like his, now boasting eight grandchildren, he had a leg up on finding happiness. Even so, he’s had to overcome life’s tragedies that everyone else has to work through, such as the death of loved ones, as well as some pressures specific to only one person — the vicissitudes of mega-fame and that little matter of being blamed for the end of the greatest band in history.
There’s a lovely song on Egypt Station called “Happy With You,” in which the singer speaks of some of his old less-than-healthy behaviors and how he’s overcome those:
I used to drink too much/forgot to come home/ I lied to my doctor/but these days I don’t/’cause I’m happy with you/got lots of good things to do.
In the lengthy listing of the things that make him happy, another person is not referenced, and we come to realize that when he is saying you, he may not just be thinking of Nancy; he could also be addressing himself. That reading takes the song to another level.
So, let the title stand.
Before my mother passed on from this life, she said something to me that at the time was hard to hear. She was becoming increasingly unsteady, and she and I were walking, arm in arm, down her street. I had been gently urging her to exercise more frequently, suggesting that I get her a membership in a local recreation center. She paused our walk, smiled, and lightly remarked, “People can live past their time. I don’t want to do that.” After her death, I realized she had said that to help me better deal with the grief that would come at her passing. It was a comfort.
McCartney did much the same for his fans, quite some time back now. In “The End of the End,” the final track from Memory Almost Full, he offered thoughts on how he’d like people to treat his passing:
On the day that I die
I’d like jokes to be told
and stories of old
to be rolled out like carpets
that children have played on
and laid on while listening
to stories of old.
. . .
On the day that I die
I’d like bells to be rung
and songs that were sung
to be hung out like blankets
that lovers have played on
and laid on while listening
to songs that were sung
Lovely, that, Paul. You don’t allow people to take photos of you (“It makes me feel like the monkey on Saint Tropez,” he remarked on Smartless) but may chat with them if they strike up a conversation. Tell you what, I promise that if I ever encounter you in public, I’ll let you be — you’ve made such a difference in my life.
The pandemic still has most of us not attending concerts, and as of this writing McCartney has no plans to resume touring, but you know he is itching to go (just not around the holidays or in late March and early April, when the bluebells are blossoming). For now, enjoy this incredibly intimate 2018 concert from Grand Central Station. The versions of “Blackbird” and “Let It Be” are not to be missed.