Considering that I’m much closer in age to Prince than to Paul McCartney, I suppose it’s the former I should be writing about now. Especially as… in contrast to a popular rumor of the late 1960s… Paul is most definitely NOT dead.
(Only older people today can remember the “Paul is Dead” rumor of the 1960s, in which fans looked at record covers and played albums backward to find secret messages saying that Paul McCartney was no longer alive. That this ever happened is one of the greatest ironies of all time, given that Sir Paul seems determined to have a longevity that is truly astounding, for both a Beatle and a popular entertainer. Like the picture of Dorian Grey, he's turning out to be the Beatle who can never die.)
But first a word about Prince, whose real name in fact was Prince Rogers Nelson, before he became an unpronounceable symbol. I watched the SNL special a little over a week ago and realized that I didn’t recognize any of the songs Prince played. Sure, there are a couple of decent tunes that stay with us even today… “Purple Rain” and “Raspberry Beret” are not bad songs by the standards of any decade, but Prince’s musical brilliance is limited mainly to those and maybe “Party Like it’s 1999”. Which is now a little dated.
I suspect Prince’s real importance, as with David Bowie, was as a cultural icon during a period of furious, accelerating change. Both Prince and Bowie were poster boys for the emerging figure of the metrosexual… the androgynous person of ambiguous sexuality, with the underlying message being, “and that’s okay.” (Ironically, Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness and a Republican who condemned gay marriage. Go figure.)
One is tempted to say something similar about Paul McCartney, best-known surviving member of the Beatles… although who cannot help loving Ringo? Anyone old enough to remember or even read about the 1960s knows that the entire decade would not have been remotely the same without the Fab Four. First, they started the British Invasion—originally, they were the British Invasion—an expression of the enthusiasm of youth, Baby Boomers coming into their own for the first time… Then there was the Ed Sullivan Show. A Hard Day’s Night. The long-hair thing. Speaking out against the Vietnam War. We’re bigger than Jesus now. Psychedelic experiments with chemicals… to be followed years later with “No, no, no, I don’t smoke it no more.” Magical Mystery Tour, from which MTV and Monty Python copied freely. The Rooftop Concert in the heart of fashionable, commercial London, which was a cheeky way of Sticking It to the Man, English-style.
The Beatles were the cultural focal point of the 1960s and even the early 1970s. After breaking up, all members of the Fab Four went on to record #1 hits of their own, an unprecedented feat in music.
Yet Paul McCartney’s performance two weeks ago in Seattle’s Key Arena—while taking nothing away from this legacy—demonstrated that Paul, first and foremost, was always about the music, not the pop-culture sensationalism. To watch him now is to see a man past seventy, with the endurance and energy of a teenager, who seems to genuinely love people as well as music. Even his love of people is not a trivial thing. The murder of John Lennon, along with the unfortunate tendency of Americans to carry guns, could’ve driven him to avoid the human race; it’s certainly made it necessary for him to take one or two security precautions. Yet this seems to be a man who, loved by the world, wants only to love it back.
The Seattle concert began with the aforementioned “Hard Day’s Night”… the title tune of the by-far-and-away best rock-and-roll semi-documentary ever made. As my brother Al said to me, the song is so unforgettable in its opening chord that it instantly announces “the Beatles!” to anyone who’s ever heard it.
Of course, McCartney is a man who can look back on his musical career and see Beatlemania as only the first decade of his professional life. The decade that followed—the Wings era—created some memorable hits as well, notably the James Bond theme, “Live and Let Die” a big crowd pleaser he never fails to perform at concerts, accompanied by fire and explosions onstage.
But even the nearly three-hour time—no warm-up act, no intermission—is not even close to being enough time to play all the songs one might like to hear. The musical heritage of Paul McCartney, former Beatle, former Wings-man, and now knight of the realm, is far too rich for me to list all the standards here. It comprises one of the great musical legacies of all time. Think Rodgers and Hammerstein. Gershwin. Cole Porter. Puccini. Mozart.
But some moments of this concert did stand out. One of my favorites was Paul’s tribute to fellow Beatle George Harrison, who wrote the haunting melody “Something,” considered by no less than Frank Sinatra to be the greatest love song ever. Sir Paul held the entire Key Area on the palm of his hand as he played the tune alone, in the dark, on a ukulele. (“Most people don’t know this, but George was a very great ukulele player.”) Then, after a minute or so, another instrument came in behind him. Then another. And another. All while the projection screens showed unforgettable pictures of Paul and George singing harmony together, during the good old days, I should say great old days, of the Beatles.
Other great moments included stories he told about Jimmy Hendrix (a local Seattle talent, as Paul acknowledged), John Lennon, and first wife Linda, all of who died much too young… as well as a tribute to Beatles producer Sir George Martin, whom we lost just a little while ago.
Proving that he could turn out fine music even now, Sir Paul played the haunting melody “My Valentine,” written in the last few years and dedicated to his current wife, Nancy. What made this number among the most moving of the evening was his use of people using sign language behind him on the projection screens, revealing a visual beauty rivaling even that of the music.
A challenge for Paul is: How does one lend anything close to a personal, “one on one” touch when interacting with a packed house of over 16,000 people? In a variety of ways. He often peppered his talks and anecdotes with moments in which he looked over the crowd and commented on the signs people brought. A popular one was “Paul for President,” about which he paused and made the comment, “Y’know, I was born outside this country.”
(I wonder if any Ted Cruz supporters got a message from that, although I doubt Paul was thinking of Cruz.)
One of the highlights of the evening was when Paul selected one of the sign carriers to come up on stage. This could have been an act, but I doubt it. A woman in the audience carried a sign that read, “I’m a 62-year-old tattoo virgin. Please sign me and be my first.”
Paul took a marking pen and signed her arm, and then finally gave her a little hug in front of the 16,000.
I am, of course, failing to mention dozens of songs that were #1 hits, and the brilliance with which Paul still performs them. But I’ll mention a few… The big thing I observed at this concert was the age range, from a tiny little 6-year-old girl to people who were already in their twenties when the Beatles first crossed the Atlantic, in 1964. Now they’re 70 and 80. Will you still love them, now that they’re older than 64?
But the most astonishing aspect of the concert was the large percentage of people in their late teens and early twenties—at least a third, it seemed to me. And when Paul invited the crowd to sing along… “Hey Jude”, “Let it Be”, “Life Goes On, Bra”… these youngsters all knew the words to these songs written half a century ago.
And so Paul McCartney, who in the mid-1960s was part of a group that stood for the rift between generations, has become, later in life, a man capable of bringing all the generations together–and different races, too. Somehow I believe that Sir Paul would appreciate that accolade even above knighthood.