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McCartney: Behind the legend
By KYLE MUNSON
October 23, 2005
The cover photo, snapped in 1962, a new producer (Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame), a new wife as muse, playing most of the instruments himself — there's much about Paul McCartney's 20th album since the Beatles that seems just like starting over.
It's fashionable to call "Chaos and Creation . . ." Macca's finest album since 1989's "Flowers and Dirt," but 2001's "Driving Rain" was no slouch. The new album simply adds a more refined production; there's a beautiful economy to its arrangements, which tends to make the most of McCartney as his own accompanist on several instruments per song.
Sir Paul McCartney still loves to perform. His 2002 trek across America raked in more than $113 million.
The two moody masterpieces are the elegant ballads "At the Mercy" and "Riding to Vanity Fair."
Opening track "Fine Line" chugs along at a rousing pace. "Jenny Wren" is the acoustic guitar-driven tune that intentionally evokes "Blackbird," with good results. "English Tea" is a tad precious but does grow on you.
Some songs sound like half-finished ideas, but creativity tops chaos on Macca's latest.
Paul McCartney winces every time he releases a new album or takes to the stage.
He steels himself for the criticism to come.
He may be a Beatle, but he says he's not "impervious" to slams — using one of many so-very-English words he's fond of dropping into conversation.
"Do you like that word, 'impervious'?" he asked.
McCartney was on the phone from the United Center in Chicago Wednesday night, shortly before the second concert of his two-night stand in the Windy City, and a week before his debut appearance on stage in Des Moines — with or without the Beatles.
It's a bit of a shock to hear that, at age 63, after selling 168.5 million Beatles albums and 14 million more under his own name in the United States alone, he can still be insecure about his own music.
His 2002 trek across America raked in more than $113 million, and the 37 dates on his current " US " arena tour sold out in an eye blink.
His new solo album in stores for the last month, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard ," is his 20th post-Beatles studio album, and it showcases his chops on a wide variety of instruments, from his signature Hofner bass to cello, organ and Autoharp.
He's Macca. Sir Paul.
Shouldn't he be bulletproof, impervious by now to the slings and arrows cast by lesser mortals?
"I would think I would be," McCartney said in his familiar Liverpudlian lilt, "but you're not. You still, if you're lucky, you've still got a heart, you know, and it beats in the same way as it used to."
He's garnered some of his best reviews in years for the new album, but the arrows still do fly. The Chicago Tribune frowned upon McCartney and his four-piece band in an Oct. 18 performance as "lackluster."
"You get a little bit of a thicker skin, but you don't want to develop one so thick that you're impervious to criticism," McCartney said.
Maybe it's precisely his perviousness, that sort of comforting vulnerability that holds the key to McCartney's lasting, universal appeal as caretaker of the Beatles legacy. The more acerbic John Lennon was tragically gunned down in 1980. The more reclusive George Harrison succumbed to cancer in 2001. Ringo Starr always has seemed a jolly good chap, but he's not exactly packing arenas to the tune of "Yellow Submarine" or "Octopus' Garden."
McCartney, who retains his boyish grin despite sagging cheeks and dyed hair, more than ever seems willing to hold our collective hand, make it better, help us just let it be.
In other words, America has no better shoulder to cry on than McCartney's. The "cute Beatle" has matured into something like our national music-therapist laureate. McCartney's finest songs, particularly "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be," have evolved into nothing less than secular hymns.
As one of his two guitarists on tour, Brian Ray, put it, "The guy just keeps showing up when America needs him."
As has been documented ad nauseam, American Beatlemania erupted in February 1964 courtesy of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," cheering up the nation after President Kennedy's assassination the previous November.
"Fate plays funny tricks, you know," McCartney said in Wednesday's interview. "He was a president who at the time was much loved by the world, and we were as horrified as many Americans were. . . . We felt it quite keenly, so I guess we could relate to the American people in that way."
Nearly 40 years later, fate struck again when McCartney and his second wife, Heather Mills McCartney, were grounded on the runway at Kennedy Airport in New York the morning of 9/11. They ended up helping to organize a charity concert.
"We were kind of again sharing this experience with the American people in a very direct way," McCartney said. "So when we put together 'The Concert for New York,' it was something that was very serious from our point of view, and then our tour after that, it really kicked this band into being a band. We've continued on that same pipe, I kind of think."
"If someone's gotta be there to help, I'm glad it's us, you know."
McCartney has indeed kept busy in recent years with his relatively young but now road-tested band.
He travels with a pair of guitarists from California, Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray (who doubles on bass, enabling McCartney to switch instruments). Drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. has an all-star resume to rival any sideman. Paul " Wix " Wickens fleshes out arrangements with keyboards.
This neo-fab five provided the family-friendly halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl in January, to help save face after last year's embarrassing Nipplegate.
They participated in this summer's "Live 8" African charity concerts.
They have performed in front of as many as 500,000 fans, at the Coliseum in Rome.
"It feels like a comfortable pair of jeans," Anderson said of the band. "It makes the feel of the music great. The trust factor is very high."
"(McCartney) hasn't lowered the key of a single song that we play, and he doesn't cheat on the melodies," Ray added. "Name me one other artist 40 years later who hasn't."
The Beatles defined how all rock bands henceforth were supposed to sound, dress, push the creative envelope — even how to bicker and break up.
That McCartney still wields the voice and stamina to carry fans back down his long and winding road without sounding like an over-the-hill nostalgia act is a key to his massive success on tour.
Whenever Des Moines native Linda Robbins hears McCartney sing "Let It Be" in concert, she's transported back to the 1960s, when she was the "first student at Goodrell Junior High School to get a Beatles haircut - that's how nuts I was," she said.
Robbins, 54, is now an accountant in Boulder, Colo., who will return to Iowa Thursday for McCartney's concert — adding one more to her tally of more than 30 Macca shows thus far, two of them in Liverpool. She'll gather in Des Moines with a cluster of about 15 other fans who have networked through the forums on McCartney's official Web site (www.paulmccartney.com).
Robbins is one of millions of baby boomers who trace their Beatlemania back to the band's first performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"When I saw Paul singing 'Till There Was You,' I fell. Like any 12-year-old I was totally in love, and it has continued to this day," she said.
Robbins has gone so far as to engrave the lyrics to "Let It Be" on the urn that one day will hold her ashes — something she did several years ago while battling a serious illness.
Contrast Robbins' first-generation Beatlemania with Patrick Fleming of Sibley, Ia., whose trigger was "seeing (the Matthew Broderick character) Ferris Bueller sing 'Twist and Shout' " in 1986 in the movie theater when he was still in elementary school.
"I was just blown away and thought it was the greatest song ever made," Fleming said.
Fleming, now 25, fronts the Ames pop band Poison Control Center and still returns to the Beatles and McCartney time and time again for musical inspiration.
"Just everything, from songwriting structures to trying to use seventh chords instead of just regular major chords," he said. "They were just the most experimental. It seems like music in the '60s didn't really have rules . . . and they seemed to be, for sure, the forerunners of that."
McCartney said that he wasn't sure what initially sparked his experimentalism.
"One of the big things on all the records that I've made, I'm always trying to not get bored," he said. "If you just use all the same instruments all the time it gets a little bit more difficult, so from the early days of the Beatles we would say to Ringo, 'Come on, man, you used that snare drum on the last song. Could we hear the packing case or something?' "
McCartney gets pegged as the purveyor of "Silly Love Songs," but through the years he has simultaneously released more experimental albums under such pseudonyms as the Fireman, "just to get a bit of freedom" and dabble in other genres such as electronica. "When you're making a record it's like you're under cover and nobody cares, there's only you and the producer and the guys involved," he said. "Once it kind of comes out and it has my name on it, suddenly I feel like I'm sittin' in exam, you know, and it's an uncomfortable feeling for me."
More proof that this former Beatle isn't impervious.
It's all too easy to cast McCartney as the larger-than-life Beatle who exists only onstage or as a cultural icon for millions.
But he still attends to the details. On his current tour he even lent his support to a local cause in Chicago, expressing his concern over the welfare of elephants and other animals at Lincoln Park Zoo. McCartney has been a vegetarian for the past 30 years and a vocal supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
His views on animal rights aren't exactly reflected in Iowa, the No. 1 pork producer in the nation, where 16.5 million hogs are slaughtered each year.
"I can walk past any animal with a clear conscience and kind of respect the animal as a fellow creature sharing this planet,"
McCartney said. "I think it possibly is the future, too. As the population explodes . . . you're going to need to think of more economic ways to feed people. . . . My philosophy would say you eat the sort of plants instead of passing them through an animal and then eating the animal."
Besides McCartney the staunch vegetarian, there's also McCartney the businessman. His songs will outlive him, and the decisions he makes in the next several years will in large part determine how they do so. The Beatles' catalog, for instance, isn't yet available on iTunes, the largest-volume online retailer for digital songs.
"For years now they've been trying to get us on iTunes, but they're offering too little," McCartney said. "With anybody else you might accept, but this is the Beatles, you know, so we've got to get a deal that works for the future. . . . I'd love my new album to be on (iTunes), but we're in kind of a conflict with the people, and it's just basically 'cause they're being cheesy, that's all."
If you think McCartney sounds a little testy about iTunes, that subject takes a back seat to Yoko Ono. Yes, John Lennon's widow and McCartney seem to have renewed their on-again, off-again feud over all things Beatles.
Ono reportedly launched the first broadside a couple weeks ago while accepting an award for Lennon in London. During the acceptance speech, Ono talked about her late husband's insecurities over how his songwriting measured up against McCartney's, and she described how she would reassure him.
"I said, 'You're a good songwriter, it's not 'June with Spoon' that you write,' " Ono was quoted as saying.
McCartney responded in one interview by calling Ono "not the brightest button."
"There's plenty more where that came from," he said from Chicago, "but I'm just trying to reserve a dignified silence on this one, because I guess I had a respect for John. . . . I think she does say some pretty funny things, though. . . . It's like, come off it, you know? What, you're telling me 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Let It Be' and 'Hey Jude' and countless others are 'moon and June' songs? I think not.
"There you go. Now move back to my dignified silence."
McCartney: definitely not impervious, but refreshingly human behind the Beatle legend.