The journalist Rob Sheffield recently wrote: “The Beatles remain universally hailed as the greatest thing ever, but somehow, you still think they’re underrated.” He also said “your Beatles will change all through your life,” which is so correct and brilliant that I think it could replace all organized religion. He has a new book, you should buy it (Indiebound | Amazon).
There’s a compulsion, I think, when writing about The Beatles, to try to emphasize your mega-fan status right out of the gate. That they mean more to you than to other people, or that the songs you like best are the best songs to best-like. That you understand that the only real reason to doubt that we are spiritually alone in the universe is that John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up in Liverpool at the same time, and found each other. There are those who point to the complex workings of the human eyeball as a sign of an invisible hand, but I’ve only ever had my belief in the cosmic void tweaked by the existence of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”
I was raised by a Paul mother and a John father, I should say that now. And I love my mother dearly, but my father has better taste in music, so I grew up a John girl. I was raised to have mild contempt for Paul, I will admit, because my father is a bit of a dick like that. My mother brought a Give My Regards to Broad Street album into the home, and my father refused to let it touch any of his own albums. Paul, it was explained to me, was a talented man with an irredeemable streak of honeyed sentimentality, held in check only tenuously by John’s crankier skill-set. Neither of them, he would remind me, could play a guitar correctly to save their lives. George eventually could, and Ringo was not a man who could possibly be objected to by anyone. Ringo wrote a song about an octopus’ garden.
I saw Paul McCartney, twice, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this past June.
It was great, I’m going to get that out of the way right now. I am not convinced by the health argument for vegetarianism, but Paul McCartney looked closer to fifty than seventy (his actual age at the time of the concert), and sounded thirty. He played for a thousand hours and did a million songs, including two million-song encores. Periodically, he took breaks from standing and playing the guitar in order to sit and play the piano. Two different pianos. Nor, really, could he bring himself to actually sit the entire time he was playing the piano. He was (simply) having a wonderful time. Why else would he bother? He doesn’t need the money, though I was happy to give him more. Be honest: have you adequately compensated The Beatles for the happiness they have brought you? Could you not do still more?
It’s not surprising that he still tours, really, when you imagine what it must feel like to be bathed in that much palpable human love for over three hours. And it wasn’t even just for the Beatles numbers. People love Paul McCartney so much that even obscure Wings songs were met with a wave of YOU DO YOU, GUY, THAT’S COOL. I was with a Wings fan, and she was so happy and full of love I thought she might explode. I was struck by the sudden realization that, had “Maybe I’m Amazed” been released under the rubric of The Beatles, we would probably consider it one of the fifty great love songs of our age, in the way that “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” would be played at all sporting events had it been recorded by a male singer.
His tribute to George (“Something” on the ukelele) was beautiful. His tribute to John was so classically Paul-not-quite-getting-John as to be more endearing than a more accurate tribute might have been. As though I, of course, could possibly be said to “get” John more than his oldest friend, which is laughable. I apologize.
What I mean, though, is that Paul elected to sing his song for John, “Here Today.” There is nothing wrong with “Here Today,” it’s very sweet. John would have hated it. Or, rather, he would have teased Paul about it, and called it “Puke Today” or “Here I Gag,” or something much funnier. But that’s okay. It’s a little adorable, when you think about it.
And here I come to the part I tried to explain to my father on the phone after the concert. Paul is better now. Paul makes more sense now. What was annoying about Paul, should you ever have been annoyed by Paul, was that he was 26 and pretending to be an old dude. I won’t insult your intelligence by making the obvious “When I’m Sixty-Four” comparison, any will do: “Yesterday,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Golden Slumbers.” Paul, who is a stone-cold genius and a lyrical wordsmith, always wrote songs like he was already a grandfather. And you knew he was getting head from models and doing drugs off inappropriate surfaces with the rest of the band, so it always seemed a little incongruous at the time.
But hearing a seventy-year-old Paul McCartney sing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is different. It’s not something twee and aggravating that you have to flip past on the White Album to get to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” or “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”
When Paul McCartney is singing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” live, and you’re there, and he is just GOING FOR IT, you realize that, well, life goes on, brah. It does! He knows that better than a lot of people, even if he didn’t know it when he originally wrote and recorded it. Paul McCartney has grown into his own back catalogue, somewhere along the way.