If you grew up with the Beatles (and if you didn’t, what planet are you from?), you remember the drill: You had to have a favorite Beatle. John was the Clever One and Paul was the Cute One and George was the Quiet One and Ringo was … whatever the hell Ringo was.
Such stereotyping persisted after the band broke up, with John fans proclaiming his genius for doing primal scream therapy and asking everyone to imagine no possessions and ultimately being martyred by some nutjob with a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” in his back pocket, while Paul went on to record songs like “Jet” and buy lobsters so he could set them free and get taken to the cleaners by a one-legged gold-digger.
That myth breaks down over time, as most myths do, and it’s not just because of the amount of crap that Lennon left in his wake (I find listening to “Double Fantasy” like going to the dentist, and that was one of his better solo efforts), but because Paul clearly got the short shrift from the PR people when the band was still together. Sure, John was the one who thought the Tibetan Book of the Dead would make a good song (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) and managed to make a LSD trip in a swimming pool rock (“She Said She Said”), but look at Paul’s contributions from the same period (’65-’66): “Yesterday, “For No One,” “Eleanor Rigby”…
If Lennon often seemed trapped inside his head in those years (while getting inside of ours), McCartney’s heart seemed open. “The words [to ‘Yesterday’] are quite mature for a kid,” Sir Paul told the New Yorker, years later. “Rather … dark. Yet the song doesn’t communicate itself as too dark somehow.” He speculated whether the lyrics were an unconscious lament about his mother, Mary, who died of breast cancer when he was a teen (“Why she had to go I don’t know/She wouldn’t say”). But he never succumbed to self-pity and some of his best Beatle songs (“Let It Be,” “She’s Leaving Home”) were like trees he built for the grief of others to nest in.
Now McCartney is back with a new album called simply “New” (it would be hard to top “Memory Almost Full,” the title of his 2007 release) and, while much of the press has focused on the fact it sounds pretty fresh for a 71-year-old guy, I am struck by the open-hearted quality that still exists in most of the songs. Take “On My Way to Work” which follows a guy punching in, cleaning up, looking at a topless girl in the paper — until he has an epiphany: “I could see everything and how it came to be/People come and go, smoking cigarettes/I pick the packets up when the people leave.” Behind it all lurks a sense of futility and life wasted: “How could I have so many dreams/And one of them not come true?”
In a forthcoming interview in Rolling Stone, McCartney says he communes with his fallen comrade John when he’s writing. “If I’m at a point when I go, ‘I’m not sure about this,’ I’ll throw it across the room to John,” he says. “He’ll say, ‘You can’t go there, man,’ and I’ll say, ‘Quite right. How about this?’ ‘Yeah, that’s better.’ We’ll have a conversation. I don’t want to lose that.”
Lennon must have been on his mind when he wrote “Early Days,” which is more the kind of song you would expect from a man looking back: “Dressed in black from head to toe/Two guitars across our backs/We would walk the city roads …” His voice is sweet and high and a little shaky as he hits the chorus: “So many times I had to change the pain to laughter/Just to keep from getting crazy.”
Nothing cute about that.