In 1997 I visited London for the first time and quickly made my way to the British Museum. Bibliophile that I am, I couldn’t resist a peek at the rare manuscripts collection. Around the room’s periphery, sleek displays housed vellum parchments illuminated by medieval monks, a Gutenberg Bible, a notebook from Leonardo Da Vinci, numerous declarations of war, and less numerous peace treaties.
But at the center of the exhibit, enshrined in three identical glass cases lit from above as if by rays of sunlight directed by the Man Upstairs, sat the trifecta of essential English texts: the Magna Carta, a first folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, and the sheet of paper upon which Paul McCartney first wrote the words to his song “Yesterday.”
Whenever I hear someone criticize Paul McCartney’s music or question his leading role in The Beatles, I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Amadeus where F. Murray Abraham, as composer Antonio Salieri, listens to a Mozart piece then abruptly dismisses it with the line: “too many notes.” Maybe it’s jealousy, maybe it’s incredulity, or maybe there’s just a lot of joyless people in the world (cue the refrain of “Eleanor Rigby”), but it’s currently vogue in certain circles to run down McCartney, a man whom future generations will regard (and listen to) in the same light of genius as Mozart.
In one of his weaker moments, even McCartney’s closest friend and collaborator, John Lennon, faulted him for writing “silly love songs.” I’d like to think that Lennon was a better man than Salieri, but aside from the hypocrisy of the charge, it sounds an awful lot like “too many notes.” Of course, McCartney took the accusation and did exactly what Lennon said–sort of; released on April 1, 1976 (no arbitrary date, I’m sure), “Silly Love Songs” spent five weeks at number one on the U.S. charts and, poetically, turned out to be McCartney’s most popular solo hit. With its infectious Pop beat, Paul’s irresistibly pure vocals and thumpingly good bass line, its hooks and its harmonies, “Silly Love Songs” sounds as gorgeously refreshing today as it did in ’76.
Look, I love John Lennon’s music, his contributions as a Beatle and his solo masterpieces (particularly the hauntingly sensual “#9 Dream” and, of course, his perfect marriage of melody and message, “Imagine”), as well as his sorely missed social and political voice. Among all the Rock stars awarded knighthoods, only Lennon had the good sense and integrity to return his MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.) His accompanying letter blended just the right amount of censure with irreverence: “I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.” Bet that curdled the cream in the queen’s tea!
Man, how I wish there was one musician, actor, or artist today with Lennon’s level of fame who also had his moral chops. But as musician qua musician–as a composer, lyricist, performer, player, and entertainer–Lennon still takes silver to McCartney’s gold.
Let me use an analogy every American can understand: John Lennon was to Paul McCartney what Lou Gehrig was to Babe Ruth. “The Iron Horse” resides in Baseball’s sanctum sanctorum, one of the greatest ballplayers even among Hall of Famers. But Gehrig still plays second fiddle to the Bambino. The epitome of durable, Gehrig was a terrifying hitter, but The Babe could’ve coasted into the Hall on his pitching career alone. There’s just no contest. (As for George Harrison, the analogy extends perfectly: George Harrison was Tony Lazzeri, a fearsome member of Murderer’s Row and Hall of Famer who also had a few memorable hits. Harrison may have scored the first #1 single after the Fab Four disbanded, but McCartney wrote 32 chart-toppers, including seven solo number-ones.)
As my boy Henry David Thoreau writes in my favorite passage in his book Walden:
“The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality.” Certainly timeless music figures among those highest realities. So much wonderful music–and not just Paul McCartney’s–is so easily available that we often fail to listen to it. It’s like the exercise equipment in the basement that sits idle because, paradoxically, you know it’s always there to use. With iPods, YouTube, MP3 players, and a thousand stations of thematically-customized satellite radio, let alone old-fashioned airwaves, we have access to just about all the music in the world, a staggering achievement that would’ve made archivist Alan Lomax weep for joy.
Most of the people who live close-up to the world’s tallest mountains pay little attention to them. Their immediate vista is usually something like a shelf with a tin of tea, a half-dozen cups, and a window nearby. And there’s a Himalaya in the window, but they don’t notice it. They may not even know the mountain’s name.
To wit: one afternoon in 1981 I was sitting with my friend in his kitchen having a snack. His dad stood nearby at the counter, busy making a sandwich for himself. On the windowsill, a small transistor radio played a Muzak version of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” to which my friend’s dad whistled along in a pitch-perfect, warbling style that would’ve made Bing Crosby nod in grudging approval. And not coincidentally. My pal’s dad had fought at Iwo Jima. He’d come of age listening to Swing and Big Band Jazz along with crooners such as “Der Bingle” and Frank Sinatra.
At one point my pal piped up and said, “you know, dad, that song is by The Beatles.” As if shooing a gnat from his freshly assembled BLT, my friend’s dad chuckled and said, “That’s not by The Beatles. That song was around long before they ever started making music.”
Heat shot into my cheeks. I wanted to stand my pal’s dad at attention and right his egregious misattribution, but there wasn’t a damned thing I could say. With a little intervening time having mellowed my reaction, I see now that his error might be the most poetic compliment anyone has ever paid Paul McCartney.
Well, that and the British Museum’s.