Friday, October 25, 2013

A Future Nostalgia: The Crucible of Paul McCartney

At the age of 71, Paul McCartney continues to build his legacy, never content to coast on the sizeable reputation he built as part of one of popular music's most significant groups. But as he goes forward, with a new album – called New – which John Corcelli will be reviewing in Critics at Large in a couple of weeks, it's curious how much McCartney draws from his past in order to move forward with a more contemporary sound. He performs as a man who knows full well that he can't out-jump his own shadow so by embracing it he casts his reflection forward. Yet just as he dabbles in keeping current, there is still a relentless quest in his music to get back, to seek a place of refuge while continually defining his musical future. (The latest album has four producers on it to help him do so.) Once was a way to get back homeward, he once sang confidently in 1969 on "Golden Slumbers." But for Paul McCartney, all his life, getting back homeward became an illusive task. As his career scaled musical heights not imagined, McCartney always looked to the past for some point of reference, or maybe for some profound meaning to make sense of how far he'd come as an artist. Who could blame him? With The Beatles, he not only was living out a dream, but the dream took on a life that made him feel larger than he truly was. His songs once had a power that they couldn't attain now that he was on his own. Writing in The Beatles was about more than just honing his craft. It fulfilled McCartney's ambitions and gave full shape to his creative impulses; it completed him. With the band gone after 1970, looking back could have seemed futile. But without a burning sense of the past, McCartney couldn't see a future in front of him.

Unlike John Lennon, who consistently sought to escape his own history, McCartney always looked for a means to seize it. In "Yesterday," a young man reflects on still innocent times, when personal troubles were nothing more than a blur fading into the distant. By finding shelter in that past, he might eventually become the man he'd hoped to be. Early on Lennon identified a dwelling for himself – in his mind. He sought satisfaction there in a song like "There's a Place" because he could discover none in the real world. McCartney, on the other hand, finds no true comfort anywhere in "Yesterday," only the need for a place to hide away. Even on an earlier composition, "Things We Said Today," which seemed anchored in the present, he included hints of yearning back. "It was a slightly nostalgic thing already, a future nostalgia," McCartney told friend and journalist Barry Miles. "[W]e'll remember the things we said today, some time in the future, so the song projects itself into the future, and then is nostalgic about the moment we're living in now, which is quite a good trick." The thought of looking into the future, while living in the present, but always looking back to the past, was actually less a trick than the continued state of Paul McCartney's mind.

George Harrison & Paul McCartney

An unfinished McCartney song fragment, recorded in 1968 during a studio session for The Beatles, found its way onto the record between Lennon's pensive "Cry Baby Cry" and the musique concrete of "Revolution 9." The song, which arrived suddenly like a cry from the beyond repeated a phrase over an acoustic arrangement borrowed from "I Will" (a song McCartney had just been recording). It was the phrase, "Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back?" But this lovely yet eerie ballad, heard in a faint echo, seemed weightless, practically haunting itself. Take you back where?, it left you asking. After the mournful weight of "Cry Baby Cry," "Can You Take Me Back?" seemed a faint plea from a ghost ship, a desperate appeal for solace that would never find resolution. Before you could even grasp where McCartney needed to go, his voice gently faded into the background, and then suddenly vanished from the record.

By 2005, rather than continuing to compose songs that sought a way home, McCartney began literally trying to get back. He had experienced too much grief to endure in recent times. It had been 25 years since Lennon, his former writing partner and creative adversary, had been murdered. His loving wife and collaborator Linda McCartney had died of breast cancer in April 1998. George Harrison, his childhood friend and fellow Beatle, was also dead from cancer. His new marriage to model Heather Mills was quickly coming undone. McCartney may have started to wonder if he actually had become the character in "Yesterday." The troubles that he wished were far away now covered his life with heartbreak and loss. The dream life he had once accomplished for himself didn't conform to the life he was now living as a popular solo musician. So McCartney had the idea to retrace his professional steps. A new album and a special concert to promote it might provide clues to solving the puzzle of his life.

The first step in that direction, though, actually began a few years earlier in 1999, in the same dank basement cellar where manager Brian Epstein had first heard The Beatles in 1961: Liverpool's Cavern Club. The material McCartney had chosen to take to the Cavern (which had since been renovated) was fitting for the occasion. It was, in fact, some of the same music Epstein would have known. McCartney had just recorded a new album called Run Devil Run, a sparkling catalogue of hard driving rock songs from the Fifties. He came to excavate the seminal work of his life as a way to re-connect to the very source of what he loved most (as Lennon had also done less successfully on Rock & Roll back in 1975). Run Devil Run revealed to the listener McCartney's polished showman's instincts in picking songs that best defined his varied strengths. His tastes may be erratic, with a tendency towards the maudlin, but his sense of his own personal musical roots is sure. It's what earned him the right to lead his own band.

McCartney brought together a talented ensemble including Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour, guitarist Mick Green, pianist Pete Wingfield, and drummer Ian Paice, and put them through the same rigorous recording schedule The Beatles had once adhered to. They would play through all the giants of Fifties rock: Gene Vincent ("Blue Jean Bop"), Larry Williams ("She Said Yeah"), Ricky Nelson ("Lonesome Town"), Fats Domino ("Coquette") and, of course, Elvis ("All Shook Up," "I Got Stung," "Party"). There was also one McCartney original ("What it Is"). He would later say about re-visiting this developmental music that "it [was] the magic drama they created in the music that was important, not the person." This was McCartney's way of saying that Run Devil Run was more than just a nostalgic tribute album to the heroes of his past; the album also connected him to the intimate moments of his own past, where dream and intent had converged, where The Beatles' magic drama had fully surfaced. "[I]t wasn't always the song or how good the singer was, it was how good my memory of it was, whether it was a really glowing hot ember of a memory," McCartney told Jim Irvin in Mojo.

That glowing hot ember was burning pretty bright in 2005, too, when he decided to record an album of new songs titled Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Rather than produce the record himself, he brought on board Radiohead's Nigel Godrich. With Godrich, McCartney sought to move away from the melodic lyricism of his more traditional songs and experiment instead with creating innovative tunes with layered patterns. "I think that's what Nigel wanted," McCartney told Jon Wilde in Uncut. "A friend of mine heard it and said, 'It's like you're taking me to a place with this album.'" The place he was taking us to wasn't home, exactly, but maybe it traced the beginning of how to get there. The front cover of the CD provided a small clue. It was a stark black & white photo, taken by his brother Mike in 1962, featuring Paul sitting alone in the backyard of his parents' house, below a clothes line full of drying sheets, strumming his acoustic guitar and singing a song. The picture was taken through a window shielded by some net curtains, made by his late mother Mary; in the frame, they appear to be silhouetting her talented son. The photo, taken the year The Beatles would release their first single "Love Me Do," shows Paul looking off beyond the yard (perhaps dreaming for the moment he would no longer be alone). What the CD cover tells us is that, for McCartney, chaos underscored his life after the early death of his mother from breast cancer. But music was his salve for healing those wounds. He abandoned the isolation of that backyard when he embraced John Lennon's The Quarry Men as his new residence. Grief and the hope for salvation became the cornerstone of The Beatles' music. That same mixture would form the ambience of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

To launch the CD, McCartney decided to give a small concert for an invited audience and film it at Abbey Road Studios. The event served as a coming home to where chaos actually turned into creation. As McCartney walked onto the studio floor, he looked out towards the invited guests, pleased to be there but overwhelmed to find himself in surroundings that held indelible memories. "That's where the grown-ups lived," McCartney said, pointing up to the control room and reminding the audience of the time he was a kid about to make his first record. He talked about his nervousness in recording "Love Me Do" because, in order for Lennon to play his harmonica in the chorus, McCartney had to sing the title over it. He then glanced around the studio floor, wistfully taking it in. He imagined Lennon singing "Girl" in one corner, Harrison plucking his guitar in another, and right behind him, he could picture Ringo keeping time. As the past appeared almost ready to swallow him up, McCartney quickly announced, "I want to try things a little bit different."

Chaos and creation at Abbey Road 

After introducing Nigel Godrich, who would record certain effects and play prepared tape loops, McCartney grabbed an acoustic guitar and launched into a new song from the album. "Friends to Go," which he described as "a George song," was a fascinating McCartney tune. Addressing the singer's need to reveal himself, because he's been hiding and waiting for friends to leave, the number seems to have a lot in common emotionally with Lennon's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." "Friends to Go" makes you aware of the gaps in McCartney's creative life because he was now exposing them in this song. McCartney followed it up with "How Kind of You," a song about being grateful for someone's love and friendship. There's an elegiac beauty to this song. It tells us something of his desire for the community of friends, and how the loss of his mates has deprived him of it. Meanwhile Godrich uses loops of an epiphonic acoustic guitar to add textures that sound like pouring water on wounds to wash away the pain. After finally rendering himself defenseless, McCartney began to launch into his musical past.

First, he began rubbing the top of a series of empty wine glasses with his fingers, recording a drone effect, before performing "Band on the Run" as a rousing sea shanty. Later he transformed "Lady Madonna" from its original barrelhouse tribute to Fats Domino into a blues dirge. He danced as lightly as Fred Astaire through Eddie Cochran's turns of phrase in "Twenty Flight Rock," the cover song that got him into Lennon's group. Later he unveiled Bill Black's original stand-up bass, the one featured in "Heartbreak Hotel," when Black was in Elvis's band. McCartney wrapped his arms lovingly around the neck and performed his own version of the song. He was enjoying the freedom of opening up territory, connecting with the crowd, and taking them into new and interesting facets and interpretations of his work. He was re-inventing himself, and his music, in the very place where he had first begun recording it. With a new authority, he used the occasion to invoke his old partners who were no longer there. To accomplish that goal, towards the end he created a song on the spot where, with the magic of overdubbing, he got to play bass, rhythm and lead guitar, plus drums, to become – in spirit, anyway – The Beatles. But as enjoyable as this track was, McCartney knew that he couldn't escape the shadow The Beatles had created. After all, what was he singing? "Gotta go home," he cried happily. Gotta get back.

The original acetate of The Quarry Men's "In Spite of all the Danger"

One poignant moment stood out from all the others. Early on, he started to play an old song, "In Spite of All the Danger," that many in the audience didn't know, summoning his former mates without being consumed by their loss. Recorded in 1958 with The Quarry Men, "In Spite of all the Danger" was the group's first record. And in it, the only tune that McCartney and George Harrison ever wrote together, lay the genesis of the utopian promise The Beatles would set forth – then try in vain to live up to. Encouraging the throng to sing along with him, McCartney sang that in spite of all the danger, he'd do anything for you, anything you'd want him to, as long as you'd be true. The lyric never once indicated what the danger was, but we assumed that it was looming, ready to pounce, if that promise wasn't fulfilled. Even in 1958, perhaps, McCartney recognized that the danger in any dream – especially a romantic one – was the fear that it wouldn't come true, or more to the point, that it wouldn't last. "In Spite of All the Danger" is about how The Beatles' story began, and in a way, it's about how it ended. Yet that night, McCartney offered that hope once again and the audience affirmatively joined in, forgetting the heartbreak that inevitably followed the promise that the song made. And at that moment, the long-time burden of being a Beatle appeared to be lifted: McCartney had happily recalled a point in time when he was one. He was home.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On Monday evenings from 7pm-9pm at the Miles Nadel JCC, Kevin Courrier lectures on Robert Altman.

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