Paul McCartney turns 75 today. For the millions of us who grew up listening to his music with the Beatles and with Wings, his age is a significant milestone. In our heads, he’s still the mop-headed, enormously-cute twenty-something lad from Liverpool who could make every girl in the world scream.
He was also enormously talented. It took years for those of us not in the music industry to figure out how talented he was. And there were even some in the music industry, like Albert Hague, who couldn’t do it right away.* We were too busy rocking out to songs like “I Saw Her Standing There” to listen to him too closely, but he and John Lennon and George Harrison and Ringo Starr made us listen. It was they who fit the sweetness and the sorrow of life into the beats of rock before anybody else. It was they who endured the consequences of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” before anybody else had to. Even now, I think back to the crush of people who followed them everywhere, recorded their every movement, and took down their every word, and I marvel that they survived at all.
That they also pushed back the boundaries of what was possible in rock music, a genre that had been developing for less than a decade when the Beatles emerged, is nothing short of a miracle. It took focus and it took drive. Other bands were striving, too: some tried mere imitation, and soon fell by the wayside; others, to capture the music of youth with their own distinctive sound. But for the period 1962-1968, the Beatles soared ahead of the curve and stayed there. Their subjects encompassed every age group and every facet of life. They invented album rock itself, and the concept album. They influenced every band of the era that cared about the sound of their work, from the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys, and their lyrics demonstrated that bands could go as far beyond conventional expressions as their courage would take them. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. I would not have given such an award to such a talent because the success of a song lyric depends as much upon the tune within which it is set as the words themselves. Were I to give such an award, however, I would have given it to Sir Paul, whose words for “Eleanor Rigby” from the Revolver album match exquisitely the ticking of life’s clock, represented by the background strings, and the ebbing away of life itself:
“Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for
Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved”
This lyric is so sharply observed, so compact in its excellence that in the 1970s, there was a movement afoot to call it poetry. It’s not, for the reason I’ve given. But it is a lyric supreme of its kind and McCartney had poetry in his soul that carried him forward to a lifetime of achievement. “Nowhere Man,” “Norwegian Wood,” “I Feel Fine,” “Yesterday,” and “The Long and Winding Road” are songs as fine as anybody can write in English, and I take great pleasure in the knowledge that, a century from now, some young musician somewhere will find an old CD of the Beatles (or, even better, a vinyl record), pop it into his machine, and draw soaring inspiration from the music therein.
[* Hague, playing the character of music teacher Mr. Shorovsky in the television series Fame, once confessed to a student, “The Beatles? When they started, I couldn’t stand their stuff. Now, they’re pretty good.”]