He never once said the words “the Beatles.” Paul McCartney gave a spectacular concert last weekend in Fargo. He sang a lovely tribute to John Lennon (1940-1980), and he strummed a ukulele as he sang George Harrison’s beautiful song “Something.”
“Something in the way she moves, attracts me like no other lover.” But he never spoke of Ringo Starr (the other last Beatle), and he never so much as mentioned the band that changed the world. I would have preferred more talk (reflections 50 years after) and perhaps fewer songs, from a musical genius and global icon who holds a place so close to the center of my life’s mythologies.
Such talk as there was was mostly typical concert filler. McCartney sang “A Long and Winding Road” marvelously, enough to choke the subterranean streams of your lost adolescent angst, but I found myself hungering for some commentary on his own long and winding journey, some musing, as the Grateful Dead put it, on “what a long strange trip it’s been.”
If he came back for a second or fifth concert, I would make the trip every time, whatever the cost. My friend Jim saw him in Winnipeg last year and said, “Yep, now I can die. I’ve seen Paul McCartney.” While I agree with the dramatics, I would like to challenge Jim’s timeline.
My daughter (now 19) and I were two specks among the 18,000 who made their pilgrimage to the Fargodome to hear McCartney, who is now 72 years old. She was born 25 years after the Beatles broke up, 14 years after the murder of John Lennon in New York, and George Harrison died when she was just 7 years old. All the way to Fargo I wondered what Paul McCartney could possibly mean to her or anyone who was born a full generation after their apotheosis. Part of the joy of the concert was watching her watch the performance. As a parent you hope that your children “get” the handful of things that matter most to you.
When McCartney moved finally towards the great songs that are fundamental anthems of the 1960s, songs that will live forever—“Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” and above all “Hey Jude,” she sat straight up in her seat and put her arm around me, and looked at me with perfect understanding. Although she didn’t say a word, I knew she was thinking, “This is deeper, bigger, more, greater than what we have now, Dad.” “This is my chance to experience the Beatles before it is too late.” “I wish I had been alive when this was first released, when people waited breathlessly for the next Beatles album the way 19th century Britons waited for the next installment of a Dickens novel, or the way I have waited for the next Harry Potter novel.”
If the world is divided between those who prefer Ginger or Mary Ann, the Beatles or the Stones, Lennon or McCartney, I’ve been unhesitatingly Beatles all along. If they were all still alive, and each one gave a retrospective concert, the only one that also would be a Beatles concert would be Paul’s. He had the only world-class musical voice of the group.
The majority of the greatest Beatles songs were primarily created by him. Take Paul out of the picture and you still have a great band (John, after all, wrote “A Day in the Life,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and George “Here Comes the Sun”), but I do not believe they could have achieved immortality without Paul. Or perhaps it was the creative tension and synthesis between the smoother balladeer Paul and the edgier revolutionary artist John that made them rise so far above popular culture.
The Beatles came along just as the center of gravity of American civilization began to wobble. The birth control pill was approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for contraceptive use in 1960. John F. Kennedy — the glamorous young president of the United States — had Marilyn Monroe sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, 18 months before he was gunned down in Dallas.
Black Americans were asserting their rights in an unprecedented way — sit-ins, freedom marches, refusing to vacate white-only lunch counters, espousing the non-violent principles of Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. Their white oppressors felt no such restraint. In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that school prayer was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, I can remember in a little crackerjack house in Dickinson, my mother ironing in the living room while we watched the black and white CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. It was 1963. I was 8 years old. I asked, “Where is Vietnam?” And she said, “I’m not really sure.”
The British poet Philip Larkin captured the mood of the decade perfectly in his poem “Annus Mirabilis.” Larkin wrote, “Sexual intercourse began — In nineteen sixty-three — (which was rather later for me) — Between the end of the Chatterley ban – And the Beatles first LP.”
The Beatles rode the trajectory of the 1960s like a Mercury Redstone Rocket. At first they were innocently scandalous —mop hair, working class Beatles boots, all cheeky irreverence. Then, in 1966, John Lennon off-handedly announced that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. That was the end of the innocence. Angry protests flared up across America, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line. Albums were burned, press conferences canceled, their music pulled off pop stations.
Then came drugs, and eastern mysticism, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a long period of stoned alienation and disillusionment, long hair, the psychedelic Hait Ashbury costuming of the “Sergeant Pepper” album, and a national debate about whether “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was an anthem to LSD.
At least three of the Beatles were arrested for drug possession, and between 1972 and 1975 the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service sought to deport Lennon, mostly for his anti-war politics, but technically for his 1968 misdemeanor conviction in London for marijuana possession.
As a naive North Dakota adolescent — a virgin, a teetotaler, and someone who had never smoked a joint — I remember lying on my back in the middle of the gold carpet in my parents’ living room, listening to “Abbey Road” on our gigantic console stereo, which now seems as large as a battleship. It was late 1969. I was 15 years old, free-floating in a stew of hormonal confusions that I had no capacity even to recognize for what they were.
I’m sure I listened to “Abbey Road” a hundred times lying on that carpet. Even now, when I hear the sequence beginning with “Oh! Darling,” and ending with “I want you (She’s So Heavy),” I can actually feel the nap of that carpet, and the world is all before me again, and I have some youthful sense that the Age of Aquarius is about to make its appearance.
Everyone associates some song, some book, some trip, some film, some improbable encounter with that life awakening. I don’t know what my child’s rite of passage will have been. Only time will tell. But I have a pretty strong sense that it will not be as intense, for a phenomenon like the trajectory of the Beatles only happens a few times per century, and I do not believe that anything after “Abbey Road” has gotten quite so far inside quite so many people.
Or, to put it more starkly, I doubt that Bono or even Dave Matthews will be able to fill the Albert Hall when they are in their eighth decade.
(Clay Jenkinson, the author of nine books, is a North Dakota native who lives in Bismarck. Contact him at [email protected])
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