Early in the morning of December 9th, 1980, thirty-eight year old Paul McCartney received a phone call at his home outside of London that his lifelong friend of twenty-three years, John Lennon, had been shot and killed in New York City. When his wife, Linda McCartney, got home after taking their kids to school, she noticed he was in complete shock. Thinking he should continue a routine to keep his mind busy, McCartney went to a studio in London to work on an album. Denny Laine, his guitarist, recalled that the work was tough, and everyone in the studio was on edge. McCartney had met the press that morning, and later on that afternoon. That night, still in shock, a reporter asked him about the murder. Horrified, deeply depressed, and going in and out of being scared for his life, McCartney answered ‘It’s a drag, isn’t it?’ while trying to quickly get away from the crowd of lights. Once inside his house, unable to control his emotions, he broke down crying for hours, completely inconsolable. His wife Linda was unable to get McCartney to go anywhere, do anything, so terrible was his grief. The next day he did not go to the studio, and Linda traversed their rural property to stop neighbors from bird hunting such was her fear of what the sound of gunshots would do to her husband. McCartney emerged from sobs with pure anger, and had plenty to say about Lennon’s murderer, Mark David Chapman. Fighting this anger and his fear, he managed to fly to New York City to see Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono, with whom he broke down again in front of a small entourage of family and friends.
McCartney was never the same again. After spending the first ten years of his solo career running away from the biggest band in history, McCartney spent the next ten years kicking out mild but distracting and sometime mediocre hits with the single purpose of healing. Having emerged from the Eighties intact, he then started to go back to his youth, back to the ‘60’s and yes, back to the Beatles. His music, which he had structured to be most decidedly not like The Beatles, slowly traversed back over this ground. Perhaps his album Flaming Pie is the best example of this, but so is Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and even Flowers in the Dirt. In his old age, McCartney’s wall of silence about John abated, and he slowly and sometimes controversially shared details of his relationship with John. Some of this became the basis of the films Backbeat and Two of Us. Some like myself laughed when McCartney suggested that his solo music was more ‘advant garde’ than Lennon’s. But he brought the songs out of the closet and starting in the early ‘90’s he even played many songs that traditionally John recorded or sang. In this public healing, he was healing us, too. Though the pain was long ago for many of us, and many of us were too young to experience the shock, the feeling of loss never goes away. Pontificating on Lennon’s career today is equivalent to wondering what Kurt Cobain would have done. As McCartney went on, we went on.
Hearing his friend George Harrison was sick, McCartney went to his bedside where Harrison, perturbed at how sad his friend was, tried to cheer him up. They held hands. They didn’t talk about the past. Learning from his past mistake about speaking to the press in the midst of shock, McCartney waited until his grief had subsided before speaking to the press outside his house. He called him a great lad and said “I am devastated and very, very sad. He was a lovely guy and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humor.” McCartney has gone on, as the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr has. They continue to record and tour, while the media obsesses over 6 July 1957.
“I met Paul the first time I did Be-Bop-a-Lula live,” Lennon remembered during his interviews with David Sheff shortly before his murder, “and I think he said yes the next day.” In doing so, McCartney changed the face not only of pop music, but of history. Last week, taking my kids to see the Minion Movie, I watched four animated characters, one of them barefoot, cross Abbey Road in London in a weird homage to the Fab Four. While my kids didn’t get the reference, all the adults did, and looking around the theatre I noticed all the adults were my age, not my mother’s age.
We all had Abbey Road.
At my vinyl rack at home I looked at my used copy of Abbey Road. I bought it when the music stores were dumping vinyl like no there was no tomorrow. It still had the three dollar sticker price on it. I didn’t get it from my parents. My parents listened to country and western music, not rock and roll. Though my father was heavy into ‘50’s rock like Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, he knew next to nothing about the Beatles. My father-in-law bought Sgt. Pepper on CD and literally laughed with joy as he played it in his PC, altering the scales as if he were a sound engineer. He said it didn’t sound right, and had to fix several things he found ‘wrong’ with the stereo, as if he were George Martin. My first experience with the Beatles was watching A Hard Day’s Night on the Encore Network in the ‘80’s and laughing hysterically at Lennon arguing with a stage girl on whether or not he was actually himself. And of course, who didn’t laugh when a reporter asked George Harrison how he ‘found’ America?
“Turn left at Greenland.”
The phenomenon of Beatlemania left such an indelible mark on history as to change the future. The dry, wry wit not only of the Liverpudlians themselves but their handlers, their publicists creating their image, the Hollywood producers approving the script and everyone who interviewed them from Ed Sullivan to Cameron Crowe egged them on this route to perpetuate the image. This is ongoing, long after the Beatles broke up, long after Lennon’s murder and Harrison’s passing. It will continue as long as people born after them buy Abbey Road and instead of focusing on the horror of whatever moment is dragging down them and the world instead sing along:
“Here comes the sun, here comes the sun and I say, ‘it’s alright.’”
McCartney always focused on this trend, the trend of the Beatles to stay upbeat and positive. During the Anthology he took pride in saying the band emphasized love. Love Me Do, She Loves You, A Little Help From My Friends, Come Together, etc. Sgt. Pepper has been beaten down in the four decades since its release, deemed by some to be not as good as the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds and many notate that it was in fact released months after the Doors’ debut album that featured Break on Through and The End. As a tome of psychedelia it does seem a bit late in the game except that the Beach Boys were singing about trying to get laid and being turned down and the Doors were openly singing about death. But while Pet Sounds and even the Romones have slowly replaced the Beatles on the top charts of art rock the fact remains this is fourth quarter football. Shit, this is calling the game the other way after the game is over. Sgt Pepper was, in the view of Rolling Stone, “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815.”
Yes, I’m going to play Blitzkrieg Bop to my kids when they get old enough, and I’m going to play it loud. I am also going to console them with Wouldn’t it be Nice and Breaking up is Hard to Do after their first flame out. When they get pissed that their vote didn’t go their way I’m going to play Gimmie Shelter and the next time we’re on the highway doing a hundred and ten klicks it’s time for A Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress. All that notwithstanding, I don’t have to do anything to get them into the Beatles. It’s ingrained in them already. My boy is singing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and my daughter is singing Yellow Submarine. Add ten years and it’s going to be Revolution and Hey Jude. The Beatles will live on because their message and their meaning in pop culture transcends the changes in history.