The Macca Attack

The ‘cute Beatle’ has long been loved by many, but his tallied transgressions have dropped him out of some people’s favor. CLAIRE ZULKEY finds a new favorite Beatle.

Paul McCartney was solely responsible for the first and greatest obsession of my life. One evening in 1993 I was watching Saturday Night Live, and this shabbily dressed guy I’d seen Dana Carvey impersonate played a song called ‘Hey Jude.’ I rarely paid attention to SNL’s musical guests, but something about that particular song made me look up. Paul McCartney. The Beatles. Interesting.

For some reason or other we taped that episode, and I watched the performance again and again. I dug out my dad’s Beatles guitar book so I could sing along. I was now hooked on a band I had only previously been acquainted with through the Oldies station.

The full-on Beatles obsession came shortly afterwards. I dragged our record player up to my room and wore through my parents’ Beatles LPs: Revolver, Rubber Soul, Help, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the first half of the White Album (the second half being long lost.) Shortly thereafter I acquired all the albums and watched all the movies (even Let it Be and Magical Mystery Tour). I hung posters all over my room. I taught myself how to play guitar for the sole reason of strumming a tolerable version of ‘Yesterday.’

Then I read every single Beatles book in the library and sobbed when I had to miss yet another BeatleFest to go to stupid summer camp. I learned every piece of trivia, every take on the songs’ meaning, what actually happened with the Maharishi, and, of course, why the band broke up (even though it’s so tempting to pin it all on Yoko, it was more than just that).

Like with most girls, my first favorite was Paul, as far and away the best looking of the four. He had the prettiest hair, the cutest eyes, and that sweet voice. He seemed smart, had a great smile, and was fantastic at mugging in that signature Beatles way. He was sooo dreamy in A Hard Day’s Night. But once I dug deeper and learned more about the lads’ personalities, I became a George girl, ignoring his dreadful teeth to fall in love with the wry, quiet, most unappreciated Beatle. It was hard to worship John, since he was killed just a few years after I was born, and Ringo…well, while everybody likes Ringo, does anybody really love him? While I still adored Paul, he no longer had my heart.

I realized an odd tendency among other Beatle fans, though. Many of them, especially boys, hated Paul. They despised him as the antithesis—even the enemy—of John, who they saw as the true heart and soul of the group. They didn’t like how Paul was the cutie-pie in contrast to John’s less traditional good looks. They didn’t like how Paul had a sweet, Americanized voice as opposed to John’s high, thin howl. Paul was the Face while John was the Mind. To them, Paul was Frankie Valli while John was Elvis.

But I defended Paul, from his songs (how can you beat ‘Yesterday,’ ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Let it Be?’) to his vocal ability (he screams on ‘Oh Darling!’ in Lennon fashion) to his moronic decision to make the Magical Mystery Tour film (he, too, could be a risk-taker with ‘vision’). He was just as talented as John, with just as much hubris and ambition and with a just as much of a messed-up childhood. Paul got a bum rap, as far as I was concerned.

But in the last several years or so, something changed. I didn’t care whether or not I owned Paul’s new albums. He appeared on a talk show and I opted for Simpsons reruns. He came on tour to Chicago this summer and I didn’t bat an eye, didn’t scramble to get tickets. He got re-married and I didn’t feel like I’d missed my chance. And when I heard that he was returning to Chicago, I actually derided the concept of paying to see Paul McCartney in concert. Not only did my interest in Paul McCartney wane, I actually started to not like him anymore. It felt like I was turning my back on a family member, and worst of all, I couldn’t explain it. I had joined the Paul-hating ranks.

I finally realized why I left Paul when I recently listened to the Magical Mystery Tour album and marveled at the beauty of the strings in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ What set the Beatles apart from other rock bands was their constant metamorphosis and growth. Each stage of their musicianship was a great one, from ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ to ‘In My Life’ to ‘Helter Skelter’ to ‘Something.’ They were on a constant trajectory, forever evolving. And after the Beatles broke up, they each continued to do their own things, some to more successful ends than others. But unlike other aging groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles seemed content to live in the present, even quietly, and not actively capitalize on their past. They could have forced themselves to reunite and charge fortunes for tickets to concerts where they’d go through the motions of performing their old songs, but they didn’t. Like world-class athletes, they retired at the top of their game.

In recent years, though, it’s become apparent that McCartney has, purposefully or not, come full circle. Like Michael Jordan, he’s returned to the game, and similarly, it’s still murky whether or not it was a good decision.

Even though he’s well into AARP age, he’s returned to the 1964 Beatle poppiness from whence he originated. He’s cute and cheeky again, singing along with Terry Bradshaw at the Super Bowl. He’s breaking hearts again by marrying a blonde in her twenties. His hair is short again. He’s packing them into large arenas again. He’s receiving awards from the Queen again. He’s believing that he can save the world with a song again (the name of his current tour is, chipper-ly enough, ‘The Feelgood Factory). When the Beatles first began their evolution in 1966, they openly mocked their lovable mop-top images. But now Paul has returned to it, practically pretending that his controversial, acid-dropping, Eastern religion-loving days never existed.

Now, even if you aren’t a Beatle freak who could be disappointed by this desperate attempt for acceptance as a megastar in the 21st century, there’s a rather unseemly element that surrounds much of his public comeback: He seems determined never to grow old. His hair never quite goes totally gray (strangely enough, a feat of reverse aging in the last several years has caused it to go less gray). He marries someone no older than his own children and is faced with the humiliating accusation that his bride is taking him, in Anna Nicole Smith fashion, for a ride. Despite his fashion-designer daughter Stella’s own successes, he won’t step out of the limelight long enough to let her sink or swim on her own. At his concerts he reminds us with a twenty-five-minute montage of Beatles footage that, yes, he was in the Fab Four, and that, hey, maybe he still could be!

You can’t begrudge Sir Paul the chance to share his love of music and rock with the world, if that’s what it comes down to. But then, it’s hard to explain the creepiest part of his modern incarnation: the ridiculous prices for his concerts. McCartney is one of the richest men in England, and yet charges several hundred dollars for tickets to his shows. While I have not seen one of these shows in person, I’ve heard they’re good. But still: why the inflation? This doesn’t seem very vegetarian, sweaty Cavern Club, ‘All You Need is Love’ of him.

But what’s truly bothersome is the attention he’ll get when he passes away. The news coverage. The tributes. The candlelight vigils. The magazine covers. This grim future became evident after George Harrison’s death, which received a good tribute but nothing along the magnitude of what happened when John Lennon died. And then it hit me: not only will Paul McCartney receive much more hullabaloo when he dies, he will also most likely be the last Beatle to give up the ghost. He’s a good deal younger than Ringo, and you can just tell that, like a cockroach, he’ll outlast everybody else. Not only will it be Paul McCartney Dying, when he does, it’ll be The Last Beatle Dying. It’s going to be an international mania. Baby boomers will question their mortality. Music publications will chronicle the birth of rock as we know it. And he’s going to love it, you can tell, even from beyond the grave.

That’s why a friend and I decided to start the ‘Ringo Starr Preservation Society.’ Ringo, to his credit, has approached his golden years with a good deal more dignity than Paul. He delighted kids on Shining Time Station as George Carlin’s predecessor. He does quiet tours with his All-Starr Band at small venues and that’s it. You don’t care about his wife or if he’s dancing on the bar at Hogs and Heifers and who he hopes wins at the Super Bowl and it’s nice.

We’re not really sure how it will work out. Maybe a new exercise regimen for Mr. Starkey. Detox, depending on which vices he still indulges. And daily affirmations: ‘You will live, you will be well! You did a great job on ‘Rain!’ Come on, Ringo!’ Ringo was the most mocked, arguably least talented Beatle, yet he seemed to be the most innocent as well. I for one would be happy for him if the flame of the Beatles went out with him.

It would be nice if Macca could settle down. Cut down the cost of tickets. Stop making so many public appearances. Care less about how he looks. Stop throwing the desperate ‘recently discovered unreleased (usually for a reason) Beatle song’ to the masses.

But it’s not likely that it’ll happen. Until then, while I wish him all the best, and while I’ll always love him for the music he’s given me, I still can’t love him the way I used to, not until he finally decides to let it be.

Claire Zulkey is a Chicago writer whose work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal Online, The A.V. Club, and the Los Angeles Times. She runs the web site and in fall 2009 will be publishing her first young adult novel. More by Claire Zulkey