I drew the Beatles in honor of Abbey Road’s 50th anniversary. Each has a lyric they wrote, or in the case of Ringo, the drum solo in The End.
As longtime readers know, I’m a pretty big Beatles fan. One of my first forays into realistic art was a shaded graphite portrait of the Beatles based on their White Album pictures. This time around, I went a little less real. It was fun to revisit these photos as a way to try a new technique. These were drawn on an iPad and on the computer using Photoshop.
What’s on a roof? Sometimes Cary Grant. Usually, though, not a whole lot. A swamp cooler. Dead birds. Lost footballs, baseballs, soccer balls. Leaves. Junk that doesn’t fit in the basement. Why, then, are we so fascinated with roofs of all kinds?
When the Beatles decided to play their final concert, they considered many venues. They considered legendary places befitting the biggest and best rock band of all time. The Parthenon or the Colosseum, perhaps; structures that are indelible marks of human progress. Or maybe a big ship, where the Beatles could literally sail off into the sunset. These grand ideas were ultimately rejected and the Beatles simply walked upstairs to the roof of their office building to play one last show:
In a story, being on the roof is significant. Batman meets with Commissioner Gordon on a roof. Tom Hanks meets with Meg Ryan at the top of the Empire State Building. The roof is not for sissies; when you’re on the roof, you mean business.
A roof is a public place and yet it is private. Not just anyone is allowed on the roof; there is a certain privilege in being atop a building. Helicopters land on roofs. Pigeons hang out on roofs. From a roof, you can look down on the city around you and get the lay of the land. You are king on the roof. You are a god on Mount Olympus.
Part life story, part medical treatise on the long-term mental effects of pot smoking, Peter Ames Carlin’s new biography, Paul McCartney: A Life, chronicles the once and future Beatle from his parent’s meeting all the way through his latest album, Electric Arguments.
Carlin’s book doesn’t deal in those oft-repeated “truths” about The Beatles and Paul McCartney, and it never succumbs to nitpicking. It is written by a fan who loves Paul but is not blinded by that love. Carlin has written an engaging, well-researched biography of the Cute Beatle.
While Paul was for years dismissed as a lightweight next to John Lennon, people have finally started to come around. His contribution to the greatest rock band of all time was nothing short of foundational. Without Paul’s sense of melody and artistic experimentation, John songs like A Day in the Life or Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds would never have achieved their full potential. The Beatles were always a band, and Carlin shows that you can’t discount any member of that group. (Even Ringo.)
In spite of Carlin’s not being able to speak with Paul directly, he has 50+ years worth of interviews, news articles, books, and of course music to draw from. It really isn’t a drawback that the biographer doesn’t have direct access to his subject. Paul usually interviews only when he’s trying to sell something, and he also tends to be just a bit spacey. Not necessarily bad things in themselves, but it isn’t a mixture conducive to introspection.
It also doesn’t help that Paul rarely critiques his past work. I would love to sit him down and ask, as an intrepid Playboy interviewer did with John Lennon many years ago, what Paul thinks about every song on every single one of his albums. My friend Andy, a Beatle scholar of utmost integrity, theorizes that Paul doesn’t think about his past work. He sure doesn’t play the majority of his catalog on tour. If you just saw him live, you’d think he only made about a dozen songs from 1970 to the present. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, whips out a vast assortment of songs on his Neverending Tour, from hits to obscurities.
Paul’s desire to be liked, to keep earning his fame, is probably his greatest motivation. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, but it does force him to “forget” a large part of what he’s done over the years. As Carlin is quick to point out, sometimes a failure can be just as interesting as a success. Much of his commentary in the book is reserved for Paul’s lesser-known works.
Carlin’s portrait of Paul is of an inventive, egotistical, creative, musical, artistic, autocratic, blissful, angry, oblivious, hardworking, chipper guy. Because of all his contradictions, Paul comes off as truly human. That is the great success of Carlin’s biography. Breezy without being glib, deep without seeming pretentious, A Life presents a Living Legend in all senses of that phrase.
Although I’ve read more than my share of Beatles commentary, Carlin’s biography does shed some new light on that oft-written period of time. While Paul always wants to come off as a nice guy in public, he is a huge star and is used to having his way all the time. That tension is the crux of the Beatles chapters. Paul clearly wanted to become the leader of The Beatles after Brian Epstein died, an ill-advised move that probably led as much to the breakup as Yoko’s incessant howling. But it was also his vision that created Beatles out of a group of Liverpool teenagers. So you could say that balances things out.
The part of Paul’s life I was most interested in hearing more about, however, came post-Beatles. How can a man who thought up and executed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band produce utter garbage a few years later? Easy! Carlin tells us how:
Paul’s problem with putting out consistently good albums seems to be:
1. Big ego, plus
2. an unsureness of his own talent, compounded when
3. his big ego gets doesn’t allow him to listen when someone has a bad thing to say about his new songs.
Paul, like all us artists, needs an editor. His best editor, John, was never interested in working with him after the Beatles, and Paul never found another person he could trust as much as John. Paul’s reliance on how easy it all came to him was actually a hindrance, allowing him to put out albums regularly without any of the sweat needed to hone a group of songs to perfection. Then, if the album did well (which it usually did in the 1970’s, because this is a new Paul McCartney album after all), he’d just assume all was well and continue on his merry way.
I was particularly interested in Paul’s brief partnership with Elvis Costello. I really wish he had released the songs they recorded together as-is. Instead, second guessing himself, Paul re-recorded all of them. When they came out (in Flowers in the Dirt and the misbegotten Off the Ground) they had lost their energy.
Sometimes the production got in the way of perfectly good songs, but many times Paul just didn’t have anything to say. He was a blogger before his time. At worst, listening through Paul’s post-Beatle albums is a fascinating way to chart the moods of one of the most famous people on the planet. Feeling it was his duty to keep making albums, Paul sometimes lost the thread.
But that isn’t always the case. Every once in a while he’ll release Band on the Run, or Flaming Pie, or the recent Memory Almost Full. (Although for my money, McCartney is still his greatest solo effort.) Albums that, if they were made by a total unknown, would propel him to stardom.
Carlin compiles the story Paul never seems willing to tell. It is the story I’ve long wanted to hear. What Paul doesn’t know is, it is his failings that make him great. It’s the fact that he can release (and champion!) Give My Regards to Broad Street as if it were the next A Hard Day’s Night. I find it comforting that even a musical genius can have an off day.
I also find it comforting that a book such as this exists. Now I think I’ll put my headphones back on and listen.
There’s been a lot of talk about commercial radio going the way of the dinosaur, and I honestly couldn’t care less. Unlike newspapers, a media that is still vital and hosts some great comics, radio has been completely out of touch ever since I can remember. I don’t see how it could ever hope to reclaim any sort of relevance.
As a kid, I listened to Oldies. This was fine for a few years until I learned every song they played. You see, Oldies are no longer being made. They stopped being made in the early 1960’s. You’d think that, even given that limitation, there would be more than enough material to keep listeners surprised. Thousands of singles were produced from 1950-1965, maybe even millions. Yet all I heard was a shuffle of Pretty Woman, Twist and Shout, and Stop! In the Name of Love. There comes a time in a young man’s life when he cannot hear Pretty Woman any longer without projectile vomiting, and for me that time came around age 13.
Fortunately my friend Andy turned me on to the Beatles around that time. The Beatles, as you know, made lots of good songs that they never play on the radio. It took a while to work my way through all their albums, and by the time I was pretty familiar I had another friend who saved me by making a Bob Dylan mix tape. Bob Dylan has even more songs that are played even less than the Beatles, which is kind of strange because whenever you see a documentary about the 60’s you hear either a Beatles song or a Dylan song played in the background. Go figure.
Tucson had a couple fairly decent radio stations over the years, but they always ended in tragedy. In high school, when I wasn’t listening to tapes or my parents’ record collection, I tuned in to The Hog, a Classic Rock station. It wasn’t always great, and they did commit the cardinal sin of having a morning show with two annoying DJs, but it did play Stairway to Heaven at least once a week so I guess I can’t complain.
The Hog met its fate one afternoon my senior year. I drove to school in the morning with my dial set to Hog. In the afternoon, driving home, I had the strangest feeling that something was amiss. Alternative Rock (or Alt Rock, or Green Day, however you want to classify it) was blaring from the tiny speakers in my dashboard. Then the station identification came on. It was no longer The Hog. Apparently this is how radio stations switch formats: no warning, mid-day. I made a fruitless call in to the station manager. I even took time from my Government/Current Events class to implore my classmates to call in as well, to bring back a radio station I felt ambivalent about but at least didn’t actively hate.
The truth is, none of the music I listen to was discovered on commercial radio. In college, I listened to the student-run radio station. You’ve got to sit through a lot of garbage but occasionally you’ll hear something that really moves you. Also, there were a few really cute girls who had radio shows so I listened and tried to like the music they were playing. It didn’t take much convincing.
National Public Radio is, strangely, the best station to hear new music. They have a couple shows dedicated to playing stuff you’d never hear unless you are one of those people who are “cool” and just know about new bands as they are formed.
Even now I’m listening to my ipod while I write this post. I have a meticulously maintained itunes library which has more music than any commercial radio playlist. When I hear a song on the radio, I either like it but already have it on itunes, don’t like it and don’t have it on itunes, or haven’t heard it but don’t like it. This isn’t snobbery; I really wish it wasn’t this way. Would you rather listen to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction for the billionth time or Exile on Main Street with no commercial interruptions?
I’d love to hear free, new music every time I get in my car. But radio stations (most of them owned by one evil company) will never work this way. Don’t ask me why. Ask capitalism.
What is Wilco? Wilco is Jeff Tweedy, the bass player, John Stirratt, and a revolving door of other musicians. Since each album has a slightly different lineup of players, Jeff and John’s job is to keep a consistency going. They’ve managed to do this partly because Jeff is a great songwriter. It is his lyrics that are the through line for Wilco. I venture to say Jeff Tweedy is the greatest living songwriter who is not Bob Dylan.
Wilco can be sonically adventurous. At their best, they take the same path that the Beatles took four decades ago: their love of playing and experimenting shows through on each track, making the albums as much fun to hear the fiftieth time as they were the first.
Which is why I was excited to hear the band’s seventh album, Wilco (the album).
Now that I’ve completely sabotaged any credibility by comparing Wilco to the Beatles, I’m going to make another comparison. Wilco (the album) is a late-period self-titled album in the same way that The White Album (The Beatles) was for the Beatles. Unlike The White Album, The Album is a more focused, joyful affair. The White Album did indeed have its happy songs, but overall the tone was much more somber. The white cover stood for emptiness rather than light, and while the Beatles were not nihilistic, they took that sprawling double album to question the meaning of just about every musical genre and in the process, life itself.
Like Sky Blue Sky before it, The Album doesn’t mess around with sound effects or eerie interludes. It just sounds like a band playing together. The layered sound of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born is not evident here. This is music meant to be played live.
The Album is also not a return to anybody’s roots. This is not Uncle Tupelo. If anything, Jeff Tweedy the folk singer asserts himself, while Wilco the studio band takes a backseat.
Wilco (the song) kicks things off, justifying the earnest silliness of the birthday camel on the cover.
Deeper Down is one of Jeff’s signature songs about music and the music business. One of his recurring themes in songwriting is the strange dichotomy of making art and selling art. Of course he’s for making a living; he doesn’t see the point in making something nobody wants to hear. But he also wants to say something, to be meaningful. Why those two things rarely overlap is a question for another post, but if you want Jeff’s answer you should listen to this, and to The Late Greats from A Ghost is Born, and to What Light from Sky Blue Sky.
You and I is a straightforward love song, a duet sung with Feist. It’s got some neat lyrics. I like it because it’s cute and I’m a sucker for that stuff.
You Never Know is, right now, my favorite song on the album. Upbeat and full of Tweedy witticisms. It doesn’t get better than this in a four minute song.
Solitaire sounds like it belongs in the quiet middle section of A Ghost is Born – right between the song about bees and the other song about trucks, or whatever. Yeah, Jeff is definitely clean now.
I could go on about The Album, but this is probably enough. It’s always great to have another Wilco album in the world, and even better when that album is a good one. The Album is one of the good ones. Go listen.