As I’ve written, John Lennon was my favorite Beatle growing up—for all the reasons we love John: his intelligence and wit, his directness, his unique gifts with words and music, his sense of larger purpose in the world and ability to inspire. Plus, I felt that as a young creative person in the middle of nowhere trying to make a black-and-white life turn into glorious Technicolor, John Lennon had specific things to teach me. Plus, his difficult beginnings were similar in some ways to my own, and so we shared that fierce desperation to make it, no matter what. Happy people don’t aim for the “Toppermost of the Poppermost,” and normal people don’t think they just might be able to get there.
So I came by my John-love honestly, and for the first decade or so of my fandom, he was my guy. But starting in my thirties, that began to change. Now, as a middle-aged creative person, facing middle-aged creative person problems—professional ones like how to stay fresh and enthused and how to mature gracefully in an artistic sense, as well as personal ones like family and aging, death and dying—the Beatle I look to most regularly is Paul. He’s the one with the most to teach me now. John Lennon can show you how to become, but Paul McCartney’s a much better guide on for how to be.
Oh sure, George has his appeal, when I’m fed up and considering a mountaintop or a monastery. But George, like his main Beatle pal John, was a fundamentally unquiet fellow. He was, first of all, excessive; with George, as with John, it was either orgies or celibacy. He had competing drives, and couldn’t resist either. I think George was probably getting close to resolving this conflict (age gives as it takes away), but there’s still a fundamental dissatisfaction there—a wishing that things were better, different, more than they are. I get no such sense from Paul McCartney; I never have.
Think of it: The world gave four men—boys, really—everything they could ever dream of. Two of them took those gifts and were content, and have lived to ripe old ages. Two were never content—all they got, seemed to stoke more wanting—and died young. 58 is young in my book; it’s only eight years away, the span from 1962 to 1970.
It’s not just that at 50 I’m older than John ever was, and rapidly approaching George’s Launch Date, too; it’s also that Paul seems to have been uncommonly successful at navigating the stuff that so few rockstars can pull off. He’s continued to work without becoming an oldies act (sorry Ritchie), paid his taxes, never lost his money, and never shows up drunk, bandana askew, in some strip club down by LAX. With a few hiccups aside, Paul’s family life seems to be pretty good, too—especially when judged against others in music and showbiz.
Go read Sticky Fingers and tell me who’s life you’d prefer, Jann Wenner’s or Paul McCartney’s. Paul’s a control freak? Paul’s materialistic? There’s more perfidy on every page of that bio than all the supposed dirt we have on Paul. And Wenner, like his pal Lennon, was living a lie for most of his adulthood, just so he could stay in the good graces of the public. Not so with Paul, and that’s why the cool kids hated him. He didn’t have to wreck himself to be famous, nor did he let being famous wreck him.
The very things that the Rolling Stone crowd castigated Paul for—his “uncoolness”—are the things that, in the end, make for a happy life. Stability; focus on work and family; an ability to relate to people of different ages and stages; pleasure in the little things like (famously) riding a bus. Rock and roll in the Sixties was so often about breaking away from the family, doing your own thing, remaking the world in one’s own image. That’s why Lennon is such powerful cultural shorthand for that era, and Paul isn’t. Lennon, especially in full-beard guru phase, evokes all those things so powerfully. Paul, at that time as now, evokes Paul.
This is perhaps why we talk less on Dullblog about Paul than we do about John. John Lennon is a leaping-off point to lots of stuff—that’s how he lived, and that’s how he liked it; John wanted you to think about “peace” so you wouldn’t look too closely at him. And the contemporary press was happy to oblige, because John Lennon was a rolling controversy machine. Then all that good copy was stopped in the cruelest, saddest, suddenest way; you could fill an entire blog on John’s “what might have been.” Whereas writing about Paul is like writing about the MacIntosh computer. There is only what is; there is only what happened. Yes, it changed the world; yes, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now without it; but a successful is, is inherently less dramatic, less interesting, than a tragic might’ve been.
“What would Paul McCartney do?” At 12, when I thought about how best to be a person, I would frequently look to John Lennon. Now, nearly forty years later, I look to Paul. I suspect I’m not alone in this, which is why I took the time to post.