I’ve just seen (part of) a face: McCartney on the Colbert Report

Paul McCartney on The Colbert Report, 6/12/13.

Paul McCartney on The Colbert Report, 6/12/13.

NANCY CARR • Paul McCartney’s hour-long June 12 appearance on The Colbert Report was great fun — if you missed it, you can watch it all here. Colbert’s introduction was characteristically hilarious and pointed. McCartney plays so many instruments he’s “a one-man karoke bar without the weird videos,” and Colbert is hosting a “150-person Paul McCartney concert. So Oprah, you and your free cars can suck it.”

And the interview featured McCartney seeming looser and happier than he’s been in many others. Partly this had to be knowing Colbert was a fan who would throw softballs right over the plate, but partly it’s down to the vibe Colbert reliably establishes. He can make fun of himself, and invites his guests to lighten up similarly. When McCartney responded to Colbert’s question about why he recorded “Band on the Run” in Lagos with “it was the climate and disease,” it was pretty funny.  And I loved the way he delivered the line “at times I was begrimed” when Colbert asked about the reception of “Ram” and early Wings efforts.

Predictably, there were no stunning revelations, though it was nice to hear McCartney attribute the Beatles’ consistent musical quality to the band’s “incredible democracy,” in which the endorsement of all band members was needed to include a song. And speaking of songs . . . . . why, oh why,  given carte blance to do the songs he wanted from his entire catalog, did he go with “Hi, Hi, Hi” as one of six songs to do? I know he’s promoting the re-release of “Wings Over America,” but why not “Picasso’s Last Words” or “Bluebird”? Arghhh . . . .

Still, watching the episode, I felt we were getting as close to the “real Paul McCartney” as we were ever going to. The experience reminded me of this photo, taken by Linda McCartney, which is the single most revealing portrait of Paul.

Paul McCartney photographed by Linda Eastman, 1967

Paul McCartney photographed by Linda Eastman, 1967

This photo captures the way McCartney both courts the public’s eye and wants to retreat from it. It IS his public presentation: jokey and theatrical on the surface, defensive underneath. He’s happy to give an audience what it wants, but he’s going to be cagey about what he discloses. He’s basically at ease with being a performer, in a traditional rock-as-showbiz sense, as John Lennon wasn’t. And part of being a performer is never fully lowering that velvet jacket. Playing it safe in this way often gets McCartney labeled “insincere,” but I think it’s intelligently self-protective.

Lennon and McCartney, despite their many similarities, had opposite reactions to the pressures of performing and fame. In his 70s interviews John talked about how humiliating it had been to be one of the “Fab Four,” how he hated wearing suits, how horrible concert experiences had been. After the band’s break up he went to being “just John” with a vengeance: there was to be no separation between his public and private selves. He and Yoko were going to talk to reporters while lying in bed. Their private life would become the subject of his songs. “Yoko and me . . . that’s reality.” I’m not sure how far he acknowledged that this posture inevitably involved performance, since the public and private selves would never be identical. (Check out Michael’s post “Time-Lapse Photography” and its comment thread for more fascinating thoughts on this question, from multiple perspectives.)

I see “Double Fantasy” (the album and the surrounding interviews, which function as a whole performance) as his doubling down on the idea of making all his art a direct expression of a private self, an insistence that it is possible to live as a public figure without subterfuge. As such I find it both admirable and pretty terrifying. It’s terrifying because, as Michael Gerber has often pointed out on this blog, it’s finally impossible to live that out without burning up in the process.

Not so McCartney, of course. He’s maintained a separation between his public and private selves, and he sees disguise and indirection as all in good fun. Whether he’s listing a songwriting credit as “Bernard Webb,” presenting the Beatles as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or releasing music as part of the initially-mysterious entity The Fireman, he’s consistently playing with both revealing and concealing. I don’t think he’s really trying to fool us, because it’s too transparent. McCartney is always acknowledging what he’s doing as a performance. He’s showing us the jacket he’s pulling up.

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32 Comments

  1. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    Well said. You summed Paul up.

  2. Avatar Mollie wrote:

    I watched the interview (online) but not the concert. I hope Paul sounded better singing than he did speaking – his voice seemed pretty roughed up. Nobody seemed to agree with me when I posted about the last Colbert-McCartney interview a couple years back. I thought this one was a lot less uncomfortable to watch, but Paul still seemed a bit irritable, or maybe just too guarded. The reference at the beginning to their previous encounter seemed to confirm my recollection of it; Colbert made a joke about his original “Who are the Beatles, exactly?” approach that I took as an acknowledgement that McCartney clearly hadn’t enjoyed playing along. (And Paul’s response to Colbert’s joke didn’t alter that impression.) Still, it was a good interview that went down some not-so-obvious byways and led to some pretty interesting responses from Paul. And yes, I loved the use of “begrimed.”

    It seems to me the “jokey and theatrical” veneer that you identify so accurately, Nancy, is wearing with age. Or perhaps it’s the tour schedule that wears it down. But the defensiveness is more on the surface than it once was — I think he just doesn’t have the energy to keep up the cheery persona the way he once did.

  3. @Nancy, this is a fantastic post. Really insightful.

    He’s basically at ease with being a performer, in a traditional rock-as-showbiz sense, as John Lennon wasn’t. And part of being a performer is never fully lowering that velvet jacket.

    And THIS is why the rock establishment cannot see McCartney for the genius he is. Lennon, yes, because he’s dead; Dylan, because he’s difficult; even Brian Wilson, because he’s damaged. But McCartney is always gonna be your Mom’s favorite Beatle, and because of the generational psychodrama the Boomers insist is at the center of rock, that’s an unforgivable sin. He’s a generational traitor–that’s what “granny music” means. That’s why John claimed Yoko influenced New Wave and got away with it, at the same time Paul was ACTUALLY MAKING NEW WAVE MUSIC.

    I mean…duh?

    It is a point of Boomer scripture that post-psychedelia 60s rock was fundamentally different–more honest, more personal, more important–than what had come before. Your listening to Jefferson Airplane was BETTER than your dad’s liking dixieland jazz, it was about destroying the old, flawed world and creating a new, better one.

    Lennon played this game consummately well (and by the end believed it was utter malarkey). McCartney never played it, and never wanted to play it. People like Jann Wenner and the doyennes of rock criticism quite rightly saw this as McCartney subtly, passively, but nevertheless definitely calling bullshit. That’s a blood libel, and why they’ll never give him his due.

    McCartney’s whole career is built on the idea that “Til There Was You” is just as good a song–and just as honest a type of communication–as any blurt of protest or supposed look into a musician’s soul. And his lasting popularity, in the face of generations’ worth of disdain from the rock press, is proof that he’s right, and Wenner, Christgau, Bangs, and all the hyperbolic fanboys that have followed are wrong. Not for themselves–rock certainly changed THEIR lives–but in what rock is, and has been able to accomplish, in the world outside of their heads.

    Wenner’s lionizing of Lennon and backhanded treatment of McCartney is, in some sense, his own guilty conscience in the face of this knowledge. And the same goes for all the myriad cultural critics who pump out the “Paul’s a lightweight” meme. (Strangely, these same folks often characterize Yoko Ono as some sort of heavyweight, which is truly WTF-worthy, but that’s another comment.) Turns out that rock isn’t THAT powerful. Turns out that it’s for singing and dancing to and enjoying, not changing the world. The two-for-one that’s at the heart of the Sixties simply isn’t valid, and fifty years on, I think it’s pretty obvious that McCartney’s showbiz stance is fundamentally more accurate, and I’d argue, fundamentally more honest and less adolescent, than the alternative.

  4. @Mollie, I think we should keep in mind that Paul’s 71. God knows what aches and pains he’s having to fight through, and while it’s clear that he gets well on stage–a wonderful phenomenon I’ve experienced myself!–I think his final gift to his generation could be showing that everybody, even rich, famous, impossibly talented icons, gets old.

    So is it a veneer? I’d say not; look at the guy’s public persona and it’s hardly varied over 50 years. Even “the world’s best PR man” can’t pull that off. I think he genuinely is the cheery chappy, at least to himself, but it’s him that’s wearing down, not the act.

  5. Avatar king kevin wrote:

    Paul’s voice does sound tired, but he is 71 years old and singing rock and roll like a wild man. 🙂 I saw him in 2011, and he was absolutely amazing. I love hearing him tell new stories, like Ringo switching out snare drums for different songs, and in the Harrison doc where he reveals that GH came up with the And I love Her lick. I wish that somebody would interview him the way Lennon was interviewed in 1980 by Playboy: song by song, Go a little deeper than the ‘scrambled eggs’ warhorse stories. I’m tired of the carefully staged stuff like the 09-09-09 Beatle album docs. Love to hear the Wings song stories, too. Guess he’d have to mention Denny Laine, though. Doubt that would happen after virtually erasing him in the WIngspan movie,

  6. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Mollie, I think McCartney was more relaxed in this interview than in the previous Colbert one you wrote about, maybe because he’s in a happier place personally. He is showing his age–his singing voice particularly–but I appreciate his not resorting to lip-synching. The one place where the persona got to me was “Hi, Hi, Hi” which he just has NO business singing now, IMO. Some stuff he could just drop at this point, and be better off for it.

    But I’ve come to think that one of the main reasons McCartney is still sane, and still able to perform at 71, is that he keeps a distance between his public and private selves. That means he looks defensive sometimes, but honestly, keeping a guard up seems like a pretty rational response to megafame. More generally, I sympathize with the desire to keep private life private. (Just look at my profile picture!)

    And Michael, well said about McCartney and “granny music.” When Colbert asked Paul if there were songs he wished he’d written, he said “Cheek to Cheek.” Spoken like a guy whose dad was in a jazz band.

    • Avatar Charlie wrote:

      I definitely noticed a more playful demeanor between Colbert appearances (I laughed out loud at the one-word answer “drugs”!). It’s also interesting to contrast his Howard Stern appearance promoting Driving Rain in 2001 to the recent one behind New. Before, he dodged most of the dodgier questions (I think an answer to one of Howard’s more risque queries was “that’s for me to know and for you not to know”). The more recent one was less guarded (granted, Stern was a lot more deferential). These days he seems more open to joking about his past – he made groupie jokes on Jimmy Kimmel and in Rolling Stone recently as well. Singing “Hi Hi Hi” seems to me emblematic of Paul feeling free to embrace the less squeaky-clean parts of his character. (Although you may have noticed how clearly he enunicated the word “polygon”…)

  7. Avatar SideTwo3rdTrack wrote:

    Interesting. I always thought ‘Double Fantasy’ was his admission that it was all a bit of a sham. From the pretend happy marriage to the album title itself, meanwhile John insisting in interviews that all the songs had arrived at once in a burst of inspiration. Jack Douglas says they pretty much recorded their work in separate sessions, and that, initially, it didn’t even begin life as a John and Yoko album. And that became his swan song! A cynic would say that a Lennon come-back album, as it was then, was a fantastic vehicle for Yoko to hitch an opportunistic mainstream ride upon. It almost worked for her. But what I’d give to see it in context, 30-odd years on, yet minus the drama of John’s forced ending. It’s just gotten steadily more warped since then.

    And Paul, well, he’s just very very well-practised, and always has been. It doesn’t always work though: if he’d said what he was really thinking, when that reporter cornered him on Dec 9th 1980, which was probably something like “F_ off, how do you think I f_ing feel?” instead of some vague sarcasm (“drag innit?”) that no-one really picked up on, he’d have earned far more respect in the years that followed. I mean, George even quoted The Rutles in his statement: “Shocked and stunned. Shocked and stunned…”

    I don’t know… with fame that enormous, things do get odd.

  8. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I’m glad Paul is singing Hi Hi Hi. It’s a GREAT track. And why shouldn’t he sing it? Just because it’s about sex and drugs? He’s 71, yes, but he’s not dead. I hope he’s still getting some. 🙂

    That said, this is a good analysis of Paul. I’ve seen that photo many times and never thought of it in that way, but I think you’re right on the mark, Nancy. And Paul actually confesses this tendency to hold back in his song “Nobody Knows” on the terrific McCartney II album. The lyrics are:

    “And that’s the way I like to keep it
    Just so nobody knows.”

    I think that’s an autobiographical line. That IS the way Paul likes it. He’s willing to share 20 percent of himself with the public but not the rest. Notice when he does major interviews with newspapers or magazines, he is rarely ever photographed inside any of his homes. He’s never done what many celebrities do and pose inside his home(s) for Architectural Digest (like Elton) or have a TV interview where he is interviewed inside his house. He’s done interviews inside his Sussex studio; that’s it. Even with David Frost recently, the interview was in a hotel room. Or he does interviews at his London office. But never in his homes. He doesn’t want you there.

    I don’t think Paul seems at all “irritable” on Colbert’s show. Perhaps he was a bit nervous about keeping up with Colbert. I would!! But he’s definitely more defensive in interviews these days — since the emergence of the Web and the way that it encourages personal attacks about someone’s aging or their hair or some misspoken comment, etc. The media is a different game now. He knows that any mild quote can get blown WAY out of proportion and go all over the world. It’s happened to him all the time. So, yes, he’s more guarded than ever. He should be. People are so ready to pounce on the Web.

    — Drew

  9. why not “Picasso’s Last Words” or “Bluebird”?

    Yeech.

    Sorry, that just slipped out.

    A good post. McCartney has never been particularly good at pretending to be pants-down honest — which has an integrity all its own. And anyway, over the years, his facial expressions, if you’re paying attention, are much more revealing than his words. He may not always say what he’s thinking, but you can pretty much read him anyway.

  10. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Drew and Mythical Monkey, I guess we’re all going to have our “yeech” songs, as well as our songs we like despite the critical disdain heaped on them. My objection to “Hi, Hi, Hi” isn’t that it’s about sex and drugs, or about feeling Paul’s to old to be “getting some,” it’s that to me the song sounds forced and kind of lame despite its attempted good-time vibe. Whereas I love “Bluebird,” especially with the acoustic intro it gets on “Wings Over America,” and I hear “Picasso’s Last Words” as McCartney starting to think about death — a rehearsal for “The End of the End,” if you will.

    [But then, by this point on this blog I’m a WELL-established sucker for McCartney’s melodies. Just have to plant my freak flag there.]

    Drew, glad you brought up “Nobody Knows” — very strongly agree with you that that’s a 100% honest McCartney statement. Also a good point about his keeping his houses private. He even wrote “I Love This House” about his feelings for home (recorded in 1984, and better than many songs he put on albums of the period. Again, arghh!)

    And Mythical Monkey, I love the way you express what I was trying to get at: “McCartney has never been particularly good at pretending to be pants-down honest—which has an integrity all his own.” Exactly.

  11. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    After watching Paul on Colbert, I saw Lennon auction for the Voice:

    – hologram sam

  12. Avatar Stew wrote:

    @hologram sam – the end of that video had me laughing out loud.

  13. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Michael and Nancy, you guys really have to get past this “Paul McCartney really is cooler than John Lennon” chip you have on your shoulder. It’s become quite tiresome. The “rock establishment cannot see McCartney for the genius he is”?! Seriously? You can’t get past Jann Wenner? Probably still feeling a little Ian McDonald burn as well, I’d imagine? Geez, that was so 20th Century!

    Maxwell and his bloody hammer, Your Mother Should Know, All Together Now, etc. etc.–that’s the “granny music,” NOT Till There Was You. Though John (and George, let’s not forget) should really have called it “kiddie’s music,” which is what it is in actuality. Sorry, but it’s NOT cool. Never was, never will be. (And the same with Paul’s trademark caginess, btw.)

    But forget all that because everyone knows McCartney’s a genius. Okay? So chill. Oh, and so was Lennon, by the way.

    Peace. Now blog on…

  14. Thanks for commenting, @Anon, and thanks for clarifying what my McCartney-related beef really is. (Skip the rest because it’s more of what you hate. Sorry.)

    In my experience, people who think certain stuff is “cool” and other stuff is “uncool” are, almost without exception, decidedly uncool. Privately John and George held those people in particular disdain, as I’m sure you know. (Cool people tend to be judgey.) And funny thing: Paul’s supposed squareness only became public after the breakup, when John and George needed a stick to beat Paul with.

    But about that lawsuit: as I never tire of saying, Paul’s never gotten enough credit for protecting The Beatles’ catalog, and every time there’s a decent reissue or something neat like LOVE or Rockband, we should thank god it’s not ABKCO running the show. I harp on this because it’s the very things that made Paul uncool to John and George–caring about money, acting like a businessman, etc–that saved their asses. That’s worth saying, and often, because nobody says it enough. Not even Doggett.

    Why? I’d argue because McCartney ISN’T considered a genius, not like Lennon. He’s considered an entertainer, not a visionary, and somehow lesser. But whatever those guys created, it was together–that’s obvious from the history of the Beatle years, and the disappointing solo ones, too. Lots of modern rockers want to walk in the footsteps of John Lennon; how many feel that way about McCartney? Not nearly as many. YMMV, but I think Lennon still is held in higher esteem as an artist, and (speaking as a fellow popular artist) I think that’s bullshit. It’s marketing and marketing, to me, is the height of uncool.

    Because John died in 1980, we’ve been robbed of him really apologizing for all the nasty, silly stuff he said regarding Paul in the 70s. And the biases of Philip Norman–Lennon’s main biographer and soon McCartney’s, too–suggest that this worn-out “McCartney stinks” meme is still alive and well.

    I’m particularly full-throated in my defense of McCartney these days for two reasons:
    1) I’m a John guy who read everything he possibly could on John, and found that he was a lot of things, but certainly not the image most fans have. John was just as acquisitive as Paul, more soppily romantic, less generous, and maybe less politically astute. That’s (still) news to most of the Beatle world, I think.
    2) All the songs you mention aren’t my favorites, either–but are they any worse than, say, “Goodnight”? If we can defend, and even enjoy, John’s warmed-over musique concrete, or George’s Indian Tunes for Foreigners, surely we can tolerate Paul’s kiddie music? To me it’s all part of the stew.

    Calling Paul soft because you don’t like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is silly, because it clings to a demonstrably false, totally media-driven idea of who these guys were, what they stood for, and how they acted. I’m sorry if digging into that is boring for you, @Anon, but it’s kinda what this blog is about. There’s not a lot of new things to say about John or George, God rest ’em, but we try to do that, too. Just read those posts if it bugs you. Thanks again for commenting–I do love to hear everybody’s opinions.

  15. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    It’s funny how often I see Lennon fans get all upset when someone suggests that McCartney deserves respect, too. Not that Paul was “cooler” (whatever that means) than John, just that Paul was every bit the genius John was. That’s all Nancy and Michael have been saying here. But I think “anonymous” is one of those Lennon fans who reads anti-John sentiment into any praise for Paul. It’s probably because Anonymous doesn’t like when Lennon’s altar gets shaken to make room for Paul.

    P.S. That person’s comment about Ian MacDonald implied that his book, Revolution in the Head, was pro-John. But that’s a willful misreading of the book. In fact, McDonald’s book (along with Mark Lewisohn’s books) has helped restore Macca’s reputation by showing again and again how integral he was to the Beatles music, and how he was the driving force in the studio for much of the band’s history. McDonald can be critical of all 4 Beatles but he is by no means anti-Paul, or pro-John. Nor is he pro-Paul and anti-John.

    The reason I come to this blog is because it’s fair to all of the Beatles. You’re critical of all of them at times, but you don’t play favorites. Thank you for that!!!

    — Drew

  16. Avatar Stew wrote:

    @Anon – If you can’t see the subversiveness in a nursery rhyme with the line, “black, white, green, red, can I take my friend to bed?” then you’re missing a lot of the point.

  17. Avatar Stew wrote:

    Whether he’s listing a songwriting credit as “Bernard Webb,” presenting the Beatles as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or releasing music as part of the initially-mysterious entity The Fireman, he’s consistently playing with both revealing and concealing. I don’t think he’s really trying to fool us, because it’s too transparent. McCartney is always acknowledging what he’s doing as a performance. He’s showing us the jacket he’s pulling up.

    @Nancy Carr – Very well put. I think with the more transparent, “revealed deceptions” like Sgt. Pepper, Bernard Webb, etc., Paul is pointing to the fact that there’s plenty we don’t know. We don’t even know who’s writing the songs, between the vagueness of the Lennon/McCartney credit, and the fact that Paul can clearly release songs without putting his name on them.

  18. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Anon, sorry you see what I’ve said about McCartney on this blog as “McCartney is cooler than Lennon.” I write about McCartney because I’m interested in him and his music. He’s the one I think I have something to say about. That doesn’t mean that I think he’s the “coolest” or that I don’t welcome analyses of Lennon, Harrison, Starr, or whatever else people want to discuss here.

    To clarify, I’m not claiming that McCartney’s “trademark caginess” is cool, but that’s its worth thinking about in terms other than “insincere jerk.” I do dislike a fair bit of McCartney’s music (though not all the songs you list), and agree he’s done some artistically idiotic things over the years. (“Spies Like Us,” anyone?) But in the same way, I dislike a fair bit of Lennon’s.

    If you have something to say about Lennon (or anything else Beatles-related) that you feel isn’t being talked about here, feel free to write up your idea and send it in as a comment, for consideration as a post. Free exchange of opinions is what it should be all about.

  19. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    Great post, Nancy. Paul’s reluctance to reveal too much is in itself revealing of his character, and an important trait to factor into any sort of analysis of him. There’s that 1969 Alan Smith interview where Paul himself talks explicitly about it. Here’s the money bit:

    Ask him to analyze himself and tell him I have always believed him to be Likably — repeat, likably — Insincere.

    Pause. “To you, possibly,” says Paul. “Because I think ‘Here’s an interview!’ I don’t think ‘Alan Smith, person,’ at all. I think I have to watch what I say because you don’t say certain things to papers.

    “Whenever I’m faced with a Pop Press Conference or a drink with the reporters, I can’t be sincere… ‘cos I wouldn’t be there. But I suppose that by being pleasantly insincere, I can at least get to know people on some level in the short space of time.”

    Long conversation and then finally, a statement.

    “The Truth about Me,” says Paul, “is that I’m… Pleasantly Insincere!”

    Emphasis mine. I think what he’s saying is that he can’t be himself in interviews, because if left to himself, he would never opt to do the interview (“be there”) in the first place — it’s an obligation of his job, nothing more.

    Which squares with his habit of recycling the same stories again and again. They’re the stories he’s earmarked for public consumption, they get him through the interview with a minimum of discomfort, then he gets to go home. The rest of his stories are his.

    look at the guy’s public persona and it’s hardly varied over 50 years. Even “the world’s best PR man” can’t pull that off. I think he genuinely is the cheery chappy, at least to himself

    I would say that in the ’60s and ’70s he was equally guarded, but didn’t seem to feel a need to offset or “disguise” that guardedness with the kind of self-conscious, forced hamminess that started to take over his interview persona in the mid-80’s or so. I’m not sure if this change was a conscious effort or an organic response to new stressors (John’s death/bad press thereafter? Family/marriage stuff? Creative downturn?). I might chalk it up to him getting goofier with age for some reason, except that the goofiness seems to have been ebbing back down for the past 15 years or so.

    As for how much Paul really is “the cheery chappy,” I dunno. It’s hard to say because, for one thing, Paul seems to require at least ten years before publicly discussing more difficult periods of his life — when he’s in the thick of it, he bluffs. There’s that one mid-’80s (I think) interview where he says that during the early Wings years, the interview question he most dreaded was “Are you happy?”, in response to which he said he’d always have to “lie through [his] teeth”. I was surprised to hear that, and I haven’t seen him mention it again — which seems to be his MO on revealing the darker specifics of his life (the traumatic visit to his mother in hospital, being hit by his dad, etc.). He’ll say it, once. Otherwise he sticks to his script.

    Oh-oh, length too long! TBC…

  20. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    … PT 2:

    Sorry for going on and on! I find this aspect of Paul very interesting and compelling; it’s a big part of why he’s my favorite. I remember a lecture from a theater professor in college. He said that, in theater and film, big sloppy breakdown scenes are often regarded as the gold standard of dramatic performance, but that for his money, it was much more moving to watch a character struggle against tears.

    One more thing: Another factor I feel is at play in the perception of Paul as “insincere” is his stage persona. I love (like, LOVE) Paul’s way of expressing melancholy in song, and find his recorded performances completely poignant, heartbreaking, real, etc. But I’d be the first to admit that his stage performances of songs like “Eleanor Rigby”, “LAWR”, even “Yesterday” come off pretty canned — schlocky, even. But I don’t think that negates the sincerity of the songs themselves; I just think the true emotions behind them are simply incompatible with the performance rush he gets onstage. Now, there are lots of artists who CAN channel their most raw and vulnerable feelings in front of a crowd, and that is really special and awesome and way to go, them! But Paul’s not one of them. He needs a safe and private “home” environment in order to get in that “zone”. Like the “pleasantly insincere” exchange above, all this tells us is that Paul isn’t prone to great wellings of naked authenticity under highly contrived and pressurized circumstances. And what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know.

  21. Avatar girl wrote:

    Michael I never tire of your thoughtful, even brilliant, comments. Also Drew and Nancy always manage to hit it right on the head too. The three of you are the reason I read this blog. I’m pretty puzzled that any of the points you make could be misinterpreted as “We think McCartney is cooler than Lennon”. I can’t help thinking that some people willfully misinterpret what they read.

  22. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Annie: What a fascinating post. I kept nodding my head as I read it thinking “yes” and “Yes” and “YES!”

    This comment of yours: “Paul isn’t prone to great wellings of naked authenticity under highly contrived and pressurized circumstances. And what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know.”

    That’s well said. And so is the observation about how he takes 10 years before he can talk about traumas in his life. That quote about him discussing how unhappy he was during early Wings is kinda heartbreaking. Gosh, Linda had her hands full.

    And that “pleasantly insincere” quote. You know the irony is that he’s totally right that he can’t be comfortable with the media because they WILL use any slip against you. Case in point: That “pleasantly insincere” quote. He’s clearly not saying he’s pleasantly insincere in life — JUST TO THE MEDIA. And yet, in the special Beatles issue published a few months ago by Uncut Magazine, they featured that quote prominently: McCartney Admits He’s ‘Pleasantly Insincere” (or somesuch). And people wonder why he doesn’t trust the press. He shouldn’t.

    One thing I’d disagree with: I think his performance of Yesterday had gotten increasingly poignant as he’s aged. For me, he does sound sincere singing that song live — more so than he did when singing in live in 1965. Maybe it’s his aging voice but it just feels like he means it. I’ve become increasingly convinced that that song is about his mother, but that’s for another thread. 🙂

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Philip Norman’s bio of Paul captured some of this? Somehow, though, we all know it won’t. It’ll run with the “pleasantly insincere” schtick, without the context.

    — Drew

  23. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    Thanks, Drew. 🙂

    in the special Beatles issue published a few months ago by Uncut Magazine, they featured that quote prominently: McCartney Admits He’s ‘Pleasantly Insincere” (or somesuch). And people wonder why he doesn’t trust the press.

    I didn’t see that! Sheesh.

    Gosh, Linda had her hands full.

    No kidding. Linda was also interviewed on the same program, and when asked if Paul ever got nervous before performing she said, “He’s been nervous since I met him.” Paul’s an odd stew of stability and neurosis; ever since I read about his imaginary friends who turn up during painting crises, I’ve suspected he probably has a whole host of pretty, um, INTERESTING coping techniques.

    Good points about “Yesterday”, and you’ll get no arguments from me; in honesty it’s been a while since I watched him sing it (via Youtube). Definitely agree with the about-mother interp!

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Philip Norman’s bio of Paul captured some of this? Somehow, though, we all know it won’t.

    Yeah, my hopes are not high. Even his John bio didn’t seem to fully capture some of the best parts of John: his warmth, humor, playfulness, etc. (this is true of most film depictions of John, too). Which makes me wonder if Norman is the sort of fan who actively LIKES that John could be a right bastard — who might even feel it justifies his own mean-spiritedness (as evidenced by the George-obit and Paul-doggerel discussed in an earlier post). Like a “cruelty is an entitlement of greatness” sort of attitude. Ick.

  24. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Annie and Drew, good points about wariness of the press being reasonable for public figures like McCartney, and about his probable dislike of interviews, period. What dogs McCartney is that he’s able neither to defy public opinion believably, a la Lennon, or to seem genuinely comfortable with the press (which I think requires real acting ability).

    I can’t resist adding this factoid, which suggests that performing in disguise may run in the family (it’s from Michael J. Hockinson’s “Ultimate Beatles Quiz Book II”):

    “The Masked Melody Makers was the first name given to the band formed in 1919 by Paul’s father, Jim McCartney. (The MMMs wore highwayman masks until the masks melted on their faces one night, during a particularly strenuous performance. McCartney then changed their name to Jim Mac’s Band.)

  25. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Sorry, but it’s NOT cool. Never was, never will be. (And the same with Paul’s trademark caginess, btw.)

    Okay, you know, this comment by Anon actually really pushed my button in the wrong way.

    First off, how does Paul being cagey make him “not cool”? Since when does not wanting to share every facet of ones personal life with the public translate into un-coolness? Has our reality-show culture becomes so prevalent that anyone who dares keep part of their personal self and lives to themselves somehow becomes fake, or phony and therefore – in YOUR eyes Anon – Un-cool?

    Because, you know, John always gave off the impression that he was always telling everything about himself, that he let it all hang out and had had nothing to hide . . . and yet, that wasn’t every really true. There are many things John said that were obfuscations – if not outright lies – in the press; especially in the 70s during the great break up. John even admitted, 10 years later, that many of the things he said in the famous Lennon Remembers interview for Rolling Stone that he was lying. Because he was angry.

    I think many Lennon fans who attack McCartney in this way really do miss how Lennon used the press in the same ways that John accused Paul of doing. John always gave the impression, in many of his early 70s interviews that he was being “straight” with people and many Lennon-fans latch onto that and really don’t want to confront the fact that John wasn’t – for the most part – being “straight” with them at all. And I agree with Michael, a lot of it was also telling the press what they wanted to hear.

    As for what’s “cool” and what isn’t – well. That is so freakin’ subjective as to be funny. But I will say this: people who usually have to push and declare all the time that something is cool usually, themselves, aren’t cool at all. When something or someone tries hard to be what they think is considered “hip,” then it usually isn’t.

    And I love Revolution in the Head. I too think it was one of those books that was fair to every member of the group, and didn’t just praise one person over the expense of the others.

  26. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I’m sorry but I forgot to sign my comment above. Like I said that last part of the comment by the Anon just pushed the wrong button in me, so I kind of forgot to. It’s just, I’ve never seen it as a problem that Paul dosen’t give the public all of himself, even when it comes to his songs. So whenever I see that type of criticism directed at him, it kind of gets my back up.

    I understand people who like “personally introspective” songs that seem to lay bare the performer’s soul and such. There are many songs in that vein that I love too.

    But just because a song maybe dosen’t do that does NOT make it worthless, or unmeaningful. And that is the tone I get from people like the Anon who criticize this aspect of Paul and his songwriting (or interview skills or what-have-you).

    There was, IMO, a silly criticism in this vein made about the song She’s Leaving Home. Again, it kinda goes into the whole Boomer psychodrama stuff @Michael Gerber mentioned. Some (boomer age) critic said that Paul’s “sentimentality” (i.e. his “uncoolness”) ruined the punch the song could have had because he had the verse in the song that included the parents POV on the situation. The critic not getting, IMO, that the song was telling a story, and that getting the parents POV actually made the characters – especially that of the girl who ran away – even more full and rich, and you understood even more why she left home.

    But the criticism of having the POV of the parents in there goes, IMO, into that whole “don’t trust anyone over 30” mentality that many boomers still carry with them, even now when all of them are way over 30.

    And it’s clearly a mentality that Paul never really subscribed to. It was a song, like Eleanor Rigby, that told a story. And Paul – for the most part – seems to be more of a storyteller with his songs than wanting to always lair bare every corner of his soul. Not that he can’t do that; I think he dose it unconsciously when he does do it. (IMO the song Yesterday was this). But it wasn’t/isn’t ever his conscious modus operandi when it comes to writing a song, like it seem to become for John. And I just don’t see anything wrong with that.

    — MGAnon

  27. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    how does Paul being cagey make him “not cool”? Since when does not wanting to share every facet of ones personal life with the public translate into un-coolness?

    You know, I think there are two kinds of “caginess” being discussed here. There’s Paul’s defense of his privacy, and then there’s his defensiveNESS, his tendency to minimize and justify his flaws and failings to the public.

    Which he totally does! I’m not saying he doesn’t. But again, context:

    A) He puts a positive spin on almost everything and everyone, not just himself — he’s just pathologically positive, at least in public. If you take a really comprehensive look at his interviews, you’ll actually find him admitting (however reluctantly) to his own faults FAR more often than he’s finding fault with others. Not so John or George. You’ll also find him much more upfront and clear-sighted about how his solo work doesn’t measure up to his work with The Beatles.

    B) Paul has been taken to task for his worst moments (musically and personally) and commanded to EXPLAIN HIMSELF! in a way that is totally unprecedented for a music icon. Are we really so sure John or George would have handled that level of criticism more gracefully?

    I mean, how is John’s justification for “How Do You Sleep?” in any way LESS of a slippery cop-out than anything Paul has ever said? And as far as I know, George never had to answer for any of his own poorer behavior (which by the way was probably due in no small part to the fact that Paul didn’t publicly bitch about them like they did about him).

    For John, the best defense was a good offense. And of course John (and George) also had the advantage of a visible, self-righteous conviction, whereas with Paul (like Mythical Monkey said above) it’s often plain to see that he’s hedging, that he knows he’s hedging, and that he knows we know he’s hedging. It’s certainly an uncomfortable little tap-dance to watch; it’s so much easier to believe someone who believes their own propaganda. But it doesn’t make them more right, and it certainly doesn’t make them more cool.

  28. Are we really so sure John or George would have handled that level of criticism more gracefully?

    They didn’t, @Annie. Both John and George turned vicious as hell the moment fans (or interviewers) deigned to criticise their work, their passion of the moment, or even any of their life-choices.

    In fact, the moment that both of them weren’t regularly lauded as superstars, both John and George retired. That’s their right, of course, but we know how they would’ve held up under the welter of critical disdain and periods of musical irrelevance that Paul has suffered. They would’ve quit–because in the end, both of them saw music as a job and a means to an end. Is there any doubt Paul lives to write and perform songs? That doesn’t make him a better person, but it is a good characteristic–love of the game–that seldom is mentioned.

  29. Avatar David wrote:

    I think the most revealing McCartney moment is during an interview in Wingspan, when Mary starts getting playful with her dad. It’s a sweet moment where they kick each other a bit. You see the real man for a second,but then he clearly realizes he’s on camera and shuts it down,becoming PAUL MCCARTNEY again. It’s akin to a moment in “The First US Visit”, when Paul hears the radio announcer talk about the Beatles reading ‘poetry’. For a moment he laughs and begins to say something,but then remembers the camera and…swoosh!…PAUL MCCARTNEY appears!
    It’s also well to note: this guy has had a life full of devastating loss and heartache. From his mother to his wife to his brothers, he’s lost so much that the billions can never make up for. I’m sure his psyche must be even more scarred than Lennons in many ways.

  30. […] public Paul do the public things, and maintains a private person in a protected space. Nancy has talked about this extensively and well. For me, I think it’s summed up in Paul’s song “That Was Me“—which is […]

  31. Avatar Michael K wrote:

    I have recently started to take on board a lot of the gripes about ‘showbiz’ that Van Morrison has set forth over the years. Despite his demeanour suggesting he’s incapable of other than gripes, he actually has it fairly nailed in that he attributes even individual fans’ unreasonable expectations of musicians to the culture of ‘rockist journalism’ (my term) that grew up in the likes of Rolling Stone after The Beatles’ revolutions. In this frame, someone like Paul McCartney is being ‘insincere’ when he doesn’t let you into the bathroom while he’s on the toilet. He must have something to hide and therefore more biographies are needed to extract that turd from the bowl for pictures.

    In fact, Paul just tells people where to get off and does it pleasantly. It’s that simple.

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