Getting (a bit) better — and a Minus 5 cover

The past few weeks have found us spending time and (virtual) ink on some pretty dark themes — the Lennon/McCartney musical feud of the early 70s and Albert Goldman’s resolutely dirt-seeking biography of Lennon. But hey, it’s spring! Here in Chicago it’s finally stopped being 30 degrees, the sun is out, some (admittedly small) green shoots are emerging from the ground . . . . it’s a time of at least some hopefulness.

So, in that spirit, I invite you to listen to the Minus 5’s cover of “Dear Friend,” the song on Wingsdebut album in which Paul responds to John’s “How Do You Sleep?” attack. No video available, but you can listen to it here.

It’s particularly notable that “Dear Friend” was recorded at the time of Ram, but not released then. Devin recently opined that its inclusion on Ram would have improved that album, but I can’t agree. It wouldn’t have fit the mood of that album, and besides, I think that Paul was perhaps unconsciously saving it as a reply to the response he had to suspect John was going to make to “Too Many People.” And if that sounds convoluted, all I can say is that’s an adjective that fits the Lennon/McCartney friendship well.

“Dear Friend,” though its overall tone is one of reconciliation, isn’t without its barbs: “Are you a fool / Or is it true?” isn’t exactly an unambiguous peace offering. George Starostin captures this mood in his review of the song: “Paul’s minimalistic, piano-based response to John’s critique, ‘Dear Friend’, is very touching – that’s one underproduced song that’s meant to be minimalistic, like ‘Imagine’, only with a bitter, slightly ironic edge. Yet in its own way it hits harder than ‘How Do You Sleep’ with its subtlety and deep understatement.”

Here’s what the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey has to say about the band’s cover, on the liner notes of the tribute album on which it appears:

“When I was a kid my friend Gary and I used to have a big argument over who was better, John or Paul. As it it mattered! I took Paul’s side but it was all in good fun. We waited at a record store for the truck to show up with Ram and bought the first copies out of the box. Worshipped that record, still do. Then Wild Life came out and sort of confused me. “Bip Bop” and “Mumbo”? But the rawness of that album has weathered well. “Dear Friend” is sort of a hidden gem—I’ve always heard it as Paul’s mature and weary reply to John’s malignant, bitchy “How Do You Sleep?” I love the way it starts so simply and keeps building and changing over the same repeating chord sequence. I think it’s a beautiful song, straight from the heart, and one that more people should know. But then, some people never know . . . .”

The “weary” part rings true to me, less so the “mature” (if it were truly mature, there’d be no need for the undertone of irony Starostin detects). But “Dear Friend” was a turning point; after this, Lennon and McCartney stopped sniping at each other in song, and took it down several notches in their interviews as well.

Maybe I’m sun-dazzled after the weird, late winter the Midwest has been having, but I like to think that John and Paul getting at least a ways past the nadir of their relationship in 1971 suggests the power of holding out whatever olive branch you can manage, and the power of not swatting a proffered branch away, even if it’s imperfect.

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Here’s John in 1975, admitting a reunion is entirely possible:

    I like the fact that in this interview, John says that if they reunited in the studio, they would produce something valuable.

    If John hadn’t been “taken from us” (as they say) the J&P partnership would have blossomed once again.

    By the way, have you checked out mjsokes (how to play guitar like John Lennon) youtube page lately? He’s back with a vengeance! For a while I thought he’d become discouraged, quitting music to study military law or some such thing, but he’s grown his hair out, wears black turtlenecks, and is playing Beatle music beautifully.

    – Hologram Sam

  2. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Dear Friend is a gorgeous track, and I agree with the Minus 5 guy about how it starts simply and “keeps building and changing.” I also agree with him that it’s a mature track. It is a olive branch to John but it’s not a syrupy one that ignores the reality of their feuding. Hence the mature and blunt: “Are you a fool? Or is it true?” That bluntness is what gives the song its edge.

    We don’t exactly know what Paul means by that line: A fool about what? Is what true? But much as I’d like to know what he meant, I think the mystery of it words better and certainly keeps the song relevant today. Like much of the best of Paul’s solo work, the song may be about someone in particular (in this case, John) but it’s written so that the listener can make it about his/her own “dear friend.”

    I also agree with the Minus 5 guy about how well the rawness of Wild Life has aged. It’s yet another under-rated Paul album that certain older Beatles fans I talk with still hate and refuse to rethink (much the way they refuse to rethink and rehear McCartney II). Wild Life is not a perfect album but it’s absolutely interesting and worthwhile — and, yes, I unironically love Bip Bop as the playful nonsense song that it is. And I also like that Bip Bop is on an album with the very serious animal-rights message of Wild Life. That diversity of message and style in Paul’s work is a strength, not a weakness, IMO, and is what makes his albums compelling. His songs don’t all sound the same; and you never quite know which direction he’s going to dart next.

    Stupid question for you Nancy: I can’t figure out George Starostin’s Web site. I was under the impression (false I guess) that he had died? But then his new site started. Why did he do a new site? And why, when I go to his new site, do I only find reviews about bands/albums that begin with the letters A or B?? It’s all very confusing. 🙂

    — Drew

  3. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    Drew:

    I very much enjoy reading your comments and reviews on this site. You are clearly a massive Macca fan (aren’t we all!) yet your passion and love for the man goes deeper, proven by the fact that you love “Bip Bop”.

    Is there anything you don’t like about Paul? What’s his worst album? Song? Wife? What did John do better than Paul? Ringo?

    Craig

    (Don’t take me too seriously, just having a bit of fun…)

  4. Avatar girl wrote:

    Is there anything you don’t like about Paul? What’s his worst album? Song? Wife? What did John do better than Paul? Ringo?

    Ok I know I’m not Drew but I think the questions you have posted above are so much fun I couldn’t resist. Maybe everyone who visits here would have some fun for a bit and try answering some of them.

    I thought about the first question for a few minutes and I surprised myself with my answer. It is ‘no’. There really isn’t anything I personally don’t like about Paul. I started out years ago with a bias against Paul thanks to being an avid reader of 70’s rock critics and magazines like Crawdaddy and RS etc. I was also brainwashed by the early bios esp the ones that were published around the time of John’s death. Yet….there was always something about Paul…something I saw in him that seemed to defy popular opinion. As I got more and more into researching the group and reading everything I could, (espcially contemporary interviews) as well as studying photographs and even videos I began to come away with my own, very different impression of Paul. It was, “Wow he’s really a great person and extremely, almost willfully…misunderstood. Also supremely talented….much more than anyone seems to know or want to know”. Which leads me to one of your last questions, “What did John do better than Paul”? I think what John did better, was that he made all of his songs real Beatle songs rather than John songs. John was more of a group man a team player if you will. I’ve always thought that is why so many of his own songs were thought more highly of than Paul’s, for so many years. John was always open to ideas ESPECIALLY from Paul whom he thought extremely highly of and as an equal. As a result at least IMO, John’s songs really shine. John’s songs have the most harmonies and the innovation, but not because of only John. To me it seems to be because John allowed Paul and the others free reign over his music. John’s songs for the most part, are major collaborative efforts. They have that Beatles sound. Paul on the other hand seemed to be more proscriptive when it came to his own music. Something that led ultimately (and famously) to resentment. Maybe this is only my opinion, but all of my favorite Beatles songs are John songs, not because of the lyrics on a manuscript, but because of what Paul and George are doing (and allowed to do)along with John, on virtually all of them.

    As for his worst album I really don’t like a lot of his 70’s and 80’s work, but I don’t like John’s 70’s solo work that much either. So I think they are both about even as far as good albums vs. bad. My personal favorite solo Beatles album for the 70’s is Ram, and probably All Things Must Pass, with all of the others by both John and Paul, falling behind Ram and ATMP, in various positions ranging from good, to (IMHO) unlistenable.

  5. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Craig: Ha. Guilty as charged! But actually there are some things I don’t like about the man. It’s just that I feel about Paul kinda like John Lennon did: It’s OK for ME to criticize Macca but I hate it when anyone else does. He’s my dog to kick. 😉

    But OK, I’m game. Here are a few things that bother me about Paul:

    (1) The dyed hair. It hasn’t looked right in a decade. I don’t understand why he doesn’t do something about this. He’s rich beyond imagination. PAY someone to fix your hair, Paul, FFS.

    (2) My favorite Macca is experimental, weird, Macca — Ram, McCartney II, the Fireman stuff. And I also love some of Paul’s great pop songs of the 70s. I don’t particularly like anything he produced record-wise from about 1982 until 1997 when Flaming Pie came out. That was one hell of a long dry spell. I prefer to pretend that most of those records don’t exist. But his work has been sooooo good since 1997. It just pains me to see the British media (and some American writers) fall all over themselves to revere Bowie’s recent solo work and treat Macca like he hasn’t written anything worthwhile since 1973.

    (3) Linda was the coolest rock chick ever. And I don’t just miss her, I miss “them” — PaulandLinda. I’m sure they had their share of troubles as anyone married for 30 years does, but their marriage was far healthier than most in showbiz, and certainly healthier than JohnandYoko. As for Paul’s Wife No. 2: He showed shockingly poor judgment in marrying her. And the jury is still out on Wife No. 3. She seems all right, but I’ll like Nancy better if she can get him to fix his damn hair. 🙂

    (4) I wish he’d stop doing the big nostalgia-heavy arena tours and play small shows that focused on his recent solo work and featured no Beatles or Wings music at all. I wish he was confident enough in his recent work to do that. But his ego won’t allow it. The man seems to need to hear the roar of the crowds.

    And really, what’s not to love about Bip Bop? It’s such a pure guileless, joyful tune. I love hearing little Mary laughing on the track. I’d rather hear that any day than listen to the labored hackwork of Ebony & Ivory.

    — Drew

  6. Avatar Frank Black wrote:

    Neat blog. I enjoyed reading it – and I’ll be back!

  7. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    Oh, I get it! It’s really a picture of a deformed vase!

  8. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    Good point about His hair. While Paul certainly had great hair in the 60s and into the 70s (I love the mullet with mustache look he sports in the Toot n Snore era photos), he’s had trouble ever since. It’s often been too long, then started to look weird when he was graying in the early 90s. I totally understand the desire to dye his hair, I think hair plays a HUGE part in how we view people. Whether a man is bald or not can change his appearance in age by almost 15 years, IMO. That said, these days, it just doesn’t look right. There’s gotta be a better way to dye his hair in a non jet-black color that will look more natural. Also, still a bit too long for me.

    I also quibble with his fashion style which has dropped off a cliff since the halcyon days of the mid-late 60s. I think he’s finally dropped the black pants with white shirt and black suspenders costume (which lasted WAY too long), but he still doesn’t “look” good. Can someone please hire a stylist for him? Even when he wears jeans, he wears Mom-jeans! C’mon Paul! You’ve still got a good figure, wear something flattering for gods sake.

    Also, I still love you Paul.

    -Craig

  9. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    re: appearance.
    Ringo’s got the best idea. Trim the hair short, very short, let it grow gray, add a gray beard. More dignified than Paul’s dyed long hair.

    – Hologram Sam

  10. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Sam: But Ringo’s hair IS dyed. He dyes both his hair and his beard this really dark shade. The reason it looks OK is because it’s shaved so short. Just watch the George Harrison documentary to see how awful Ringo looks with longer hair. For some strange reason, he let it grow into a bizarre style, which is now captured for posterity on the George documentary. LOL. It’s really dreadful and he cut it all off soon after and went back to the very short look.

    And that’s all the hair-related comments I have for today. 🙂

    — Drew

  11. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Thanks for the comments, all — I’ve been away for the past week. A couple of remarks:

    Drew, George Starostin is alive and continuing to review! Confusingly, his current blog and his old review site share the same title, “Only Solitaire.” You ought to be able to access the old site if you search using “archive” or “list of all reviewed artists,” and the current site using “blog.” His new reviews, which include re-reviews, are proceeding alphabetically by artist. So he’s now done the Beatles, but it will be a loooong time before he gets to Harrison’s, Lennon’s, McCartney’s, and Starr’s solo works. I owe Starostin a huge debt, since his reviews turned me on to McCartney’s good solo albums.

    Re: Paul’s hair — I quite agree. Wish he’d just let it go gray. But as foibles go, it’s pretty forgivable. On the fashion front, the black/white/suspenders thing may have gotten old, Craig, but his “style” in the 80s and early 90s was truly cringe-inducing. Those horrible Cosby-style sweaters and bright colors! I appreciate the wackiness of his 70s clothes, and the 60s clothes are great, but give me minimalism before you give me any version of his 80s look!

    Finally, about Minus 5: check out “Down With Wilco.” Currently on heavy rotation at my place, and something many Beatles fans might enjoy.

  12. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Hey guys, this is way off topic but if you get to it I’d love to hear your thoughts. The White Album was the first major project to use 8 track recording. I’ve recently read somewhere that the engineers were confused about the distinctive sound they produced and went so far as to check the machine. They later discovered it was the solid state mixing board that caused the difference and by Abbey Road had things sorted out. Okay, here’s the question for discussion: Given the different sound output on The Beatles, could it have impacted the negative feelings in the band. If they come back from India, Lennon’s back on drugs and now with Yoko, and they start recording to find radically different – and, I’m guessing, shocking – results, might this have contributed to a sense of frustration, particularly if the engineers kept telling them the machine was working fine? What do you think? Consider, everyone felt good about Abbey Road.

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