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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 Wings‘ debut 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.