Fifty years after he first recorded an original song with the greatest band in history and six years after he reached the imagined retirement age he himself immortalized in the chronicles of rock 'n' roll, the world is still sending birthday greetings to Paul McCartney.
This week his 70th birthday was marked with amazement. The birthday boy refuses to function only as a museum specimen: He continues to fill stadiums and has also issued a new solo album recently. In the same breath, no one has devoted himself more in the past two decades to ceaselessly refreshing the Beatles legend, enthusiastically and without an iota of apology. In the spirit of one of the hits he wrote and the band recorded, he is carrying that weight consciously and well.
There aren't many people who influenced the 20th century more (and whose influence is continuing into the 21st century with a gravitational force that refuses to wane ). There hasn't been a hegemonic phenomenon like the Beatles in popular culture. Therefore, it is interesting to understand why McCartney doesn't have the halo of an icon and for the most part his image remains under a kind of glass ceiling. His portrait does not appear on T-shirts worn by teenagers. It is doubtful any have been printed. He isn't Che Guevara, whose contribution to humanity is far smaller, and he certainly isn't John Lennon.
The first explanation for this is the nature of his genius. Beginning in late 1965 a genius of the caliber of Mozart and Beethoven has been walking among us. However, exactly like them, he is a musical genius. McCartney's powers are in the worlds of melody and harmony, adaptation and orchestration, musicianship and recording. These are captivating and exhilarating worlds but it is hard to mediate them by means of a newspaper article or a placard at a demonstration.
McCartney sometimes wrote beautiful lyrics but most of his power is not on the level of ideas. He is perceived, with some justice, as apolitical and doesn't come anywhere near Lennon's ideological profile. In this there is a kind of historical injustice: McCartney was a radical innovator and revolutionary, but his innovation and his revolution exist in the musical field and therefore are hidden from the masses. His creative style of playing the bass guitar, which changed the face of rock 'n' roll beyond recognition, cannot be sprayed as graffiti on a wall.
The second aspect, simply, is a personality that is not sufficiently interesting. If McCartney has psychological depths, they have not been expressed publicly or musically. Lennon translated the pains of his childhood and the depressiveness of his adolescence into masterpieces. When McCartney sank into depressions - and there were times when he did - he mastered another musical instrument or piece of recording equipment.
He once related that music saved him after he lost his mother at the age of 12. Lennon, too, was orphaned of his mother in adolescence and during the course of his career he dedicated a series of heart-rending songs to her absent image. McCartney's mother appears, by implication, only in "Let It Be," which is also a harmonious song of comforting.
Despite being the leading creative force in the Beatles' peak years, and even though he was the first to draw his friends into the fringe and the avant garde, his character is considered somewhat auntish . His Liverpudlian work ethic, which kept the band alive and lifted it to a series of unbelievable peaks, is not perceived as a cool attribute. Even his persistent and worthy vegetarianism is often interpreted as an annoyance.
McCartney himself has contributed considerably to this image's malignant undermining of the reality: It sometimes seems there is no trap of boring respectability he doesn't fall right into, including the acceptance of a knighthood from the Queen. Is it any wonder everyone calls him "Sir Paul" and then relates to him as a doddery member of the House of Lords?
His greatest image disaster, of course, is that he was not assassinated at a young age like his buddy was. Then he would have been embalmed in the pantheon as a martyred saint and been spared the ravages of time like Botox, makeup, dyed hair and excess sentimentality. Still, it is his luck that this is a very happy birthday - and the luck is ours too.
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