June, 1989 – “FLOWERS IN THE DIRT” by Paul McCartney was released.
I’ve never been the same.
When you’re a music fan – no – even more insufferable – when you’re a music aficionado – discovering the Beatles is inevitable. It’s like a movie aficionado finally discovering Alfred Hitchcock or Ingmar Bergman or David Lynch.
Because you must at least have an opinion of “Sgt. Pepper’s…” or “Abbey Road.” They were simply too significant to ignore.
Discovering the Beatles is inevitable. Whether you respond favorably to the music is another story. The Beatles – like any band – have trappings that some will find irresistible and others will find infuriatingly pat or just dull.
But the Beatles were a phenomenon. No matter what you think of their infuriatingly pat trappings (an opinion I never held – but I know a few dear friends who just don’t get what the big deal is) you could never deny that they hit a nerve with so many people. The day the Remasters were released September, 2009 – I stood in a local Best Buy watching swathes of people with armfuls of CD’s moving in droves towards the poor, lone cashier. The Box Sets had long since sold out. Rock Band: The Beatles was blaring over the sound system. It was a sweet, endearing insanity.
Worlds away from the mild humiliation I suffered in elementary school when I was mocked mercilessly for listening to “REVOLVER” in my Walkman as opposed to the latest Guns ‘n’ Roses or Def Leppard album. I was so square – they thought. I was such a fogy – they thought. Little did they know that I was participating in a musical tradition that would long outlive “HYSTERIA.” Ha ha! I win!
The popularity of the Beatles re-surged. My love of the Fab Four was vindicated. Ha ha. I win!
And as I get older – sometimes – just sometimes – that’s part of the problem of the Beatles.
They’re not mine anymore.
They’re not my private little treasure anymore. They’re not the secret I shared with the old hippie at our local record store. They’re not the spirited lads who were crooning just for me.
I don’t know if that’s me getting older and more aware of their influence – or if it’s the nature of something old gradually becoming something vintage and therefore cool again. Reading blogs recently of people going on and on about how the MONO BOX SET is the only way to go is bizarre to somebody who had a tough enough time just finding the albums – period – as his local record and tape shop.
The Beatles aren’t mine anymore.
November, 2009 (twenty years and a few months after FLOWERS IN THE DIRT’s release) – Paul McCartney released his Citi Field concert on DVD. It was a concert that I had attended – so I was naturally curious how the footage would look.
And I couldn’t help think back to the McCartney’s world tour in 1989-1990 – the one I desperately tried to get tickets to by calling every radio show in the area during their various contests. Be the 11th caller and win two free tickets. Be the 45th caller and win two free tickets. Be the 21st caller…this went on for weeks.
My parents were in the midst of a messy separation – so they were too preoccupied with their own meltdowns to take notice of my plaintive cries for even the cheapest of McCartney tickets. They didn’t understand the importance of McCartney touring for the first time since his major Wings Over The World tour – or that he was bringing the Hofner Bass out of retirement for the tour – or that he was backing one of his most critically acclaimed albums in years with this tour – an album co-written by another guy I was becoming quite obsessed with at the time – Elvis Costello (the album “SPIKE” was out the same year and I was helpless to resist its lyrical wallop).
I ended up NOT making it to the concert. And perhaps it’s just as well. The Citi Field show may have been an arguably more significant endeavor – and McCartney may have arguably been in better voice and in better spirits than he was when he was touring back in the late 80’s/early 90’s. He didn’t do any numbers from “FLOWERS IN THE DIRT,” but he did do “Here Today” from “TUG OF WAR” (another album that had struck a serious chord for me in childhood), “I’m Down” from the B-Side of the single release of “Help” (a very Little Richard-y tune that still is a mainstay of my shower repertoire), “Mrs. Vanderbilt” from “BAND ON THE RUN” (a particularly fun, lost gem from his solo career), and “Mama Only Knows” from his recent solo album “MEMORY ALMOST FULL” (dynamite bass work – it’s an album with a sound that may easily be just as good as anything that was on “FLOWERS IN THE DIRT”).
The thing that struck me as I was watching the DVD and talking to girlfriend Kirsten was this – the Beatles weren’t completely mine anymore – but McCartney’s solo work was.
The Beatles have been dissected and examined and re-examined ad nauseum. McCartney’s work doesn’t have that kind of intense scrutiny – so therefore I’ve been allowed to experience a lot of the music myself alone.
Some will say that this lack of critical attention is because his solo work – in a word – sucks!
That’s wholly unfair. It doesn’t suck at all. Some work is stunning. Some work is mediocre. Some work is mildly diverting. Some of the work is almost un-listenable.
Just like every band or solo artist’s long career. Check Dylan. Check the Rolling Stones. Check the Who. All created moments of sheer magic. All had momentary lapses in judgment and created utter dreck.
McCartney’s baggage is that he achieved a stardom so unprecedented, so early in his career, and a kind of stardom that could never be duplicated. Never. We’ve been there. We’ve seen the Beatlemania. Anything coming close to it will be a pale comparison.
Comparing him to Lennon’s solo work is unfair too because Lennon’s work could be intolerable as well. For an album as divine as “IMAGINE” – there was also “DOUBLE FANTASY” to remind us that the supposed rock laureate was fallible and completely capable of creating pretentious shite.
Girlfriend Kirsten made a great observation while we were watching the concert. She mused that if you tended to be a John person, you came to the Beatles because of their subversion of rock convention. You dug the provocative spirit of the band. You dug its tendencies to change and veer social mores. That was John. That was John as solo artist. John was probably more important as social activist in the 70’s than he was as a rock musician. In terms of his solo career – he’s certainly more important now as a social symbol than as a rock artist.
Conversely, if you tended to be a Paul person, you came to the Beatles as songwriters in much the way you would have come to the Gershwin Brothers and Kander and Ebb and Goffin/King. These were guys crafting songs. These were guys building melodies. It was the music and not what the music meant to the world at large.
It’s a great insight. I don’t know if it’s true or not – but it made some sense as I sat there thinking back over my evaluations of McCartney’s music.
The closing number to McCartney’s album “RAM” – “Back Seat Of My Car” – is a symphonic rock masterwork. Its sound-scape is massive in scope – and yet the lyrics are very small and very intimate. McCartney does that quite a bit – finds the poetry in the seemingly mundane. Sometimes to astonishing effect. Sometimes not – sometimes it’s a bit too twee.
But here – the closing song on the vinyl copy I picked up in a garage sale – he nails it. It’s a small tale of two lovers imagining where they’ll go to escape the strictures of their teen lives while hiding out in the back seat of the young man’s car. “We can make it to Mexico City / Sitting in the back seat of my car” the lyrics sing.
It made a lot of sense to a 13 year old starting to feel the need to escape his pubescent plight.
It was a tune that was mine – a private thing I had.
And as the Beatles came back into vogue – and now I hear tweens and kids listening to “I Am the Walrus” on their iPhones – kids who would have mocked me for doing the same years ago – there’s something nice about having “FLOWERS IN THE DIRT” as my very own. Yes – there are plenty out there who are probably as enamored of the album as I – but we’re a compact group who – as much as we loved the Beatles – probably didn’t see their canon as sacred scrolls never to be touched by mere mortals again. Also – we’re probably not dunces who will devour anything and everything that was connected with the Fab Four and think it was mind-blowing (anybody else who has seen “GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET” knows what I mean – as much as I adore the music of the Cute Beatle – this little cinematic feat was a miscalculated disaster – even “A HARD DAY’S NIGHT” director Richard Lester told him NOT TO MAKE IT).
We know solid songwriting.
The opening harmonies on “My Brave Face” or the guitar riff on “Figure of Eight” or the endearing interplay between McCartney and Costello on “You Want Her Too” is just as good as anything that was put out by the Beatles.
Perhaps because McCartney tended to work lyrically in the world of the very small, he had an accessibility that someone like Lennon would not have immediately had for someone in my place at 13. Lennon sang “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” and – as catchy and striking as the tune was – it didn’t resonate with the same force as –
“Ever since you went away, I’ve had this sentimental inclination not to change a single thing…As I pull the sheets back off the bed, I want to go bury my head in your pillow…”
McCartney and Costello writing a song that was both about a breakup and a breakdown.
McCartney will always be mine in a way the Beatles simply can’t be. They were too important to too many people and we’ve seen too many cross-sections and heard too many critical assertions and heard the stories and legends of how they came to be too many times. They’ve become rock mythology.
“FLOWERS IN THE DIRT” was just a great album that spoke to me at just the right time. It cemented my appreciation of McCartney’s solo work. It was, along with “SPIKE,” my gateway into the work of Elvis Costello. It was – if not a revered classic that will remain a critical darling – it was a good solid album that features some great songwriting work from McCartney and some great work from the band that was backing him at the time. It also featured David Gilmour on guitar. Bring it on!
Twenty years later – I finally saw McCartney for the first time at Citi Field. And maybe it’s best that he didn’t sing anything from that album. It’s locked back in the angst-ridden magic of the past – where it always sounds much sweeter.