In honor of Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday, I’m reprinting of a piece I wrote for Paste last summer.
Paul McCartney is 70 – the same age my divorced, troubled father would have been had he not drunk too much in a hotel bar in April 1972 and subsequently driven off I 85 and killed himself at the age of thirty-one. I had just turned seven. Not long after that, Paul became my fantasy dad. I’d forgotten all about it until I saw him at Yankee Stadium, where I realized this fancy still flickers in a very deep part of me. I can only imagine how a son would feel seeing his father captivate fifty-thousand people, but as I witnessed McCartney tear it up for almost three hours, I came pretty close to papa-pride.
McCartney’s voice and image filled my late-60s and 70s childhood via my mom’s Beatles LPs, and as of 1972, Wings was all over the radio, which I listened to incessantly. I remember photos of the McCartney family touring with Wings – probably in my mom’s Time magazine, or later my own Creem; I was struck by his beautiful, grubby kids Mary, Stella and stepdaughter Heather (from Linda’s previous marriage, but adopted by Paul). This crew sported shaggy hair like their dad, and they were often either in his arms or at his heels, running through airports and the like. Fun. Here was a most unusual set-up: a vital, rockin’ superstar, proud of and present for his children, never hiding the fact that he was happily married, up to his knees in domesticity, apparently satisfied to be tied down in that respect. Paul was fulfilled, yet still somehow funky, raggedy, unconcerned with appearances. His first solo album McCartney was recorded at home (and sounds it, blessedly) and the cover features a photo by his wife Linda, who also sang background vocals. The pic of bearded, smiling Paul with their first baby, Mary, nestled in his shearling coat fascinated me as a child. His eyes are dark, mischievous, sad but… strong and full of what I imagine to be love for his mate, his kid, his family. As a fatherless boy, this was very exotic to me.
As I grew up among increasingly dysfunctional children of divorce, the McCartneys’ inseparability bucked rock and roll standards and seemed an odd yet attainable ideal. So they wouldn’t be apart, Paul had enfolded his wife into Wings, to much eye rolling and allegations of Linda’s dubious musical talents. Similarly, Lennon would claim Yoko as a musical collaborator and suffer intense criticism. They both were undeterred by the snipes. I always loved that and I still find myself sticking up for the Beatle Spouses. In retrospect, the wife-involvement stuff and, in particular, McCartney’s inclusion of domesticity in his public image seems, ironically, cutting edge for the era.
Macca’s life was the rock star fantasy I wanted. But I didn’t want to be him; I wanted to be his kid joining him on the road. The swaggering, lock-up-your-daughters stuff would not appeal to me until my hormones kicked in, and even then, I kept close my McCartney-as-dad dreams and longed most for stability-within-rock, a notion that seems contradictory unless you apply it to McCartney. In my mind I was Paul McCartney’s son, watching from the smoky wings with my crazy-haired sisters as he played Dad Rock, goofy songs that lodged in my brain and made me laugh: “Hands Across The Water,” “Magneto and Titanium Man” and “Listen What the Man Said.” I imagined myself grabbing a fistful of his rank bellbottoms as we posed together, sweaty-faced in Lagos or Jamaica, both of us sunburned and sleep-starved. No matter what opportunities he had to stray – and he would have plenty, I’m sure – my traveling gypsy troubadour millionaire dad with the funny accent would never abandon me.
Later on I would find that both Lennon and McCartney had lost their mothers as kids. Paul’s to cancer, John’s after being hit by a car. Needless to say, my devotion intensified; Paul had overcome a blow not unlike mine, yet stood tall, brazen and larger-than-life, whole. So could I. Thirty-plus years on, I’ve come to realize that damage on this scale can’t be quantified, and to assume that he weathered “better” than Lennon, whose life always seemed fraught by comparison, is ridiculous. And now I realize no one is whole, ever. But that is what I believed then.
These were some of my thoughts as I marveled at near-septuagenarian Sir Paul tear it up at Yankee Stadium on July 15th, 2011. From the opening of “Hello Goodbye” to the encore of “The End,” I was a riot of sensation and notion; chill bumps, laughter, singing with strangers – all messy, uncool spillage from an open heart. When the thoughts of my father crossed the threshold and then departed, I realized McCartney possesses the power to do what meditation, drugs, food, sex, travel, athletics, yoga and art are designed to do: place a listener in an ineffable, timeless moment, then bring them back and take them elsewhere.
My wife, Holly, and I had arrived a little early, as the sky was just beginning to darken. Weather-wise, it was a perfect summer evening. The Biblical-style crush (“And lo, the people went down to the Bronx to be counted”) was intense until we made it to our seats about fifty yards from the stage. The scent of hot, processed meat and salty starch was everywhere and indicated vegan Macca’s lack of influence over the vendors. (Dads must compromise!) We settled in, giddy at our proximity to the stage, and the experience began with the massive PA pumping out instrumental versions of Beatle tunes by Booker T. & the MGs (an oddly upbeat “A Day In the Life”). As dusk descended, the two screens flanking the stage began to spool moving images and designs, lots of Linda McCartney’s classic 60s rock and roll photos interspersed with cartoonish psychedelia, black and white clips from Beatle movies, Super 8 footage of the Family McCartney. Whoever designed the presentation knew it would evoke everything from nostalgia to wonder to amusement, even a little annoyance. As with the entire show, the visual aspect was almost as genius as the music itself. The Cute Beatle has surrounded himself with an impressive retinue of showfolk – performers, designers, and engineers. The sound was mind-blowing.
Obviously, I am a superfan. I will allow that Paul has released some steaming crap (I think he’d allow it too), some unlistenable tunes and unwatchable videos. But, as he is my surrogate dad, and considering the level of stellar stuff, I have unusually low standards for acceptance of his work. Sometimes to the chagrin of loved ones, I will sing along to “Silly Love Songs” (one of the best basslines ever, I don’t care what anyone says) “My Love,” and even “Coming Up.” Interestingly, a couple of these largely loathed tunes were part of a looped McCartney Megamix that took over for Booker T as the stage lights slowly lit the waiting microphones and drum set. Even with my charitable taste, it was a little obnoxious.
Paul and his fantastic band came out around 8:30 or so, in the gloaming. Rusty Anderson on guitar, Brian Ray on guitar and bass, Paul “Wix” Wickerson on keyboards and the stunning Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums, forty and fifty-somethings who still look great in understated rock and roll clothes – if there can be such a thing. Paul cut a striking figure in a tapered Edwardian three button blue jacket, black Beatle boots, snug black stovepipe trousers, a plain white dress shirt and suspenders/braces. He is ridiculously fit, with the ass of a twenty-something man. There, I said it.
All of the band members sing, and Laboriel in particular is a powerful vocalist, sometimes covering for Paul on the really high stuff while propelling the whole outfit forward like a machine with a soul. He is perhaps the finest drummer I have ever seen. They are a lean, rocking, passionate band with longtime road chops, charisma and that greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality every worthwhile band possesses. Simply put, they are the best band he’s had since the Beatles (check YouTube for various Wings lineups and Paul’s very good but unremarkable backup musicians from the 90s and you will agree). I think this current foursome may be one of the reasons he’s toured quite a bit in the last decade, after Linda’s death from cancer in 1998.
That’s right, I remember thinking as his astonishingly well-preserved voice cracked slightly on “Maybe I’m Amazed,” one of many songs written for Linda, the same affliction that took out his mother robbed him of his wife. Yet he got past it.
In one of the most moving visual displays of the evening, a sepia-toned home movie of the photo session for the McCartney album cover – with Mary snuggled in Paul’s coat – played on the screen behind Paul. It was that same image that resonated in my childhood come to life, with Paul posing and laughing, cradling Mary, his face glowing with love, seen as Linda saw him. The audience looked through Linda’s long-departed eyes. It was ghostly, dreamlike.
He lost her. Yet my New Dad threw himself into work and, with some guys only a little older than me, took to the stage after the passing of his soul mate. Didn’t go off the rails drunk, blaming crazed behavior on inconsolable grief, didn’t lash out, make a mess of things, but worked through it with song, with performing, giving of himself to the Fans.
I recalled my own losses, disappointments and betrayals, levies on the gift of a long life. Where had I searched for a road map, for clues, examples? My actual family of mostly women is pretty impressive, but when I needed to see how a man deals with rage and bereavement, I realized I’d kept my fantasy dad in my peripheral vision all along.
McCartney and Co. soared through “Jet,” “Drive My Car,” and, for the first time ever before an audience, the raucous Hard Day’s Night nugget “The Night Before.” The big screens pulsed with images of jets, cars, et cetera and the crowd got progressively more ecstatic. Before long I realized I’d never been in a group of that many people who felt that good, ever. It was palpable, a crackling connection coursing through an audience ranging from small children to folks with walkers.
At one point McCartney acknowledged the signs held aloft, fake-scolding the fans for throwing him off. One sign read “Kiss My Butt” and he chuckled and said “Well, let’s see it then!” then hastily backpedaled. Another said, “My name is Jude” to which he gamely said, “Hey, Jude!” The patter was goofy and, according to his DVD from a couple years back, not totally spontaneous. Except the Derek Jeter crack: “Who’s this guy Derek Jeter? I hear he’s got more hits than me!” Rim shot.
As the band rocked on, I was hoping for “Here Today” and I got it. It’s a heartbreaking song, an imaginary conversation between Lennon and McCartney written after John’s murder. Even before I lost my best, oldest friend to suicide in 2004, I loved this song, which delves into unresolved issues between friends; the heart brings you into contact with difficult people and insists you remain, even when it’s a challenge. Then, sometimes, before you get a chance to mend fences, you lose someone and the pain just echoes on. The band left and Paul, armed with only an acoustic guitar, introduced the song. He made special mention of New York City being John’s home, which brought a deafening roar in honor of The Smart Beatle. Then the crowd listened respectfully as a simple image of a full moon glowed on the empty stage and Paul’s falsetto arched into the purple sky above the Bronx. I caught this moment – or at least a pixilated rendition of it – on my iPhone. When I play it back, McCartney’s voice is both crystalline and grosgrain, but the lo-fi image is a shimmery, saturated white burst of light on a screen surrounded by bobbing heads, like the very essence of dignity in the face of loss. Which, to me, is beyond rock and roll and simply art.
Linda, George, John, all gone. And so many of his friends from the 60s, too. I imagined I could hear it all in his voice, which ached but also raged and, at the same time, saluted the enduring beauty of those lost loved ones, reveled in the strength they gave him.
As “Here Today” ended a roadie handed Paul a mandolin – one of five instruments he would effortlessly play – and the band launched into the jaunty, damn-the-torpedoes “Dance Tonight,” from 2007’s Memory Almost Full. I recall publicists falling all over each other to proclaim the CD a “return to form.” It was his “break-up” record, supposedly touching on his divorce from the mercurial Heather Mills, and people with a lot of time on their hands figured out that the witty title is an anagram (likely accidental) of For My Soul Mate LLM (Linda Louise McCartney). In any case, it’s a good tune about enjoying life regardless of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a concept on which fantasy dad needs no schooling.
On “A Day in the Life,” Paul sang John’s distinctive verses and tacked a repeated chorus of “Give Peace A Chance” to the end, like a coda. This was the only awkward moment of the evening. The audience, like a lot of Americans, isn’t really sold on the ideal of “Give Peace A Chance.” Not anymore. It was enjoyable but toothless. My cantankerous Uncle John was better with punky irony, and I’m sure Papa Paul knows it and doesn’t care. Like “Here Today” and the lovely ukulele arrangement of “Something,” it was a tribute, not a manifesto. The sad resignation of “Let It Be,” which followed “Give Peace A Chance,” went over much better.
The inevitable over-the-top fireworks and flashpots of “Live and Let Die” cast a veil of smoke over the congregation and scented the air with sulfur. Paul walked around in faux dismay at the extravagant pyro, actually imitating an old man as if he is not one. It was funny but also bizarre.
The night concluded with “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End,” the perfect concert-ending suite if ever there was one, topped off with red, white and blue confetti seeming to fall from heaven, as there was no ceiling. The communal satisfaction hummed through the air like feedback as the assembled separated into streams pouring through gates, doorways, concrete halls, back into our lives. I was struck by the amount of families, some of whom carried sleeping children out of the still-charged stadium. This had been a family event. Of course.
I had a lot to think about and plenty of time to do it as we sat in traffic, trying to get home. The usual two-hour trip would take four hours, but we didn’t care.
Clearly my boyhood desire for a rock and roll dad was never actually realized, and I made it to manhood under far less spectacular circumstances; I had help from a loving single mother who never remarried, a very present maternal grandmother, a United Way Big Brother, my friends and a couple of teachers. They did the actual work, and I don’t begrudge them their lack of rock star accoutrements. In fact, I was lucky in a lot of ways.
Paul’s actual kids – my fantasy sisters Heather, a potter, Stella, a fashion designer, and Mary, a photographer, plus fantasy brother James, a musician – have all done fine. Heather has said the hectic decade of traveling with Wings was not all fun. She told the press she had a hard time making friends once it all ended. Although I love traveling with my family, I also have tasted a little of the rock and roll lifestyle myself, and that is a very different, very particular animal. I actually cannot imagine having a kid in tow while going through the rigmarole of the road, much less three. Granted, the McCartneys had tutors and likely a phalanx of nannies, but for the kids I imagine it must’ve been hard at times. I can also imagine trying to explain these realities to my childhood self and making no impact whatsoever.
Finally, being a dad myself, I have long since moved on from searching for father figures and look to Paul McCartney now as a fellow dad. In true rock and roll style, his daughter Beatrice – by ex-wife Heather Mills – is five years younger than my son and younger than a couple of his grandkids. When I try to imagine an offspring of mine having a child who is older than one of my own kids I need to lie down. Leave that to überbeings like my fantasy dad Macca.
I have always known that music and images, when expertly wielded, can have a time-shifting power for both listener and performer. The promise of that power is one of the things that led me to be a musician. Yet, when Holly surprised me with tickets to see Paul McCartney at Yankee Stadium, I did not expect to revisit any childhood longings for a rock and roll dad. I’d heard he still brought an impressive show, even from some very prickly, hard-to-please cynics, so I was banking on a great experience. What I was not prepared for was the welling up of a dormant desire for an adventurous, raggle-taggle, brilliant musician to spirit me away from a fatherless childhood to concert halls, tarmacs, hotel rooms, people bestowing love and accolades in foreign tongues, the feel of a jet’s carpeting beneath my bare feet as we fly over the Pacific. But even the most far-fetched of fantasies still exist in my mind, somehow, just waiting for the right sequence of notes combined with the proper visuals to unearth it.
Paul sings to departed Linda as he looks up at the Jumbotron, seeing his younger self gazing into his soul mate’s eyes while he cradles their firstborn against his chest. Time and space ebb for a few liberating moments and I see me, a grieving kid, caught up in a melody, singing in spite of it all, looking at a magazine photo of a musical family on the run who appear, for the time being, far away from loss, tragedy, death. Then and now, my fantasy dad has brought me to a timeless place. When the song fades and the cheering subsides, I am a man again, and Paul is not my dad. But he has allowed me to touch the part of myself that remains connected to the man I lost, and the dreaming child still inside me. As these feelings recede, I am happy to leave that longing. I’m glad to say I possess the skill to come back to being a real, actual father, blessed with health, a gorgeous, shaggy-haired child and a beautiful, supportive, fascinating wife. I am pretty sure I learned how to do that from Paul.
RBW & Jack, 1998, by Dan Howell