Remember how unimaginably far in the future the year 2000 seemed when we were kids?
Who doesn’t recall that tantalizing, unfulfilled promise of flying cars and Martian outposts and robot maids named Rosie?
Well, I’ve got news for you. Even though the last two decades seem to have flown by in a lost weekend and a couple of spare periods, we’re as remote from Y2K, temporally speaking, as we were in 1978.
In 1978, a devout Baptist peanut farmer —who never fired a missile in anger — was the president of the U.S., the Stanley Cup was paraded each spring along what Mayor Jean Drapeau casually referred to as “the usual route” on Montreal’s Ste. Catherine Street, and Andy Gibb’s insipid Shadow Dancing finished the year atop Billboard magazine’s list of the top 100 songs.
Trudeau was prime minister.
Some things never change.
Even in 2000, the world was a remarkably different place from today’s. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were in the planning stages. The cynical, reckless, tragic wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq were inconceivable. And Ringo Starr turned 60, our first intimation that, hey, our own dancing shadows on the wall just might be getting longer.
A Beatle — once the very apotheosis of youth culture — was back in the Sixties! Talk about inconceivable.
After failing to interest either the Montreal Gazette’s entertainment department or the city columnist in the cosmic sea change slithering its way across the universe without so much as a single word flowing like endless rain into a paper cup, I picked up the sticks myself in a now discoloured op-ed piece that I just fished out of a dusty Rubbermaid bin tucked behind the furnace.
Nothing’s gonna change my words:
It was bad enough when the Rat Pack became infirm and Bob Hope stopped being funny (sometime before the Vietnam War, I recall) and Betty Kennedy became senile enough to be named to the Senate.
Yeezus. Betty flippin’ Kennedy.
But bummer, children, this is Ringo. This is us, fellow stardust clouds. We’re next in line for the early-bird, piggies-in-a-blanket specials at Smitty’s House of Pre-chewed Pancakes.
Jai guru deva, ommmmmmm.
You might wonder why, at a time when most of us no longer even want to recall the lyrics to When I Was 64 — I think that’s what it was — this is the least bit germane.
Well, two things. Uno, there’s never a bad time for piggies-in-a-blanket.
And dos, Sir James Paul McCartney CH MBE — the Cute One — will turn 80 on June 18.
Suffering from lung cancer, George Harrison was only 58 when he passed, as all things must, a couple of months after 9/11. He had never really recovered from being stabbed more than 40 times two years before, by a crazed 34-year-old intruder, at his Friar Park home.
After having part of a punctured lung removed in the wake of the attack — which ended when George’s wife, Olivia, subdued the assailant with a fireplace poker and a lamp (ed. The Inner Light, shurely) — George issued a statement quoting Adi Shankara, “an Indian historical, spiritual and groovy-type person,” as saying: “Life is fragile, like a raindrop on a lotus leaf.”
The Quiet One added: “And you’d better believe it.”
He knew whereof he spoke.
Sunrise doesn’t last all morning. A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.
John Lennon, in one of those where-were-you-when-you-heard-the-news Kennedy assassination moments, had of course been gunned down by another loon in December 1980, the last full month of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. John was 40 and so, like Elvis, has been dead longer than he was alive. He knew what he was talking about, too:
Last night the wife said, “Oh boy, when you’re dead, you don’t take nothing with you but your soul.”
Cynthia, John’s first wife, was 75 when she died in Mallorca in 2015. Yoko is 89 and still rocking the biker jackets and trademark derby hat.
I saw Ringo, who will turn 82 on July 7, perform with one of his touring All-Starr Band ensembles a couple of years ago. It was fab. The beauty of never having been a great singer in the first place is that you don’t lose very much as your voice ages.
Granted, it’s a tad creepy to hear a man who now resembles a perpetually peace-signing Yasser Arafat rave about a 16-year-old angel divine who’s all ribbons and curls. Peaches and cream, lips like strawberry wine. But Johnny Burnette himself — killed in a boat crash at 30, a few months after the Beatles hit America — never did it wetter.
Talking about our degeneration, as they say, consider that Zak Starkey — who replaced the fatally self-destructive Keith Moon as the drummer for the Who in 1999 and is the eldest of Ringo’s three young scruffs in their 50s — is just three years from hitting 60 himself. Julian Lennon will get there next April.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds. Who could ask for more?
More than 70 million people watched the back-to-back Beatle gigs on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, enabling us to finally let down our hair a bit — and then a bit more, and then a lot — after the shared trauma of the JFK assassination less than three months before. If you’re of a certain age, I’ll bet you can recall who was in the living room with you, attempting to master the vertical control dial, on all three occasions.
Picture trouble is temporary.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled 2000 Gazette op-ed by a legendary newspaper rim pig, which picks up from the Sullivan appearances:
The following Monday mornings at school, transformed nine-year-olds found ourselves doodling clumsy, ineluctable (ed. Wait, what? Ineluctable? Where’s an editor when you need one?) sketches of Ringo’s Ludwig drum set and moptop haircut between the red-lined margins of our foolscap.
Remember when it was still called foolscap?
Before we could persuade our parents to buy us cheap guitars (Christmas is an excruciating distance from February when you’re nine), my three closest friends and I fashioned fetching facsimiles of Beatle instruments out of flattened grocery boxes.
On the patio in the backyard, we played and reprised and played again my copy of Beatlemania on a portable mono record player, mouthing the words to All My Loving and strumming the wax-crayoned strings on cardboard guitar necks to the unwelcome, unrestrained amusement of parents and nosy neighbours.
All the while, the classically hallucinogenic Capitol Records of the album hub merged into a mesmerizing rainbow that went round and round and round.
And when she stopped, to quote the perceptive Loudon Wainwright III, who at 75 is older than his old man now:
Some still survive from Dave Clark’s Five
Washed up on the Mersey shore
Gerry has a pacemaker
The hermit’s name is Herman
That old man’s Manfred Mann
and the Animals merely vermin.
Bob Dylan is on Highway 81. Mick Jagger will turn 79 in July, four months before the ailing Joni Mitchell joins him, God willing, and five before the supernatural Keith Richards (presumably, a body fashioned out of headband, Naugahyde and six decades of substance abuse has already been eternally coated in amber).
In the next 15 years, rim pigs (if any still exist) will be writing headlines marking the centenaries of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, the King of Rock and Roll. From failing hands we pass the big blue pencil.
For a generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30 and hoped it would die before it got old, then got careless and waited too long, there are few visions more inspiring than the never-ending tours of the Stones and the Starrs, the Dylans and the Maccas.
There are still those on Team Ono — Sir Paul ex Heather Mills, for one (she who locked the door if he’d been out till quarter to three) — who dismiss the man McCartney biographer Christopher Sandford calls the “most successful pop composer and recording artist in history” as a “doe-eyed softy and perky melodist of breezy, lightweight fare.”
Sandford makes a case that despite being an inveterate hoofer brought up to share his father’s love of Tin Pan Alley conventions, his subject was in fact the first pop star to buck those constraints and has been an avant-gardist throughout his career.
Sandford, to use a 1960s Liverpool idiom, is a bit daft. But I will go out on a fret or two here and boldly proclaim that apart from many Beatles classics and plenty of dreck, the pending octogenarian has penned some of the finest — in the tidy summary of a Rolling Stone headline writer — “chart smashes, psychedelic curiosities, punk, folk, disco and plenty of silly love songs.”
Because of the close relationship between Lennon and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, the rock bible has tended to be caustic toward and dismissive of McCartney’s solo and Wings albums. That was all troubled water under the bridge by 2020, though, when the magazine listed the Top 10 post-Beatles McCartney songs, in ascending order, as:
Venus and Mars/Rock Show
Hi Hi Hi (BBC banned this one for inviting women to “lie on the bed, get you ready for my body gun”; Paul claimed he actually sang “polygon,” which is so much more palatable.)
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (for 51 years, I believed Admiral Halsey “had to have a bath or he couldn’t get to sleep”; make that “had to have a berth or he couldn’t go to sea.”)
Live and Let Die
Too Many People (and yes, “That was your first mistake/You took your lucky break and broke it in two” was indeed a swipe at the maybe not so Smart One.)
Band on the Run
Maybe I’m Amazed
Such lists are nolens volens subjective, and it would be far out, right on and outta sight by me if I never hear Jet or Band on the Run again. Ditto for Silly Love Songs or Listen to What the Man Said and a few other ear-worms the radio played far too many times back in the day. I’m looking at (but not listening to) you, Ebony and Ivory and Say Say Say.
My top 10 — OK, 20 or 30 — would include:
Every Night (I just wanna go out)
Waterfalls (released 14 years before TLC’s R&B hit ripoff with the same title, same don’t-go-chasing metaphor and almost identical lyrics)
Beware My Love
My Valentine (if you like this sort of thing, check out the Sinatraesque Michael Bublé version on YouTube)
Here Today (a tribute to the slain Lennon)
Early Days (ditto, sort of)
You Gave Me the Answer
Some People Never Know (if you’ll give it another chance, I guarantee the excoriated 1971 Wings Wild Life album is so much better than you remember)
Heart of the Country
The Back Seat of My Car
Mull of Kintyre (a pub singalong, bagpiping extravaganza that sold more singles than She Loves You … yeah, yeah, yeah)
I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. If pressed, I wouldn’t stop there.
The point is, neither does he. You could view FourFiveSeconds, the 2015 Rihanna-Kanye West (sorry; Rihanna-Yippee Ki Ye) hit duet in which Paul’s major on-track contribution seems to be vigorous strumming, as a desperate attempt to stay relevant. But Yumpin’ Yeezus, the song is patently Paul’s and so, surtout, is the line Rihanna nails: “All my kindness is taken for weakness.”
The McCartney discography, Wikipedia breathlessly assures us, "comprises 26 studio albums, four compilation albums, nine live albums, 37 video albums, two extended plays, 111 singles, seven classical albums, five electronica albums, 17 box sets, and 79 music videos.”
Oh, and there was some Beatles stuff, too.
Does anyone dig it all? Probably not even the creator, who was 14 when he lost mother Mary to an embolism during breast-cancer surgery in the darkest chapter of a tin-beefed childhood in the ghastly, gaslit subsidized housing of a crumbling, post-war Liverpool.
The Wings-era mullet was definitely a mistake.
But on the cusp of turning 80, with a fortune well in excess of $1 billion, the lad could probably afford to hang up the Hofner, buy a Caribbean island and move in with newly single Amber Heard (who I was hoping would end her recent court engagement by pouring a jug of water over the head of Johnny Depp’s solicitor, à la Heather Mills at the conclusion of the Maccas’ delicious divorce proceedings in 2008).
Me, I’d at least be thinking seriously about renting a cottage in the Isle of Wight.
If it’s not too dear.
But like Dylan, like the Stones, like a cadre of other artists at the senior end of the Baby Boomer spectrum, Sir Paul keeps putting himself out there. This is what gives them joy. This is what keeps them alive. It’s getting there, but it’s not dark yet.
In How Do You Sleep?, Lennon’s bitter rejoinder to Too Many People and McCartney’s successful lawsuit in the London High Court to dissolve the Beatles as a legal entity, he wails: “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead. … The only thing you done was yesterday, and since you’ve gone you’re just another day.”
Let’s make that another half-century. After losing his beloved Linda, just 56, to breast cancer in 1998, in the messy wake of the disastrous Mill marriage that followed, Sir Paul and independently wealthy New Yorker Nancy Shevell — two decades his junior — have been together since 2007. They wed in 2011.
You can hear how domestically contented Paul is on McCartney III, the 2020 album that ends with Winter Bird/When Winter Comes, one of the finest tracks he has ever produced.
The occasionally faltering voice reminds us that this can’t go on indefinitely. He can’t hit the high oooooooooooohhs any more. Neither can we. I never could.
All things must pass. All things must pass away.
But the fact that artists born during the Second World War stubbornly keep on rockin’ in the free world sends a message of peace, love and understanding when we need it most. Nothing funny about it.
Loudon Wainwright was being characteristically sardonic, but was also tapping into something at a deeper level, in his 1999 song What Gives, released just before Y2K.
“Rock’n’roll,” he kind of lamented but also kind of celebrated, “can never die. And neither can her heroes.”
The Beatles are forever. It’s like John never got shot.
Here’s what gives, Elvis lives, what is in fact is not.
Here’s what gives, Elvis lives, what is in fact is not.
As I was posting this, the CBC reported that Ronnie Hawkins has died at 87. The Hawk regularly claimed to have smoked dope with Lennon and Trudeau in 1969, when John and Yoko stayed at his Mississauga farm. There’s no reason to doubt him.
The Beatles are forever. And some things never change.