Meditations on McCartney There"s a telling moment at the end of one of the episodes of the Beatles Anthology documentary. Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are sitting together for the camera in an otherwise empty cafÈ. The purpose, it seems, is for the three surviving Beatles to wax on about how great it is to be together and to shed some light on the experience of producing the single "Free As a Bird," with the recorded ghost of their dead mate, John Lennon. Paul, like a motor-mouthed uncle at a family reunion, practically runs over the other two with forced bonhomie. George and Ringo seem to shrink away on either side of him; George, in particular, practically rolls his eyes as if to say, "He"s at it again!"
Since John Lennon"s murder on Dec. 8, 1980, Paul McCartney has taken on the role of Beatles Explainer. For 20 years now, in what has amounted to a virtually never-ending interview, he"s been determined to set the record straight about everything Beatles, particularly the nature and extent of his contribution to the group. In one setting after another, Macca has taken pains to inform us that, in fact, it was he, not John, who was first into London"s avant-garde art scene, who attended concerts of experimental music, hung out with everyone from Hendrix to Stockhausen and, yes, wrote "Hey Jude" to comfort a lonely little Julian Lennon who was pining for his wayward dad. He has even suggested that the legendary "Lennon-McCartney" songwriting credit that appears on every Beatles recording label and scrap of sheet music be transposed to reflect what he considers a greater historical accuracy - a move Yoko has flatly rejected. From all appearances, Paul seems, for all his honors, fame and adulation, to feel misunderstood. This, in spite of the fact that he has enjoyed an almost embarrassing post-Beatles commercial success. Unfortunately, though, for all the records and tickets he sells, it"s the Beatles people want to hear about. No wonder. The tale of four friends who used art to make their dreams come true and actually changed the world in the process, the Beatles constitute one of the great stories of the 20th century. By collapsing traditional boundaries between art and popular entertainment they made it seem, for a moment at least, that peaceful revolution was possible. Heady stuff. It hardly needs saying that nothing in the Wings catalog so much as hints at this kind of ambition. Which is not a slam at Wings. Changing the world wasn"t that group"s point. For that matter, it wasn"t the goal of the early Beatles, either, who started out wanting simply to make and sell records. It was after the Top of the Pops was accomplished that new horizons beckoned. That those horizons often turned out to be in reach was thanks in large part to the extraordinary friendship Paul shared with John. Herein lies Paul"s tragedy and the source of his overbearing persona. We"ll never know what hopes he might have harbored for a reconciliation with his best friend and collaborator. Macca"s done nothing to explode tantalizing stories about tentative meetings at the Dakota with John in the late "70s. Once, it"s said, they almost dropped in to play on Saturday Night Live. No one has suggested that the pair thought of writing or recording together again - they hadn"t gotten that far. But whether it might one day have happened; whether John himself and not his ghost would have participated in "Free As a Bird" or some other Beatles project became permanently moot when he was shot and killed. When, in concert, Macca dusts off his Beatles hits he presents them with emotionally predictable polish. That these tunes may, for him, also represent a deep and irrevocable kind of blues is, if true, never revealed. But Paul has arguably been in a kind of protracted mourning since John"s death. In fact, if one tracks Paul since 1980 - the affably defensive interviews, the haphazard collaborations with the likes of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello, not to mention his insistence on fronting no-name bands of young minions - a Citizen Kane-style portrait emerges. Paul takes on the aspect of a man who lost the most important person in his life before the issues that forced them apart could be resolved. Thus a brave-faced if bereft Paul McCartney sits atop his ever-growing commercial Xanadu. He pours himself into new projects, from rallying for New York to a new, activist wife, married if not in haste, then with a certain alacrity following the death of the other significant person in his life - his lovely Linda Eastman. For Paul, like Charles Foster Kane before him, loss seems his defining characteristic. How easy - and how sad - to imagine, many years from now, that the last word past his lips could be not Rosebud, but, "John Ö"