She’s a woman who understands

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about women.

Not my wife and daughters in particular, although I already think of them all the time. Not even female friends, necessarily. I’ve been thinking about women in terms of their position in society, their impact on life, the influence of their personalities.

I have been tardily immersing myself in the dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is brilliantly written and acted but oh so very bleak and pretty frightening. The subtle and not-so-subtle parallels between the subjugation of women in that story and the impact of the right-wing Supreme Court’s outrageous gutting of Roe v. Wade are more than a little disturbing.

I rarely address political issues in this rock music blog (except for occasional overviews of protest songs as a sub-genre), but this week, I am moved to explore songs that celebrate women — strong women, smart women, kind women, independent women. I have selected a dozen songs with “woman” in the title that go beyond the superficial or pejorative generalizations all too common in pop songs of the classic rock era.

In addition to these 12 songs, the Spotify playlist at the end includes several “honorable mentions” that have lyrics less relevant to my intended message but still worthy of inclusion because the music warrants it.

This Independence Day weekend, I shall be deep in thought about how our country is in trouble when it summarily removes established rights from half its people. This cannot be the way forward…

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“Woman in Chains,” Tears for Fears, 1989

For “Woman in Chains,” the leadoff track on the excellent “The Seeds of Love” LP, Tears For Fears singer/songwriter Roland Orzabal was inspired by two different lines of thought when he wrote it. “The song is about how men have traditionally played down the feminine side of their characters, and how both men and women suffer for it. I think men in a patriarchal society have been sold down the river. We’re told that we’re in control, but there are also a hell of a lot of things that we miss out on, which women are allowed to be.” He also revealed he was writing about his mother’s unhappy life as a nightclub stripper, and the abuse she took from her husband (Orzabal’s father): “Well, I feel deep in your heart there are wounds time can’t heal, /And I feel somebody somewhere is trying to breathe, /Well, you know what I mean, /It’s a world gone crazy keeps woman in chains…”

“She’s Always a Woman,” Billy Joel, 1977

I find this song to be one of Billy Joel’s most delightful, beautiful melodies, but the lyrics have always perplexed me. If she “steals like a thief” and “can ruin you faith with her casual lies,” why is she also the recipient of his love and affection? It’s actually autobiographical. In the ’70s, Joel was married to Elizabeth Weber, who managed his financial affairs and handled his contract negotiations with a toughness bordering on ruthlessness. Male business adversaries naturally labeled her as “unfeminine,” but Joel saw she was fighting for his interests, and he loved her for it: “Oh, she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants, /She’s ahead of her time, /Oh, and she never gives out, and she never gives in, /She just changes her mind…” The marriage didn’t last, though, and he sees his part in the failure: “She’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be, /Blame it all on yourself ’cause she’s always a woman to me…”

“Kind Woman,” Buffalo Springfield, 1968

Buffalo Springfield didn’t last long because the two major talents in the lineup, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, were too competitive for their own good, both as songwriters and as performing guitarists and singers. Overshadowed in the mix was third singer-songwriter Richie Furay, a much gentler soul who later founded Poco and ultimately gave up the business for life in the clergy. One of his finest efforts in the Springfield was “Kind Woman,” a plaintive country-based tune in which the narrator sweetly asks the nice woman he has just met if she’ll keep him company: “Remember once before, you’re hearing the old folks say, ‘Love’s an ageless old rhyme,’ /But nowadays, you know the saying depends so much on the kind of woman that you find, /Kind woman, won’t you love me tonight? /The look in your eyes, kind woman, /Don’t leave me lonely tonight…”

“Just Like a Woman,” Bob Dylan, 1966

On the face of it, this classic tune from Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” double album appears to traffic in stereotypes, describing actions that are supposedly “just like a woman” would do. There is some of that in there, to be sure, but I interpret the lyrics to be more universal. We all ache, we all have pain, both men and women, especially the emotional variety from unsuccessful relationships, and we all break “just like a little girl” (or boy). He’s throwing in the towel: “Your long-time curse hurts, but what’s worse is this pain in here, /I can’t stay in here, ain’t it clear that I just can’t fit, /Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit…” Some observers think the song is about former lover Joan Baez, who was once a bigger star than he was: “When we meet again, introduced as friends, /Please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry, and it was your world…”

“American Woman,” The Guess Who, 1970

This #1 single by the Canadian band that has had the most success on US pop charts was widely misinterpreted at the time of its release in the spring of 1970. With American involvement in the Vietnam War at its fullest, many listeners saw the song as an anti-American slap by a foreign group, but that’s simply not the case, according to singer Burton Cummings. “The lyrics were written on the spot during an onstage jam after we’d returned from a U.S. tour,” he said in 2013. “What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls, and that made them seem dangerous. When I sang, ‘American woman, stay away from me,’ I really meant, ‘Canadian woman, I prefer you.’ We weren’t used to strong, outspoken women.”

“Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” Harry Belafonte, 1956

This provocative song’s authorship is somewhat unclear, but the prevailing opinion is that it was written by Norman Span, a popular calypso musician who first recorded it back in 1936. Belafonte made it popular as an album track on his #1 LP “Calypso” in 1956, and artists including Chubby Checker, Roseanne Cash, The Grateful Dead, Robert Palmer and The Carpenters all recorded it over the years. It was featured on an episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy put a band together to outfox Ricky and show him he wasn’t the only one with talent. The lyrics advance a theory regarding superior intellect: “Ah, ever since the world began, woman was always teaching man, /And if you listen to my bid attentively, I goin’ tell you how she smarter than he, /And not me, but the people, they say that the men are leading the women astray, /But I say, that the women of today, smarter than the man in every way…”

“Woman’s Gotta Have It,” James Taylor, 1976

Taylor wrote so many great songs but also loved recording cover versions of R&B-flavored numbers like Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” and The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof.” On his underrated 1976 LP “In the Pocket,” Taylor did a spectacular job with Bobby Womack’s 1972 song “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” a funky soul tune written by Womack and his stepdaughter Linda Womack. The lyrics, which center on a woman they knew who was thinking of going elsewhere for intimacy because her husband had grown neglectful, serve as a warning to pay attention: “Do the things that keep a smile on her face, say the words that make her feel better every day… /Woman’s got to have it, I believe that I should know, she’s got to know that she’s needed around, /When you kiss her, you got to make her feel it everyday, boy, /She’s got to know that she’s not walking on shaky ground, /Think it over…”

“(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin, 1967

One day in 1967, Atlantic Records producer/mogul Jerry Wexler stopped Carole King on the street and said he needed her to write a song for his new artist Franklin, to be entitled “Natural Woman.” King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin collaborated that very evening, and you would think the lyrics would’ve been written by a woman, but in fact, King wrote the music while Goffin came up with the words. It became one of Franklin’s signature songs, a song of gratitude to a man who offers so much devotion and kindness, from a woman whose “soul was in the lost and found”: “Before the day I met you, life was so unkind, but your love was the key to my peace of mind, /’Cause you make me feel, you make me feel, /You make me feel like a natural woman…” King ended up recording the song herself four years later on her multi-platinum “Tapestry” LP.

“Woman,” John Lennon, 1980

The former Beatle, abandoned by his mother (and father) at a young age, developed an unhealthy defense that included berating and even physically abusing women who he felt had done him wrong. Therapy and Eastern philosophy helped quiet Lennon’s demons, such that, by 1980, he was able to acknowledge the huge importance of women in not only his life but in the universe. “Women make up half the sky, half the world, half of everything,” he noted. He wrote a mea culpa song like “Woman” to try to make amends for past behavior: “Woman, I can hardly express my mixed emotion at my thoughtlessness, /After all, I’m forever in your debt, /And woman, I will try to express my inner feelings and thankfulness for showing me the meaning of success… /Woman, I know you understand the little child inside the man, please remember my life is in your hands…”

“Woman,” Peter and Gordon, 1966

I couldn’t resist putting this song in the mix, which credits Bernard Webb as the songwriter, but that was a pseudonym for Paul McCartney, who wanted to see if a song he wrote could be successful if no one knew he wrote it. Peter Asher, as the brother of McCartney’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher, had benefited greatly from Lennon-McCartney songs the duo had given to Peter & Gordon — “A World Without Love,” “I Don’t Want To See You Again” — but “Woman” also did well for them (even though it wasn’t long before we learned who really wrote it). A line like “be my woman” may seem rather possessive these days, but it was well-intentioned for its day, and he’s hoping for mutual love, need and want: “Woman, do you love me? /Woman, if you need me, then believe me, I need you to be my woman…”

“No, Woman, No Cry,” Bob Marley and The Wailers, 1974

Following the success of “Burnin’,” The Wailers’ 1973 LP with future reggae classics such as “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left to pursue solo careers, and Bob Marley assumed the mantle of frontman of the group. “Natty Dread,” the first album by Bob Marley and The Wailers, included “No Woman, No Cry,” which became a huge favorite in concert and was a featured track on the group’s 1975 “Live!” album. Although some misinterpreted the title to mean “If there’s no woman, there’s no reason to cry,” Marley said he meant it in Jamaican lingo as, “No, woman, nuh cry (don’t cry).” He was offering comfort in times of sadness: “Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost along the way, yeah, /In this great future, you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears, I say, /No, woman, no cry…”

“I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy, 1972

In 1972, Australian singer Helen Reddy had grown so tired of the demeaning treatment she and other female artists had to endure in the music business that she was motivated to write some defiant lyrics about it.  She handed them off to songwriter Ray Burton, and the result was the multi-million-selling “I Am Woman,” a somewhat cheesy but game-changing song that Helen Reddy played on every TV variety show she could. For better or worse, it gave many women the confidence to defy the odds, to chase their dreams, to press harder for more favorable contracts, to resist men’s unwanted advances, and to go where only men had gone before: “You can bend but never break me ’cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal… /Oh yes, I am wise but it’s wisdom born of pain, /Yes, I’ve paid the price, but look how much I gained, /If I have to, I can do anything, /I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman…”

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Honorable mentions:

More Than a Woman,” The Bee Gees, 1977; “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” Derek and the Dominos, 1970; “Gold Dust Woman,” Fleetwood Mac, 1977; “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge, 1966; “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973; “Witchy Woman,” The Eagles, 1972; “Black Magic Woman,” Santana, 1970; “Long Cool Woman,” The Hollies, 1972; “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Roy Orbison; “L.A. Woman,” The Doors, 1971; “Evil Woman,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1975; “Kentucky Woman,” Neil Diamond, 1967; “Parachute Woman,” The Rolling Stones, 1968; “She’s a Woman,” The Beatles, 1964.

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Live a little, be a gypsy, get around

From the very beginning, really, Paul McCartney has been a man of action.

He was an eager lad in his teens when he met John Lennon and formed a songwriting partnership that eventually transformed popular music.

He was the take-charge member of The Beatles when, in the wake of manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, he took the reins and worked to motivate the others to keep making music when they would’ve been happy to kick back and rest on their laurels for a while.

Upon the band’s breakup, he endured a bout of depression but quickly snapped out of it and kicked off a solo career marked by a relentless pursuit, year after year, of still more commercial success and artistic exploration.

And now, in 2022, Sir Paul has turned 80 years old…and where is he? He’s out on the road on yet another tour, performing three-hour extravaganzas with a full band before wildly appreciative audiences.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2012 when he was approaching 70 and embarking on an ambitious schedule of concerts, he was asked if it would be his final tour. “Why would I retire?” he replied. “What would I do then? Sit at home and watch TV? No thanks. I’d rather be out playing.”

I saw 81-year-old Bob Dylan in Hollywood last week, and although his performance was a far cry from the kind of show he was capable of in decades past, and his vocalizing can barely be called singing at this point, I was nonetheless thrilled to be in the same room with such a legend, sharing his songs with us as best he could.

Same goes for McCartney. His fans, some of whom have never seen him in concert before, are willing to pay upwards of $400 for a nosebleed seat just to be there to hear him perform the timeless, memorable songs he has written on his own and as part of The Beatles. They are evidently willing to concede that his once-versatile singing voice simply isn’t as strong these days. It’s often raspy, and he’s unable to hit the higher notes cleanly and sustain them. “So what?” they say in his defense, and they have a point. He’s still full of energy, leading his band through their paces and remaining the crowd-pleaser he has always been.

I could be a buzzkill and single out his cringeworthy vocal performance of “Maybe I’m Amazed” at one of the awards shows a few years back. I remember thinking, “That’s a challenging tune that requires serious vocal acrobatics. Why would he choose to perform that one, on live TV, at age 75 instead of something more safely within his range?”

PaulMcCartney_wide-f63b946213ed3b3b0fd9ed854a92e1be36a852a2-s800-c85

In this essay, I come to praise Paul McCartney, not to bury him. How can you not admire his longevity as a songwriter, a musician, an arranger, a producer, a performer? The breadth of his achievements during his 60-plus years in the music business is astonishing, leaving virtually all his contemporaries in the proverbial dust. Even his detractors admit that he has had an uncanny knack for composing, arranging and recording many dozens of instantly likable songs, seemingly effortlessly.

What makes McCartney so special is how music comes to him so naturally. “I’m always writing songs, and I’ve got a bunch that I want to record,” he noted in 2018. “I think people who create and write, it actually does flow – just flows into their head from who knows where, into their hand, and they write it down. Nothing pleases me more than to go into a room and come out with a piece of music. It’s simple, really, and for me it’s cathartic. Music is like a psychiatrist. You can tell your guitar things that you can’t tell people, and it will answer you with things people can’t tell you.” 

In the early years, though, as Beatlemania took flight in 1963-1964, it was Lennon who was the workhorse, churning out most of the singles and album tracks with McCartney playing more of a supporting role for the most part. It was Lennon’s band, and he was their leader. On their first three albums, Lennon sings lead vocals on more than 70 percent of their material.

But McCartney’s contributions were formidable: “I Saw Her Standing There,” “All My Loving,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “And I Love Her” and “Things We Said Today” are all mostly Paul’s songs, and his vocal range, shown in the contrast between the gentle “Till There Was You” and the raucous cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” was exceptional. Having such a keen musical ear, he was also the one who devised and sang the amazing harmonies on tracks like “This Boy,” “If I Fell” and “I’ll Be Back.”

Starting around 1966, three developments occurred more or less simultaneously: McCartney began showing a strong interest in, and an innate flair for, the recording studio process; his abilities on a range of musical instruments, most notably on bass guitar, leaped to the forefront on songs like “Paperback Writer” and “Good Day Sunshine”; and he successfully mastered a diversity of musical styles in the songs he was bringing to the sessions. Consider his songs from “Revolver”: the melancholy imagery and string arrangements for “Eleanor Rigby,” the Motown stomp of “Got to Get You Into My Life” and the exquisite balladry of “Here There and Everywhere” and “For No One.”

From “Sgt. Pepper” onward, McCartney became The Beatles’ de facto leader as Lennon withdrew more into drugs and his all-consuming relationship with Yoko Ono. Paul was firing on all cylinders at this point, shown so clearly in the recent “Get Back” film project when he was writing new songs almost every day as the cameras rolled. Some of his finest songs are from this 1967-1969 period — rockers like “Lovely Rita,” “Getting Better,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Back in the USSR,” “Birthday,” “Helter Skelter,” “Oh Darling,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Get Back,” and ballads like “She’s Leaving Home,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Blackbird,” “I Will,” “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Golden Slumbers” and “The Long and Winding Road.”

An important thing to remember about The Beatles was that the whole was far better than the individual components. I’ve always felt that a McCartney song tends to sounds better when followed by a Lennon song or a George Harrison song rather than another McCartney tune, and vice versa. That, in a nutshell, is why their solo work has never really measured up to their Beatles output.

Without Lennon’s cynical input to rough up the edges of Paul’s sweetness, McCartney’s solo albums (with or without Wings) tended to suffer from cloying melodies and terminal sentimentality. Certainly not every track, mind you. My Spotify list below is full of wonderful McCartney solo tunes like “Every Night,” “Another Day,” “Heart of the Country,” “The Back Seat of My Car,” “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five,” “Letting Go,” “Tug of War,” “Here Today,” “No More Lonely Nights,” “This One” and “The Songs We Were Singing.” But overall, I have found it challenging to listen to his solo LPs all the way through. (Even his 1971 classic album “Ram,” still my favorite of his solo work, has a few duds.) He seemed to always come up with at least one or two great songs on every album, but much of the remainder seemed unfinished, uninspiring, unworthy of someone with such talent.

In a 1974 interview, he defended his first two bland albums as Wings (“Wild Life” and “Red Rose Speedway”) by saying, “I kind of like the idea of doing something, and if it turns out in a few years to seem a bit sloppy, I’d say, ‘Oh well, sloppy. So what?” I think most people dig it.” The thing is, people bought those albums because of his name (I did, anyway) but soon filed them away and rarely revisited them. He conceded, “I must say, you had to like me to like the record (‘Wild Life’). I mean, if it’s just taken cold, I think it wasn’t that brilliant as a recording. We did it quickly, like Dylan would sometimes do, just come in and do everything in one take.”

McCartney has shown without a doubt that he knows how to craft perfect pop songs that will thrill the masses and sell millions: “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “My Love,” “Band on the Run,” “Listen to What the Man Said,” “Silly Love Songs,” “With a Little Luck,” “Coming Up,” “Ebony and Ivory,” “Say Say Say.” Most of these are not my cup of tea, partly, I suppose, because they were hugely overplayed, but also because they’re too sing-songy for my tastes.

Those who critique music are often vilified as frustrated musicians who don’t have the talent or stamina to sustain a career in the music business. So whenever I start dissing someone like McCartney (in this case, about his propensity for too-cutesy fare), I must stop and remember I’m never going to enjoy everything the guy writes because I’m not always a part of the target audience for whom he’s writing.

There’s a great quote by Theodore Roosevelt that captures my point: “It is not the critic who counts; the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

McCartney has certainly dared greatly in his career:

He dared to wing it with the slapdash, home-movie approach for The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” film that was roundly panned upon release.

The Beatles on location in England, 1967

He dared, in the aftermath of The Beatles’ breakup, to form a new group he called Wings and head out on a tour of colleges and small-town venues in England.

He dared to write a lyric that asks, “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, /And what’s wrong with that?…”, and had the last laugh when it was #1 in the US for five weeks.

He dared to try co-writing songs with other important musicians, most notably Stevie Wonder, Carl Perkins, Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello, Steve Miller, Rihanna and Kanye West.

He dared to be among the first to participate in the “MTV Unplugged” series, where rock stars performed their rock hits with acoustic instruments for an intimate crowd, performing Beatles and solo tunes, and a handful of early rockers like “Be Bop-a-Lula,” “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

He dared to go way outside his comfort zone five times between 1990 and 2010 to write classical and orchestral music that ended up well received among those who perform and enjoy these genres.

He dared to join the crowd of pop musicians (Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, among countless others) who have mined the songbook of ’30s and ’40s pop and jazz standards his musical father used to play on piano. Paul’s album, 2012’s “Kisses on the Bottom,” reached #2 on US pop charts.

In the last decade, he has really branched out, experimenting with new styles and techniques in an attempt to remain relevant and attract a new generation of listeners. Indeed, his 2013 LP is actually entitled “New.” His collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West in 2015 on the single “FourFiveSeconds” has amassed upwards of 850 million hits on Spotify. Cynics might say he partnered with them just because of their huge popularity, but I don’t think so. He’s truly interested in still learning, still trying.

His two most recent albums, 2018’s “Egypt Station” and 2020’s “McCartney III,” are full of fascinating departures from typical McCartney music (check out the audaciously titled “Fuh You”), juxtaposed next to the luscious melodies we’ve come to expect from this extraordinary tunesmith.

In addition to all this, he was deeply involved in “Paul McCartney, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present,” a gargantuan, two-volume hardcover tome published last year that’s full of his thoughts and narratives regarding 150 of the more meaningful songs from his life’s work. Equally fascinating is the video project “McCartney 3,2,1,” in which producer Rick Rubin sits down with Paul at a mixing board to dissect Beatles and McCartney tracks and hear stories of the recording process. If you’re a fan, you should really explore both of these behind-the-scenes undertakings.

I had a thought the other day: Would Lennon have still been recording and performing into his 80s? Perhaps…but almost certainly not as prolifically as workaholic Paul. I’ll bet the two of them would’ve found a way to make some records together, if only because Paul would’ve persuaded John to do it.

When asked a few months ago about his reputation for being such a hard-working chap, he had this modest response: “I look a lot busier than I am, as I’m actually a rather sporadic, random person. I’ll play a few gigs and then disappear for a while.”

Paul McCartney, the man of action, remains bloody well active today, and I, for one, salute his efforts.

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Because McCartney’s career catalog is so voluminous, I’ve decided to break it down into two Spotify playlists. The first one highlights his songs with The Beatles, while the second features my preferred selections from his repertoire on his own and with Wings.