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?”

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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.

You had me at “hello”

Every writer — novelist, speechwriter, essayist, lyricist — knows that you’ve got to have a great opening line. You need a thought, an image or a line of dialog that really grabs readers/listeners and pulls them in.

You might startle them, make them chuckle, shock them or just caress them in such a way that they have no choice but to stick around and see what happens next.

In the song lyrics of classic rock, there are many thousands of great examples of this. From The Beatles’ “I read the news today, oh boy” to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hello darkness, my old friend”, the archives runneth over with captivating opening lines that demand our attention.

Many songs take the easy way out and start things off by using the title as the opening line (“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad”, “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson”), and that has certainly been a successful tactic as well. I’m drawn, however, to the song lyrics that begin with some mystery, some indelible image, some phrase that I simply must follow to learn more.

I’ve selected two dozen of my favorite opening lines from rock songs of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s for you to ruminate on and identify. For the most part, these should generally be rather easy to pick out because they’re mostly from big hits. As usual, you can scroll down in the text to find the answers, and a little bit of info about what inspired the songwriters. And there’s a Spotify list at the end so you can enjoy hearing the lyrics performed by the artists.

Good luck!

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1 “I was a little too tall, coulda used a few pounds…”

2 “In the corner of my eye, I saw you in Rudy’s, you were very high…”

3 “Well, no one told me about her, the way she lied…”

4 “Way down here, you need a reason to move, feel a fool running your stateside games…”

5 “It was raining hard in Frisco, I needed one more fare to make my night…”

6 “It was the Third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day…”

7 “Ain’t it foggy outside? All the planes have been grounded…”

8 “I know you deceived me, now here’s a surprise…”

9 “Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time…”

10 “‘There must be some kind of way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief…”

11 “I saw her today at the reception, a glass of wine in her hand…”

12 “It’s the same kind of story that seems to come down from long ago…”

13 “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together…”

14 “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves…”

15 “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out…”

16 “On a morning from a Bogart movie, in a country where they turn back time…”

17 “Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies…”

18 “Up all night, I could not sleep, the whiskey that I drank was cheap…”

19 “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair…”

20 “Hey, where did we go, days when the rains came…”

21 “You walked in to the party like you were walking onto a yacht…”

22 “If there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public…”

23 “When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land?…”

24 “Gonna write a little letter, gonna mail to it my local deejay…”

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1 “Night Moves,” Bob Seger, 1976

After seeing “American Graffiti” upon its release, Seger was inspired to write his own story about adolescent love and coming-of-age challenges. He said he lacked self-confidence and felt physically awkward — “a little too tall, could’ve used a few pounds,” as he wrote in the opening line of “Night Moves” — but his ability to sing and play music gave him an in with the “cool” kids, he recalled.

2 “Black Cow,” Steely Dan, 1977

I could’ve picked almost any song from the Steely Dan catalog to include here. The Fagen-Becker songwriting team had an uncanny ability to draw you in with mischievously cryptic lyrics. In this song, they revealed years later, the narrator is talking about a girl he used to be involved with, who’s sitting stoned at Rudy’s soda fountain drinking a coke float (known as a Black Cow in some parts of the country).

3 “She’s Not There,” The Zombies, 1964

When Rod Argent was encouraged to write an original song for the group’s upcoming session, he was inspired by a John Lee Hooker song called “No One Told Me,” deciding that would be a great opening line to describe a cheating, dishonest woman who, when the shit hit the fan, up and disappeared. Breakup songs were popular, but one that vilified the woman for. being a chronic liar was something new in 1964.

4 “Mexico,” James Taylor, 1975

Based on this upbeat tune’s opening line and the lyrics that follow, you would think Taylor had spent some time south of the border, soaking in the laid-back vibe, getting away from the hustle of life in the record business. But by the song’s final moments, he’s singing, “I’ve never really been, but I’d sure like to go.” Turns out he was singing about a fantasy he had of traveling to an exotic land.

5 “Taxi,” Harry Chapin, 1972

Chapin developed an enviable reputation as a songwriting storyteller, introducing characters and their evolving relationships with uncommon flair. Here, in his signature tune, Chapin sets the stage by identifying the locale, the weather and the protagonist’s occupation all in one busy opening line. He goes on to introduce his former flame, who’s rich but evidently very unhappy (at least, compared to Harry).

6 “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, 1967

Here’s another fine example of an opening line that beautifully captures an image — in this case, life in the South one hot summer afternoon. It reads almost like a William Faulkner novel, and it sure makes me say, “Go on…” There’s a great deal more to the story, but it left certain crucial facts unstated, which created curiosity in listeners and kept them coming back to examine the lyrics many times over.

7 “Sandman,” America, 1972

From the first time I heard it, I thought the first words of this electric folk tune were intriguing. Is someone stuck at an airport, or a mountain resort, perhaps? What’s the situation? Who’s the vague, possibly nefarious guy who calls himself “Sandman,” and why is someone running from him? The beauty of the track is that we don’t learn a whole lot more about their identities or their fate. It’s up to us to imagine.

8 “I Can See For Miles,” The Who, 1967

Pete Townshend has a secret for the deceptive girl he’s pursuing, and that is, he knows she’s lying to him. He has the figurative ability to see “for miles” right through her manipulations. He warns her that she’ll have to “stand trial” someday and choke on her untruths, and he’ll be there to see it all unfold. Townshend made the words all the more effective by putting them to one of The Who’s most powerful rock arrangements.

9 “It’s Too Late,” Carole King, 1971

Breakup songs can be brutal and full of bitterness or, conversely, they can be tender and tinged with sadness. Carole King’s sometime collaborator Toni Stern came up with this treatment that approaches its subject gingerly, knowing that the end of the relationship has arrived but wanting to end it on soft ground without so much heartbreak. Who hasn’t wanted to stay in bed longer rather than face a tough decision?

10 “All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan, 1967

Even though Jimi Hendrix’s ferocious cover version is the one most people know, Dylan’s stark original does an amazing job of capturing the same apocalyptic intensity in a different way. The opening line is a grabber, but it has been said that Dylan’s brief tale actually begins with the final verse, and ends with the beginning, where the princes stood in the watchtower keeping an eye out for the impending doom.

11 “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” The Rolling Stones, 1969

I can’t count the number of times I’ve used this opening line as I have approached a female friend holding a glass of vino at a wedding reception. The woman Mick Jagger sings about here turns out to be out of reach because she has another agenda. He wrote this amazing song as a philosophical treatise on how to balance our desires for the unattainable with our basic needs for the more basic elements of life.

12 “Hypnotized,” Fleetwood Mac, 1973

The insistent, hypnotic music created by this earlier lineup of Fleetwood Mac is matched by furtive lyrics that remind us, “There’s no explaining what your imagination can make you see and feel.” It begins by telling us its story is like so many others “that seem to come down from long ago,” and it coaxes the listener in with a mixture of everyday images and visions of “a strange, strange pond,” among other mysteries.

13 “America,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1968

One of the most concise, literary songs ever, about a romantic couple eager to hit the road and explore the world and search for their souls simultaneously. Simon chooses to open the track with dialog as the man asks the woman to share his dream of traveling to find their future together. It struck a chord with many, because America was experiencing violent, angry times when this album and song were released.

14 “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen, 1975

On a brilliant album chock-full of marvelous imagery, the first line of the first song might be the best. The hero is waiting in his car as the radio plays when his girl Mary emerges from her house to come join him for another adventure. Who can’t relate to the sound of a screen door slamming to announce someone’s arrival or departure? It’s a universal thing, and Springsteen knew it.

15 “Thick as a Brick,” Jethro Tull, 1972

What a bold thing to do: Compose an epic, 45-minute piece of progressive rock music with multiple sections, movements, moods and instrumental passages, with lyrics about generational relationships, and then undercut the whole thing by starting it with the line, “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.” Tull’s Ian Anderson knew that it needed to have self-deprecating humor so as not to be taken too seriously.

16 “Year of the Cat,” Al Stewart, 1976

England’s version of the songwriting storyteller was Stewart, who had studied historical fiction and different world cultures and became quite good at creating both short and long tales about romantic encounters and entanglements. For “Year of the Cat,” he began by recalling the setting of the classic film “Casablanca” in a nameless North African country “where they turn back time.” I’m hooked, how about you?

17 “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” Beatles, 1967

Recreational drug users swear that this John Lennon fantasy simply must be experienced under the influence of psychedelics to be fully appreciated. Maybe, but at the very least, he sucks us in with colorful, idyllic images that invite us all to join him in his boat on the river. Other dazzling phrases (“rocking-horse people,” “cellophane flowers”) follow, taking us further into his apparent dream sequence.

18 “South City Midnight Lady,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973

Spending a restless night trying to recover from another episode of trying to drown your sorrows in booze is an experience to which many people can relate, and Patrick Simmons captures it nicely in this pretty masterpiece from The Doobies’ “The Captain and Me” album. The protagonist ultimately returns to the woman he loves, full of remorse for his shortcomings and gratitude for her love.

19 “Hotel California,” The Eagles, 1976

This is one of the most thoroughly examined songs in classic rock, with multiple interpretations of what Don Henley and Glenn Frey were talking about here. They certainly set the table from the outset, as someone approaches on one of California’s dark desert highways. Is Hotel California a real place, or a metaphor for the allure of the Los Angeles entertainment industry? You decide.

20 “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison, 1967

The fun and frolic of this song is evident from the get-go as Morrison describes what he and his young brown-eyed girl would do and where they’d go — down in the hollow, down in the old mine, along the waterfall, behind the stadium. He has said the lyric originally focused on a “brown-skinned girl” he met in Jamaica, but his conservative record label insisted he change it to something less controversial.

21 “You’re So Vain,” Carly Simon, 1972

You can just picture the guy, oozing with ego and cockiness, that Simon is describing in that opening line. The song goes on to become a damning indictment of a man so full of himself that he has no concern for others, particularly the many women he loves and leaves with careless abandon. Simon has said she was writing about three different men who shared this trait, one of whom was actor Warren Beatty.

22 “Tears of a Clown,” Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, 1970

The idea of a happy-face clown actually being a sad person behind the makeup was not new, but in this marvelous slice of Motown, Robinson used it to describe a man who puts on a brave face to the world even though he’s brokenhearted inside about a romantic breakup. The music was written by Stevie Wonder, who struggled with the lyrics until Robinson helped him find the right words to complete it.

23 “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John, 1973

Lyricist Bernie Taupin used one of his favorite films, “The Wizard of Oz,” as a metaphor for the trappings of success in the rock music business. He said in 2014, “I said I wanted to leave Oz and get back to the farm. I was never turning my back on fame or saying I didn’t want it. I was hoping that maybe there was a happy medium way to exist successfully in a tranquil setting. My naiveté was believing I could do it so early on.”

24 “Roll Over Beethoven,” Chuck Berry, 1956

As rock ‘n’ roll was gaining momentum, Berry was amused by the idea of writing a song in which rock (and R&B) would replace classical music. At home, Berry’s sister was often at the piano playing classical pieces, leaving Berry frustrated enough to wish that Beethoven, Mozart and the rest would “roll over” out of the way and make room for his new musical art form. And don’t forget to “tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

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Honorable mentions:

Kodachrome,” Paul Simon, 1973 (“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school…”); “Sympathy For the Devil,” The Rolling Stones, 1968 (“Please allow me to introduce myself…”); “Space Oddity,” David Bowie, 1969 (“Ground control to Major Tom…”); “A Day in the Life,” The Beatles, 1967 (“I read the news today, oh boy…”).

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