Paul at 54: Do we still need him?

June 18, 1996|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

When I get older losing my hair, many years from now ...

Well, 10 years, actually.

Paul McCartney, the sultan of silly love songs, turns 54 today. In 10 years, we'll be able to answer the big question.

"He's 54?" Colleen Reynolds, 45, of Jarrettsville asked. "He looks awesome." Reynolds boasts a fab collection of memorabilia, including a ticket stub from the Beatles' 1964 Baltimore concert. Yesterday may have been years ago, but the cutest Beatle is still here, there and everywhere. Pretty impressive considering Paul is "dead."

He lives on in Dana Carvey's dead-on impressions. He endures on "The Simpsons" as a lentil-loving guest star who befriended Apu during the Maharishi days. He bridges the Generation-X gap by doing "MTV Unplugged."

You're as likely to find him campaigning for animal rights as you are to find the middle-age former moptop performing. He's spread his wings and extended his influence beyond the realm of music.

The bittersweet, big-band nostalgia number "When I'm 64" was the first track to be recorded for the epochal 1967 "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" album, and Paul wrote the song in his teens. Who'd have guessed he'd still be in the spotlight as he closed in on that legendary age?

But simply being center-stage doesn't make someone necessary. And the question remains, do we still need him?

"Yeah, yeah, yeah" say devout McCartney-ites, but those who perceive his musical quality as waning are less enthusiastic.

In the pro-McCartney camp, Beatlemania is alive and well, as evinced by fans such as Reynolds. Some supporters even offer explanations as to why McCartney's A.B. (After Beatles) output hasn't reached the same climax as his Beatles work.

Vic Garbarini, a music writer for Playboy who has interviewed Paul, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, said it's largely due to the absence of a mediating influence. In Beatle days, John would balance Paul's tendency toward cheese with a cerebral counterpoint, and they'd create miracles. But without such a priceless partner, who's going to stop Paul from overstepping the threshold of self-indulgence?

"No one was going to tell Paul, 'Hey, these are silly love songs'," Garbarini said.

The "We don't need him now and certainly will not need him when he's 64" camp is less analytical and accepting.

Robert Christgau, the chief music critic at the Village Voice, contends that McCartney has not proven to be the "font of melody" one might have expected.

"He was a Beatle for about 11 years and he has now been Paul McCartney for about 27 years," Christgau said. "And as Paul, he's done about 15 interesting songs and a tremendous amount of meaningless treacle."

Even though he's less than impressed with McCartney's solo music, Christgau understands his success. "Barry Manilow has a career, I don't see why Paul McCartney shouldn't."

Other anti-McCartneys don't advocate total anarchy, however.

"As much as I dislike him I think he's still good to have around," said Lonny Chu, a music graduate student at Northwestern University and a teaching assistant for Music A75: "The Beatles: An Interdisciplinary Mystery Tour."

Chu added, "If nothing else, he is still a resource for Beatles information."

Maybe we weren't amazed by Wings, or other post-Beatles output, but Paul is no one-hit wonder. Considering his hyper-activism, maybe the question should be, will the world need him?

From topping the bill at London's Live Aid to speaking out for animal rights, McCartney has a history of activism.

"I can't imagine anyone doing more than Paul and Linda," said Michael McGraw, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "We're proud to have them as friends."

McCartney recently sent a letter to Norway in connection with Greenpeace, urging them to stop whaling. And he has also been instrumental in PETA's campaign against Gillette, which still does animal testing for its products, McGraw said.

McCartney is a strict vegetarian and has been known to try and influence his companion musicians and roadies to forego flesh as well. He encourages the distribution of veggie hot dogs at concert venues.

But what will Paul be doing at 74, 84, 94?

Will he write revised versions of classics? ("I'll Follow The Sun Even Though It's Rapidly Becoming a Death Star Because of the Depleting Ozone Layer," "You Never Give Me Your Tofu,") Or, will he continue on the track of his symphonic "Liverpool Oratorio" and create new classics? ("The Ringo of the Nibelungen," "The Barber of the Beatles," "A Hard Day's Nocturne") Nobody knows for sure, but they do have their dreams. Garbarini's vision is for Paul and the other Fabs to break into the alternative scene.

"I think the three Beatles should now make a record with [Liam Gallagher] the lead singer of Oasis, and call it 'Beatles and Butt-head.' "

Not only does Garbarini have a sublime vision, he also has an optimistic theory.

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