Let it be, Paul

October 09, 2003|By Alexander E. Hooke

HE HAS more No. 1 singles and albums than any other musician. His "Yesterday" is the most recorded song in history. He has been knighted and received a coat of arms. Major orchestras have performed his classical compositions. And in Rolling Stone magazine's last poll on the 100 greatest rock 'n' roll albums, his group, the Beatles, placed four in the top six, with Revolver voted No. 1.

Yet Paul McCartney is worried about his legacy.

Though starting work on a new album, he has also been trying to revise some old song credits to read McCartney-Lennon rather than Lennon-McCartney. This could more accurately reflect whether he or his brilliant partner, John Lennon, was chief writer of a particular song. (Mr. Lennon, who was shot to death Dec. 8, 1980, would have been 63 today.)

Current generations of Beatles fans are not the concern - they already know whether "Help," "Hey Jude" or "She Loves You" is a joint effort or primarily penned by one or the other.

The concern is over Mr. McCartney's legacy among future generations. There appears a gnawing sense that his contributions will be forgotten when tomorrow's listeners hear Beatles music, casually noting that Mr. Lennon and some partner wrote them.

This involves a peculiar human paradox. Don't most of us wonder what we have accomplished and how we'll be remembered? Teachers hope, but rarely ascertain, that they really educated students and not just helped them satisfy their requirements. Parents do their utmost to give a child memorable times and opportunities but hear no reply if curious about a final assessment.

Humility or modesty aside, gaining credit intrigues us. When carving initials on a tree trunk, etching names in fresh concrete, deciding an official moniker for a written or artistic work, tagging a graffiti signature or designing the epitaph for one's gravestone, humans announce something about themselves to others. This something could be what I experienced, you thought, he imagined or she created. We call attention to something in silence for a tomorrow when others come upon our name and we can no longer speak. Of this tomorrow one never knows.

Though a billionaire, Paul McCartney realizes not only that money can't buy love, but also that it can't guarantee a legacy. Critics often undermine the commercial and creative success of the Beatles. Their lyrics lack the edge and social conscience of Bob Dylan. Or they were seduced by artistic indulgence, abandoning the rocking purity and radical outrage that characterized Elvis or the Rolling Stones. Phony Beatlemania, charged the Clash.

These and similar comparisons are facile. They overlook how the Beatles were the most controversial and revolutionary of all. Long before punk or rap, Beatles' records were vilified in religious conflagrations, their concerts spawned pandemonium and spectacle, their songs, which expanded endlessly the possibilities of subsequent musicians, were banned by radio stations. The infamous "Butcher Block" cover protested EMI/Capitol's carving up of their albums.

More importantly, these comparisons ignore how enduring and fecund Lennon-McCartney music has been. Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Banarama topped the charts with their songs. Reggae artists and New Wave performers have also covered them. The movie I Am Sam offers a soundtrack of Beatles tunes, sung by current luminaries that include Sheryl Crow, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Sarah McLachlan.

In this light, tinkering with the credit lines could diminish rather than enhance Mr. McCartney's legacy. Experts or (worse) legalists might then propose LENNON-McCartney by Mr. Lennon's masterpieces such as "Strawberry Fields," "Forever," "I Am the Walrus" or "Girl." Worse, it threatens to tarnish their unique legacy - a collaboration that spans the ages.

After Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled Mount Everest, Mr. Hillary refused to say who first touched the peak. Neither could have reached the summit without the other. He understood that each of us, regardless of the significance of our own accomplishments, always gets by with a little help from our friends.

Paul McCartney - with John Lennon - created a musical Everest: the Beatles. When mortality takes away his voice, it will be the legacy of Lennon-McCartney that speaks to future generations. Manipulating that credit betrays Mr. McCartney's remarkable gifts, illustrating vanity rather than pride. Words of wisdom, Paul: Let it be.

Alexander E. Hooke teaches philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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