October 3, 2018

“Dear Christine” Arrives at Paul McCartney’s “Egypt Station”

By Stuart Mitchner

Trying to remember the last time I spent all day glued to the TV, the best I can do is September 11, 2001. Last Thursday my attention was focused on a 51-year-old stranger who was tenuously holding her own under the glare of the national spotlight. As she spoke shyly but unsparingly about the most traumatic moment of her life, I found myself pulling for her as if she were an old friend.

When the first half of the Senate hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was adjourned, I searched online for the song I’d been thinking of during the cross-examination’s most stressful moments. All it took was typing in “Dear Christine,” by Klaatu, a Canadian group named after the traveler from another world in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Love songs like this one live and breathe with feeling and make you instantly emotional, particularly if you’ve just spent a supremely intense period of time empathizing with a woman named Christine.

The McCartney Connection

Klaatu’s claim to fame was a media-driven rumor similar to the Paul McCartney-Is-Dead hoax that came to a head 50 years ago. A series of clues put together by a journalist and disseminated by various DJs suggested that the band’s 1976 debut LP was actually a disguised Beatles reunion album secretly recorded after the Break-Up Heard Round the World.

Although “Dear Christine” appeared on Klaatu’s third album, released in 1978, the depth of feeling expressed reminds me of a McCartney ballad called “I’m Carrying,” one of his most beautiful and least known compositions. Unmentioned in any of the four McCartney biographies available at the Princeton Public Library and hidden away on the 1978 Wings album London Town, the song comes and goes almost before you have time to realize that the glowing essence of film romance has been put to music and delivered in just under three minutes. “Dear Christine” is a more symphonic expression of the same emotion: an entire relationship rendered in miniature. The singer is away at sea, “in the King’s service,” writing “with quill in hand … to bridge the endless blue”: “Dear Christine I hold you dearly/If only you could hear me/I send my love sincerely.”

So, with keyboard in hand, I’m sending this message of admiration and appreciation.

Paul Lives!

The irony of that morbid half-century-old exercise in Beatles paranoia is that Paul has not only survived John and George by decades, he’s still making instantly recognizable McCartney music on his latest release Egypt Station (Capitol). While there’s nothing here to equal the aching poignance of “I’m Carrying,” the sense of something personal and deeply felt surfaces in “Do It Now,” which was inspired by his father, and “Confidante,” a loving tribute to his old Martin guitar. He explains the back story for both songs online in “Words Between The Tracks.”

“‘Do It Now’” was my dad’s big catch phrase …. So this has always been in my mind. So I’m on a journey … I’ve been invited to go, I’m going in my imagination, somewhere, and the idea is if I don’t do it now, I may never get to this place …. My dad would have said, ‘Go on this journey now. Don’t leave it too late.”

“Confidante” might be John Lennon (“I fell out of love with you/And brought our romance to an end”), except for the reference to “my under-the-staircase friend,” which McCartney clarifies by talking about the time “when we first got guitars” and the Martin was “like a friend, a mate” you could tell your “secret thoughts and troubles to.” As it happens, John’s friendship actually is evoked, if inadvertently, in the idea of “longlost anthems” chanted in “our imaginary world.”

Family Values

“Do It Now” makes a familial match of sorts with “Let It Be,” the inspirational anthem Paul wrote for his mother Mary, who died in 1956. In Philip Norman’s biography, Jim McCartney gets credit for both phrases. Whenever “Paul or his brother Mike wanted to postpone a boring task,” their father’s response was always “D.I.N., Do it now”; if they were quarrelling, he’d tell them to ‘Let it be.” In fact, Paul brought Mike along on the journey, citing him at the beginning (“My brother told me/Life’s not a pain”) and end (“I’ve been taken for my younger brother”).

In the liner notes he wrote for his previous album New (2013), McCartney says that some songs “came as late night inspirations when I played my dad’s old piano.” According to his comment between the tracks of Egypt Station, he also composed “Hand in Hand” on that piano (“which is special to me”). To this day he keeps both the piano and the Martin guitar within reach.

The Cover

The cover of Egypt Station is a bolder, brighter incarnation of a painting McCartney did after viewing images from a reference book about Egypt; thus the two sunflowers, the ibex with its elongated horns, the cedar tree, the sitting dog. The idea for a title came from the resemblance of the lines at the bottom to railway tracks. The colors have a pleasingly primal purity, something like the visual equivalent of what Bob Dylan was talking about in 2007 when he spoke of McCartney’s “effortless melodies … that’s what you have to be in awe of …. Everything that comes out of his mouth is just framed in melody.”

Looking for the Beatles

After more than a week of listening in the car, the kitchen, and the living room, I’m still coming to terms with Egypt Station. Like previous McCartney solo LPs, this may be as close as we can come in the 21st century to the experience of opening and playing a new Beatles album, although nothing I’ve heard has the Beatlesque dimensions of numbers like “Friends to Go” from Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005), “Only Mama Knows” on Memory Almost Full (2007), and the title song from New (2013).

After playng Egypt Station yet again, I put on Rubber Soul to see if I thought any of the new songs would have made the cut. Helped by improved production values, an infectious romp like “Come On To Me” seems a sure thing, as does “Dominoes,” which could be the most interesting composition on the album and one I think the other Beatles would have admired. After lines like “As time goes by, we’ll laugh and cry/It’s in the past” and “We broke the code and walked the road/That never ends,” the domino effect is simulated in the chorus, “And lines of dominoes are falling/Into place ignoring everything in their way/And all the telephones keep calling/Constantly imploring us to come out and play.” There’s a sense that the Beatles are the “we” that laughed and cried in the past, broke the code, and walked the long and winding road that never ends.

“Despite Repeated Warnings”

The longest and most musically ambitious piece on Egypt Station bears a title that resonates even more today than it would have after the 2016 election. In his between-the-tracks comment claiming that climate change is the subject, McCartney doesn’t name “the person symbolic of certain politicians” who calls global warming “a hoax,” but there’s a hint of Trump in the first lines (“Despite repeated warnings/Of dangers up ahead/The captain won’t be listening to what’s been said”), and he’s unmistakably there in the upbeat call to arms: “How can we stop him/Grab the key and lock him up/If we can do it/We can save the day.” McCartney imagines the Titanic and “a mad daft captain” who knows the iceberg’s up ahead and plows right on anyway. The piece ends with a triumphant mutiny: “So we gather around him/Now the ropes that have bound him/Prove that he should have listened/To the will of the people.” The last lines are repeated in a rousing call to resistance, “It’s the will of the people.”

“Is Your Conscience All Right?”

After watching the ugly, dissonant second half of the Senate hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, I wasn’t thinking about music of any kind, least of all a love song evoked by the grace under fire of the morning witness. What would be appropriate? Maybe some heavy metal from the period when Brett Kavanaugh was going through kegs and blacking out? Or how about “Death on Two Legs” by Queen — “Is your conscience all right?/Does it plague you at night?/Do you feel good?”

Egypt Station offers some sing-along remedies for the current state of affairs. For the courage of Christine, “She’s a rock.” For ranting in-your-face white Republican senators, there’s the song Paul wrote for his grandkids in regard to bullies and trolls. It’s called “Who Cares?” and begins, “Did you ever get hurt by the words people say/And the things that they do when they’re picking on you?” After a reference to “the games that they play” comes the chorus: “Who cares what the idiots say? Who cares about the pain in your heart? Who cares about you? I do.”