May 13, 2020

The Ides of May: Little Richard, Kent State, and Paul McCartney

By Stuart Mitchner

Let’s get rid of that old man hate
And bring our fellow man up to date.
—Little Richard (1932-2020)

“Good Golly, Miss Molly,” it looks like the death of Little Richard has invaded a column marking the 50th anniversary of Kent State, Paul McCartney’s first solo album, and the break-up of the Beatles. But surely there’s room for the man who taught Paul “everything he knows.”

By the time they formed a band, Lennon and McCartney had taken crash courses at the College of Little Richard, as can be heard in John’s frenzied “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and Paul’s out-of-the-body and over-the-top “Long Tall Sally.” With some help from the singer who “came screaming into my life as a teenager,” Paul took rock-and-roll-roller-coaster hysteria to another level in “Helter Skelter,” a fitting theme song for the state of the nation, whether you mean May 1970 or May 2020.
America Screaming

Speaking of college, say you’re on the first day of a European tour, one of 36 American students, all but eight of them females. It’s a sunny afternoon in Delft, and you’re coming out of Vermeer’s house in a still-life spell feeling three centuries away from the U.S.A. You’re wandering through a street fair with calliopes and bump-em cars near a quaint park with swans when you hear a sound — no, it’s too big to hear, the sound descends on you, it attacks you, it eats you alive; it’s the sound of America screaming — “A wop-boppa-LOO-BOP a-lop-BAM-BOOM!” Yes! Glory be! Hallelujah, suddenly you’re a rock ‘n’ roll patriot ready to sing the anthem and salute the Stars and Stripes of joyous chaos (“I got a girl named Daisy, she almost drives me crazy”) — but except for one or two Daisys and Miss Mollys, most of the girls seem appalled and embarrassed by the neuron-shattering blast of “Tutti Frutti.”

Born in a Bus Station Kitchen

Asked by a Rolling Stone interviewer circa 1970 how he came upon the explosive opening line of “Tutti Frutti,” Little Richard replied: “Oh my God, my God, let me tell you the good news! I was working at the Greyhound Bus Station in Macon, Georgia, oh my Lord, back in 1955…. I was washing dishes…. I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots back for me to wash, and one day I said, ‘I’ve got to do something to stop this man bringing back all these pots back to me to wash, and I said, ‘Awap bob a lup bop a wop bam boom, take ‘em out!’ and that’s what I meant at the time.”

“Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” were written in the same Greyhound Bus Station kitchen.

One-Man Band

My copy of McCartney, bought from Cheap Thrills in New Brunswick 50 Aprils ago, is long gone, but the music’s on YouTube, free of the controversy surrounding Paul’s insistence on releasing his one-man album just ahead of Let It Be, thereby becoming the villain of the melodrama otherwise known as the Break Up of the Beatles.

It’s no surprise that McCartney was assailed on all sides as a smug, lightweight ego trip by reviewers and fans caught up in the dynamics of the moment. The judgment carrying the most weight came almost 30 years later in 1999 when Neil Young inducted McCartney into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: “I loved that record because it was so simple. And there was so much to see and to hear. It was just Paul. There was no adornment at all … no attempt made to compete with the things he had already done. And so out he stepped from the shadow of the Beatles.”

While there may have been no conscious attempt to compete with what he’d accomplished with the Beatles, Paul made use of the same genius for melodies and medleys that helped transform the second side of Abbey Road from a scattered assortment of brilliant possibilities into a masterpiece. Making McCartney, “I was like a professor in his laboratory,” Paul said in a 2001 interview with Mojo Navigator, referring to a very simple set-up, “as basic as you can get … Even now that album has an interesting sound. Very analogue, very direct.”

A High Set to Music

Another more significant McCartney-related revelation from the year 2001 is expressed in a letter to his daughter Mary (first seen as the infant tucked into his jacket on the back of the album): “I nearly had a breakdown. I suppose the hurt of it all, and the disappointment, and the sorrow of losing this great band, these great friends … I was going crazy.”

If I say the LP’s fourth track, “Every Night,” is the equivalent of setting a radiant Saturday in April to music, you may rightly ask, “What were you smoking?” And with good reason, since some notes scrawled to catch the spirit of that glorious day, April 25, 1970, begin with the words, “Magnificently stoned on a hill in Bucceleuch Park.” I still can’t pronounce “Bucceleuch,” a fact that mattered even less at the time, when nothing needed saying.

There are times that feel so good, so right that all you can do is look for music, something comparable to what Van Morrison meant by the “inarticulate speech of the heart.” After the first verse of “Every Night,” the last articulated words “to be with you” blend into to one of those wonders of Beatles music known as “middle eights,” only this one is too good for words (too marvelous, Cole Porter would say). It’s the turning point of the song and the album, because the melodic line is so pure, so elemental, so right, so buoyant, so free, it can’t be confined to language. The singer himself has no resistance to the wordless flight, it’s so irresistible, so infectious, that it becomes a song-ending aria, Paul still crooning the last syllable of the last word in the last line, to his intended listener, the you-oo-oo-oo he wants to be with. And so pervasive is the pure wordlessness of it that when he briefly gives way to generic language like “believe me mama” you want to shout at him Little Richard-style, “shut up, shut up!” Because the intrusion of that hackneyed phrase threatens to break the spell, the mystique of the moment, the sense that Paul has perhaps inadvertently revealed the essence of his art, his secret, his melodic DNA, as it becomes clear that the song he’s singing goes beyond the you that means his wife Linda, the mother of the baby named after his mother Mary, because according to the back story of the break-up, his almost breakdown, the you he wants to be with, that he’s trying to charm, impress, sway, is the “great band, these great friends” he feels he’s lost and that may be lost to him forever.

The extension of a you beyond Linda can also be read into the power and glory of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” a musical, lyrical, spiritual triumph that even the most outspoken critics of McCartney had to admire. Although the driving spirit of the song is love — of Linda, of life, of music, of what he’s making at that moment, he’s also a “lonely man,” in “the middle of something he doesn’t really understand.”

Three days after April 25, 1970, a date I thought worth recording thanks to a melodious combination of sun and spring and light and music, President Nixon authorized the invasion of Cambodia.

The Ides of May

On May 4, 1970, the country was shaken by the shootings at Kent State (four students dead), and 10 days later at Jackson State (nine students dead). The national mood had been grim enough before those events. According to the prevailing view, young and old were profoundly estranged, so much so that “generation gap” seemed a grim euphemism; it was more gaping wound than gap.

In that season of our discontent, the refrain coming from FM stations and car radios around the country was “This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in O-hi-o,” from “Ohio,” the song Neil Young composed only days after the shootings and rushed to record with Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

On Sunday, May 24, after a friend’s marriage was solemnized at Kirkpatrick Chapel on the Old Queens campus at Rutgers, the scene outside was a microcosm of the state of the nation. In the aftermath of an event that was all about union, the wedding party stood divided into two distinct groups, young and old, freaks and straights, warily eyeing one another across an invisible battle line. While grimly tolerating the bearded groom and his mane of shoulder-length blonde hair for the sake of the occasion, various relatives of both newlyweds were staring daggers at the bearded best man with his massive Afro, and the African American maid of honor, and the motley assembly of shaggy graduate student types like myself. We were a poster-ready image of the enemy.

While we stood looking down the hill toward Somerset Street and the railroad embankment abutting the New Brunswick railway station, we heard the sound of brass and drums (“This summer I hear the drumming”) as an American Legion parade came marching up George Street, flags flying, and began passing directly in front of us. It was not a happy, celebratory sort of parade, not with the marchers combatively chanting “U.S.A. All the Way” and other patriotic slogans, but even so, it seemed for a moment that the deep-seated American nostalgia aroused by the spectacle, the sound of drumbeats and brass, might cut through the chill, disperse some of the tension, maybe even inspire a shared smile between young and old. But no sooner had the marchers passed from view than two college students appeared running in the opposite direction, running, clearly, for their lives, with a posse of legionnaires, arms churning, in pursuit. The students had attempted to join the march and were now being tackled, pummeled, and beaten right before our eyes, one of them yelling “But we’re Americans, too!” Obviously the attempt by the young to join such a march had been perceived as an aggressive act, a piece of un-American mockery. Once we fathomed what was going on, the younger members of the wedding party, including the best man, the newlyweds, and the maid of honor, charged down the hill to break it up. Seeing a freshly married bride and groom descending on them, the legionnaires backed off and hurried to rejoin the march.

The Most Important Lesson

What makes Neil Young’s “Ohio” so effective isn’t the timing or the “Four Dead” mantra alone; it’s Young’s searing vocal. In the liner notes to his 1977 album, Decade, he wrote, “It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song. It’s ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the most important lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”

In the 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Little Richard says, “We need to learn to live together because unity is going to make things happen, and where there’s unity, there’s strength. Division kills.”