For Sir Paul McCartney, The Song Is “When I’m Eighty”
By Stuart Mitchner
“Will you still be sending me a valentine?
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?”
—from The Lyrics
Paul McCartney, who wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four” when he was “twenty-four-ish,” will be 80, that’s e-i-g-h-t-y, this Saturday, June 18, 2022.
Recalling one of his best-known songs in The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (Liveright 2021), which includes 154 first-person commentaries that poet Paul Muldoon compiled and edited from 50 hours of conversation, McCartney says he’d already worked out the melody by the time he “was about sixteen; it was one of my little party pieces, and when we were on the lookout for songs for The Beatles, I thought it would be quite good to put words to it. The melody itself has something of a music hall feel.”
With Muldoon on board, you’ve got the makings of a music hall act of sorts (McCartney & Muldoon), with Muldoon, a songwriter himself, making sure the commentary brings in the lady who played piano at old people’s homes and hoped Mr. McCartney didn’t mind that she’d updated the song to “When I’m Eighty-Four …. Sometimes even “When I’m Ninety-Four.”
The Problem with Perfection
At roughly the same early age (“about sixteen”), McCartney wrote “I’ll Follow the Sun,” which could be called a perfect song, except that its appeal has little to do with perfection. A “perfect” song occurs in a country with distinct boundaries, “I’ll Follow the Sun” abides between raucous cover versions of “Rock and Roll Music” and “Mister Moonlight” on the patchwork post-Hard Days Night LP Beatles for Sale. It comes and goes like Keats’s nightingale (“Fled is that music — do I wake or sleep?”). The commentary follows the circular movement of the song, which McCartney compares to a walk through the house it was written in: “It’s a single sentence. It was like our house in Forthlin Road. You went in the front door, went around through the living room, dining room, kitchen, hall, and ended up back where you started.”
McCartney’s conversations with Muldoon took place over a five-year period, 2015-2020, and the more they talked, as McCartney says in his foreword, the more they realized they had a lot in common. “What appealed to me immediately was that Muldoon is a poet. Like me, he is into words and understands the poetics of words — how the lyrics themselves become their own form of music that can become even more magical when paired with a melody.” The two also shared “an Irish heritage, an ancestral link in our families’ pasts.” In his introduction Muldoon says that most of the conversations took place in New York, each meeting involving “two or three hours of intensive conversation.” Muldoon sees a parallel to the “writing sessions that were a feature of the Lennon-McCartney partnership.”
You get a vivid image of that relationship in McCartney’s recollection of “Please Please Me,” the Beatles’ first No. 1 hit in the U.K.: “We wrote with two guitars, John and I … and the joy of that was that I was left-handed while he was right-handed, so I was looking into a mirror and he was looking into a mirror.” They would “tune up, have a ciggie, drink a cup of tea, start playing some stuff, look for an idea.”
A Train Ride of the Mind
“Rocky Raccoon,” from the White Album, has a classic storybook opening: “Now somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota / There lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon.” McCartney recalls, “I just started imagining this little story, and for me it was like going on a train ride … a train ride of the mind.” The train takes him through the hills of Dakota into his Liverpool boyhood, Doris Day in Calamity Jane, Davy Crockett and his raccoon cap from the TV show with Fess Parker, “but my main thing was the song ‘Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.’ “ Also coming along for the ride was “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” something “a drunken uncle” might sing at a party.
The train ride takes an eventful turn with the arrival of the doctor “stinking of gin” who tends to Rocky after he’s been shot by “the man who called himself Dan.” McCartney associates the drunken doctor (a trope of American westerns most memorably played out in John Ford’s Stagecoach) with the moped accident he had when he was giving a ride to a friend “who later died in a car accident” — not just any friend, but the model for the “lucky man” in “A Day in the Life” who “blew his mind out in a car / He didn’t notice that the lights had changed.” Suddenly the train’s steamed into the Sgt. Pepper sixties, thanks to the doc’s bungled stitching up of Paul’s busted lip: “So he had to do it a second bloody time … and I had this bump on my lip for a good while after…. And I was black and blue and really quite a mess. So I decided to grow a moustache. Then the other Beatles saw it and liked it, so they all grew moustaches too.” Which explains the presence of the four “moustaches” on the cover and gate-fold of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
People in the thrall of the Beatles are often tempted to read the interpersonal dynamic of the group into lyrics like “We Can Work It Out,” which is actually based on Paul’s relationship with Jane Asher, or “The Two of Us,” which is about Paul and Linda, not Paul and John, or “Hey Jude,” written not for John (as John himself liked to think) but for John’s son Julian.
Then there’s the “You” in “Got To Get You Into My Life” which The Lyrics reveal is not a woman but a joint (“my ode to pot”), as related in McCartney’s comment about being turned on by Bob Dylan in the summer of 1964. And if you have a warm place in your heart for Bristol, England, it’s a treat to learn that Paul found Eleanor Rigby’s last name on a shop sign there when Jane Asher was in a play at the Bristol Old Vic.
The back story of “And I Love Her” reveals something about Paul’s relationship with Jane’s family (they “knew all about art and culture and society”), who put him up in the attic of the house at 57 Wimpole Street for a time. The song also provides McCartney with an opportunity to give credit to George Harrison for the opening guitar riff and to producer George Martin for a chord modulation in the solo “he knew would be musically very satisfying.”
Having bonded with the music of the Beatles while hitching to India, I especially enjoyed the back story to “Ticket to Ride,” with its account of John and Paul’s adventures when they decided to hitchhike to Spain by way of Paris, how they’d start on the other side of a particular bridge “because that’s where the long-distance lorries started. We’d wear little bowler hats to get their attention! When we got the lift, we sat together, we’d experience the lorry driver together. We knew what it was like to go on the cross-channel ferry; we knew what it was like to try and hang out in Paris. We would walk for miles around the city, sit in bars near Rue des Anglais, visit Montmartre and the Folies Bergère. We felt like we were fully paid up existentialists and could write a novel from what we learnt in a week there, so we never did make it to Spain. We’d been together so much that if you had a question, we would both pretty much come up with the same answer. I put that sentence in italics because it suggests so much about the way the relationship inhabited the music. Later, McCartney comes back to the idea: “I could calm him down, and he could fire me up. We could see things in each other that the other needed to be complete….When it came to writing rock and roll, we were on the same page.”
For the past week I’ve been listening compulsively to McCartney’s 2005 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, especially “Jenny Wren,” a melody that would make Schubert smile, as might “English Tea” and “Too Much Rain,” if not “Friends to Go,” one of those songs I can’t help reading the Beatles legend into even though it has another, darker message. Like “English Tea,” it’s not included in The Lyrics. As the title suggests, Chaos and Creation emerges from a difficult period in the composer’s life; whatever the history, it’s an inspired piece of work, arguably his best album since 1976’s Band On the Run.
One of the pleasures to be found in the commentaries is that they cover both the distant past and the relative present, as happens with “Jenny Wren,” which travels from McCartney’s birdwatching boyhood to the world in 2020: “In my telling, it turns out that ‘Jenny Wren,’ her soul having been taken from her, has stopped singing as a form of protest. Then the song becomes a bit reflective about our society — how we screw things up and how we sympathise with the person who protests. She has seen our foolish ways, and the way we cast love aside, the way we lose sight of life — poverty breaking up homes, creating wounded warriors. She has seen who we are, and like everyone else, she’s just looking for that better way. And if it’s, say, an election year [like 2020], … you’re hoping that the mess — ‘this broken world’ we’re in at the moment — will go away, as will the people who created it, and someone better will come in so that we can get back to the better side of ourselves, mend our ‘foolish ways’ …. “
Some Happy Birthdays
So — Happy Birthday to Paul McCartney, and to his editor and virtual birthmate, Paul Muldoon, born two days and nine years later, June 20, 1951. And don’t forget Bob Dylan, who turned 80 last May 24, and special advance birthday greetings and a bottle of wine to the “someone better” we fondly hope “will mend our foolish ways,” another person of Irish heritage, President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., who will be 80 on November 20.
McCartney will be headlining the Glastonbury Festival a week after his 80th birthday, on 25 June 25. He ends his current “Got Back” Tour at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on June 16.