Tolerance Almost Full
Being a McCartney Fan Is Getting Harder All the Time
It's never been easy to be a fan of solo McCartney. And it's no secret whose fault that is.
Some of the records are good, some great (McCartney, Ram, Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, McCartney II, Tug of War, Flowers in the Dirt). Some are interesting failures (Wild Life, Red Rose Speedway, Back to the Egg, Press to Play, Flaming Pie, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard). Most are abominations (Wings at the Speed of Sound, London Town, Pipes of Peace, Give My Regards to Broad Street, Off the Ground, Run Devil Run, Driving Rain). But even the worst of his albums have between one and three songs that are so unbelievably good, and in the way that only Paul McCartney can be unbelievably good, that some of us—I have no idea how many; I've only met a few in person—keep coming back. Still, for every one to three great songs on his great to middling records (and if you're ever curious, I'll be happy to tell you exactly what those songs are and what makes them great), McCartney delivers a gesture, a photo, a video, an interview, a thumbs up, a face lift, a chin tuck, a hair dye, a revisionist Beatles reminiscence, a feint at being a regular guy, a wink at the camera that's so corny, so indefensibly uncool that, as a fan, you can only wince. His recent in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound association with Starbucks for the release of his new album, Memory Almost Full, is only the latest in a long line of bummers, but it's a big one.
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Let me start by saying that the album is not only almost good. It's his best record since 1989. And though one expects McCartney records to be all syrupy sweetness (I don't, but one does), Memory is legitimately bizarre. It's angry and fun, and it takes chances with song structure, textures, and attitudes. It feels contemporary without being dressed up in fashionable sounds. And it's affecting in ways his music rarely is, not because it's tender, but because it's not. The armor suits him when he screams on "That Was Me," or when he rumbles low in "Mr. Bellamy." It's always there, even when he gives directions for his funeral on "The End of the End." Two or three lesser numbers aside, this is good, vital music. And to think it's being made by a 64-year-old man whose most important work is inarguably 40 years behind him is pretty goddamn impressive.
Then he has to go and mess it up by trying to act cool.
Paul McCartney was never cool. Obviously. When he was a Beatle, he was really only cool by association with John, who was born cool. George was another kind of cool. Even Ringo was kind of cool. Paul was always off by a step (go watch A Hard Day's Night). But he was the hardest worker, and he was also the real artist, the real craftsman. He was why the Beatles weren't just cool. He was why they were the greatest thing that happened to music in the second half of the 20th century (at least). He was the finisher. And the fact that he was so unrelentingly not cool while being so unbelievably good is what makes him such a fascinating pop figure, to me anyway. I keep listening because he still delivers good songs, and always has the potential to write the perfect one. He's done it before, many times. But even if he pulls it off again, I'm not sure I want to hear it blasting out of the speakers of a Starbucks, to say nothing of every Starbucks, which is where Memory Almost Full received its public debut last week.
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I don't have a big problem with Starbucks at all. I try to avoid them (unless I'm looking for coffee anywhere else in America besides Seattle, in which case I'll walk a mile to find one), but whatever. Sometimes it's just the easiest. Nor do I object to them selling music; most of what they carry is respectable, and the advent of Hear Music, Starbucks's record label, has generally been beneficial to the careers of good bands. Think Starbucks selling music is lame? Ask the Shins, the Decemberists, Feist, and all the other upper-middle-class indie bands fighting (and I mean fighting) for rack space how they feel about being sold there. For Paul McCartney to align himself with the only demonstrable force left in the world of CD retailing makes perfect sense. But goddamn if I ever want to hear another word about music marketing. And goddamn if I feel the need to be confronted by his music—which I like more than everyone I've ever met combined—every time I want a cup of coffee. It feels like an aesthetic assault, not the way you want to discover anything. I went into a couple of Starbucks stores last Tuesday to see what it was like, and what it was like was this: Starbucks with Paul McCartney's new album on an endless loop. They all had to play it all day. It could've been any record. And the other promotional gambits they'd lined up to commemorate the release were no better: video crews dispatched to 10 key Starbucks locations around the world to record birthday messages from fans (to be shown on You Tube when McCartney turns 65 on June 18). And then there's that picture of him leaning into the frame pursing his lips like it's 1966, plastic surgery and dye job on full display. I mean, seriously, dude: You're Paul McCartney. Have some dignity. Neil Young shows his age. Bob Dylan does too. You were once prettier than both of them, but time waits for no man. Cool is a lie anyway. Let it go.
Look, I'm a total sucker. Every time he puts out a new record, even a live record, even a weird sound collage with the Super Furry Animals, even when I already get it for free, I'm gonna buy it. (Not the classical ones, though; a man's got to know his limitations.) The first one I bought was Tug of War (1982). I have bought 15 more since, plus the 14 that preceded it. Last year I paid $500 for a pair of 10th-row seats to see McCartney and his band play the KeyArena. (Totally worth it, by the way.) We're into the thousands of dollars if you start counting bootlegs. But I don't care about the money. And I don't believe he does either. He wants the glory. Or needs it. For some reason, he continues to set up scenarios that preserve the idea of him as a fun-lovin', good-time rock star, worshipped by the people, but still of the people. Such a pose is perverse for a man in his mid-60s, but all the more so when his music is as interesting and weird as this new album is. He's better than that, or at least he should be. That pose was convincing to everyone when he was a Beatle in the '60s, to people who were too stoned or dumb to care when he was a Wing in the '70s, and to people who either remembered or didn't know any better when he was solo in the '80s.
I'm pretty sure he's the only one who believes it now.