Wednesday, June 18, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 169): "FRIENDS TO GO" (2005) Paul McCartney

So today is the birthday of McC, or Macca as he’s known to his fans, otherwise, Paul McCartney. The man who was, to me, growing up, the main Beatle. Lennon, all things considered, was a bit of a fraud, trying to intellectualize something that was more instinctive and meant for fun: the duo’s grasp of melody and harmony. McCartney never gave any signs of taking anything very seriously. Lennon, though a great jokester, started to believe his own press, about “genius” and all that. A real drag, as McC would say.

McC kept it light and chummy. His Beatles songs are almost always like that, with a few notable exceptions—“Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday” spring to mind; there’s an eternal childlike insouciance about Paul. He’s mainly about a good time. In picking the song for today I was tempted to go back to Beatles classics, like the two I just mentioned, or “Penny Lane” or “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or “Hey Jude” or “Let It Be,” or “Hello Goodbye,” or “Lovely Rita,” or “Paperback Writer,” or “And I Love Her,” all of which are some of my favorite McC-led songs, but I didn’t feel like reaching that far back. For the man’s birthday—Paul is now 72—why not something released in this century?

In 2005 McC released Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, a copy of which was duped for me by my old Philly friend Rick. It was fortuitous in as much as Rick knows I’m no fan of solo McC and have no copies of any of his individual LPs nor those he made with Wings. It’s been a personal choice, over the years. Mind you, I do have solo LPs by Lennon and by Harrison. McC has suffered an opprobrium having to do with what a ditz he often appears to be. I mean, I’m well aware that the guy is a musical idea factory, that his facility is such that the other Beatles could never keep up with him, in the long run, but facility has the same root as “facile,” and that’s what most of McC’s musical maunderings seem to me.

There are exceptions, even in the Wings catalog, like the Band on the Run LP, but. I’ve always felt I can make it through my entire life without having to hear any songs McC made after The Beatles broke up. A certain fatuous quality seemed to descend upon him which indicates that even when he was the prime Beatle he wasn’t essentially an individual. The Beatles, even on “the White Album,” were a collective. You played that album knowing that the Lennon songs and the McC songs and the Harrison songs would be in dialogue and friction. It was always more than sum of its parts. Once we’re with the part known as McCartney, I find myself still wanting that friction.

On Chaos and Creation there is a bit of friction and it seems to have been provided by the fact that McC did not produce the record himself, but with Nigel Godrich, of work with Beck and Radiohead, and not someone to be wowed simply by McC's stature. McC had evolved into the kind of recording star who can do anything he bloody well wants to do. There isn’t anyone living who has produced songs—in the pop-rock format—that have touched more lives. However big someone might be right now, their catalog doesn’t extend back to the dawn of it all—the British Invasion—like McC’s does. And any of his contemporaries—people I prefer like Dylan and Ray Davies—are obscure acquired tastes in comparison. Which might very well be one of the reasons I resent him. He, with The Beatles, ruled the radio in the early to mid Sixties and he continued to be a viable, if at times very insipid, radio presence into the Eighties. At that point the chasm between what I would choose to hear and what he was recording was wide indeed.

Which brings us back to 2005 and that singular record which pleased me—some of the tracks at least—as much as his work in his heyday. It wasn’t at all like he went back to being a Beatle, but he found a sound that felt like a matured and late version of the guy who was on those records. A song like “Jennie Wren” perhaps borrows too much from “Blackbird” but you accept it because why shouldn’t the guy crib from his earlier self? And on today’s song he gets a feeling that is still very much the early solo Paul sound, and, come to think of it, I liked the early solo Paul sound. I never picked up McCartney or Ram because they were, I believe, wildly uneven, like vanity projects, but some of the tracks I have a place for, even now. And “Friends to Go” took me back to that, a bit.

I particularly like the lines (and the delivery): “I’ve been sliding down a slippery slope / I’ve been climbing up a slowly burning rope.” The first is a cliché, the second is a fun McC image, like something we’d see in a cartoon. And the chorus, “Someone else can worry about me / I’ve spent a lot of time on my own” hit a chord with me c. 2005-06. “Waiting for your friends to go” struck me as something someone would do who was being surreptitious. Like: “they” (the friends) can’t see me with you because it would be compromising somehow.

McC has said that he felt like Harrison while writing the song, as if he were channeling the spirit of his deceased former bandmate. I guess that’s probably why I like the song; maybe its spirit is more akin to George than Paul. Even if so, it’s still a McC vocal and sound, and he doesn’t try to do anything Harrisony with it, like with the guitar or anything. But if we take it as a song “from” Harrison, then the “waiting on the other side” would be about the other side of death, with George waiting till Paul’s friends are gone so he can materialize or in some way make his presence felt.

It’s a bit enigmatic, which is another reason to like it. Back in the Beatles era, McC often came up with clever bits that didn’t amount to much but which were nonetheless clever. Two songs along those lines that spring to mind are “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and, especially, “You Never Give Me Your Money,” both from Abbey Road and both two of the coolest McC songs from that period when I became aware, around 10, of the latter day Beatles. Which is a way of saying that “in the end” (to borrow a phrase from Abbey Road), McC goes way back for me and so why not wish the old duffer a happy and all that.

You never need to worry about me / I’ll be fine on my own.

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