This week’s Free Ride* muses on the genius of Paul McCartney, who turns 69 today. I have the great fortune of being in England now, and Kim and I are traveling today to the Lake District, which has some pretty cool history for McCartney. I learned something new about Sir Paul on this trip. As legend has it, a young 15 year-old Paulie went to hear a local Liverpool band, and while he didn’t think the band was all that hot, he thought the lead singer had some talent. He went up and met him afterward, told him that his guitar was a bit out of tune, and showed him some alternate tunings. The singer, a 16 year-old Johnny Lennon, told Paul he was getting ready to form another band and asked him if he’d like to join. Paul said he’d have to think about it, and he went soon after on vacation with his family to the Lake District. It was there he pondered the invitation, and made the decision to join up. Thus began the Quarrymen, later to be called the Beatles. The resulting Lennon/McCartney songbook gives us a lot to choose from for musing on the theme of freedom. Revolution, Ticket to Ride, Come Together are just a few songs touching on the theme. My mind went to two songs, though, one from the Beatles era and one from McCartney’s solo career, and I think the two illustrate perfectly the range of McCartney’s music – from genius poetry to banal pop. One leads me to really ponder the ideal of freedom and its challenges. The other gives me about as much inspiration as Silly Love Songs.
On the genius side, I’m talking about Blackbird, one of the most interesting songs to play as a guitarist. It shows the depth of McCartney’s musical influences, too, as the Bach Bourrée in E Minor lute piece provided inspiration to compose the music. When lover and future wife Linda Eastman first came to stay at his home, McCartney treated the fans camped outside to a rendition of Blackbird. In a 2005 interview, he revealed that the lyrics were actually based on the civil rights struggles of blacks in the American south. It was their moment to arise.
On the cheesy, banal pop side, I’m talking about Freedom, a song McCartney composed the day after he witnessed the 9/11 attacks while he was in a New York airport. I’m not questioning that he was genuinely and deeply moved by the tragic violence of that day and the heroism that followed, nor that he is a true believer in the rights of freedom. It has the feel, though, of a somewhat cheap exploitation of the intense emotions of the time. And it’s not his best poetry, by far. If you didn’t know where the song came from, and you just happened on the lyrics, you might suspect that they were the product of a middle school poetry assignment inspired by a Helen Steiner Rice greeting card. Watch any number of the live versions on YouTube, and it’s downright embarrassing, the way he milks the crowd and instructs them to sing along and clap their hands and make some noise. He never had to instruct audiences to clap or sing along to Blackbird or any of the other Beatles or Wings treasures. You have to prod folks to sing trite stuff, though. Thankfully, he pulled the song from his concert set lists after George W. Bush started touting the Iraqi Freedom campaign, and McCartney was disturbed that his song was starting to carry militaristic tones. What do you expect, though, from, I will fight for the right to live in freedom?
Give me Blackbird. Give me the struggle of folks with sunken eyes yearning to see, with broken wings learning to fly. From the artificial lights of Freedom, I’ll take the older poetry. . .
Blackbird fly, into the light of the dark black night.