Interview for Chicago Tribune • Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Paul McCartney, Boomer Icon

Interview of Paul McCartney
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Chicago Tribune
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Mark Caro
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Interview

Paul McCartney and the Beatles used to inhabit the stratosphere, soaring above the culture, representing no less than the promise and ideals of the 1960s.

Who’d have thought that in 2002, McCartney would have become our everyman icon, the larger-than-life ’60s figure people — particularly Baby Boomers — relate to as a regular guy? 

Bob Dylan may remain more artistically vital, but he’s way too mysterious and spooky to embrace. 

Mick Jagger? He’s the ultimate aging, jet-setting playboy devoted to accumulating money and children by different models. His whole point was not to be one of us. 

Neil Young? Too prickly. 

Keith Richards and Eric Clapton? Cautionary tales with happy endings, but, you know, most of us have never had to kick heroin. 

McCartney’s most dangerous brush with the dark side, meanwhile, was getting busted for pot. There’s a quintessential Boomer crime if ever there was one. 

“Paul’s life fits within the boundaries of conventional morality,” said Gary Kendall, a Northwestern University music professor who teaches a Beatles class. “You can’t say that about Mick. You can’t say that about Dylan.” 

You couldn’t say that about self-proclaimed “Working Class Hero” John Lennon either, and George Harrison spent most of his post-Beatles years as a recluse. Sure, everyone likes Ringo, but he always played the happy sidekick. 

No, Paul is the man who has lived the rarefied life of an ex-Beatle yet somehow has experienced changes and trials that many of us would consider universal. And since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he has been playing on his down-to-earth appeal more than ever: showing up at a Yankees game, mingling on the streets of New York after the star-studded benefit concert he organized, performing at the Super Bowl and Oscars, making like the nation’s No. 1 camp counselor to lead sing-alongs of that “Freedom” ditty/anthem that most people don’t seem to like much, but, hey, we appreciate the sentiment. 

Now McCartney is in Chicago to play sold-out shows at the United Center on Wednesday and Thursday nights. His latest album, “Driving Rain,” hasn’t sold well, yet he remains at least as precious to fans as ever. 

“It’s not that Paul’s the only remaining Beatle, but that’s almost true. There’s this feeling of wanting to hold onto him as this last connection to this storied past of the Baby Boomers,” said Jeffrey Hyson, history professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Paul McCartney today has become such an icon that there’s a reverence that he’s almost an ex-president or a member of the royal family, the way he’s brought out on ceremonial occasions. Here is the voice for a generation.” 

Simply being himself

Speaking on the phone before his show last week in San Jose, Calif., McCartney said he has no sense of himself as a lofty icon or best friend to millions. 

“I can’t help the icon thing,” McCartney said. “It’s like, I don’t really relate to that. That’s not me. That just happens to someone if you do well and continue to do well, and I’ve been lucky to continue to do well for a long time.” 

Of course, lots of people have done well for a long time without becoming, you know, Beatles, but never mind. McCartney has never been one to pretend to false modesty regarding his contributions to music and popular culture, but he also consistently has considered his gifts with joy and even awe rather than any sense of entitlement or pomposity. And if he’s not the most introspective guy, well, lots of people probably relate to that as well. (This country elected George W. Bush, after all.) 

At any rate, people have been sharing McCartney’s ride in a way that’s far from passive. 

WXRT-FM 93.1 deejay and Beatles fanatic Terri Hemmert recalled that when she was in high school, the Beatles emerged and sparked her interest in the world, and when she entered college, the Beatles began growing and experimenting in exciting new ways. 

“Just at the time that people my age graduated college and were ready to start a life, [the Beatles] quit the band and started their own lives,” Hemmert said. “There was that kind of in-sync thing, and that comes into play now as we lose parents, friends, spouses, and it’s like there’s that connection again. We see he’s going through what we’re going through.” 

Formerly one of the world’s most desired bachelors, McCartney eschewed the hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle to try to strike that familiar balance between family and career. It turns out he did a better job than many of us: Although he was ridiculed in the 1970s for including his wife, Linda, on his records and in his touring band, by the time she died of breast cancer in 1998, their marriage was viewed as the ideal, inside and outside show business. 

“One piece of Paul that I think connects with the Boomers is his relationship with Linda,” Kendall said. “In some sense he seemed to represent the best in us because in an era when few people are capable of a great love, he had that in his life. Now he seems to have survived with his optimism intact.” 

After a mourning period for Linda, he is starting anew and is engaged to be married to activist Heather Mills, 34, sometime before his 60th birthday on June 18. 

“I lost my wife, and that puts you into a fairly reclusive mode,” McCartney said. “You can’t help it. Your life is spent in an office, waiting for cancer doctors. Things happen by chance, and you can’t dictate them. Thank the Lord I’m in a different place now. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve got this really nice girl, and we’re going to be married, and I never envisioned anything like this for me. The plan was entirely different. It’s good that it can be so positive.” 

We felt his losses

Like many people his age, McCartney has suffered other losses as well, and we shared his grief for Lennon, murdered in 1980, and Harrison, who died last year from cancer. 

“There’s a certain poignancy to his story because he had always seemed to be a bit complacent,” New York University media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller said. “His songs were often a little cutesy, and he was apparently much less tormented than his friend John. One has the feeling, fair or not, that he has been deepened somewhat by the passage of time and the inevitable sadnesses of life.” 

“I’m more of a big Paul fan now than I ever was before,” screenwriter Robert Ramsey (“Big Trouble”) said. “There’s something really humanizing about the journey he’s been on. He’s the only great Beatle left — nothing against Ringo — and he lost his wife. You can see the age in his face too. He was always this beautiful, wealthy guy. Time is taking its toll on him like it does on everyone.” 

Growing old gracefully

True, that dark hair-dye job isn’t fooling anyone, but his face is his face, not some frozen Botox nightmare. His voice, too, has developed some cracks in its formerly smooth surface. Yet his spirit remains unflagging in a field — rock ‘n’ roll — where few grow old gracefully. 

“I’m 60 in a manner of minutes, and, well, I just don’t believe it,” McCartney said. “I think someone has faked my birth certificate. I really do. I plead innocent. I feel very energetic. It must have been 15 years ago, I met some young college kid and he’s saying, `Man, you sure got a lot of energy.’ Well, yeah, I do. And I still feel like that.” 

Much of his music has retained a timeless quality as well, turning on new generations of listeners while gaining in resonance among longtime fans as once again they turn to music to get them through hard times. 

“Paul’s songs have become almost hymns for us: `Let It Be,’ `Hey Jude,’ `take a sad song and make it better,'” Hemmert said. “When you go through the rough stuff in life, when people are leaving you, those songs become even more poignant than when we were 20 years old. They take on a deeper meaning.” 

Always a symbol

It can be said that in the ’60s McCartney represented his generation’s dreams, and now he represents their reality. Kendall points to the early ’70s wave of “Paul is dead” rumors as evidence of people’s unwillingness to let him go as a symbol. 

“As we went to the ’70s and we suffered a breakdown of the idealism of the ’60s, the way for the myth of Paul as a representative of the best of the ’60s to survive was for the myth of Paul to survive,” the Northwestern professor said. 

Now, Kendall added, “I think for a lot of people he’s sort of come to represent the possibility of surviving, moving on, changing. To survive and change, his image has had to transform to fit the times. Whether he still represents idealism is a different issue. Part of the perception of Paul with his optimism is we’ve survived somehow by discarding a lot of the idealism.” 

Idealists, for instance don’t charge fans $50-$250 per ticket for the first chance to see them perform live in nine years. The Boomer generation, on the other hand, has embraced supply-and-demand as a mantra, so McCartney doesn’t seem terribly out of step. 

At the same time he’s actively engaged in our world, not just his world. 

“You compare Paul to somebody like Mick Jagger, who is also immeasurably important to my generation,” Miller said. “Jagger doesn’t seem to have grown any wiser with the passing years. Paul gives the impression that he cares about the world, at least as much as a multimillionaire can, whereas Mick doesn’t.” 

To McCartney, who still considers himself “working class,” his reason for remaining closer to the earth than the clouds is simple. 

“I like people and try to get on,” he said. “It’s more fun that way.”

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