Monday, July 29, 2013

Plea to Paul: Let it be when it comes to claiming credit

Last Thursday Rolling Stone online published an interview with Paul McCartney about his current tour. It sounds like a stellar show—I’m sorry I haven’t been able to see it this year—but I groaned when I got to the part of the interview in which McCartney says, of adding “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” to the setlist, that he was “happy to kind of reclaim it as partially mine.” I just want to say to him: please don’t keep pouring kerosene on those embers. Please step back and let that frustration go, because you’re fueling the dynamic that seems to keep you feeling insecure.
Here’s the relevant question and answer from the interview:

Q: What made you want to revisit those particular songs?

A: Well, for instance, "Mr. Kite" is such a crazy, oddball song that I thought it would freshen up the set. Plus the fact that I'd never done it. None of us in the Beatles ever did that song [in concert]. And I have great memories of writing it with John. I read, occasionally, people say, "Oh, John wrote that one." I say, "Wait a minute, what was that afternoon I spent with him, then, looking at this poster?" He happened to have a poster in his living room at home. I was out at his house, and we just got this idea, because the poster said "Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite" – and then we put in, you know, "there will be a show tonight," and then it was like, "of course," then it had "Henry the Horse dances the waltz." You know, whatever. "The Hendersons, Pablo Fanques, somersets…" We said, "What was 'somersets'? It must have been an old-fashioned way of saying somersaults." The song just wrote itself. So, yeah, I was happy to kind of reclaim it as partially mine. But like I said, you've got to look what you're doing when you play that one.”

            Predictably, this is the answer that generated the most comments, including plenty of attacks on McCartney as a conscienceless credit-stealer newly taking credit for a Lennon song. Actually, McCartney’s claim about “Mr. Kite” isn’t that new. In Many Years From Now (1998), McCartney says that “almost the whole song was written right off this poster. We just sat down and wrote it. We pretty much took it down word for word and then just made up some little bits and pieces to glue it together. It was more John's because it was his poster so he ended up singing it, but it was quite a co-written song. We were both sitting there to write it at his house, just looking at it on the wall in the living room." (318) However, William J. Dowdling's "Beatlesongs" (1989) lists Mr. Kite as a 100% Lennon song. Lennon is quoted about the song’s coming from the poster: "I hardly made up a word, just connecting the lists together. Word for word, really." (172) No mention of McCartney adding anything

            Here’s the thing: even if what McCartney is saying is true—even if he did participate in writing “Mr. Kite” more than Lennon mentioned—I wish he would stop saying it, or things like it. I feel a great deal of sympathy for McCartney’s situation, because there can be few things more difficult than being the former artistic partner of a man nearly universally lauded as a genius and frequently considered a saint. Over the years McCartney has endured some unconscionably nasty digs (over and above deserved criticism, which he’s also received), and most of the nastiest compare him slightingly to Lennon. Hearing Lennon described, repeatedly, as the Beatles’ sole genius has to sting, especially given McCartney’s substantial, and well-documented, contributions to the band’s musical legacy. The hateful dismissal McCartney has often suffered is epitomized for me by a comment made in 2000 by “Kathleen Keplar” on George Starostin’s original “Only Solitaire” site: “Lennon was the organ grinder...McCartney was the monkey.” When McCartney gets defensive, I can see that that’s partly in response to people throwing darts.
          But when he asserts that he deserves more credit, McCartney stirs up more of the same kind of attacks, and the whole cycle repeats. Here are a couple of samples from the Rolling Stone comment thread:

"John S. Damm": "Bloody Conquistador with your boot on the throat of John Lennon's memory, legacy and your friendship with him. What will you do now with your drawn sword Sir James Paul McCartney?"

"CBP": “One finds sad--pathetic in the precise sense of pathos--his hopeless, evidently bottomless Sea of Insecurities. The driving force of Fab Four was murdered more than 30 years ago; yet, Sir Mega[lo] can't quite lay to rest his juvenile credits war with a long-fallen rock-qua-social genius. Verily, methinks he doth protest too much. Too much, and for too long . . . . the more he seeks to carry the weight, as it were, the more unbearable is his specific lightness of being. Time to retire, take wing to the dacha, Macca. Turn the business over to a younger, less disingenuous tribute band. Them freaks was right..."

"LenThea": “Amazing, Paul can't do an interview without taking credit for a John Lennon song. Whether he contributed a word or a sentence he just can't seem to help himself, and since John isn't alive to counter anything he says he does it all the time. Despite his enormous talent and recognition, he still has a tremendous need to claim a bit of a John song. He has an unbelievable need to get credit, even when he doesn't need it. It screams volumes about his insecurity and about his incredible need for recognition and reassurance of who he is. With all he's accomplished, he's competing with John even in death. How pathetic.”

            With regret, I have to agree that McCartney’s credit-claiming is pity-inducing. It’s a mark of how badly hurt he has been, of how much he still needs approval and recognition. As much as it might smart for him to let go of such claims—and I’m pretty sure he believes what he’s saying about the songs he discusses—I think letting go is the only escape from the vicious circle of “claim credit, get attacked, feel more hurt, claim credit, get attacked . . . .”
            If I had McCartney’s ear for a few minutes, I’d ask him to err more often on the side of generosity towards Lennon, and to believe that he can afford to do that. Some of McCartney’s own statements exhibit an understanding of their interdependence that shows up how unnecessary this kind of small-stakes wrangling over who wrote what is. In the last paragraph of the “John” chapter in Many Years From Now, McCartney sums it up: "A body of work was produced that I don't believe he alone could have produced, or I alone could have produced . . . . The truth of the matter is, John and I were kind of equal. It really did pan itself out about equal. That's one of the amazing things about it. People can say, 'Oh, well, it wasn't Paul, it was John, or it wasn't John it was Paul," but I was there know that's not true, the other Beatles know that's not true. So much of it was team effort, joint effort, there really was so much of it."
Note that “kind of,” so similar to “kind of reclaim it as partially mine.” But no “kind of” is necessary in a statement about the importance of their partnership. Lennon and McCartney achieved heights together that neither could have scaled alone, and even the songs they wrote independently during the Beatles years bore each other’s marks (rare indeed is the song that had no contribution, musically or lyrically, from the other). Malcom Doney, in his excellent Lennon and McCartney (1981), expresses this reality beautifully: "They shared with Picasso, and other major artists, the ability to soak up the stimuli thrown at them by their environment: contemporary music, words, images and experiences all became re-ordered and re-distributed to spill out into great music. But it was essentially a partnership. It only really worked with the two of them. When they wrote together, sparks flew. Each with his individual genius was able to counterpoint the other, excesses held in check—a creative clash of opposites. What they produced is evidence of a pairing of minds that transcended the mechanics of the making."
Amen. So I’d ask McCartney to let go of the “mechanics of the making.” Those pale in importance next to the fact that Lennon and McCartney consistently brought out the artistic best in each other, and that each man’s finest work was created through that partnership.


Anonymous said...

Nancy, I'm not sure I agree. I think Macca has swallowed a great deal since the breakup of the Beatles, and since Ram or so my impression is he's been publicly gracious to a fault regarding Lennon and even where Yoko Ono fits in to the breakup equation. (In fact, on the latter point, his recent claim that she bore no responsibility seems like bending over backwards to let that whole mess go.) I attended a recent show and he gave a couple of moving asides about his love of John Lennon before playing his affecting tribute 'Here Today.' The loss he still must feel was palpable. He also played 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.' I don't mind if he personally asserts ownership - or his part of the ownership - in that song or any others that are generally attributed to Lennon. (assuming he's being truthful). I prefer he sets the record straight from his perspective as Lennon did. I'd prefer to hear what he really thinks of Yoko's role in the breakup, too, but it's probably the creative stuff that matters to him, that touches his well-deserved sense of artistic pride. As to all the negative comments in 'Rolling Stone', quite simply there are people who hate McCartney. I remember seeing 'Let It Be' in a theater shortly after Lennon was shot, and every time Macca appeared on the screen in a close up, the audience erupted with hisses and insults. It was an unnerving experience. Like I said, McCartney swallowed a lot of hatred, probably as much as Yoko Ono, and he's been about as big about it as any public figure could be, I think. If he feels he wrote part of a Pepper obscurity and would like to set the record straight, more power to him, I say! Joe

Michael Gerber said...

@Nancy, I think you're right that Paul's revising the credits only makes the haters hate. But like @Joe I support his right to say whatever he wants, even though it gets him nowhere.

Rolling Stone is the house organ for "The Sixties"--the marketing concept of that decade. Since one of the most laudable aspects of that cultural and political explosion was a greater commitment to honesty, the commodifying of it is particularly misleading, and RS makes its money doing that. Fine. Make your money. But know you're diminishing what you say you love. You know how people say, "If you remember the Sixties, you weren't really there"? If you commodify the Sixties, you totally missed the point. (John Lennon touched on this in some of his last interviews. And just as an aside, he didn't like or trust Jann Wenner, having felt that JW lied to him regarding the famous 1971 interviews. Subsequent years suggest that it was Yoko who got along with Jann--though the levels of using/being used make it complicated.)

John Lennon has been similarly commodified and diminished--even though the fans that revere St. John think they're actually celebrating him. That's how fame works, and why it's such a bitch.

St. John fans are, I think, very guilty about his being killed by a fan, and so they overcorrect in various ways. One of these is raging at McCartney. But the haters need to stop themselves: not only was Lennon prone to self-contradiction, and credit was a hot-button issue for him, too, McCartney's a primary source. Paul was there. He outranks everybody but John, and John too if John was on acid. ☺

Could Paul be mistaken? Or lying? Sure--but given what's already in his catalog, I rather doubt it. So if Paul McCartney--one of the two credited writers of the song, and unquestionably the driving force of the band during that period--says that he helped write "Mr. Kite", I tend to believe him. That doesn't add even a shovelful of admiration to Paul's pile, nor take one from John's. It's freaking trivia. Of course John Lennon isn't here to corroborate/deny, and we all are very sad, but is that Paul's fault? No. And should that sadness impact setting the historical record straight? No. If this body of work is truly worth study, more quality data is good. What Paul says about "Kite" is quality data.
[comment continued below]

Michael Gerber said...

{comment continued]

People who feel that John Lennon had an uncommon devotion to truthfulness about anything regarding his personal life--which very much includes his relationship with Paul McCartney--are simply wrong. The very shoot-from-the-hip passion that made John Lennon such a great quote and still makes us talk about him today, makes him a very VERY unreliable source on stuff like who wrote what. Paul's own ravenous ego aside, the minorness of "Kite" makes me believe him. Furthermore I think it's his right to say whatever he wants about music that he is co-credited on.

There's loving The Beatles, being fascinated by the individual members...and then there's fetishizing the personalities of each Beatle as handed down by the media. This is 12-year-old stuff, and mostly harmless. Yet some John and George fans seem to revere these images with a kind of seriousness that I find troubling.

The most devoted St. John fans I know are people who find conventional religious activities distasteful in some way, and so have substituted John (and often Yoko) for the icons they discarded. There is--no other word for it--a kind of zealotry there. Paul must feel this constantly, and given that he "shitted and pissed together" with Sts. John and George, the impulse to reveal the personhood of his old friends must be immense--especially given that Lennon- AND Harrison-worshippers often cast him as the bad guy. On balance, I think he does all right with this.

I find the whole dynamic fascinating, and endlessly come back to trying to imagine the personal experiences of each person. Such a strange story; so beautiful, so tragic, with the truth so hard to ascertain.

Nancy Carr said...

Joe and Michael, thanks for your comments. I certainly think McCartney has every right to say what he will about Lennon/McCartney songs. I just question the wisdom of his doing so at this point, particularly since it feeds energy into a dynamic that I think increases his sense of insecurity. (I fully recognize that's me being an amateur psychologist.) It inevitably opens up the issue of Lennon's not being around to make a counterclaim, and is only worth doing, to my mind, when the stakes are higher than they are here.

This pattern of McCartney's saying things that bring down more grief on him wouldn't bother me if I didn't feel such sympathy for him overall and genuinely wish him well. But he can probably handle it, and it's definitely his choice to make.

Michael Gerber said...

You're right, @Nancy--I'm glad he does do it, however. First because it is more info, and I want as much info from these guys before they leave us. And second, because it is an opportunity to remember that whatever we think we are certain about--"Mr. Kite's totally a John song, he wrote it when he was cranking songs out for Pepper, took it straight from this poster"--may not be the whole story, or even most of the story.

I admit I'm perverse in this way. :-)

Anonymous said...

Nancy, my general feeling is that Macca can never win with some people. How much that pains Macca or how much he lets it roll off his back (at this point in his career), I can't say. Why there'd be a hub-bub about who wrote 'Mr. Kite' is almost amusing since both Lennon and McCartney cop to copying the words from a circus poster. One could claim that NEITHER wrote the song in the strictest sense. Basically the argument is about who should take credit for a bit of harmless plagiarism. Amazing what gets people on the 'Rolling Stone' message board up in arms. Joe

Anonymous said...

Put me in the camp of "even if it's true, it doesn't help anything" for something as minor as this.

Also, even though I'm no expert musicologist, the melody for "Mr. Kite" is so Lennonesque that what we're probably really talking about here is Paul helping John get some of the words off the poster and into the meter of the song. That's a horizontal, textbook John Lennon melody right there. Who cares who came up with a line here or there? It'd look petty if John were doing this, and it looks petty when Paul does it.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought that John and Paul's dueling claims for credit on songs comes down in part to their differing outlooks on what "ownership" of a song really means. Recall that John was actually successfully sued for plagiarism (for "Come Together") and there were many other occasions where he admitted to blatantly copping someone else's ideas, such as in "Run for Your Life", just to name one example. Clearly, for John, "ownership" was a very loose proposition. As long as you put some sort of personal stamp on something, it was totally yours. I think he would have been very home in today's world of sampling.

Contrast that with Paul, who after writing "Yesterday" spent several weeks taking it around to everyone he knew, just to ensure he hadn't lifted it from someone. John would say a song was "completely mine" when there had clearly been some collaboration (though Paul is sometimes guilty of that as well). And this despite the fact that there are plenty of eyewitness accounts (including by Hunter Davies) of them in total collaboration right up through Sgt. Pepper.

So yeah, I think John had a much looser definition of "my song" than did Paul. John would think a song was his if he'd got the basic idea and the first few words and notes of music, whereas for Paul a song wasn't done until it was done, complete with arrangement and everything else. This might partly explain Paul's eagerness to set the record straight, at least as he sees it.

Annie McNeil said...

I agree he'd come off better with a little more restraint -- he could've left it at the "great memories of writing it with John" sentence, for example, and not bothered soldiering on in hopes of justifying himself to people who, let's face it, would've had an equally "HOW DARE HE" reaction to him performing the song at all, let alone commenting on its creation. Those are people he will never, never, never be able to please and they're just not worth his time. (I mean, hello, can we take a moment to savor the irony of quoting "How Do You Sleep" in a statement about how Paul should be more circumspect about publicly discussing John?!) Trying to justify himself to zealots will only serve to lower him in the eyes of fairer critics -- but frankly, after everything Paul has endured, I suspect his ability to distinguish fair from unfair critics/criticism is pretty well fucked. So I tend to cut him a lot of slack when it comes to his less attractive displays of insecurity.

And as Michael Gerber says, at least we have a little more data now to add the the books. :)

king kevin said...

I don't think he did himself any favors by saying "reclaim it as partially mine". It makes him sound defensive. I still wish he would just do a song by song like Lennon did for Playboy. That story about George coming up with the And I Love Her lick was amazing. I want to hear it all! The Beatles stuff was a group effort between the four, George Martin and the recording engineers. Let's hear it.

Anonymous said...

The vast majority of commenters on that RS thread were supportive of Paul and of Paul's right to discuss his contributions to a "John song." Those critics you site were a distinct minority on the thread.

I don't see why Paul should have to bury his contributions to John's songs, just because it would make him "look better." Paul says he co-wrote the song. Why should he have to deny that? Why should he have to follow the Lennon party line? And so what if they disagree on who wrote what? Why aren't they allowed to have conflicting memories without faulting one or the other? Why isn't Paul allowed to be defensive? And imperfect? He's a man, a real person, not a saint.

I thought Paul's comment sounded like he was anticipating haters saying "why are you singing Mr. Kite, a John song, and 'stealing' John's legacy?" So Paul replies, "Because I helped write that song." And then he gets attacke by the usual St. Lennon defenders, who never seemed all that upset when John said nasty things or claimed credit for co-writing Eleanor Rigby.

The same honesty and bluntness that people celebrate Lennon for gets turned against Paul when he is honest and blunt. John gets to be the "asshole." But people seem to want Paul to be perfect and polished in a way that they never expected of John. John was allowed to be imperfect and to say selfish, rude, arrogant, self-serving things. Paul apparently isn't. Paul is ALWAYS expected to defer to John, to praise John, to talk about how great John was, yada yada yada.

If this comment makes Paul look defensive, well, that's part of who he is. And John Lennon was also quite defensive. Let's allow them to both be imperfect.

girl said...

Problem is though Nancy, there are quite a large handfull (I'd even say it's more than a handful and more like a mass) of people who don't agree that Lennon and McCartney worked beautifully together and it was only through collaboration that they truly shined. There are an awful lot of people who don't think that at all. They truly believe (or want to believe for some reason) that Lennon really was the only genius and McCartney didn't do much of anything except write a few boring ditties "for the grandmas to dig". Like it or not, and whether or not it is becoming of him or not, McCartney is responding to thoses masses. I personally think it's a matter of principle at this point. I don't think he cares that much whether or not he helped Lennon with a song like Kite for instance. It's not even such a great song. I think the point for McCartney and a lot of people, is that history has been altered. Fact has been replaced by revision over and over and over. He's trying to set the record straight simply because he was there and no one else was.

Nancy Carr said...

Good food for thought, everyone. I'm grateful to have an online space where it's possible to ventilate contentious Beatles-related ideas in a constructive way.

I agree that there are people who are going to hate McCartney no matter what he does or says at this point, and that he's in a pretty impossible position vis a vis some vociferous Lennon fans. And as one Anon pointed out, plenty of comments on that RS thread are defending Paul.

Essentially I agree with Annie and King Kevin that McCartney's bringing up the "why are you doing a John song?" question himself and then answering it a defensive way that shows he's uncomfortable ("kind of reclaim it as partially . . .") was unnecessary. If he'd said something like "Getting to perform it live brings back great memories of collaborating with John," that would have an entirely different feel. And that he DID bring up the question and answer it is what makes me feel he's playing into the cycle I described. It makes me think the negative comments do bother him.

This thread also makes me think about how hard "ownership" is to talk about with Beatles songs -- even where the words are entirely one member's, almost always the music was a shared creation (George and Ringo deserve more credit than they are sometimes given for the way Lennon/McCartney compositions came out sounding, for instance. Add in George Martin's substantial arranging skills as well.)

The overarching problem about clarifying the Beatles' songwriting history is that memory is a tricky thing, and no one's memory is perfect. Current research is, I believe, suggesting that memory isn't even static in individuals -- that memory pathways are subtly altered each time they're accessed. So I sympathize with the Lennon fans who are frustrated by the fact that John can't answer and put his own current memories next to Paul's. Add to that the fact that the major players were often stoned in the later 60s, and it's pretty well impossible to know exactly how some songs originated.

Karen said...

Something to consider when reading those vapid comments on RS: many, many Lennon fans of today were born post 1980. They've been fed on and have bought into the collective party line that's been perpetuated by Ono and her ilk, who've managed to change a great rock n roller into a plastic saint.

I, for one, am tired unto death of these fools. I think that Paul protests too much. He will never convince those fools and he should stop trying.

Anonymous said...

Agree Karen. Paul's major "crime" has simply been living longer than his famous associates. The man is a precocious talent, and when he's gone the whole world will know it. But here in England, mention "McCartney" to the average Joe and you'll still probably just get a sneer back. The flack that accrued post Dec 1980 must irk the man beyond most people's imaginings, and when it's coming from home turf, it must really sting.

They were a collaboration; they brought out the best in each other. (Why else is most solo Beatle music barely a patch on the group music?) They also had official songwriting deals in place, even though they were open to all sorts of contributions when it came to the actual process of writing. (George talks about this in that Radio KHJ 930 AM interview with John from '74 —— see youtube).

I don't think Paul doing a mostly-John song is so shocking. George did In My Life on his tour, John did Paul's (mostly) I Saw Her Standing There... etc.

But in 2013, there's barely anyone alive on his level: Dylan? Ringo? He's someone who's been left to forever keep setting the record straight, and he's very very lonely. Noone but him quite understands that.

Anonymous said...

Agree Karen. Paul's major "crime" has simply been living longer than his famous associates. The man is a precocious talent, and when he's gone the whole world will know it. But here in England, mention "McCartney" to the average Joe and you'll still probably just get a sneer back. The flack that accrued post Dec 1980 must irk the man beyond most people's imaginings, and when it's coming from home turf, it must really sting.

They were a collaboration; they brought out the best in each other. (Why else is most solo Beatle music barely a patch on the group music?) They also had official songwriting deals in place, even though they were open to all sorts of contributions when it came to the actual process of writing. (George talks about this in that Radio KHJ 930 AM interview with John from '74 —— see youtube).

I don't think Paul doing a mostly-John song is so shocking. George did In My Life on his tour, John did Paul's (mostly) I Saw Her Standing There... etc.

But in 2013, there's barely anyone alive on his level: Dylan? Ringo? He's someone who's been left to forever keep setting the record straight, and he's very very lonely. Noone but him quite understands that.

Karen said...

So true anonymous. And it's sooo unfair.

ingrid schorr said...

Anon 7/31 2:46 am, could you say more about this: "They also had official songwriting deals in place, even though they were open to all sorts of contributions when it came to the actual process of writing"

Do you mean as Beatles or post-Beatles? By contributions, are you referring to using riffs from other songs?

Also, I've always wondered, how was it that Lennon was sued over "Come Together" and not Lennon/McCartney?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ingrid---I just meant that John and Paul had the Lennon-McCartney partnership set up (as Northern Songs) for their compositions, even though other people (George, George's mum, Donovan, Mal Evans, Norman Smith, etc etc) may have contributed a line or phrase on the day. Plus things like Yesterday and Give Peace A Chance, which carry the dual writing credit even though they are solo creations.

Anonymous said...

To me it's this simple. Paul is over 70 - there's a thing called "maturity" - Paul should be magnanimous on this issue. He has out lived, out sold, out earned and out performed John - now he still tries to compete with a dead man. At his age it only makes him look foolish.

If Paul wants to be considered an artist - then he should recognize that artists are often rejected, misunderstood and under appreciated. Ask Van Gogh

The irony is this - my guess is that Paul has been given the advice to stop trying to set the record straight on who wrote what - and he ignores it.

Or he hasn't been told - which means there's no one in his life that speaks truth to power.

He is spoiling his own legacy - he's going to go down as "the man who wished he was John"

BTW - I am a major Macca fan.